Interview: Rob Doyle


In the first tn2’s profiles of contemporary Irish writers and editors, Lily spoke to author Rob Doyle. Essayist, critic and short story writer, Doyle’s work has featured in several literary magazines, including The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Gorse, and The Moth. His first novel, Here Are the Young Men, will be released in May by The Lilliput Press.


WORDS Lily Dhomhnaill


You’ve lived and worked in all sorts of exotic places, according to The Irish Times, but your novel is grounded in the landscape of Dublin. Why is this?


I spent years wandering around South America, the US, Asia and Italy, and while living in Sicily I wrote a novel – about a young man wandering in South America (he loses his mind in dismal rooms). But then I moved to London and, feeling very alone and melancholy there, immediately started writing about Dublin. I knew straight away I was into something deeper. For all the pull I feel towards exotic places, it was Dublin that formed me. Delving into my memories of the twenty-three years I’d spent there, and recreating the city in fiction, was like discovering a whole new continent. I had so much to draw from, and the perspective and distance with which to consider it. That richness grew into Here Are the Young Men.


Have your travels influenced your work? If so, in what way?


Travelling and living in different countries for a long time has been of immense value to me. I find it has given me a sense of ease in the world that I didn’t have before, and has hugely broadened my perspective. Before leaving Ireland, I was very academic, getting all my knowledge from books. That’s obviously very important, but it has also been important to me to explore foreign countries and meet interesting people, to encounter as much of the world as possible. By now, my habitual state is one of drift and rootlessness, which I quite enjoy. Before leaving Ireland, I was utterly bored, alienated from the culture around me. Ireland felt stifling – conservative, materialistic, philistine and parochial (these were the late Celtic Tiger years). I felt I would die inside if I didn’t see what else the world had to offer. These days, Dublin delights me, partly because it’s changed and partly because I’ve changed, with the alienation largely overcome. All of these factors nourish my writing by, I hope, giving it a cosmopolitanism and a sense of perspective it may not have had if I’d chosen to stay in Ireland all those years.


Do you consider yourself primarily as an “Irish Writer”, writing within a specific tradition, or is your location purely aesthetic rather than geographic?


There are a lot of Irish writers whose work I love – Colm Tóibín is a big one – but there aren’t too many who have strongly influenced my own writing. (An exception would be Roddy Doyle, because I read him when I was still a child, and the lesson must have sunk in that you can write about contemporary Dublin in an immediate, funny, anarchic way.) The likes of Joyce, Beckett and several others appeal to me not least because they transcended their Irishness (and they left Ireland too). A lot of the writers who have inspired me most, though, are not Irish, and the fact that I was born in this country feels rather secondary and incidental. Constitutionally I’ve always been drawn towards the foreign and the unfamiliar.

I wonder, too, if the whole notion of a national literature isn’t receding in importance, with culture as well as experience itself becoming so globalised and virtual. At the moment, I’m living alone in a house in Wexford, and 99% of my human interactions take place online. That’s a bizarre way to live, and my case is quite extreme, but I think it’s indicative of something that is increasingly generalised. The new kind of online life feels post-national and ahistoric, and it’s hard to know how literature is going to work with and represent that, but it will have to if it’s going to keep up with how people are living now.

Having said all that, Here Are the Young Men is very strongly a novel about Dublin – a drug-flooded, alcoholic, feverish Dublin where nobody believes in anything. I think one of its strengths is that it uses the backdrop of 21st-century Dublin to explore concerns which are not generally associated with the Irish novel: pornography, drugs, the eroticism of violence, hyperreality, the nihilism of contemporary youth. (The basic setup is that a group of drug-fuelled teenagers, fascinated by jihad and the War on Terror, begin to flirt with the idea of committing atrocities of their own.)


Can you tell us a little bit about your favourite writers? Whose work do you admire most?


For the past couple of years, I’ve been incurably addicted to Roberto Bolaño. He’s a bit like a best friend. His books are never out of my reach. I find the English writer Geoff Dyer remarkable. I relish how he moves so lightly in his writing between travel, friendship, sex, philosophy, drugs, films, music and literature – he’s hilarious, yet there’s a certain spiritual earnestness to him. I admire writers like him who are always disregarding boundaries and conventions to write books that are more immediate, unique and exhilarating: Milan Kundera, Nietzsche, Borges, the later JM Coetzee, Michel Houellebecq, Sheila Heti. I tend to favour the hybrid forms – books that disregard firm divisions between such categories as fiction, non-fiction, philosophy and autobiography. At the moment, I’m infatuated with the Romanian pessimistic aphorist, EM Cioran – a brilliant stylist and a cheerleader for universal extinction. But there are so many writers I’ve been enchanted by: Martin Amis, Don DeLillo, Arthur Koestler, WG Sebald, and Knut Hamsun, to name but a few.


You have a BA in Philosophy, and an MPhil in Psychoanalysis from Trinity. Do you think these are fields of knowledge that naturally feed into the creation of literature?


The philosophers I’ve always appreciated most are those whose writing is very literary – the likes of Camus, Baudrillard, Schopenhauer, and above all, Nietzsche (the most astonishing of all writers, in my view). Conversely, the non-philosophers I admire most are those whose fiction and other writings are rich in ideas. I suppose I like to have it both ways: I tend to find “pure” philosophy too dry – I love atmosphere, ambiguity, incident, emotion, a sense of place – whereas I sometimes get restless if a novel I’m reading isn’t doing more than telling a story which addresses only localised, minor, emotional concerns. I love ultimate questions, astonishing thoughts, a feeling of vertigo. Let’s not forget we’re alive in a universe whose existence no one can reasonably account for. Psychoanalysis has receded in importance to me since I did my MPhil, and I’m not sure how much it influences what I write now, other than in terms of ideas from it which I’ve absorbed. Freud was a fine writer; RD Laing too. Jung is interesting in a different way. I’d say the clearest influence psychoanalytical theory has had on my writing is in how deeply I’ve internalised the notion, crucial to Freud, that there is an abyss of madness, terror, and savagery beneath the surface of everyday life, and this is liable to break out at any moment and rip your head off. Also, I increasingly understand writing to be a process of engaging with and channelling the unconscious, which is anarchic and lawless, and teems with shadowy figures that are particularly well-suited to assuming fictional form.


You’ve published several short stories before this. Do you think the short story form is considered a sort of gateway into fiction writing? Is there an urge to define oneself as a writer by writing a novel?


I began seriously writing short stories in the interims between drafts of Here Are the Young Men (you might have to wait for months before an editor or agent responds with their suggestions), and as a way of gaining some visibility as a writer while awaiting the publication of my first book. Many of my short stories adopt unusual forms: fictional literary biographies or book reviews, hybrids of essay and fiction, landscapes of the imagination, and so on. It’s a result of always having to keep myself fascinated (I get bored easily), which usually means cutting to the chase, finding ways of dispensing with the aspects of the traditional story apparatus that I don’t have much passion or aptitude for, and mainlining the concerns that really get me going. Borges and Bolaño are two story writers I keep coming back to. I’m near to completing a collection of short fiction, provisionally titled Baby, the West Will Fear Us. There exists the traditional Irish short story, and some world-class writers are currently reinvigorating that, but I don’t think the short fiction I’ve produced so far really fits into that tradition – the influences are too divergent. I’m wandering out on the peripheries somewhere, with my head in the clouds.


Lilliput describes your book as “brilliantly, blackly funny and profoundly shocking.” How do you find the balance between horror and humour in your work?


Humour is very important to me. In literature, humour can go hand in hand with the utmost seriousness. Writers like Amis, Houellebecq, Bolaño and Dyer make me laugh out loud, but their work is deeply engaged with the serious business of what it is to be human. I admire that. Also, I think that much of the humour in Here Are the Young Men derives from irreverence, which is widespread nowadays and, I think, symptomatic of an era which has no faith in anything. Irreverence is the jester in the court of nihilism – the void we’re struggling to escape. In the very darkest, most horrific scenes in the book, humour is absent, which to me feels proper.


What’s the most difficult aspect of writing a novel?


It’s all difficult! I suppose writing a novel is character-building, in the sense that it utterly demolishes you. There’s great joy in it too, of course. For me, the hardest aspect was the long journey to publication, which entailed working through innumerable drafts, and a hell of a lot of anxious waiting. (The Goncourt brothers described trying to get published as a “hard and horrible struggle against anonymity… the monotonous, uneventful spiritual agony.”) Until you get your book published, you live in a limbo of uncertainty, with no guarantee that it’s ever going to happen. That can challenge your self-belief. When you’ve put so much of yourself into a book, it all feeds into a terror of failure. My relief on getting the green light for publication was immense.


Do you think Ireland is a good place to be a writer at the moment?


There are a lot of wonderful Irish literary journals, in print and online, which offer writers a place to publish and to build up a reputation during an era when book publishing, as we are so frequently told, is in a state of crisis. Literary journals were a refuge for me when I was otherwise languishing in obscurity. In terms of book publishing in Ireland and elsewhere, while it is tough out there, there’s still a lot to be said for persistence: taking the blows of rejection and staggering on, punch-drunk, until you eventually collapse over the finish line and get your book out into the world. Meanwhile, use any means at your disposal, including gunplay, arson and kidnapping.


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