The truth behind the story – an interview with Roddy Doyle

The taxi pulls up outside number 31. My driver points to the green door, that’s the one. Red brick house, typically Dublin. A calm, cold morning. The doorbell echoes. Inside he throws on a jumper and ushers me upstairs. Family photos litter the walls. Then some more stairs. An annexe almost, the office of a great writer is like a secret tucked away in someone’s mind, only revealed if needs be, if ever.
The phone rings, apologising he answers. The room is neat but filled with all sorts. Paintings by kids hang on the wall, books clutter the white shelves that go from floor to ceiling. Skylights flood the room with light. He hangs up, pulls over a chair, ready for my interrogation.

Roddy Doyle isn’t the real life Mr Mack. He doesn’t walk around wearing a bowler hat or have a wife by the name of Billy Jean Fleetwood Mack who likes to go on mountaineering adventures across the world at short notice. His two sons may have been the same age as Jimmy and Robby in the Giggler Treatment when writing it, but he says that it’s “a coincidence of age”. His sons, Rory and Jack, have never tried to fry an egg on the bonnet of a car or kicked soccer balls through the windows of the house for fun.

Rover the dog is not based on the household pet at the time while his own baby was never as dangerously independent as the courageous infant Kayla. You see Roddy’s quite normal, besides the fame and glory. As much as we like to think his books are a platform for crazy family anecdotes, the truth is he’s just got an imagination. To write for a child you almost have to think like one. What would a child find funny? Well everything and anything mashed together – like potatoes and ketchup that are seasoned with fig rolls to make it that extra bit mad. It doesn’t make sense and it looks so wrong but it works.

Not to burst your bubble altogether, there are some connections in his work to Roddy’s real world.

“So it was a wet, miserable day. I was bringing the three kids into town as I often did. The path was very narrow and it was covered in dog shit. It was almost impossible to get past. I was feeling a bit angry at this stage and then a mad thought struck me, what if somebody put it there just to annoy me and then it struck me well there’s an idea.” So Mr Mack and the poo punishment was born.

To Roddy, Rover the dog is not a dog at all. “Really he’s kind of like a working class Dublin man in a dog suit. If Rover is selling his shite to these creatures he almost has to be like a builder who gets paid money in the back of his pocket.”

The humour he uses was the humour of the house and, to a degree, the humour he grew up with. He describes it as a little bit Monty Pythonish or Father Tedish but absurdity is a strong part of humour in Dublin. You don’t go wild he tells me, it’s always quite controlled, the mad stuff is actually very carefully written – that’s the irony of it.

“There is a tendency to think that funny work is kind of effortless, like you must have had a great laugh writing that but I never laugh when I’m working, never ever.”

Roddy sticks to his no bull attitude when he talks about his illustrator, Brian Ajhar. He says “it’s one of those weird things that I’ve never actually met Brian but I loved the illustrations and I loved the fact that he wasn’t going to make them Irish in an outsider’s look of Ireland, no shamrocks or gatherings or any of that bullshit”.

Fighting Words is a creative writing centre for kids and it is Roddy’s pride of place. It has surpassed what he ever dreamed. He got the idea from a friend Dave Egars, a writer, who established one in a working class Hispanic area of San Francisco. On a book tour he went down to see the place and he says “I just thought it was magic. A bunch of kids sitting on beanbags writing a story together on a big screen”. So that’s when the spark came and eventually he did it here in Dublin.

The pages of his books are laced with wit and charm and so is his chatter. Appalling is how he describes the way kids are taught to write in school. Dialogue in this man’s mind is the way to bring characters alive. “Kids are told they have to plan the story and write character descriptions before they start, that’s like meeting someone at a dance or in a pub and saying I like this person but I need to know how their life is going to pan out before I start talking to them. Just in case we become romantically involved I need to know is he going to be bald by the time he’s 50.”

Roddy could be into the second year of a novel and have no idea how it’s going to end. There’s hope for all aspiring writers. His advice is – just do it. Don’t worry about the person looking over your shoulder or about being published, just write, nothing else. It’s as simple as that.

Shannon O’Sullivan

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