Paula Spencer

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Why Does Roddy Doyle Wish to Disillusion Us?: The Millions Interview

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Roddy Doyle has spent four decades playing with Irish-English, a dialect that in its contemporary incarnation absorbs pop song lyrics, Internet speak, and television. His novels contain very little information on his character’s physical appearances. The reader draws an outline of Doyle’s heroes based on one or two details, the humor of their spoken words and the rhythm of their interior monologues, which probably sound more lilting to the American than to the Irish ear.

In the opening pages of Doyle’s new novel The Guts, we learn that Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., the soul-band promoter from the ’80s classic The Commitments, is now 47, losing hair, gaining weight, and facing a cancer diagnosis. This is Doyle’s fourth novel about the Rabbitte family. The previous three — The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van — form The Barrytown Trilogy. (Stephen Frears adapted the latter two. Alan Parker’s adaptation of The Commitments became a VHS gem.) In some ways The Guts is better paired with Doyle’s Paula Spencer, a sequel itself to his 1995 novel The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a brutal depiction of domestic abuse. Like Paula Spencer, The Guts is a story about facing the mixed blessings of middle age in the Irish section of the eurozone.

I met Doyle at the Alexis Hotel in downtown Seattle on February 11 for an hour-long lunch. The following is a pared-down version of our conversation.

The Millions: I think we as readers have an image from The Commitments of Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. as this vital figure, forever young. He doesn’t get old and he doesn’t die. Why do you wish to disillusion us?

Roddy Doyle: Well, it never occurred to me that that was the case, to be honest with you. I couldn’t care less really if I’ve disillusioned you. It is within your gift not to read the book. So really, it didn’t give me the minimum pause for thought.

It was just a good creative decision, I think, the same way that bringing back Paula Spencer 10 years after The Woman Who Walked Into Doors [in Paula Spencer] was, which had never been a plan of mine at the time. The Irish economy picked up so much after those 10 years. So I followed her and used her as a guide through the story. [That said] I didn’t want to write about the economy. I wanted to write about her.

This time [with The Guts], the Irish economy collapsed. I wrote The Commitments at a time of economic recession or depression. And I wanted to see how Jimmy would be getting on now and how the other characters would be getting on now.

As for the poor old readers and moviegoers: There are so many ways to disillusion people. It’s endless. People ask me if there’s life beyond the book and there isn’t. They ask me questions and the outside worlds don’t exist. I’m probably disillusioned by telling them that. But then again, what can you do?

TM: I’ve heard you say before that the child born in The Snapper is an extremely lucky child because he’s born into an extremely loving home. The family with whom Jimmy grew up is not unhappy, but the members of it are now very distant from one another.

RD: They’re geographically not-distant from one another.

TM: They’re emotionally distant.

RD: I don’t know. You mean, with his siblings? Well, there are a lot of them for a start. And in Ireland you got a lot of families that live in one another’s ears, which isn’t particularly healthy either: one person dictating what the rest of them do. I’ve seen examples of that. And Jimmy is relatively close to his brother Darren and that means regular phone calls or whatever. And his sisters are elsewhere. But there is a sense that if needed they’re there. And they live independent lives.

So certainly, yes, it’s not the depiction of an Italian family around the table every Sunday.

TM: It’s more than that.

RD: You think?

TM: I think there’s a certain melancholy many people realize in their relationships with their siblings as they get older. They find they have less in common than they had when they were children.

RD: Well that’s inevitable.

TM: You say it’s inevitable, but that inevitability is part of the melancholy that exists in this book.

RD: It’s there to be read if you see it there. The circumstances are different as well. There is a health scare in the family with Jimmy. I think if one of the parents was hospitalized or something like that, all the siblings would rally around pretty quickly. So that’s there, though they’ve gone their separate ways.

But I don’t see it at all that way. If you interpret it that way, grand. It’s grand. I like it when people interpret things differently. You’re an active part of the process. So that’s grand.

TM: You have a certain amount of comfort in your career that Jimmy doesn’t have. How do you get inside characters who [get to middle age] and aren’t as satisfied with their careers?

RD: Well, the question is built on a lot of assumptions that may not be true. Yeah I’ve enjoyed a large degree of success. But actually, in day-to-day living it means nothing to me. I’m not worried about the immediate financial future in the same way Jimmy is likely to be. Not so long ago, I was. Not to the same degree perhaps, but I would have been. I’m no stranger to the anxieties of any middle-aged man who happens to be a parent, who happens to work for a living and worries, for example, about the future of the book industry. And sends off a book and it’s rejected. Pours over a short story for months and then it’s turned down. I’m well acquainted with disappointment as well, not to the same degree as people in other occupations. If we were to take that angle in a literary sense, that one should write about what one knows, I’m only going to write about relatively successful novelists for the rest of my life. Perhaps some time in the future that might make sense. But now, no. It doesn’t at all.

My day-to-day life is about getting up and sending my one remaining schoolchild to school, probably emptying the washing machine, going upstairs to work, coming down for a cup of coffee and then going back up to work, trying to make several deadlines that I have to meet. The work is probably rewarding more financially than a lot of people who are being paid. But the average doctor or dentist in Ireland exceeds my income quite handsomely. With the fluctuations I might have a very big year and then a non-existent year depending on what I’m publishing and what I’m involved with. I do enjoy a pure form of self-employment, but I also live with the anxieties of self-employment.

There are elements here that everyone has in their life. And remember that I’m a novelist. I make these things up.

TM: I know you make it up. I just want to know how you get inside it.

RD: Like I said. I share a lot of these opinions.

TM: But I’m not even asking about financial issues.

RD: I know. But you see you’re absolutely not qualified to ask me this question because you know absolutely nothing about my personal life. You haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean that aggressively, but you haven’t a clue. (laughs). Sure you don’t.

TM: Well how about if I ask this in a slightly different way.

RD: Fire away. And I’m not at all angry. It’s just past you because you have no notion about my life.

TM: Jimmy has a certain amount of anxiety not so much about money but about whether or not he’s as good as he wants to be at what he does. Do you share that anxiety?

RD: Yes. On occasions, no. On occasions, yes. Starting off a piece of work, I feel like the king of the world. Halfway through the piece of work, I feel like a gibbering idiot. Sometimes it seems to glow, the piece of work.  Sometimes it just feels like rubbish. I did write a book for children quite recently and it was turned down by my damn publisher. And that’s like a slap across the face. And that’s no harm. It’s part of the job. But it did give me pause for thought because I did have six books published by these people and they were all successful. As much as anything else it was annoying. And as much as anything else it hammered home the future of the precariousness of the writer. And I’m lucky in most cases in that here and in the UK I’ve had the same publisher for a long long time. But will that stop when the current people I deal with retire? Probably is the answer to that. Well what the fuck will I do then? What will they do when they read the figures and realize no one reads books by middle-aged men?

TM: It’s striking to go to Ireland today and hear Russian spoken on the streets and to hear second-generation African immigrants speaking with Irish accents. Do you sense that the Irish-English language has changed since you started your career?

RD: English as it’s spoken in Ireland? Yes.

I worked on the script of a musical based on The Commitments. It opened on the West End last September. And I wasn’t going to do the job myself, but I did and I had to read The Commitments again. And I hadn’t read it in 25 years or something like that. And one of things that fascinated me was that I had been anticipating the absence of certain sentences in that book, things that I thought were relatively modern. [But those things] were in the book. I don’t mean that I was ahead of my time. I just mean that people spoke like that back then. But they were little quirks that I thought [wrongly] had shown up in the ’90s or whatever the last decade was called.

I don’t know what changes have come from Eastern Europeans and Africans coming to Dublin. But I am aware of Eastern Europeans and Africans coming here and hearing certain colloquialisms and then taking them in and making them into things that are brilliant. If you’re buying something from an Eastern European behind a counter, she might say, “Is it grand?” You never heard that before. “Grand” was never a question. It was always “It’s grand,” “Everything’s grand.” But here she’s asking, “Is it grand?” So that was a new one on me. I’d never heard that before. So I think in the same way that the Irish people brought their Gaelic grammar into English, [the new immigrants] are bringing their own grammar into English.

TM: Have you considered writing a novel from the perspective of the new Irish?

RD: I’ve written several short stories from that perspective. But that’s a hole in the water, so to speak. Would I consider writing an entire novel? I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility. I’d be loathe to jump into it because it would be a huge endeavor.  Writing any novel is a huge endeavor.  The initial decision is always a bit flippant. I’d be starting my eleventh now sometime this year. At least now I go in with the knowledge that it’s going to be a pain in the arse but that at this time next year there will be all these things that I know. So to invest all that time and the emotional energy — really the confidence — the confidence that I can carry a whole novel from the point of view of one of the new Irish…It would be a big decision to make and maybe a right decision to make. I doubt very much that it would be the next book I write. It’s not the urge at the moment.

TM: There’s much less you have to imagine in the shorter form. You can just dip in.

RD: You can get a glimpse of life. In a short story you put on a pair of blinkers really and you get a glimpse. Whereas with a novel the blinkers come off and you have to know it all…Or not know it all, but look at it all. I’m not sure if I could do that. I’m not sure. But again, is it any different from deciding to write from the point of view of a woman?

TM: Did you have the same anxiety when you started The Woman Who Walked Into Doors?

RD: Yeah.

TM: Or The Snapper?

RD: The Snapper, no. The arrogance of youth.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was a greater challenge, because that wasn’t just a different gender, it was a life experience that was totally foreign to myself. But the language wasn’t. [Paula Spencer] came from around the corner, so to speak, from where I grew up. So she was never foreign. There were aspects of her life that were foreign to me. But she wasn’t. I knew her grandmother. I knew her inside out. It was a question of choosing the right words. Somebody from outside Ireland, particularly someone for whom English wasn’t their first language: it would be a tricky one to carry out. It wouldn’t be impossible to carry out. But it would be a tricky one. And I would need a story, you know. But no I wouldn’t write off the possibility.

TM: Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. has a daughter who is happily partnered to another woman and he’s ok with it. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to get inside the head of Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr. and decide that that would be his reaction. It also wouldn’t be a stretch for me to imagine that he wouldn’t be ok with it.

RD: Well, you’re talking family here as well. And what has happened in Ireland is that the circumstances from family to family are different. And you would have had family members who would have been seen as a bit special.  Norman [Jimmy Rabbitte, Sr.’s gay cousin] is the example in this book.

My parents, they’re 88, and they reminisce a lot. They told me about a man in the 1930s walking about the area that my mother grew up in in a dress. And he was known as “Mrs. Something” – I can’t remember the name – even though he was a man. He was a character. A “character.” And left alone. And I think family often respected their “characters.” Now, decades later, attitudes change. There’s no need in a way to protect these “characters,” so to speak.

I think the father is a fundamentally decent man. He’s a blue-collar worker, but he’s not a behind-it blue-collar worker. And he would probably like it if things were different. But one of the things you do is you drop in a surprise. One of the things I love is that he judges his daughter’s partner by the quality of her pitch penny pub game.

TM: Still, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for a man of his generation to disown his daughter for being gay.

RD: No it wouldn’t be. The man next door might well do that. But [Jimmy, Sr.] doesn’t. What does he want to do? Destroy his family. That’s what would happen.

TM: Let me put it this way. It’s very challenging for the reader in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors when this husband who abuses Paula does things that are likable. It’s not something we really want to think about. We want him to be kept in this box of pure evil. You seem to love the characters in The Barrytown Trilogy to the point where they don’t do anything truly awful.

RD: Well, a lot of people have been upset with Jimmy having the fling with Imelda and not being punished for it. I’ve encountered that again and again, including in reviews. So they’re upset about that. A few people are upset about the attitudes of the men towards women. I don’t know how you deal with that. I could have made it more politically correct there. I could have had Jimmy having a confrontation with Aoife about the affair. She could have found out about it on his phone. She might have thrown him out of the house or something like that. I thought it was much much better to leave it messy and unfinished. Life is often messy and unfinished. It’s Hobson’s choice to a degree.

TM: There are moments of exhilaration in The Barrytown Trilogy and The Guts. And I think there’s a sense in these books that you must enjoy these moments of exhilaration because they won’t last. You will have to go back to monotony soon enough. What for you would be the moments of exhilaration in your career?

RD: Watching the fourth episode of the series called Family that I scripted. Writing a very very small passage of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and knowing it was exactly as I wanted it to be. Watching rehearsals of The Commitments musical. Watching the things I put on paper becoming, I don’t know, the finished product. Not all of it. It can be quite tedious. But there are moments. The first time a cast got from beginning to end of a song, a song that I had chosen and chosen how to get into it and how to get out the other end. That felt particularly good, being part of it, and watching the movement that I hadn’t anticipated and that I thought was wonderful.

I’m trying to think if there are others. It’s all in the work actually. The work builds on the work. Just being there and working.

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