Man Booker Prize winner Roddy Doyle on domestic violence, writing from memory and the lure of Irish culture
Irish novelist Roddy Doyle won the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for the coming-of-age story Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which for more than 15 years was the biggest-selling Man Booker Prize winner ever — surpassed only by Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.
The novel was so popular that before it won, Australian writer Germaine Greer said on British television that it was "too good for the Booker." Like most of Doyle's work — including his enormously popular novels The Commitments and The Van — Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is dialogue-driven and expletive-ridden, offering (as Doyle himself describes) a "speeded-up and larger than life portrait of Dublin."
Three years after his Man Booker win, Doyle published The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, told from the point of view of a 39-year-old alcoholic woman who is suffering from domestic violence. It was something different for Doyle, yet the novel eschews the same humour, exuberant language and astute sensibility that have come to characterize his work.
Roddy Doyle spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 1996.
Verisimilitude of character
"Capturing the voice of Paula, a 39-year-old alcoholic woman who is in an abusive marriage was hard, but it was almost as hard to get into the voice of Paddy Clarke, to be honest. I had to use my memories to an extent, but memory alone won't get you there. It's a question of almost sawing your legs off at the knee and getting down to the level so things become huge again. Children don't differentiate between what is profound and what is trivial very often. I had to shape the book in a way to capture how his mind worked. And I also had to decide on the limits of his vocabulary and what interested him.
"Now with Paddy Clarke, at least I had my own memories of being a small boy to help me. Obviously I'm not a 39-year-old woman so it was a bigger gulf between me and Paula. There were areas where I was quite familiar and I felt quite confident as we were roughly the same age when I wrote the book. She meets her husband at a dance — that's the dance I went to every week. She listens to the same music as I did so I didn't have to do any research about that. And also she devotes a lot of attention to her children and that was easy to relate to.
"But she is an alcoholic. I am not, but I can well imagine a few steps. I enjoy a drink, and I enjoy a lot of drink now and again and I can well imagine a couple of steps from enjoying a drink to needing one."
A history of violence
"I wasn't interested in the violence per se, but it was due to the creative decision of the husband being a violent man and acknowledging that a significant minority of men are. I researched a certain amount and I read quite a lot on the subject as I was writing. I got the physical impact of it quite successfully, but the psychological and the mental damage that it does I couldn't have captured without reading testimonies by women and books about the subject.
"I thought the best way to capture the period of the violence was to do away with chronology, because Paula loses all sense of time and place and self in many ways. At one stage she just writes out a litany — a burst — of all the things that have happened to her in the space of a couple of paragraphs and it's all quite shocking.
"It's a list of some of her injuries and what he did to her. In that passage of the book, that's where the bulk of the violence takes place. The rest of the book has the sense of the threat, and it's always there. But I wasn't interested in the violence and I got it out of the way quite quickly."
The pluck of the Irish
"Irish culture will survive, I've no doubt about that. Musically, for example, purists will insist that Ireland is an island and there's a strict limit to the amount of instruments and rhythms that are played. Then there are those who play and record wonderful traditional music, but you can hear the outside influences. There are the purists again who insist Irish dancing has a strict code and that you keep your hands on your sides and you don't move them. And then there are those who brought Riverdance to the world and made Irish dancing sexy, which was a revelation to everyone living in Ireland and quite a wonderful shock.
"I don't know if there's such a thing as pure Irish writing, but there are people who write in Gaelic and they will continue to do so. And everybody has snippets of Gaelic and, you know, we would use them if we were told it's under threat. So I wouldn't be worried about that at all. It's there and it'll stay there."
Roddy Doyle's comments have been edited and condensed.
Music to close the broadcast program: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man performed by The Commitments.