Roddy Doyle | 'It wasn't hell, except occasionally, and sometimes it was absolutely brilliant'

Roddy Doyle | 'It wasn't hell, except occasionally, and sometimes it was absolutely brilliant'

The taxi driver who picks me up from the airport is curious to know what brings me to Dublin. I tell him. “Ah, so you’re interviewing Roddy”, he says warmly. He doesn’t know Roddy Doyle personally, but tells me about a myriad of small connections he has to the writer. Most recently, he went to a gig of a musician who featured in the film “The Commitments”, an adaptation of Doyle’s 1987 début novel which established the young writer as a chronicler of working-class Dublin with a superb ear for dialogue and a gift for raw, gritty humour.

Eleven novels (including the 1993 Booker Prize-winner, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha), two short story collections, two books of dialogues, seven books for children and Rory & Ita, a memoir of his parents, plus numerous plays and screenplays make the case for Doyle being Dublin’s most famous living writer. But the man who greets me in a bar in the centre of the city (near the Abbey Theatre, where he is busy with rehearsals for the adaptation of Two Pints, his first book of dialogues, which is about to go on tour) is as friendly and down to earth as they come.

He is here to talk about his new novel, Smile (Jonathan Cape, September), which opens in the present day with Victor Forde, a solitary middle-aged man who has recently moved into a new apartment, and who enjoys a quiet pint and a non-committal chat with the barman in his local in the evening.

But one night his peace is disturbed by another middle-aged man, in a pink shirt and shorts, who seems to know Victor - he claims they went to the same Christian Brothers school years ago. But Victor cannot place the man, who says his name is Fitzpatrick. Nevertheless, he talks about events that Victor remembers. The following chapter moves back in time to Victor’s first days at St Martin’s Christian Brothers School. In the novel - in his customary pared-back style, heavy on the dialogue with little description - Doyle captures the intensity of being at school (the friends, the laughs) but also a sense of terror. For the Christian Brothers are violent in the extreme.

Victor’s school days are inspired in part by Doyle’s own. As a boy growing up in 1960s Dublin, he went first to a national school (the equivalent of a state primary school in the UK) where the teachers, although he assumes they were Catholic, were ordinary men. “There was corporal punishment,” he recalls, “but it was - for want of a better word - normal. Then I went to the Christian Brothers.” He laughs. “And it was different. Very, very different.

“I was never sexually abused by the Christian Brothers. I came away lightly. It wasn’t hell, except occasionally, and sometimes it was absolutely brilliant despite the Christian Brothers. There’s nothing like the quality of laughter in the back of the classroom when you know if that you’re caught, you’re dead,” he says. “I’ve tried to explain it to people who didn’t grow up with corporal punishment, [those who] liked their teachers or even called their teachers by their first name, but when you’ve this mad, one-eyed Christian Brother with a leather strap at the front of the room, actually dying to beat you, if you were laughing because of something he’d said or because the sun was shining through his big ears... There’s nothing like it.”

The origins of the story

The seeds of the novel were sown five or six years ago, when Doyle heard a homeless man being interviewed on the radio. “He was saying something like, ‘All my life I’ve been looking at people who seem to know where they are going and they know the secret, but they don’t tell me.’ I didn’t rush to a notebook and take it down verbatim but I found myself thinking, that for his whole life - ’cause he did have an elderly growl in his voice - he’d had this sense that he was outside, looking in, and that he’d never get in. So I decided that one of the characters in the book I was going to write was going to say that towards the end of the book. And that’s as much of a plan as I had when I started.”

Doyle was the chair of judges for the Gordon Burn Prize in 2015 when he read In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies, which went on to win the award. “It is an extraordinary book and I felt, as I read it, that if you just took out ‘BBC’ and put in ‘Irish Catholic Church’, you’d have the exact same story. So that gave me a nudge as well.”

The title comes from a deeply uncomfortable incident in the novel in which Victor is singled out in front of his classmates, something which happened to Doyle too. “The brother saying, ‘I can never resist your smile’, he said that to me. I was only a couple of months in the school, only getting to know people. He never laid a hand on me but he looked at me with a smile on his face and said, ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.’ Now it would have been worse if there had just been the two of us. But it was still pretty bad when then were maybe 35 other boys my age in the room. It was awful. I was 13, my voice hadn’t even broken, and this man, possibly 40 or something like that, strange-looking man, said that to me. And I’m left wondering, possibly for the rest of my life, what’s wrong with me.”

In the novel Fitzpatrick continues to plague Victor in the evenings, during his quiet pints, prodding Victor to remember things he has long suppressed. By now Fitzpatrick is starting to look more familiar to Victor, even though he still doesn’t remember him exactly. Cape is pitching Smile as “a novel unlike any Doyle has written before”. The author says: “I’ve always been afraid of repetition - I don’t mind building on a subject or continuing a story [as he did with the acclaimed trilogy which began with A Star Called Henry], even though I had the same narrator for about 10 years of my working life. But here I’m satisfied that I’ve told a story in a way that’s different. It’s about a man who, quite late on in his life, comes to quite a shocking realisation about the way he has lived. And perhaps the reader makes that discovery at the same time he does.”

Doyle has written about harrowing issues before, notably in The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996) and its sequel Paula Spencer (2006), but he never sets out to particularly enlighten readers. “If [the novel] drags things behind it, then fine. Some people see them, others don’t, and that’s fine. I just try to tell as a good a story in as interesting a way as possible, and [with Smile] perhaps as a shocking a way, as I can do.”

He has succeeded. The final pages of the novel are shocking, and they turn everything preceding it on its head. It’s testament to the power of Doyle’s writing that the ending is deeply moving, and so very sad.