Roddy Doyle is one of those rare writers with both a critical following and devoted readership who has managed to consistently grow and change with each book. His latest, “A Star Called Henry,” is the first in what will be several volumes depicting Doyle’s hero, Henry Smart, as he makes his way through 20th century Ireland. Encompassing the 1916 rebellion and the attendant sectarian violence, and presenting one of the bleakest and most vivid portraits of poverty since Dickens, the novel continues the richness of language and the exploration of characters’ interior lives that distinguished Doyle’s last two books, “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” and “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” We talked by phone during his recent North American book tour.
Much of “The Barrytown Trilogy” is written in dialogue. Do you feel that helped pave the way into the first-person voice of your last few books?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I think what happened with “The Commitments” is that what I tried to do was make it narrator-free. Just to let the characters do their own roaring, and I kept the descriptions as bare as possible. And then gradually, the next book, “The Snapper,” but particularly, “The Van,” were more introspective. The narrator was getting closer to an individual character.
I think probably “The Van,” more than anything else, got me closer than the other books. It’s written in the third person but if such a thing is possible, it’s written in the second-and-a-half person, if that makes sense. It’s hard to be neat and tidy about things that are terribly messy when you’re working on them.
What you’re describing seems to be a way of getting at the interior language of the characters.
“A Star Called Henry” is your first historical novel. How difficult was it to feel your way into that?
Extremely. It’s historical because the narrator happens to be extremely old. And because he’s born in Dublin, he grew up in tumultuous times, far more tumultuous than they would be at the moment. For the first time ever, even with “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” which in many ways was describing something I wasn’t over familiar with, I couldn’t really start this book at all. I’ve always been able to start a couple of pages and then kind of stall till I give it more thought. This time around I really couldn’t start because I didn’t know enough and I had to research. In the past I’d read for verification, to make sure I was right. This time ’round I was filling in holes in my knowledge.
I take it Henry’s story will continue?
I’m working on the second volume. When I started writing I didn’t realize I was going to be dividing the story into pieces. I tend to plan as I write. And I want to leave myself open and the character open to keep on going until it seems to be the time to stop. So it could be three books, ideally; it might be just two if things are beginning to lose steam and it could be four.
This is the first time reading one of your books that I haven’t felt complete empathy with the protagonist. The possibility of violence is all through this book. We really don’t know what Henry might be capable of. A man like Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. might take a misstep but we know he’s essentially a good person. This is much more ambivalent.
Well deliberately so, because I think essentially quite a lot of good people killed quite a lot of essentially good people. My grandparents, for example, were killed during that war. And indeed two essentially good people in different circumstances have been killed during any war.
I wanted to make sure that Henry wasn’t an evil character because I think that’s too easy and lazy. There are yawning holes in my own family history. We know that both of my grandparents were involved, as they say — the word being “involved” — but we don’t know to what extent.
My father saw my grandfather hold an IRA gun which he had buried in 1922 and dug up again in 1939, but it was corroded and useless. But what none of us know and never will know is, did he use it? It’s unlikely that he didn’t and yet apparently he was a very gentle, nice man. I never knew him, he died when I was an infant.
But that’s the type of thing I was trying to capture. I think if Henry had been born in a more sedentary, more solidly working-class environment, rather than that underclass environment, he’d have had a perfectly normal life like the rest of us. Or if he’d been born 20 years later.
There seems to be an expectation that Irish writers are going to take on the 20th century history of their country. Do you feel that Irish history can be a trap for Irish writers?
Oh, I think any history can be, yeah. I was going to play with it. Not necessarily in the sense of fun, but I was going to mix fact and fiction just to see how far I could go. I didn’t feel that, “Now it’s my turn.” And I don’t think many Irish writers do anymore. I just felt, it was an ambition I’d had for quite a while.
Really, the history came after the character. What I was keen on doing was a bit like, I wanted to see if I could copy Dickens basically. To see if I could write a story a bit like “David Copperfield,” starting at the beginning. And it just got bigger, not necessarily better, but bigger as I went along. The history was dragged behind the character really. Because he was born in Dublin in 1901, the questions are always then, “Well was he in the 1916 uprising?” and I really couldn’t say no.
It was different traditions. I love Peter Carey’s book “Illywhacker” and Günter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” These are books that left a very lasting impression on me. And indeed “Midnight’s Children” and “Shame,” the Salman Rushdie novels, made a very lasting impression on me. And they may have been at the back of my mind when I was starting this book. But I didn’t feel really self-consciously Irish when I started it. Although possibly now that it’s finished and looking at all six [of my books], it probably is the most Irish.
Well one thing it shares with Dickens is the sense of poverty all the way through. And it’s much starker in that you seem to be very determined not to accept the usual sentimental excuses for what poverty breeds, but to show poverty at the root of something tougher.
I wanted to put in context, without making a political statement, to explain why the independence movement took off, or why Henry would have gotten involved. That it wasn’t just a whim. Despite the proximity of Ireland to Britain and despite the official status of Dublin as the second city of the empire, in fact it’s a third world city and Ireland was a colony. And I wanted to just show the starkness of the poverty and try to get across that most working-class people were not politically motivated at that stage at all.
At the same time, as you’re acknowledging the research you did, this book has, I think, the most amazing use of language in any of your books yet. Especially the descriptions of the post office siege — like the image of the woman using the dead horse as an armchair — and the descriptions of the poverty that Henry and his mother descend into.
I got a mix of books, memoirs, journalistic descriptions of what went on, and I made more of what I got. But when I was reading the descriptions of 1916 it did have a surreal quality to it. And a nightmare quality to it. You know, the [post office] building began to, not only was it being bombarded, but it began to burn from the inside out. The physicality of it was very, very apparent as it never had been before. It was just an extraordinary thing, the fires, you know, and the glass melting.
I was aware that the likes of the woman outside with the boa feathers, all
those people in many ways when they turned off O’Connell walked straight on to the set of “The Plow and the Stars,” you know, O’Casey’s play. They’re the exact same people. I haven’t seen the play in a long time, but I do recall that they were looters. I remember in one production I saw, a boa. It seems to be a great symbol of opulence or something. So I was aware of a continuity there.
I understand you don’t plan the story out, but at the end of this book, Henry has some sense of freedom and I’m wondering if it’s a false freedom.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away. I think I better keep my mouth shut.
As your books have progressed they’ve gotten less rosy. I’m wondering if there’s been a reaction in Ireland of people thinking that you’re not as charming a writer as you once were.
Yeah, I’m sure there has been. It’s hard for me to measure them, or to assess my books because I’m so close to them. “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors,” which is my darkest book, did extremely well in Ireland and Britain. Up to now, the only one that did better by a long streak was “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.” But it did better than “The Barrytown Trilogy.”
I know there are a couple of publishers, not here or in Britain, but elsewhere, who were a bit impatient with “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” because they felt I was going in a direction that they didn’t want me to go in. And as far as I’m concerned that’s their problem, not mine.
But there are those who say, yeah would you write a comedy. And you know, it’s still in me. I’ve got a screenplay being filmed in about four weeks’ time, and that’s comedy for the sake of it. But it would be wrong to start trying to write some identical book that has a little bit of everything for everybody, you know. When I’m writing I just think there’s only the page and me and nobody else.
Wasn’t there some political denunciation of “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” in Ireland?
“The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” was inspired by the writing of a BBC television series called “Family.” There were four episodes, the last from the wife’s point of view. When I was writing the fourth and final episode I was very, very happy with it, and I thought, “There’s a book in this woman.” I could imagine her having thrown her husband out and trying to get some sort of normality back in her life, actually sitting at a kitchen table in the evening and beginning to write. And that’s where the inspiration for the book came from.
Now the following year, when I started the novel, the episode was broadcast in Ireland, and then there were all sorts of denunciations. There’s virtually nothing in the novel that is in the television series, which is very gritty, very hard-hitting. And the denunciations came from all sorts of politicians, from priests, my old teachers union, virtually everybody queued up to condemn it in some way.
What was their problem with it?
I was the subject of sermons, not across the country, but individual priests felt a burning need to bring me up on a Sunday morning. I seemed to be undermining the sanctity of marriage. Which of course was exactly what I was doing. In the second episode a teacher hits [a child] and the teachers union condemned this because it wasn’t representative. Of course, this was to swallow the great big lie that no teacher ever hit a student. Never. And then, the politicians then queued up on behalf of the neighborhood where the series was filmed.
The criticism from community groups in that neighborhood was the only one I had any time for. We used a backdrop, a high-rise area, because it was sort of a universal landscape, one that people everywhere would recognize. And it was the right creative choice.
The unfortunate thing is that it’s the only high-rise backdrop in Dublin. So some people genuinely felt upset about it. There were people who said this area did take a lot of knocks in the 1980s and the early ’90s and it doesn’t need another one. Again, because of the lack of familiarity of our own places on TV screens and up on the cinema, because it’s still relatively new, a lot of attention was devoted to that. And politicians being politicians, they queued up to condemn me and the makers and all the other backers. There wasn’t a lot behind it, most of the objections died down by the second episode.
Would you speak a little about the image of family that seems to come through in the books, particularly in “The Barrytown Trilogy,” as places where you’re sort of forced to learn to fend for yourself, but to do it within this very loving support system.
Well I think some families work, some of them don’t. It often puzzles me a bit that people in America particularly ask about family because I would have thought it’s a given, you know. Whereas I think the difference is that we tend to hang around a good bit longer, you know. If you’re from Dublin, for example, chances are you live with your family, if you’re lucky enough to, right up to the mid-20s. And most of the people I know, when they finally sort of set off on their own, they don’t stray all that far.
So with the exception of living abroad on and off for a while, I’ve always lived within about three miles from where I was born. And that’s very, very common. So the result is that you would have regular contact between three generations, the grandparents, the parents and the kids. I don’t have any general points to make about families. It’s just if you’re sitting down to write something set in Ireland, it’s hard to avoid.
Just to answer you, the relief for people who love your books over here had to do with them coming along at a time when family was a very loaded political word. I think more people have the sort of noisy, indecorous family life you describe than are willing to admit. And there tends to be a reaction that it damages or corrupts kids to hear people cursing or speaking plainly. And you seemed to be saying that people are tougher than they’re given credit for.
I can appreciate what you’re saying there. “Family values,” for example: They’re not family values very often. They’re just stark, conservative, often puritanical values that are dressed up with the word “family.” But it’s just nonsense I think. And you know I object strongly to the right wing sort of taking a monopoly on family and saying that this is what we stand for and if you’re to the left of us you don’t. It’s just nonsense. But I think you know, if you’re looking at families in my books, some of them work, some of them don’t. That’s about as simple as it gets. And yeah, people are resilient, great survivors.