Roddy Doyle on Smile and writing to shock

In middle age, the hero of Roddy Doyle's Smile is forced to confront childhood memories of abuse by the Christian Brothers who taught him. Doyle explains why he set out to write "something that could shock"

Your new novel, Smile, has been billed as ‘very different’ to your previous books  - do you think that’s the case?

Yes, I think the new book is quite different, although I was also reminded of two other books of mine, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, particularly as I was editing the new book and finding the right structure for it.  With this new one, I was attempting something beyond – I suppose – reality, so, having decided to do this, I realised that I was pushing a creative door that hadn’t been pushed before – by me.   There’s a phrase I don’t particularly like: What you see is what you get.  With this new book, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

Like The GutsSmile focuses on a man at a very specific stage of life – a ‘crossroads’ moment at middle age. What made you choose to have Victor come face to face with his past traumas at this particular point?

In 1971, when I was 13, a Christian Brother – a teacher – said to me in front of more than 30 other boys: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.’  The memory hasn’t exactly haunted me but it’s been there, consistent, for the last 46 years.  To be clear, the Brother never touched me, but it was still a dreadful experience.  This middle-aged man was flirting with me.  My voice hadn’t yet broken; I was a child.  As I started writing about that episode, it quickly became fictional – it’s not memoir.  The story of abuse in the Catholic Church has become so well known here in Ireland it’s almost expected; it’s greeted with a sigh: ‘Again?’  I wanted to write something that could shock.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

When I was 13, a Christian Brother, a teacher, said to me in front of 30 other boys: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile'.... This middle-aged man was flirting with me

How did you go about trying to understand the effects that sexual abuse in childhood has on the lives of adult survivors? 

I did no formal research.  I trusted myself to find and use the right words and combinations of words.  I rejected a lot of what I wrote.  But I was writing a novel, not a memoir or a textbook.  I know victims – we all do.  But I didn’t interview anyone and read about other experiences, other than the ones I’d have read about anyway over the years.

Over the years, women have told me, quietly, after reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, that they were Paula Spencer, the narrator of that novel [a domestic abuse survivor].  The new book is still very new but, already, two men, having read it, have told me that they were abused by Christian Brothers. 

In your observation, what was it like for Irish people – particularly the religious community – to witness the discovery of such widespread abuse in the Catholic Church? Did the cultural ‘crisis of identity’ described in the media really take place?

Twenty years ago, it would have been accurate to say that Ireland was a Catholic country.  That’s no longer the case.  The Church is still there and always will be, but it no longer has the same power. 

You observed in a previous interview that nostalgia often plays a key a part in our cultural response to difficult events – why do you think that is?

World War 1 was an appalling experience – such a waste of young lives.  Yet it seems to be remembered – or commemorated – almost fondly.  The horror, reasonably enough, is often glazed over.  The Irish state is, or was, young.  ‘Independence’ was a very powerful word.  We wanted to prove that we could stand alone, efficiently, successfully, independently.  Reality, honesty, complications, inconvenient truths often get hidden or forgotten about in that determination.  Also, on a human level, the urge to add, ‘It wasn’t all bad’, is almost overwhelming.

Does it frustrate you that books like The Commitments might now be seen as ‘era-defining’, and appeal to that sense of nostalgia?

There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly. My job is to write as clearly and honestly as I can – at the moment when I’m doing it.  In The Snapper, Sharon, the protagonist, says, ‘Abortion’s murder.’  I wrote that line in 1987.  The same character wouldn’t say that line in 2017 – not because I wouldn’t let her, but because it wouldn’t be accurat

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more