Roddy Doyle Talking Books


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Roddy Doyle

Booker Prize-winning Irish author Roddy Doyle meets BBC arts correspondent Rebecca Jones at Cheltenham Literature Festival.


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LineFromTo

who's visiting the South

for the Winter OIympics.

0:00:000:00:00

Now on BBC News, Talking Books.

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Welcome to Talking Books here

at the Cheltenham literary festival.

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A celebration of more than 1000

of the world's finest writers,

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poets, performers and politicians.

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Today I'm talking to the bestselling

Irish writer Roddy Doyle.

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He made his name 30 years ago

with his debut novel

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The Commitments, which was later

turned into a hugely successful film

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and then a stage show.

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Since then he has gone

on to write more than 20 books

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for adults and children,

including Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,

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which won the Booker Prize in 1993.

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His latest novel is called Smile,

and in it, he says, he hopes

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to shock and surprise people.

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Roddy Doyle, you have been

writing for three decades.

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So there is a lot to talk about.

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But I'd like to start bang

up-to-date with your latest novel

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Smile, which is about a middle-aged

man, Victor, looking back

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on his schooldays as dark

and disturbing memories

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begin to emerge.

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What was the starting

point for the novel?

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I went to a Christian Brothers

school in Dublin, started

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in 1971, when I was 13.

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And that is a school run

by the Catholic Church?

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Yes, by the Christian

Brothers, they are called.

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And a lot...

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For more than 100 years,

a lot of working-class,

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lower-middle-class boys would have

gone to these schools.

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It was a strange place to go into,

having been to a state

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school at primary level,

to go into this very violent, weird,

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eccentric environment.

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Quite early on, a Christian brother,

probably in his late 30s,

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I don't really know,

wearing the soutane, like a dress,

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at the front of the room.

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Friday afternoon we were trying

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to persuade him not

to give us homework.

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And he said to me, Roddy Doyle,

I can never resist your smile.

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And the ground, after

a second or so, hoping

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he hadn't said that to me,

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the ground in front of me just

opened and yawned.

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In a way, I hoped I could fall

into it, because I knew

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there were consequences.

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He had said this to me in front

of 33, 34 of the boys,

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and that I was going to be branded.

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And the word gay did

not exist, really.

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It was not in the air in the way

it is now in Ireland in 1971,

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so I was the queer, I was the homo.

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And just to be clear,

that man never touched me,

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never told me to stay

back after class.

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There was nothing overtly

sinister about it,

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but it was so inappropriate.

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I did not know the word back then,

but it was so inappropriate.

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I made more of it, much more of it

in the novel than actually occurred,

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but it is one of those memories.

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If a memory has a camera angle,

it is the exact same memory

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for the last 50 years,

or so, just less than 50 years.

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And it did not haunt me.

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I got a bit of slagging about it,

as we say in Ireland.

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And now and again somebody would say

smile at him, smile at him.

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And I would be telling them no

in words to that effect.

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But the memory was there.

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I think because of all the stories

that had been in the air in Ireland

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over the past couple of decades

about abuse and the Catholic Church.

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I thought I will somehow or other

take that little moment in my life

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and somehow fashion a story.

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I was hoping I could surprise

or maybe shock people by telling

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this particular story.

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I wonder if you might just read

a short extract that does involve

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the incident you have

been talking about.

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And this violent man with

the Desperate Dan hair liked me.

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I knew this.

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Everybody knew this,

because something he said more

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than two years before,

when I was 13.

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Victor Ford, I can never

resist your smile.

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It was like a line from a film

in a very wrong place.

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I knew I was doomed.

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It had been one of Murphy's happy

days and we were at him to let us

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off homework for the weekend.

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It was Friday afternoon and the sun

was heating the room,

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spreading the smile.

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-- smell.

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The school was right beside the sea

and we could hear the tide

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behind the yard wall.

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Go on, brother, s'il vous plait,

brother, we'll pray

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for you on Sunday, brother.

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He listened to us and grinned.

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It was a grin, not a smile.

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The word inappropriate did not

appear until years later,

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but the grin was inappropriate.

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It was all inappropriate.

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He was being taunted

and teased by a room of boys

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and he was loving it.

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Then he said it.

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Victor Ford, I can never

resist your smile.

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There was silence.

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There was silence.

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As you said, you were never abused

but do you think any

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of your friends were?

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I have asked several people

I would have met over the years,

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do you think anything happened?

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And they were, oh, yes.

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You were beaten, weren't you?

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I was yes.

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But I was one of many.

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Yes, I was.

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Corporal punishment

was legal back then.

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It was here, too.

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It was made illegal I think in 1981,

when I just started my own

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career as a teacher.

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So in primary school, I would have

been slapped occasionally,

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but everybody was slapped.

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When I went to this place

there was a level of violence

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that was extraordinary.

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It was unpredictable.

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A teacher could explode

at any moment.

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And it would involve...

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A lot of the teachers

had leather straps.

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Three on each hand would leave

you shaking for a day, at least.

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I recall one teacher who was not

even a teacher of mine came

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into the room and I can't even

remember what we were doing.

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Something utterly harmless.

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None of his business.

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As a teacher myself years later,

none of his business,

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hauled out four of us and I was cute

enough to get to the back

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of the queue, thinking he would be

exhausted by the time he came to me,

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but he was not.

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I will never forget the pain.

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Never, ever forget the pain.

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The desk had metal legs

and I remember putting my hands

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on the legs to cool the hands down.

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It worked to a degree,

but my hands were still sweating.

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Later on in the day, you know.

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I did nothing to deserve it.

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I feel bad saying this

because there were terrific

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teachers there as well.

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You are almost 60.

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Smile is your 11th novel.

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Why write about it now?

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I really don't know is the honest

answer, it is an honest answer.

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I don't know.

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When I started the book,

I think it is memory.

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I suppose as we get older

we gather more memories.

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Our children get older and memories

become vital and it is a strange

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moment when you realise a memory

you think you share with someone

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is not a shared memory.

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It is also fascinating.

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I listen to people I know

who were in the room at the same

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time something occurred and I am

sitting back listening

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to a different version,

but it is their version.

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So memory and its fragility has

always interested me and I think

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more so as I get older.

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There is that.

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Also the notion of friendship among

men, which to me is one

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of the great sources of joy.

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When I started writing

about schooldays I knew at least

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a big chunk of the book was here.

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Has it been cathartic?

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No, not at all.

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That is an easy answer!

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I don't believe in that stuff!

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There has been, and you mentioned it

earlier, there has been talking

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recent years

about institutionalised

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child abuse in Ireland

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and I wondered, as an Irish writer,

did you feel a duty

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or responsibility

to address the issue?

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Not at all.

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I do not think in those terms

and if I had a list of social

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issues I now must address,

I would be...

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Oh, way off the track that I should

be on when I am writing a novel.

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No.

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I don't feel any

responsibility whatsoever.

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But having decided to write a book

that included this subject,

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for example, or dealt with this

subject matter, my responsibility

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was to do it as well as I possibly

could and also to do it in a way

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as a novelist that

could still surprise.

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I had just written a film script

recently about a homeless woman,

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but she is a woman who happens to be

homeless, if that makes sense,

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and that is the plot.

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But without the woman, you know,

she is at the core of the story.

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But she is much more important

than the adjective that

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describes her currently.

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Ireland seems to be a constant

source of inspiration for you.

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Roddy Doyle books don't tend

to travel much beyond Ireland.

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Why is that?

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Well, PG Wodehouse's

novels do not stray much

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beyond his back garden,

really, do they?

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I have written one novel

that was set in America,

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because it had to be

because the protagonist got out

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of Ireland, so in a way

it is about him getting his

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way back into Ireland.

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It is a small country, but, there

is more than enough to write about.

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The Commitments, a story

about a bunch of young

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kids forming a band,

it is a universal story,

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it just happens to be set in Dublin.

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That is where the ice

is nice and thick for me.

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If I'm walking across the lake,

I'm not going to fall in,

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because I know the accent.

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I know the corner they are on.

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I know what shop they go

in to buy something.

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I know that shop.

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And that is my research.

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I have always lived in Dublin

and I have always lived

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in a certain corner of Dublin.

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The north-east of Dublin.

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Even though I might not mention it,

I know the sea is very close

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to where all the characters are.

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And I know the seagulls can be heard

in the morning and in the evening.

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And I sometimes mention them.

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And I not the geese coming

at this time of year

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and they leave in April.

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We love seeing them

going over our heads.

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You mention your first novel

The Commitments, which you wrote

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while you were teaching.

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You taught English and geography

in a secondary school for 14 years.

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Am I right your pupils

nicknamed you Punk Doyle?

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Yes.

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Why was that?

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I had an earring and I wore

Doc Martens and it was 1979,

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that kind of era, so punk was big.

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I got my own classroom

and there was a poster of the Clash.

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And I added the Smiths.

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And I had a friend who promoted gigs

and he gave me a poster so I thought

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it was a good alternative

to Jane Austen or

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somebody like that.

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Or the map of Ireland.

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You know, Jane Austen on one side

and the map of Ireland.

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There is a vision of hell!

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It was just an alternative.

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Doyle is a common name in Ireland,

the sixth most common name

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and there were four Doyles

on the staff.

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One of the others was called Dozy.

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So I think I got away

quite well there.

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I would rather be called Punk Doyle.

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While you were teaching

you were writing.

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Had you always wanted

to be a writer?

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The itch was there and I did

a little bit of writing

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when I was a student but teaching

was the great opportunity.

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I did not have a family at the time,

so as a secondary teacher

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in Ireland I had June,

July and August off,

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so that is a quarter of the year.

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And you are never more than seven

weeks away from the mid-term break.

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So there was plenty of time,

leaving aside evening time.

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So a great job to start off with.

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The first four novels were written

while I was a teacher.

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The Commitments was self-published

in 1987, about this group of young

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Dubliners who form a soul band.

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It became something

of a cult classic.

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In no part due to the

musician Elvis Costello.

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What was that about?

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Well, if I remember right,

there was a very good music

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magazine called Hot Press.

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And they weren't

impressed with the book.

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A bad review, an interview that was

a bit of a disaster, as well.

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And that was a disappointment,

because I liked Hot Press.

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I can't remember, some anniversary

edition of Hot Press,

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they asked Elvis Costello to write,

because he was living

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in Dublin at the time

and they asked him to write

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something about his early years.

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In the article, I cannot

remember the words,

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he said if you want to know

what it was like read

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The Commitments.

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And that was a great endorsement.

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And of course the film,

which came out in 1991,

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gave it even extra life.

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It was this tremendous success.

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What was it like for you?

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It was marvellous,

but also overpowering.

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To go from being a teacher who has

written books and, now and again,

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might be in a newspaper

being interviewed, to being a very

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reluctant celebrity, for example,

or a household name.

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I didn't like it.

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It was a little overpowering

and I was worried at that stage

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I might be defined by this

for the rest of my life,

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the man who wrote The Commitments.

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It is not a healthy way to be,

at that stage of your life,

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to be almost consigned to it -

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the past before you begin.

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I felt a little bit that way

when I won the Booker Prize.

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In 1993 you won the Booker Prize

with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

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Suddenly you are the literary

equivalent of U2 in Ireland.

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For while, yes.

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I'm delighted that I

won it and still am.

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A brilliant compliment to get.

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I thought I will never escape

from this bloody thing, either.

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It seems mean-spirited.

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Aren't you lucky to be trying

to escape from those

0:14:190:14:21

two huge successes?

0:14:210:14:30

I know I am lucky, but when I finish

a book I almost throw it

0:14:300:14:33

over my shoulder and get

going on another one.

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I've relaxed a bit now in recent

years, but at the time...

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I've written for children, too.

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The last few years, I go into a cafe

in Dublin buying a coffee and a tall

0:14:450:14:50

lad behind the counter with a big

beard says, are you Roddy Doyle?

0:14:500:14:55

I say, I am.

0:14:550:15:00

He says, I loved the Giggler

Treatment when I was a kid.

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A big adult, six foot seven.

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Tattooed.

0:15:040:15:06

Covered.

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And he is telling me it is one

of his favourite books.

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It is really lovely.

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I think that made me feel

a bit gentler towards

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everything I have done.

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I suppose I am at that stage

of my life or career where I don't

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feel I have to escape from the past.

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If somebody says I really

like The Commitments,

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I will accept the compliment,

rather than bat it away.

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One of the things that seems

to me to define embodied

0:15:240:15:28

One of the things that seems to me

to define a Roddy Doyle

0:15:280:15:32

novel is the dialogue,

which is so realistic.

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I'm thinking of your second novel,

The Snapper, which is about a young

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woman who gets pregnant

outside of wedlock.

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You are there with her in the

kitchen when she tells her parents.

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You are with her in the pub

when she tells her friends.

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You make it seem

and sound effortless.

0:15:450:15:48

How much work really goes into it?

0:15:480:15:49

A lot.

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It takes a lot of work to make

something seem effortless.

0:15:540:15:56

There is trial and error,

stopping, starting.

0:15:560:15:59

Taking out a word because it seems

like you are tripping over it

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rather than reciting it.

0:16:030:16:05

I take out a word and see

if I can replace it,

0:16:050:16:09

or rewrite the sentence completely.

0:16:090:16:09

Are you always listening to people?

0:16:090:16:11

Not professionally.

0:16:110:16:12

In Dublin, often you

do not have a choice.

0:16:120:16:14

It is not an option.

0:16:140:16:17

Silence as an entity is quite rare.

0:16:170:16:21

People talk to each

other all the time.

0:16:210:16:29

The ones I love are upstairs

on the bus when you hear

0:16:290:16:32

half-conversations.

0:16:320:16:34

People talking to somebody else

on the phone, I love those ones.

0:16:340:16:37

Because I fill in the gaps.

0:16:370:16:38

Yes, I can't think of...

0:16:380:16:41

I've heard things that struck me

as being funny and bizarre.

0:16:410:16:44

I might come home and tell

the family but I can't think once

0:16:440:16:48

of hearing somebody say something

that I jotted down

0:16:480:16:50

and say, I'll use that.

0:16:500:16:51

Because it would end up

being a punch line in a way that

0:16:510:16:54

a situation comedy might.

0:16:550:16:56

That you're dragging

the audience towards that line.

0:16:560:16:59

So if it does not serve

a purpose in the story,

0:16:590:17:02

I would not bother saving it.

0:17:020:17:04

They are always talking

in The Snapper.

0:17:040:17:05

They are also always laughing.

0:17:050:17:06

It struck me as a very happy book.

0:17:060:17:09

Yes, I think it was Colm Toibin

who said it was the first and only

0:17:090:17:13

example of a happy family

in Irish literature!

0:17:130:17:15

That was deliberate.

0:17:150:17:18

This is a family that

works, with their flaws.

0:17:180:17:21

I read it recently because I have

done a stage adaptation that is

0:17:210:17:24

going on in Dublin next year.

0:17:250:17:26

I was quite shocked in many ways.

0:17:260:17:32

There is a level of violence in it

I did not know was there.

0:17:320:17:35

It was not in my memory.

0:17:350:17:37

But things that were acceptable 30

years ago when I started the book

0:17:370:17:40

would be utterly unacceptable now.

0:17:400:17:42

Really quite a shock.

0:17:420:17:44

Some of the attitudes have

shifted and changed.

0:17:440:17:50

There are things in it that

are rooted to its time.

0:17:500:17:53

But it is a happy family.

0:17:530:17:54

And yet some of your novels seem

to have this bleak streak.

0:17:540:17:57

I am thinking about Paddy Clarke,

this ten-year-old boy,

0:17:570:18:00

whose verve for life seems

to crumble as his parents'

0:18:000:18:03

marriage disintegrates.

0:18:030:18:09

I wondered where that

pessimism comes from.

0:18:090:18:13

I don't know.

0:18:130:18:17

I'd find if I was in the company

of a 50-year-old man

0:18:170:18:20

who is utterly optimistic,

I would find it

0:18:200:18:22

completely unbearable.

0:18:220:18:23

Give me pessimism everyday!

0:18:230:18:24

Give me pessimism every day!

0:18:240:18:26

It's part of the package, isn't it?

0:18:260:18:33

We all know we die.

0:18:330:18:34

We are mortal.

0:18:340:18:35

Therefore there has to be pessimism.

0:18:350:18:40

Unless you are looking

forward with giddy delight

0:18:400:18:42

to what might be coming.

0:18:420:18:43

To me this is it.

0:18:430:18:53

It was like the official picture

is every house had mammy, daddy,

0:18:540:18:58

in the Irish situation in the '60s,

6.2 children, or 4.2 children.

0:18:580:19:02

There were four

children in my house.

0:19:020:19:04

There would have been five

except one of the children died.

0:19:040:19:07

That was not a big

family by any means.

0:19:070:19:09

I remember there were houses

where there was a father by himself,

0:19:090:19:12

a lot of women by themselves.

0:19:120:19:13

The father was away

working in South America.

0:19:130:19:15

That was the official story.

0:19:150:19:22

So the notion of that

family's structure,

0:19:220:19:23

while it was the standard one,

was not universal.

0:19:230:19:29

I was just working with that

when I started Paddy Clarke.

0:19:290:19:37

The book ends with the break-up

of the parents' marriage.

0:19:370:19:39

We don't know what

happens after that.

0:19:390:19:41

How is he?

0:19:410:19:42

I have not a clue.

0:19:420:19:43

Because he is a fictional character.

0:19:430:19:44

Would you ever write

about him in adulthood?

0:19:440:19:46

No.

0:19:460:19:47

I would not have the

remotest interest.

0:19:470:19:49

It is one of the few

stand-alone books I've written.

0:19:490:19:53

I think it is a much

better book left alone.

0:19:530:19:58

You touched on your own family

and you did capture your parents'

0:19:580:20:02

memories in a memoir Rory And Ita.

0:20:020:20:03

Why did you want to do that?

0:20:030:20:10

Well, my children were very young

and I thought if the worst

0:20:100:20:13

happened and my parents died

while they were very young

0:20:130:20:22

they would be left not knowing much

about their grandparents.

0:20:220:20:23

My mother for a example

was born in 1925.

0:20:230:20:25

Her mother died in 1928,

when my mother was three.

0:20:250:20:28

She knew virtually

nothing about her.

0:20:280:20:33

She didn't know her surname.

0:20:330:20:35

I don't think there

was a photograph.

0:20:350:20:36

Did not know where she came from.

0:20:360:20:38

Did not know where her family were.

0:20:380:20:42

I witnessed my mother discovering

that side of her family

0:20:420:20:44

when she was in her 50s.

0:20:440:20:48

She found out she had a whole family

living in Long Island in New York.

0:20:480:20:52

Did you ever wonder

whether the general public

0:20:520:20:54

would actually be interested

in reading about them?

0:20:540:20:56

I don't know what the

general public is.

0:20:560:20:58

I never thought it was going

to be Angela's Ashes.

0:20:580:21:01

It wasn't going to be a global

phenomenon by any means.

0:21:010:21:05

But I thought it

would have a validity.

0:21:050:21:10

They were great storytellers

and very descriptive.

0:21:100:21:12

My mother's memory is very precise.

0:21:120:21:15

My father's is more general

and he embellishes.

0:21:150:21:17

So he had vivid

memories of his birth.

0:21:170:21:21

Whereas my mother would limit

herself to what actually happened.

0:21:210:21:25

They worked well as a team.

0:21:250:21:29

I was enjoying it and I sent

early chapters to my

0:21:290:21:34

publisher and he loved them,

so that was enough for me.

0:21:340:21:40

As I said at the beginning,

you have been writing for 30 years.

0:21:400:21:43

Does it get easier?

0:21:430:21:44

No.

0:21:440:21:45

That is good.

0:21:450:21:46

No, it is never habitual.

0:21:460:21:52

It is always work, work I love.

0:21:520:21:54

11 novels in and working

on the 12th, and that is hard,

0:21:540:21:57

coming up with something again

fresh.

0:21:570:21:58

I have always accepted

the fact I am getting older,

0:21:580:22:02

therefore the camera angle

is different and there is material

0:22:020:22:04

to write about I would never

have anticipated before.

0:22:040:22:07

We shall look forward

to your 12th novel.

0:22:070:22:09

Roddy Doyle, it has been

so good to talk to you.

0:22:090:22:12

Thanks very much.

0:22:120:22:22