I’m happy to say that all three of the brilliant Irish writers* from my Hot Picks 2016 will be joining me on the Literary Sofa in the coming weeks, starting with Rob Doyle, author of This is the Ritual, the first story collection to be included in my selections. Following publication of his astonishing first novel Here Are the Young Men, he was hailed as Ireland’s latest ‘cult author’ and I could see why – that book made a big impression on me (I talked about it here when I took part in Kim Forrester’s Triple Choice Tuesday). I’m not going to review his collection in the usual way as so much of the power of short fiction resides in its capacity to surprise. Back in December I described it as ‘consistently brainy, dirty, funny and deep’ and I’m not sure I could put it any better!
Rob Doyle is less of a stranger to ‘fine writing’ than you might imagine from the conversation you’re about to read. There’s the kind that’s mannered and self-conscious and a bit (or a lot) pretentious, and then there’s the way he does it. His work is provocative but never for the sake of it. It shows heart and intelligence, a desire to venture where most writers simply wouldn’t dare and whenever I encounter that rare quality of fearlessness I find it incredibly refreshing and exciting.
You won’t often find Q&As here but something told me this one couldn’t possibly be boring. I wasn’t wrong!
IC: The qualities and signature themes of your work seem to travel well between the long and short form. What made you decide to follow Here Are the Young Men with a story collection and how did the two differ as a writing experience?
RD: It took me a good 4 or 5 years to write my novel and find a publisher. In between working on drafts, I wrote short fiction. This was a great way to take a break from the longer narrative, and also to try out ideas, voices and settings that wouldn’t have worked in the novel. To be honest, by the time Here Are the Young Men was published, I was more turned on artistically by the linked stories that eventually came to form This Is the Ritual. There was a lot of fun and glee in the writing of it.
Your stories frequently refer to, and in some cases are directly inspired by, writers and philosophers you cannot assume the reader will know. Do you see this either as a risk or challenge? (For what it’s worth, I really enjoyed the Joyce and Nietzsche stories despite not having read their work.)
I don’t see it as much of a risk. I can only find the energy to write about whatever fascinates me. When I was younger, I loved taking drugs, and I generally found it boring to write about characters who weren’t also on drugs. Someone like Nietzsche, Cioran or Schopenhauer fascinates me: basing a piece of writing around one of them carries me through it. You don’t have to know anything about these writers to enjoy my stuff. Often, my fictions are sort of embedded essays about writers and philosophers who I think about, though not all of them are real. Having said that, everyone owes it to themselves to read an author like Nietzsche – he enriches life, magnifies its wonder and terror!
There’s a lot of sex in your writing and most readers would consider the treatment pretty explicit. In the story Barcelona, which involves two women and a man, ‘the night trailed on in a pornographic blur’; I’d be interested to hear if you think there’s a distinction or boundary between the explicit and the pornographic, and if you would ever censor yourself.
I hope I would never censor myself! One of the words I detest most is ‘eroticism’. It’s so hypocritical. My favourite definition of ‘eroticism’ is other people’s pornography. I’m a big fan of pornography and would be happy for people to describe my writing as pornographic. I like filthy books, and writers who write directly about sex, without fucking around with all the fine-writing bullshit. Authors like Geoff Dyer or Michel Houellebecq. Come to think of it, I’m growing ever more irritated by ‘fine-writing’ in general. I want flair and savagery, the bloodied fist.
Your novel and the collection feel very masculine in tone and theme yet something tells me you get women. Have you ever written from a female perspective and if not, is it something you’d like to try?
For the past few years, women have been more interesting to me than men. I almost hesitate to say that, because I loathe a certain kind of facile male pandering to feminism that I see going on, which is more to do with conformism than conviction (i.e. the same men would’ve gone along with the utterly hateful ‘lad’ culture of ‘90s, etc). That said, in my two books so far, I have tended to go for a fairly brutal, painful, and perhaps self-exposing examination of contemporary masculinity. The only story that’s really told from a female perspective in This Is the Ritual is ‘Barcelona’. It is something I might explore further in future, but only if I feel like it.
You appear to enjoy writing characters under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (and in fact, some of the stories have a vicariously mind-altering effect!) – what is it that interests you about this?
The reason is simple – since adolescence, I was attracted to drugs and alcohol, and consumed them as copiously as I could. At times this had ruinous consequences, at other times it was sublime, or else just great fun. So it’s natural to me to write about people who are also taking drugs. Furthermore, I come from an Irish culture wherein heavy drinking is the norm, so it’s natural that I would write characters who are into that. I take drugs only intermittently these days. You grow out of it, I suppose. Everybody should know the psychedelic experience, though: magic mushrooms, that kind of thing. To hear about what it’s like, and yet have no desire to know it – that seems to me incredibly vulgar and parochial.
Many thanks to Rob for a fascinating exchange – his entertaining answers give a really great flavour of his writing!
Author photo © Al Higgins
*Next up is Lisa McInerney, author of The Glorious Heresies, who’ll be sharing her love of the city of Cork in the latest addition to my Writers on Location series; followed in March by Annemarie Neary, author of Siren, on the islands off Ireland’s Atlantic coast.