Roddy Doyle writes like nobody's business. Each of his titles, from The Commitments (Doyle's debut) to The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, has earned both critical and popular acclaim. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his funny, pitch-perfect perspective of a Dublin ten year old, won the 1993 Booker Prize.
Now, in A Star Called Henry, he's upped the ante tenfold, producing some of the most aggressive prose you're ever likely to read. Henry's father's flight, a mere sixty pages into the book, is one of the great narrative achievements of recent years.
But for all Doyle's narrative acrobatics, his amazing new novel is, more than anything, an enthralling, spilling-over-its-sides story. On page one, Henry Smart introduces himself through the eyes of his pregnant, soon-to-be-mother - right away, Doyle catches us off guard. Compared by some to the expansive fictions of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Star Called Henry presents the years leading up to and following the 1916 Easter Rebellion in a wickedly crooked, dramatic light perfectly suited to the subject. Henry Smart is a big character, bigger than life.
"I've always tried to make sure that everything that was said and done could, in fact, happen," Doyle explained. "This time around I didn't give a toss."
Dave: I read that the new book is the first of a new trilogy.
Doyle: Yeah, well, I'm not committed to the idea of a trilogy. I gave it the general name, The Last Roundup, but somewhere or other, maybe on a press release, somebody called it a trilogy. But I don't know if it will be. I'd be happy if it was. When I sat down to write A Star Called Henry, I thought I was going to write one book, but it just got longer and longer, and I didn't want the length to become an obsession. I thought, if I divide the story into self-contained pieces, people can appreciate Star Called Henry and not have to wait for the next installment, which could be half a decade away.
I wanted the freedom to take Henry's life as far as seems right and as far as seems creatively possible - so it could be three books; it might be four; it might be two. I could be hit by a truck and it could be one.
The first trilogy wasn't a planned trilogy at all. It happened to end up as three books, which then got called The Barrytown Trilogy. There's no point in fighting it, but I would have thought a trilogy had to be planned. I don't know. But there's no point touring the world saying, "No, it's not a trilogy. It's just three books."
Dave: There's so much in A Star Called Henry. To finish it and realize that Henry's only twenty - it's as if he's lived five lives already.
Doyle: Which is another good reason for breaking it up. No matter how good the writing, I think, you couldn't sustain that pace. You would have had to yawn a bit after a while. "Oh, Jesus, not more adventures of Henry Smart." I'd have felt that way; presumably the reader would have felt that way. There'd be just too much to take in.
There are hints that he gets out of Ireland and comes to America. And as he's getting older, in a new place with a new geography, new confrontations, that's a new book. It would be very hard to do that within the covers of the same book.
Dave: Henry alludes to the Utah desert and Chicago. I don't know where you are in terms of writing the next installment...
Doyle: I started it last November.
Dave: So is it set in America?
Doyle: It starts in Chicago.
Dave: What's that like for you, working with an American setting?
Doyle: It's a bit scary. But when you're not working to a strict deadline, that tempers the scariness somehow because the consequences are a long way off. You can do plenty of rewriting and lots of research; you get people to read it and offer any advice that they can.
One thing I found quite liberating - although a little bit disappointing - was I went to Chicago, on the south side, in June, to see if any of the old jazz clubs were still around. I was very keen to see what Henry would have seen as he'd stood outside, under the awnings. But all the jazz clubs that were along State Street, they're all gone; every one of them's gone. There's one that's still standing - it was, originally, The Sunset Cafe, where Louis Armstrong played - but now it's a hardware store. The Vendome Cinema, where he used to play during the intermissions, is now a parking lot for the local college.
That I found upsetting. But on the other hand it was very liberating because in its absence I can invent. There's nobody to say, "That wasn't there!" Well, I know, but it doesn't matter. I can start inventing.
Dave: I'd assume that most of the historical information in A Star Called Henry would be more commonplace to an Irish or British reader than to an American audience.
Doyle: In some ways, I think you'd be quite mistaken. The level of knowledge might be higher - or broader, probably - in Ireland, but not particularly. The War of Independence and its consequences, up until recently, it had kind of disappeared off the list of things to talk about. When one delves into Irish history, particularly in the twentieth century, you can't help but have the feeling you're actually reading current affairs. A lot of the posturing and the vocabulary is the exact same. It becomes a bit depressing.
The inheritors of the ideas that were given flesh in 1916 - these are the men who planted bombs in restaurants; these are the men who knee-cap teenagers because they won't kowtow to what, to them, is acceptable behavior. That brings an ugliness into it which most people aren't comfortable with in conversation. Outside of academic circles, there hasn't been much about it until just recently when things have happened in the North to shake up that old fundamental hatred. People are now more open to looking at this.
That's one of the reasons why the new book was so warmly received back home in Ireland, I think. The element of storytelling, using real history to tell a story - I think that intrigued a lot of people.
But probably to the average American reader there'd be more that was familiar than to the average British reader, for example.
Dave: When was it published in Ireland?
Doyle: Where am I now? What day is this? The fourth of October? It came out about six or seven weeks ago.
Dave: Has there been any kind of divided reaction from the different parts of Ireland?
Doyle: No, not that I know of, but I've only been home five days in the last five or six weeks, so I feel a bit out of touch. I found an Irish Times in the shop just below the hotel and dashed back to the room to read it only to discover it was a week and a half old. Even with the Irish Times web site, it's hard to keep in touch.
But when I did my readings in Belfast and Cork and Dublin, there had been a very enthusiastic first response - and the best reviews I've ever gotten, which doesn't measure a book's success, by any means, but it's one thing. A couple of the tabloids had shock horror stories about me mocking the heroes of 1916. But when it came to the events I expected at least one person - not necessarily in Belfast, but maybe in Cork or Dublin - to stand up and give out, but there was no one.
Dave: How do you see your writing having evolved into this book?
Doyle: It's a gradual process. It could never have been a first or a second book. I suppose what I was doing was reacting to the last book, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which was the most difficult thing I've written. I was a thirty-nine year old woman as I was narrating that book. Every word was a terror - I thought the man in me would take over - anything to do with sex or fantasy.
Even when she was describing her alcoholism. I'm not an alcoholic, but I enjoy a drink, and I can imagine the few steps to needing it. I found that easy enough, but then I had to take into account the gender. As a man, you can be drunk and alone in a pub and nobody will comment on it. There are very few places in Dublin where you'd see a drunk woman by herself. It's a shock. One expects the man to fall over, but not the woman. I thought, probably the woman who are drinking are doing it in private.
This time around I wanted freedom. I was very happy with Woman Who Walked Into Doors, but I wanted to make reality wobble a bit this time, to see it through a distorting glass. I wanted impossible things to mix with possible, real and fictional people to shake hands. Not to trivialize it, but I wanted to have fun. I wanted to go over the top. For instance, the descriptions of his physical prowess are way over the top, and deliberately so. Mixing his grandmother in there, learning to read at the moment he was born - in that way it was a departure from what I'd been doing in the past.
I've always been a slave to realism. I've always tried to make sure that everything that was said and done could, in fact, happen. This time around I didn't give a toss.
Dave: Do you find it ironic at all that the short summaries of this book, the ones that don't get far past its surface, are calling it "Historical Fiction," and yet you're explaining how this was a chance for you to take a step away from realism?
Doyle: It is ironic and it's not. I can see why it's being called that. We all need labels, convenient words to bandy around. "Historical" isn't a word I can dispute; it's packed with history. It's crammed with angry opinion - opinion that I wouldn't not share with Henry, if that makes grammatical sense.
When I was describing his childhood, I wanted it to be a really roaring race of a read, but also, I wanted to capture the relative poverty of the time, the direness of it, the awfulness of it. To an extent, I wanted to suggest why there was an independence movement in the first place, without saying, "That was why..."
What I find interesting about the reaction to the book is how many people are seeing different books. It's a love story for some people. It's a damning indictment of the modern Irish state for others. A Bonny and Clyde on a bike for others. That I like. I suppose because there's so much in there, people can choose what they find most memorable. That's what been the most gratifying.
Dave: That's what I meant when I said it's incredible to realize he's only twenty at the end. For instance, you're only about fifty or sixty pages into the book when his father disappears, but his father is one of the main characters.
Doyle: Because his father is still a memory. Henry imagines him throughout.
The first three books I wrote were fairly linear plots. They meandered a bit, but basically, they started at A and ended at C. Since then, I've become more experimental with plot. There are different ways of bringing characters in, of inserting a piece of information. In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, there are hints of things going wrong at the beginning which are revealed later on, by which time anybody reading with a certain care will know what's going on - so it's not a melodramatic moment when she's hit the first time by her husband.
As an analogy, the difference for me between a good film and a very good film is the quality of the walk-ons. If the same attention is put into the walk-on parts as the major roles, it can be a marvelous film. These guys only have a line or two and they walk away, but you remember them. I tried to do that with everybody in this book. Even though Henry's dad disappears, he's a presence all the time. The mere fact that his leg is there with Henry until the end of the book. Granny Nash, I could have got rid of her quite early on, but she allowed me to give Henry the answers to mysteries that he couldn't possibly have known. It doesn't matter in the context of the book that it's highly unlikely she'd have the answers - how would she? she's in a room all day reading women's fiction! - but within the context of the book it's completely believable.
Initially, when I sat down to write the book, I didn't see her going much further than that early wedding scene. But having decided to make her read, I got the notion of having her read virtually everything she could, then gradually the notion of Henry having to rob virtually every book written by a woman in virtually every house in Dublin. The idea of letting her learn to read at the moment of his birth was pure comedy, and boastfulness on his part, and went on to become an important part of the plot.
Dave: At what point did you decide Henry was going to tell his own story?
Doyle: From the very beginning.
Dave: Did it take a while for you to figure out how that was going to happen?
Doyle: I plan as I go along. I don't plan the book and then sit down and write it. I wouldn't be physically capable of doing that, or I wouldn't have the patience. Part of the challenge is to get in there as far as you can and put a certain shape on it. It's a lot of work, a lot of rewriting. And very frustrating days. There are times when I don't go forward at all. I'm just trying to make it all knit together.
I don't know where the decision to start off with his parents came from, really. What normally happens is when I start a book I go into it very vaguely. I start off and I get to know the characters a bit. Generally, the first thirty or forty pages that I write end up in the bin because they're not doing anything. They're dull; there's no point.
I think that happened. I began to pare down the nonsense, and I gradually came across this couple. And because this narrator knew more than the average narrator could possibly know, I liked the idea of him almost being present when his parents met. When the book starts, the mother's already a ruin, there on the steps looking up at the stars. I like that kind of storytelling, plunking something there, then doubling back. But it's very hard for me to pinpoint when that became apparent. There's an awful lot of rewriting.
With this book, I stopped at what was now about half-way, after the 1916 rising. I stopped for a couple of months and just put that section of the book into proper shape before I moved on. So I would know at least what I had on my hands.
People ask me how many drafts I do. Some pages it's one. Others it's twenty-seven.
Dave: You've got your "Vote Music" pin on.
Doyle: I was given it on Saturday, yeah.
Dave: This book, Paddy Clarke, certainly The Commitments... in all your stuff, music plays a prominent role, and yet, other than The Commitments, they're not about music at all.
Doyle: In The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, music allowed me, without getting boring and pedantic, to put a kind of date on her life. Her first slow dance with her husband is Frankie Valli's "My Eyes Adored You." Immediately, you're back there somewhere in that mush that was the mid-seventies. Also, her favorite musician is Van Morrison. She obviously loves the music. But after she was hit, there was none. She talks about the soundtrack of her life, but there's none for the nineteen eighties. Nothing. She was on the floor, basically, and getting up off the floor.
The music works in different ways, according to each book. It's country and western for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. This book, there are really two things that drag the music into it. One was my decision to use Piano Annie and the piano of the spine, Henry's spine - or any other spine she's working on. She wanted a piano, but she also wanted escape; she wanted out of there. I was very keen to get across the notion that even way back then people were listening to and singing American music. They were listening on their old gramophones to American music, often sung by John McCormack and other Irish singers, but it was essentially American music.
Another reason why there's music was the use of the ballad as propaganda. That's what sucks Henry into the second half of the War of Independence: hearing his name in a song that doesn't exist. They were brilliant propagandists. They would grieve at the death of a friend - like Thomas Ashe, who died while being force-fed. They genuinely grieved, but they'd have the sheet music on the streets within hours of his death. They were brilliant propagandists. So that comes into it, as well. Going back to a time when sheet music was sold on the street. That's how the money was made. I wanted to capture that.
In The Van, there isn't that much music, but what's there is escapist. Light pop: The Beach Boys and things like that. What gave me that idea - do you know that film, Michael Moore's documentary, Roger and Me? The guy, Rivethead, he's talking about being laid off, how after losing his job he was driving home and The Beach Boys' Wouldn't It Be Nice came on the radio. How that song was used in the film, it was a perfect counterpoint. A glorious and fantastic song, then bang! - the reality of a middle-aged, working class life.
Dave: Hearing you talk just a bit about Chicago, I'd imagine that music would play a big role in the next book.
Doyle: To put it mildly, a very important part. It's strange how in The Commitments, both Joey the Lips and Jimmy Rabbitte tear jazz apart, and here I am now when I'm working at home, listening to it all day, every day. I don't want to give anything away, but essentially, when he hears this music, he feels he's being baptized. He's new. He feels he's gotten away from Ireland. He's gotten away from the misery of it all and he's listening to this glorious celebration.
Dave: As a writer becoming more fascinated by jazz music, does that parallel a movement in your own writing away from anything linear, structurally?
Doyle: No, in fact, these books are generally quite old-fashioned. It messes around, but instead of A-B-C-D it might be A-D-B-C. Essentially, it's going in a straight line. This one isn't as adventurous as either of my previous two books in terms of the plot, I don't think. Then, you know, there's jazz and there's jazz. Louis Armstrong singing Saint James's Infirmary - it's the Blues as much as it's jazz. It's the late 1920's. It's not John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, people like that. The people who went to those clubs to dance weren't going there to hear the absence of melody.
Dave: That was years away.
Doyle: It was, thank Christ! Because there'd be lots of empty pages in the book, otherwise. No, I'm not trying to write a jazz novel. I won't even read any.
Dave: What do you read?
Doyle: I don't read enough. I'd love to read more. Time is the enemy, you know? In my free time, it's fiction that I read, usually novels. I have to do a lot of reading for research now, as well. I'm going to be reading a good deal of Charles Bukowski in the next few months because I'm going to do an Introduction to a British edition of one of his books.
I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov because I haven't read a good, long nineteenth century classic in a good while, and I thought, seeing as I'm going to be in planes an awful lot the next few weeks, I might as well do it. It's my goal to have it finished by the time I land in London. I just might make it.
I recently finished Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, which I thought was wonderful. And Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, which was marvelous, as well. I also recently read an old book which is out of print called Chicago by Studs Terkel. That would be part research and part pleasure because I love his work.
Dave: A Star Called Henry is filled with some very violent scenes. Paddy Clarke is violent, too, but in a very different way. I'd read it years ago, and rereading it, I felt that it was one of the most subtly achieved powerful endings I'd ever read.
Doyle: Thank you.
Dave: It's little things, like when they light Sinbad's mouth on fire. Around sixty pages later you say something in passing about how his lips look. All of a sudden, as a reader, you realize he's still suffering from that.
Page by page, that felt like one of the least linear things I've read.
Doyle: That's the challenge, trying to capture the world of a ten year old kid. If it works, it's because every word he gives us is true, dead and earnest. The violence was easy to achieve in some ways. It was a gradual process, remembering what it was like to be a kid at ten or thereabouts. The freedom, but also the fear. The gang: one would never be a leader, but one had to make sure one was close enough to the leader to avoid being hammered. It came back quite clearly to me.
If I feel guilty at all about things in my life, it's that I used my humor maliciously a lot when I was a kid, in some ways to save myself. I was never a fighter and never going to be. I used to compose silly songs about people, give them nicknames, things like that. When I came around to writing the book, I began to imagine how they must have felt. But you move on, you know. I think it would be ludicrous for me to hunt down a forty year old man with four children to apologize for a rhyme I wrote about him when he was eight; we'd both be equally embarrassed by it.
Gradually, it came back. That book took a year and a half. There wasn't much in the first half of that time. It was very slow. The biggest achievement of that book was putting it all together because it was all sorts of little episodes. I knew there was a shape, but I couldn't find it. It took a long time, putting pages together. I was trying to capture a different kind of link. It wasn't a logical one, not in the adult sense. It was a bit like subtle film editing. I was doing that a lot more than I had in the past, constantly going over things again and again.
I've told people that a good day's work is often a page. That's because I spend a lot of my day going over other pages.
Dave: You can feel that reading it. Because it's not as if you took a bunch of fragments, tossed them in the air, and laid them out into the book randomly. Any particular passage in the book contains bits from three different strains of the novel - which is where I thought it became more effective, more true to the unpredictability of a ten year old's mind, more of a craft.
One of the reasons I liked the ending so much was that you avoided all the easy cliches. You see Patrick's loss in those moments, but looking forward - reading between the lines, what you don't say - there's a lot of hope. It's balanced in a very credible way.
Doyle: I think all the books have that to a certain extent, they show a certain resilience. Part of the human package is loss. We can try to protect our children as much as we can, but that would be the biggest loss of all in some ways; you'd end up with them in the chicken coop - becoming chicken. An essential part of living is that loss, fear and cruelty, confronting it and triumphing over it. It seems like there's a balance that has to be achieved, a certain protection, but letting-go at the same time.
He's unleashed into the world just a little bit early. It's no tragedy, though. Parental breakdown, it's sad, but it's so common. Most people survive it quite intact. And other than that, he's just growing up. So the drama had to come from somewhere else.
Dave: Will Miss O'Shea be back?
Doyle: I'm not telling you that. No, I can't tell you that. It would be a mistake for me to say who will and won't be back. Sometimes I have fixed plans and they don't work out. It sways away from the original intention. The book you read is not the one I sat down to write in many ways. That's the same with everything I've done.
Dave: That's why I asked about the trilogies. If you're sitting down with a vision that far ahead - it just seems like such a long way ahead to be thinking.
Doyle: It is. I had a vague idea about the last one. And I know how the second one will end, vaguely. My hope is that when I get to the end of the second one, the third one will begin to take some kind of shape. But if it doesn't, I'm fucked. I'll be hoping that a truck hits me!
Dave interviewed Roddy Doyle on October 4, 1999 prior to his reading here in Portland.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State