Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’: my interview
As the evening darkened outside the huge circular windows of Teeling’s Distillery in Dublin’s Liberties, Roddy Doyle read from his new novel ‘Smile’.
Accompanied by his former schoolmate, Hugh Buckley, on guitar, Roddy read several extracts from his latest – and shocking – novel to a rapt audience.
After his US tour, Roddy will appear at the Dublin Book Festival, where I will interview him on the 4th November.
CD: The first line on page 18 chilled me to the bone. – Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile. It’s spoken by Brother Murphy to young Victor during his first month at secondary school and it’s the start of a campaign of terror. What drew you to explore this dark territory?
RD: A Christian Brother said exactly that – ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’ – to me when I was 13.
Reasonably enough, I’ve never forgotten it. To be clear, he never put a hand on me or told me to stay back after class; I was never molested or abused by a Christian Brother or anyone else. But it was a dreadful experience, this strange man at the front of the classroom flirting – I suppose – with me.
It left me wondering what was wrong with my smile. The school was a violent place.
I witnessed beatings that can still make me shake.
I have no doubt, and other men I’ve met since who went there have no doubt, that boys were sexually abused there.
The story of institutional abuse has become almost expected in Ireland.
I wanted to write a story that would shock.
CD: 1980’s Ireland is a character in the novel – its presence is all-pervasive. Looking back, how would you describe that decade?
RD: It’s hard to describe ten years, isn’t it? I could never have anticipated the coming economic boom or the collapse of the power of the Catholic Church from the vantage point of 1982. I was very happy being a secondary school teacher but after the first abortion referendum I thought of emigrating. I actually applied for work in Zimbabwe. The decision to protect the rights of the ‘unborn’ seemed so absurd, illogical and cruel; the Church’s grip on the country seemed so firm. But I decided to stay and I’m glad I did. It was exciting teaching in a working class area in that decade. It was an adventure, somehow. The country was a mess, politically, socially, economically. But the students had great energy; many of them were the first in their families to finish secondary education. There was a great optimism – and the music wasn’t too bad.
CD: Is Ireland now a better place? What’s your relationship with the country today, compared with back then?
RD: I think so but often wonder. Certainly, it’s no longer accurate to say that Ireland is a Catholic country. I’m an atheist and – quite rightly – no one cares. Thirty years ago, it was a life of constant little battles. I’m very comfortable here now, happy to call myself Irish – although that might be because of my age; I’ve surrendered! There’s a lot that’s wonderful here but we seem to have decided that the right to private property is supreme, that nothing can interfere with house prices. So, in a relatively rich country, we have a growing number of homeless people and an unwillingness to take the measures to solve the problem – a problem that can be solved; it’s literally about bricks and mortar. It’s shaming.
CD: Victor’s relationship with his mother is tender and beautifully drawn. I loved the passage where he gets a cheque for writing album reviews for the magazine What Now, and she kisses the cheque, full of pride. But he protects her from what’s going on in school. In a way, I felt she failed him. Everybody failed him. Do parents always fail their children, in one way or another?
RD: Victor’s problems in school arrive, in big part, because he is vulnerable. His father is ill and he will not go home to his mother and tell her what is happening and add to her distress. The Brothers know they have a safe target. She hasn’t failed him and he – remember: he’s a child – has probably underestimated her. But the shame: how does a young boy tell the story?
CD: I could feel Victor’s terror of being an outsider as a teenager. His friends were the only people who mattered – people ‘who really, really frightened me, because of how things shifted, how the wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band, an irresistible smile could destroy you.’ Adolescence feels like a pretty savage place. Victor has nowhere to go for refuge. I couldn’t help wondering if there was something that might have saved him?
RD: I don’t want to sound brutal, but if there’d been something to save Victor I couldn’t have written the novel. His story isn’t mine. I had great, loyal friends, and healthy parents. But, then, I was never abused. If I had been, would I have told my friends? I don’t know. If I hadn’t, or I couldn’t, I’d have put a distance between myself and them – like Victor. Would I have told my parents? Yes. A sensitive, brave teacher could have helped, I suppose. But to take on his bosses and, actually, the State, he’d have been very brave.
CD: Victor fails as a writer. Can you talk to us about this – about why you chose to give him that disappointment, rather than another?
RD: I wanted to give him a job that I understood – the rhythm of it, the resilience that’s needed, the flow of ideas, the isolation. The job description – ‘writer’ – is also quite vague, so I didn’t have make him a novelist, like myself. The only other job I’m very familiar with is teaching but I didn’t want to go there, because having him work in another school would have made things too complicated. Also, giving him that job would have – strangely – made the story seem autobiographical.
CD: Once I finished reading the novel, I knew I needed to go back and start it again. It’s a bit like memory itself: how we bend and shape all the things we need to live with, in order to survive. Victor is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The novel is disturbing, Victor’s fate is shocking. The reader knows something is looming – but not this. Even his denial is taken away from him. The ending is very different from anything else you’ve written. Can you talk about what you want the reader to experience here?
RD: Quite simply: shock. I wanted to write what, in this country, has become a well-known, almost expected, story in a way that could still shock.
CD: Rachel. We can’t discuss her because to do so would be a massive spoiler. But she’s one of the many opportunities that Victor lets pass. Might she have saved him? Or is he just too damaged?
RD: He’s shy – he says it, himself. But the shyness has been forced, inflicted, on him. It’s part of the damage. Could she have saved him? I don’t know.
CD: You have dedicated the novel to your editor, Dan Franklin, with whom you’ve worked on all your books. How important is the relationship between the writer and the editor?
RD: It’s very important and I’ve been very lucky; I’ve always worked with Dan. It’s particularly apt, and right, that I dedicated this book to Dan. In the past, I’ve always delivered the finished book; I’ve never asked Dan to read early drafts. This time I did. I was doing things – in terms of the story-telling – that I’d never done before, and I was apprehensive. He read the second draft and got back to me quickly – a great trait in a great editor – and we spoke briefly. He gave me a great piece of advice that nudged me even further in the direction I’d been going. Without that advice, the story wouldn’t have the same clout.
CD: Has your writing process changed over the years?
RD: Not really. I don’t plan too carefully. The planning, for me, is in the writing. My final draft is always much shorter than the first. SMILE is 55,000 words long; the first draft was more than 120,000. False starts, vague, unnecessary descriptions – they all go. But I need to write them first, to get to know the story and the people in it or telling it. Luckily, I find editing hugely satisfying.
CD: Can you tell us about the Two Pints experience?
RD: I was watching the play – a simple story: two men sitting at a bar talking – in Galway. I think it was the fourth time I’d seen it. And I realised that it was probably the best play I’d written – which was hugely satisfying. It grew out of Facebook postings, simple, short dialogues – two men at the bar. The experience of witnessing my father’s decline and death gave me the plot. Act 1: one of the men has been to visit his father in hospital; Act 2: another night, and the man expects a text, calling him to the hospital to say Goodbye to his father; Act 3: the night of the funeral. The Abbey Theatre’s suggestion that the play, set in a pub, should actually go on in pubs was inspired – and great fun.
CD: What’s next – apart from a massive book tour?!
RD: I’m working on an novel, although I haven’t written a word in months. And I’ve written a stage version of my second novel, THE SNAPPER, which will go on in the Gate Theatre, here in Dublin, next summer.