>11 with Roddy Doyle:
Renowned author Roddy Doyle has graciously agreed to judge this year’s Willesden Herald New Short Stories Competition (sponsored by Willesden Herald and Pretend Genius—fresh, sleek, healthy, bold, and good-looking-making). Pretend Genius chatted with Roddy for its brand new interview series called “>11”—interviews that look trickily as if they are comprised of only 11 questions but are, in fact, infinite.
PRETEND GENIUS: We've noticed that you didn't publish your first book of short stories until 2008. You had a first cousin I believe who was a renowned short story writer. So one could say it's in your blood. What about the short story form finally attracted your attention?
RODDY DOYLE: She was Maeve Brennan, and she was my mother's first cousin. Although the first collection was published in 2008, I'd been writing stories since the late '90s, one or two a year. But, yes, I was late coming to them. I didn't pay much attention to short stories when I was younger; I think I associated them with school. They were worthy, with little lessons or morals. Then I read Raymond Carver and Richard Ford and others, and they slapped the ignorance out of me. As I got older, events occurred that seemed to push me towards writing short stories - the death of a friend, the discovery of a dead rat in my kitchen, a visit to the school I used to teach in. I wasn't going to try to force these things into the novel I was working on, or inflate them to novel size, so I thought I'd try letting them become short stories. A new form, at my age: it was great - like learning to cycle a bike.
(PRETEND GENIUS googles Maeve Brennan. We conclude that she looks very good. Very good.) PRETEND GENIUS: In a way you almost make it sound as if the discovery was reversed. The short story found you. Your readers are undoubtedly happy about that. You also mention associating short stories with school in a negative way. You are currently involved with the creative writing centre Fighting Words. Stories like "The Day Candyland Falls", "Bob Goes Undercover" or "The Adventures of Michael, G.B. and the Atomic Fart (BOOM!)" are brilliant in their simplicity, fearlessness, and imagination. And there are so many others on the site. I would encourage people to read them. Did your instincts as a teacher and your experience as a student inspire you to open the creative writing centre?
RODDY DOYLE: I was probably being a bit glib when I said I associated short stories with school. The stories we read at school tended to have little morals that became the exam question - never the quality of the writing or how it was done. But there were some gems - Frank O'Connor's 'The First Confession' and 'Guest of the Nation' and Brendan Behan's 'The Confirmation Suit' spring to mind. Another problem with school in Ireland was that students studying higher level English were not encouraged to write fiction: there was no exam question on it, so it was useless. My own writing, which - I suppose - ironically, I started just after I became a teacher, was, I think, a reaction to that. But I always read more novels than short stories, so I started writing a novel. It was what I wanted to do. Really, it was a positive, enthusiastic decision, not an angry reaction to anything.
The idea for Fighting Words was inspired by a visit to a writing centre called 826Valencia, in San Francisco. It was founded by Dave Eggers. I thought it was a wonderful place, and experience. The teacher in me loved it, but so did the writer, and the parent - and the political part of me reacted to it as well. It was free and open to everybody, and it took the mystery - or the God-given notion - out of writing. It was simply a matter of putting words on a page, and accepting some and rejecting others. It was about discipline as much as it was about talent. And it was very inviting. PRETEND GENIUS: So you didn’t write anything before you became a teacher? I ask because I also got into this writing game at what I consider a fairly late stage (in my late twenties). Nothing obviously came out of it as substantial as The Commitments but I remember thinking after I wrote my first real story that what I had written was quite good. After many people read it and told me that it was great, I remember my first thoughts being something along the lines of “I’ve fooled all of these people. They think this is good”. I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m talking about myself here, it’s just that it’s the only reference point I have for asking how you felt after the first time someone told you that what you had written was good? Or did that type of validation really matter at the time?
RODDY DOYLE: I wrote a few articles and satirical pieces when I was a student, but didn't get into the habit - the discipline of it - until I started teaching and found myself with long holidays and no need to go looking for work. I was about 22. I spent four years, on and off, writing a bad novel that will never be published. I realised quite quickly after finishing it that it was bad. The best thing, the only good thing, about it is its title: YOUR GRANNY'S A HUNGER STRIKER. Anyway, I finished it in late 1985 and immediately started the book that became THE COMMITMENTS, and I quickly felt that this was what I wanted to do. Validation: nice, encouraging words from a teacher when I was 10 still make me sit up and work. It's always nice to be told that what you do is good, or worth doing. But bad reviews or dismissal also seem to work, somehow. A bad review will almost always send me to my desk to work.
PRETEND GENIUS: I think if more grannies were hunger strikers the world might be a better place. I think of floral arrangements and doilies.
In any case, that time between you starting Your Granny's a Hunger Striker and finishing The Commitments must have taught you quite a bit about writing and finding what the ubiquitous 'they' say is your own voice. Was that the case?
Also, in a way, I feel badly for those never to be seen words that get one from point A to point B. They serve a purpose before their removal, which leads me to a question about editing. It’s been said that from the draft to the finished product one crawls on one's knees. Do you enjoy this process?
RODDY DOYLE: It's a long time ago, so I'm not sure I trust my memory, but the good thing, the real lesson, of writing YOUR GRANNY was that I could; I'd kept at it and finished it, regardless of its lack of quality. I'd proved to myself that I had the discipline and persistence, that I could make excuses not to work - some great ones - and still manage to work enough to get to the end. I forgot about its content, and everything else about it, very quickly. By the way, the manuscript is in the National Library, here in Dublin.
I love editing my work. I always try to make sure I've written too much, so I can hack at the first draft.
PRETEND GENIUS: The manuscript in the National Library? That sounds like inspiration for the next semi-great Irish theft caper. And those excuses—please tell us so that we might find good reason to put down our own pens.
RODDY DOYLE: Excuses: I have to work; I have to listen to all the albums I haven't played in the last six months; I have to (a) go down to the shop for the paper, and (b) read all of it in the pub; I have to fall in love with a woman who lives miles away; I have to wash these clothes; I have to read every Penguin Classic, including the fuckin' introductions.
PRETEND GENIUS: Who doesn’t love those introductions? Where do you think writing in general and the novel form specifically stands as an art form with other types of art forms? I think it was Schopenhauer who said that all art aspires to music. What do you think?
RODDY DOYLE: I’m inclined to agree with Schopenhauer but I'd need to see what's on his iPod before I'd back him too emphatically.
PRETEND GENIUS: Trust but verify. I suppose it is best to be circumspect in such matters. Is there anything that you’ve published that you actually hate?
RODDY DOYLE: No.
PRETEND GENIUS: This year has been momentous in Irish politics; the whole country has been on a rollercoaster. The economy collapsed and the government had to go, cap in hand, to Europe for a bailout. On the other hand, the queen of England visited the country for the first time in her nearly sixty year reign, the first time she's been to Dublin despite having visited nearly every other country in the world. Then there was Obama downing a pint of Guinness in his ancestral (1/36th) home town of Moneygall. Does everyone there now look like cartoon characters after receiving a million volts shock? Or maybe like Barbarella in that machine...?
RODDY DOYLE: I don't actually understand this one.
PRETEND GENIUS: Okay, let's skip the politics. I thought I'd ask a few questions about that stuff because...well, I'm not sure why...but anyway...how did you get involved with the Willesden Herald New Short Stories competition?
RODDY DOYLE: I was asked to do it, and I said yes. I don't mind the politics questions. It's the Barbarella reference: it's so long since I've seen that film; I've no real memory of it, although I seem to remember that Jane Fonda was looking well.
PRETEND GENIUS: It wouldn't surprise me if there will be a remake with Charlize Theron. Not hoping. Just wouldn't be surprised. Uhm, anyway...back to politics very quickly. Just want your thoughts on what little I know... Ireland elected a new president in November, who is a published poet and philosopher, Michael D. Higgins. By all accounts a firebrand leftist, who opposed Reagan's visit to Ireland and campaigned to break the blockade of Gaza etc. The other candidate apparently skewered himself with a corruption scandal, clearing the way for Mr. Higgins. Are you a supporter of Mr. Higgins and what do you think he can do for Ireland during his term? RODDY DOYLE: I wasn't in the country on election day but, if I had been, I would have voted for Michael D. (People rarely bother with the surname.) The Irish President doesn't have the clout of, say, the American President. The role is more like that of the Queen, except we get to elect our Head of State. He'll be President for 7 years, and he follows two excellent Presidents, two women, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, who, together, held office for 21 years - through the boom and the bust. So Michael D. won't be in a position to introduce laws etc. But his office can be used in a different way. It's the tone of the thing, I suppose: where he decides to visit, who he invites to visit, what he says when he visits etc. I've already seen him twice at the theatre, chatting with the punters before and after the plays.
PRETEND GENIUS: Yes, I can see how that position would allow for someone to set a tone as you say. It does seem to give one freedom to do that. And being a poet and philosopher I think he'll set a fine tone.
So what shall we expect from you in the coming months or years? Working on anything new? And do you imagine every beautiful woman you meet naked?
RODDY DOYLE: I'm working on a novel and a book for children - a smaller novel, I suppose. Regarding imagining beautiful women naked - not in the winter; it would be too cruel. But I'm looking forward to the spring.