Roddy Doyle, 2019. Photo: Anthony Woods

Roddy Doyle, 2019. Photo: Anthony Woods

In Roddy Doyle’s new novel two teenage friends, Davy and Joe, stumble across a pub in their native Dublin they’ve never noticed before. Inside the bar is clean, the landlord treats them like grown men and the clientele is smarter and sexier than anywhere they’ve ever drank. At that moment, they hopelessly fall in love – with the place itself and with the possibilities it seems to hold for their blossoming adult lives. 

Twenty years later, the same two men contemplate that period, now deep into middle age. As the pints begin to flow like they used to, secrets spill out like fistfuls of change. How close are Davy and Joe really? How much of what happened then still matters? And what happened to the girl with the cello they both fell for when they were kids?  

Like Doyle’s previous work, starting with the cultural phenomenon that was The Commitments in 1987, Love has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a deep understanding of the bonds and resentments that make up our closest friendships. It is also a tender and bittersweet portrait of what aging does to the male psyche, and about the challenge of honouring love in all its forms: between partners, towards places, and perhaps most difficult of all, for ourselves.

Here we speak to Roddy about Love, life in lockdown, and the books he’s raving about at the moment. 

 

Love is set largely in the pubs of Dublin. Given the events of 2020, does it feel like a period piece already?

You know, there was one evening, when I’d finished Love and was doing the final edit, I suggested to a couple of friends of mine that we do a trawl of the pubs that were in the book – just to make sure I had the particulars right. The final one we were in, Neary’s – when the three of us walked in, we brought the average up about 20 years. The only thing I got wrong was the position of the mens toilet, I think. 

But in the suburbs, where I am and where I grew up, quite a lot of the pubs have closed down since March and they won’t be reopening apparently, which is kind of worrying. There’s more to it than alcohol. A man I know from the local football club where I grew up, I was standing beside him watching the match on the other side of the perimeter fence, you know, our metre and a half apart. And I asked him did he miss the pub, and he said no, he hadn’t been drinking for a year anyway for health reasons. But he said: “I miss the bullshit.” He said: “I miss the slagging and the banter.” That’s what he misses. And you know, he’s of an age where to walk the couple of hundred yards to the pub and share a couple of hours with his pals… not being able to do that would worry me.

The way male friendships change with time preoccupies you a lot in this novel. 

It does, yeah. The whole ageing thing, I find it creatively interesting. I mean, in some ways, immortality doesn’t seem a very attractive prospect to me at all, but on the other hand, getting older does bring its inconveniences and its humiliations and its laughter.  We’re living longer, which is good, but there’s no escape – it's comical.

But the friendship thing is vitally important particularly. One of the reasons why Love is the novel it is is when I was writing it, it was in the knowledge that one of my closest friends was dying. So I think a lot of the energy in the book is the grief I felt and still feel. You know, we’ve known each other since we were 12, and of all the people I know, I would have thought I’d be with Ronnie until the last breath or whatever. I thought: it’s gonna be good craic getting older, you know, because we’ll have a laugh about it and we’ll still go to the odd gig and talk about the football and music, but, no, he’s dead. 

It seems the deepest well I have at the moment, creatively, is where I am psychologically in terms of my mortality. And where I am now seems to be the deepest and the most satisfying creative well yet. 

How so?

Well, when I wrote The Commitments, and when I started writing maybe three, four years before that, I wasn’t looking back. I was writing about people a few years younger than myself, but I was writing about being alive now. Maybe the looking back thing started when I became a father, because I wrote Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a 10-year-old boy in 1968, and I was a 10-year-old in 1968. But I got that out of my system and then I started writing about Paula Spencer, for example, in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and in a way, she’s in the present tense, but also she looks back. 

Then, when a parent dies, there’s another shift. The camera angle changes again and you’re looking at life differently, and you’re looking back a lot. But, again, creatively, it’s interesting. So, yes, at the age I am now, you know, the father of three adult children, there’s a lot of material over my shoulder if I look backwards. I try to make sure I don’t put on the rose tinted glasses and start looking back as if it were some sort of a golden age – I don’t think anybody Irish would fall into that trap thinking that life in the 1960s was any sort of golden age – but it is tempting. If I can avoid that temptation, and I can still make the characters vital insofar that they are alive and energetic at this stage in their life, then all that stuff that they bring with them is material to be used. It’s telling stories in a different way, I think.

In the parts of the novel where Davy and Joe are young, they’re very entwined in each other’s lives. But after a certain point, they end up feeling like strangers. Is that just what men do?

Yeah, in a way, I think so. It’s, you know: ‘How are the kids?’ ‘Grand.’ ‘What are they up to?’ ‘Grand.’ If it’s a blackboard you just wipe the blackboard; no recollection really, no big interest. Your only hope when you meet somebody, I think, is that you remember what the wife is called. One or two of the kids maybe, just to get the thing rolling, you know. Women seem to be better at those sort of details. You know, my closest friend, I can’t remember the last time I was in his house – we just don’t do that. We don’t go into each other’s houses and sit in the kitchen. We meet in the pub, and now we can’t, so last time we met is was in the park nearby and we had a cup of coffee. So, you know, it’s a sad substitute. We did the ‘Zoom pint’ thing for a while but it’s excruciating.

Isn’t it!

Absolutely terrible! The silence between, you know, when you’re having a chat and you stop talking, in a pub you don’t notice it because there might be a telly on or there’ll be people all around you and the barman will be there and there’ll be the gurgling thing… so there’s plenty of noise. You know, on Google at half 10 in the evening, if you stop talking, it’s absolutely excruciating looking at the screen, hoping that this ends soon. So we don’t bother now.

How has your writing been impacted by the events of this year?

I started writing short stories, capturing, I hope, moments in the lockdown. I’ve also started what I hope will be a novel describing something post-pandemic, about people having gone through this experience and then getting used to having a little bit of freedom they haven’t had in quite a while. 

How about reading? 

At the start of lockdown I bought [Daniel] Defoe’s book, Journal of the Plague Year, and started reading it immediately and really enjoyed it. And then with no plan, I bought Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and there’s a plague in that. It’s my favourite book of the year.

What do you make of the much-discussed ‘Golden Age’ of Irish fiction we’re living through at the moment?

Oh yeah, I mean, it’s extraordinary. I suppose publishers everywhere are looking under stones in Ireland to find the new Sally Rooney. The fact that Sally Rooney is about 29, it’s a strange one really – already looking for a new one! But I’m thinking of Elaine Feeney - I just finished her novel, As You Were – and Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl, Small Town. There’s a great controlled madness in the way they write. I think both are first novels and they’re absolutely brilliant.

There’s that old cliché that we box above our weight [in Ireland] in terms of literature, and we do. And there seems to be a great sturdiness and a great enthusiasm and a great confidence in young Irish writing at the moment. That to me feels great. It feels terrific. I was lucky enough to be kind of part of a New York Times ‘Books to look out for this summer’ article, because Love came out there in June, and there were six photographs and I was the kind of the old man in the middle. I read Kiley Reid’s novel [from that list], you know, Such A Fun Age.

It’s brilliant.

Yeah. I really, really enjoyed it. I'm sure she didn’t have me in mind – you know, a 62-year-old Irish man – when she wrote it, but it’s so very subtle and entertaining. And I think that’s what’s great about, you know, how many times has the novel been declared dead: somebody forgot to tell men and women under the age of 35. It seems like half of them are writing, not just writing novels but they’re writing pretty good ones as well.

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