ART & WRITING BY THE UNFREE
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“ARE YOU RODDY DOYLE? AND SO WHAT?”
Earlier this year, the amazing Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize winning author of such classics as The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, went in to HMP Brixton to chat to the prisoners and be recorded for National Prison Radio. Following the meeting, Not Shut Up got a chance to sit down with the writer and ask him some questions.
Thank you very much for coming all this way to meet with prisoners and with our little magazine. Our readers seem to really love your work, and yet when talking to the prisoners earlier you told the story of a boy stopping you on a train platform in your home town of Dublin, asking if you were Roddy Doyle, and when you acknowledged that you were, the boy quipped back “And so what?”. A very telling, very self-deprecating anecdote. Here we are, on this very cold, horrid London morning in HMP Brixton, yet you are fresh off a plane, and chatting to prisoners for hours on end. How do you feel?
I’m a regular visitor to London, I have a musical on in the West End at the moment and a script in development, so it’s become a second home of sorts. I feel very familiar here. Only an hour’s flight from Dublin, and as a father I’m an early waker. I work at home, my life is very placid, very regular. I have to find excuses to leave the house, really. I work in the attic of my own home, and if you asked me, going up there is the only exercise I’d get all day, so when I’m asked to do things like this in prisons, I’m inclined to say “Yes!”.
Maybe once every a couple of years I’ll go somewhere far away, you know, but when it comes to prison I think it sounds a bit selfish, but it feels different. I know people who’ve been in prisons, and who’ll be going into prisons – I know myself, if I was in prison, anything that would make the day anything out of the ordinary would be very welcome. So I reckon if I do visit a prison it maybe won’t have a huge impact, but it might make someone’s day.
I’ve been to all the prisons in Ireland – there aren’t all that many, it’s a small country – and I’ve always felt welcome, always enjoyed it, always end up seeing a familiar face. If it’s Dublin, maybe there’ll be someone I used to know, maybe someone I used to teach, when I worked in schools, or even someone who works in prison that I used to teach, so there’s always this real connection.
But you don’t fly into London to spend time in the Hilton or other posh places – reading about you and your life, I hear you support a London football team and you used to live just down the road from Not Shut Up, in Peckham of all places…
I started supporting Chelsea when I was a child. I was watching the FA Cup Final in 1965 with my father, and he didn’t support anyone. I decided to support one of the teams playing – think it was Chelsea versus Spurs – during the match, and by the time it was over, I was a Chelsea supporter – even though they lost that particular time. All friends of mine were Man U, Leeds were big too. But the trip from Eire to England is always a big thing, and so many people cross from Ireland that the population of Liverpool must almost double when they’re playing at home.
Tell us about the days you used to live in Peckham, all your past jobs before you became a writer.
As a student, when I finished my exams, I was lucky to get a job two summers in a row in London. Essentially, I was just making money, but it was also an excuse to be around different things. It was 1978, 1979, the music was amazing, I went to gigs in Hammersmith, heard The Ramones play, and Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, then saw the beginning of the football season. It was amazing to actually be there, rather than be watching it on an old black and white TV, hoping the reception would hold out until Match of the Day.
Before that, I worked in a food processing factory in Germany. All that life is gone, even though there are still factories, but that shift-work routine, big gangs of Irish students, all seasonal, all over Europe, that’s all gone. Stuffing fruit into cans and jars, alongside Turkish women, Spanish workers, we were all visitors then, before the EU expanded. It was interesting to get close to that life, to observe it, and the rhythm is still there for me, even now. Just brushing the floor at home I get flashbacks to sweeping up in that factory. I was younger than most of the Irishmen there, some fallen on hard times, along with some of the Jamaican men, but then I became a teacher, where I grew up, in a comprehensive school, for 14 years.
That was the making of me, I loved that job, to come face to face with all this energy, I liked it immediately. I wrote the first four of my novels while still teaching, and I only gave it up because I had kids of my own and I could’t write and do all that. Twenty-two years ago, and it’s still a colossal influence on me today.
Roddy on why he writes…
There is usually a question prisoners ask writers when they visit, a question not asked at other literary events: ‘How much money you make?’ But a more polite and professional question would be: ‘Is it possible to make a living from writing?’
Well, if I was a marketing man, I’d say I’ve got a ‘brand’, you know, my name is recognised, in Ireland, and quite a bit here too. But for my first book, The Commitments, I took out a bank loan to publish it myself, in 1987. Then Dan Franklin – an editor at Jonathan Cape, a publishing house in London – liked it and put out a separate edition in 1988, and it’s been in print ever since. Then there was the movie, now a West End show, it all in a way allows me, being self-employed, to survive. For years, when writing something new, I work and get no pay or earn very, very little. Even a successful book is only so for a short amount of time, and not long after this success the royalty cheques start getting smaller and smaller. The West End show allows me to work for nothing with teenagers and in prisons. Now I am working on an opera project, for which I’m getting way less than the minimum wage, but on balance I can make a very good living.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha became a Booker Prize winner, and it was on the Irish bestsellers list for a whole year – I had a bit of wit about me to put some of that money away, a sort of pension fund. So now I can do work and relax, though there have been years of things drying up.
So being a writer of a hit book is a bit like being a bank robber – you earn a fair bit at once, get some respect and fame, but you have to be careful how you spend the money in the long run?
I suppose so. Though bank robbing is the kind of profession in which you’re gonna meet your Butch Cassidy moment, and go down eventually. With books you can always write more. I thought the writing would dry up, but it never does.
You’ve won the Booker Prize, the Mount Everest of writing ambition, have been successful in every kind of writing. Was there ever a moment when you thought – yes, I’ve done it! I’ve achieved the dream…
Prizes are a nice night out, that’s all. Five Booker Prize judges chose my book over 160 others, and I accept it as a nice compliment, but it does not make Paddy Clarke Ha Ha a better book or me a better writer. I’ve got four honorary doctorates from various universities, so I suppose I could call myself Dr Dr Dr Dr Doyle. But they’re not what makes me work.
Little things are what I remember. I was on a commuter train once and heard a lady laugh out loud, and I looked over and she was reading one of my books. You could see she was embarrassed, and was trying not to laugh, but just couldn’t help herself. That was really great. I write books for different age groups, and I once got a great letter from a kid in England, which started: ‘Dear Roddy Doyle, I hope you are alive…’
Roddy on his charity, Fighting Words:
You write about real-life problems, domestic abuse, poverty, and now in Ireland about the renewed economic strife – do you see yourself as a sort of voice for common, downtrodden folk?
I never see myself as a spokesperson for any group of people. But I did help set up a charity called Fighting Words, for kids in Dublin, and when I talk about them I am a spokesperson. I did look around me, when the economy collapsed. I was as anxious as anyone else, going to bed and thinking: Would money exist the following day? It really was that bad. I recall someone whispering in my ear: ‘Get your money out of Ireland’. I had £27 in my pocket, I didn’t even understand what that meant!
So, I respond to what I see, what I feel. Getting older has been a big inspiration for me: that’s not class-bound, we’re all getting older, we feel the same. You have a two-year kid, a lovely wee kid, then 20 years later it’s suddenly an adult with a beard, and you don’t have to be a working class person to share that common feeling of grief at time passing, mixed with pride and anxiety. So I kind of use my own feelings, my conversations with people, things I overhear. I use the bus and the train in Dublin, cos it’s easier than driving, and you overhear things, like my daughter in the kitchen, chatting with her friends, using a word I haven’t heard before.
I do write about everyday experiences, inevitably sometimes they’re out of the ordinary, but mostly it’s just real life. The Guts, my follow-up book to The Commitments, about Jimmy Rabbitte, a middle-aged band manager, had him in his kitchen trying to tell his wife he has bowel cancer. And he can’t do it, so he ends up emptying the dishwasher, instead of telling her. Sad, but so very true.
I love the idea of writers not disappearing up the Mount Olympus of the literary world, but like your good friend Dave Eggers, continuing to use your fame and fortune to help others. Tell us more about Fighting Words, the charity you helped set up.
It’s a very similar place to the Ministry of Stories, a centre in London that Nick Hornby, another good friend of mine, founded. It’s a centre for children and young people, in the north inner city of Dublin. We’ve already had 50,000 children in the door, all of them invited to write a story, or bring a book home with the story, all together. With secondary school kids, we try and give them something to do with writing that’s creative, and they can do sound production, or film. Some of these kids come to us at 16, and I find it really invigorating, chatting to them, trying to make writing as doable as possible. Teachers love it too, they don’t have to plan it, grade it, etc. We try to introduce kids and teens to many ways of writing.
It’s not just education, but integration into society, confronting what bothers us all – the terror of failure, of not being allowed to change your mind. You’re punished if you change your mind in ordinary education, so we actually encourage them to try it, put lines through words, and there’s no mad rush to finish. I do it because I enjoy it – that phrase ‘give something back’ makes me gag. I just enjoy it, it gets me out of the house.
Fighting Words is a creative writing centre established by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love. Inspired by 826 National in the United States, Fighting Words is located on Behan Square, Russell Street, Dublin 1 – very close to Croke Park. It provides free tutoring and mentoring in creative writing and related arts to as many children, young adults and adults with special needs as they can reach. Their programmes and workshops are delivered mainly by volunteers.
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