8 months ago

Writer’s Block with Rob Doyle

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Rob Doyle is an author of novels and short fiction, as well as an editor and journalist. Considered to be one of the finest writers of his generation, his debut, Here Are the Young Men (2014), was included in Hot Press magazine’s 20 Greatest Irish Novels 1916-2016. The book has since been adapted for film by Eoin Macken, due for release this year. Doyle’s short story collection, This Is the Ritual (2016), received wide critical acclaim. More recently, he has edited anthologies The Other Irish Tradition (2018, Dalkey Archive Press) and In This Skull Hotel Where I Never Sleep (2018, Broken Dimanche Press). He has contributed to The Guardian, TLS, Vice, The Sunday Times, The Dublin Review, The Observer, and writes a weekly books column for The Irish Times. Originally from Dublin, he currently splits his time between Germany and Ireland, where he teaches the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick.

Doyle’s new book, Threshold, follows a drifter in his thirties, also a writer called Rob. It is a genre-bending work that blurs the lines between novel, essay, travelogue, and perhaps a pinch of memoir. A flâneur of sorts, Rob moves from place to place, musing on myriad topics such as literature and famous intellectuals, sex, booze, drugs, meditation, nihilism, philosophy and creative procrastination. Ever the astute observer, Doyle’s protagonist questions modern art’s politicisation, eternity, transience and everything in between. As always, his words carry gratifying supplies of gallows humour.

Threshold has received many much-deserved endorsements from Ireland’s most prominent writers, including Mike McCormack, who said, “This is the type of brilliant, maverick achievement that sets a writer apart. Wonderfully readable and with a skein of black comedy running through it that serves to highlight the seriousness of Doyle’s intent. A Pilgrim’s Progress for our time.”

Rob Doyle lives with his partner in Berlin. He is currently working on his next book.

Photograph by Derek Doyle of The Tenth Man

Threshold (€16.99) is published by Bloomsbury and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I’m living on the fourth floor of an apartment block in the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. We’re a stone’s throw from the River Spree, the mural-covered strip of the Berlin Wall known as the East Side Gallery, and Warschauer Straße station, from where you can easily get to anywhere in the city. I’ve been living here on and off for the past two years, and last spring my girlfriend moved over. I love it here. Friedrichshain is buzzing: there’s a degree of gentrification going on but it’s still fun and a bit sleazy, which is how I like it. Berghain, the brutalist-dystopian nightclub, is close by, so at weekends the area is full of picturesque cyber-goths and sexy freaks in leather, fishnets and harnesses. There’s a terrific, shabby indie cinema around the corner, B-Ware, where you can buy a ticket and a gin-and-tonic for under a tenner. On Saturdays we buy groceries at the farmer’s market on Boxhagener Platz.

On Berlin

In Berlin it’s easier to afford to live the low-responsibility, bohemian, art-focused lifestyle which has always proven fertile to writing and creativity. In Dublin, rent costs so much that soon only the very privileged will be able to live that way. As Dublin becomes a rich person’s city, its cultural life grows dull, corporate and sanitised. The same goes for the nightlife. Here, both still feel exciting and anarchic. When I first moved to Berlin, I had several Irish friends already living here. Some are musicians, artists, writers or publishers, and some of them work other jobs to pay the rent while pursuing their passions. Despite incursions by big-tech, Berlin is still a leftist city: there’s an ethos of passion and creativity first, making money second. It’s a relaxing place to be.

On roots

I grew up in the same semi-detached house in Crumlin where my parents still live. I’ve just got back after spending the Christmas with them. The house hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. Because I’ve never owned a home and I move around a lot, I still keep the majority of my books in their house. The key difference now is that my parents have become grandparents: my brother’s family live just down the road, in Drimnagh, so my niece and nephew are often at my parents’ house when I visit. I don’t have kids myself, so hanging out with them is good fun. My little nephew likes me because I indulge him in the savage horseplay my parents are too mellow to go in for these days.

On early reading

If memory serves, both my mother and father read to me when I was small. There’s one title I recall as a standout: Paddy Dog Sees a Ghost. That book must have had something to it, because I requested it with obsessional frequency. Later, Roald Dahl became the supreme writer for me. I read all his stuff, the adult stories as well as the children’s books. The Witches, in particular, I read many times. I grew up in a thoroughly proletarian household – I was not raised by intellectuals – but my parents always respected books and encouraged us to read, thank Christ. If they hadn’t, I’d probably be living a useful, respectable life today.

On family

Some writers derive inspiration from the deep roots of family and community, but for me inspiration is more often found by looking outwards, over the horizon, elsewhere. In Threshold, I’ve written more about distant places – Berlin, France, South America and so on – than about Dublin. Artistically, I’m compelled outwards in ever-expanding circles, drawn towards the exotic, the extreme, the beyond – even if this alluring elsewhere is sometimes located in inner-space. All that said, what would a man be – what would I be – without family?

On creating

I write in bed, at the desk in the spare bedroom, or in cafés. The flat we rent belongs to an artist who moved in here after the Wall came down (Friedrichshain is in the former East Berlin). She has the place decorated with a clutter of bright, kitsch images and knickknacks from around the world, especially Hong Kong and Japan. In the bedroom, fairy-lights run up the walls like vines. The room gets gorgeous light, and the bed faces big windows that look onto a balcony. Below are enclosed gardens and a little playground, and opposite is another apartment block, which lights up prettily at dusk. My landlady cultivates many plants on the balcony, and in the summer I water them daily. This top section of our building was bombed to rubble during the Second World War and rebuilt during the GDR era, so it’s good, sturdy communist architecture. The flat is heated by brick-oven heaters, which I feed with peat briquettes each winter morning.

On favourite bookshops

Books Upstairs in Dublin, because the staff are friendly and welcoming, they have a good selection, and the café on the first floor gets such gorgeous light. (Lighting is important to me, you see, no doubt because I’ve spent too long in dim, poky, squalid rooms, drinking Aldi gin.) In Berlin, there’s a fine bookshop called Saint George’s, in Prenzlauer Berg, which I usually leave with a stack under my arm.

On his “To Be Read” pile

There’s a novel I’m reviewing for The Guardian about the early years of Christianity, which I’m desperately hoping is good because it’s about 400 pages and there’s nothing worse than a forced march. I’m currently stuck into Peter Pomerantsev’s superb book on modern Russia, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. Soon I’ll take a deep breath and read Shoshana Zuboff’s tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which people I trust assure me is important. I’m also keen to read Caelainn Hogan’s Republic of Shame, which can only be an education. Then I want to gorge on novels, having reached the end of a certain amount of obligatory reading of one kind or another.

On escape

In Berlin I go for long walks. Either I leave the phone at home, or I bring it to play music on my headphones. I wander the squares and streets of Friedrichshain, then cross the river into Kreuzberg, which is still the most attractively punk, grimy-sexy neighbourhood in Berlin. (It’s hardcore: Google tried to move its offices there and the residents repelled them through coordinated intimidation and militant refusal). At some Turkish joint or other I might stop for a bowl of lentil soup, which costs under four euro and is always served with a bowl of warm, fluffy bread on the side. In Dublin I like walking along the canal or, in autumn, cycling to the Museum of Modern Art, to sit on a bench in the serene grounds as it gets to evening.

On Threshold

I wanted to write a book that dropped the mask and offered the pleasures of fiction – insight, atmosphere, invention, mystery, excitement, humour, vivid settings – without recourse to the made-up characters and contrived plots of many novels. Threshold is a book about the person who writes the books, about the trials and misadventures he – a guy called Rob, who in many respects resembles me exactly – undergoes as he drifts from city to city, inspiration to inspiration, crisis to crisis. In short, it’s a book about life: about art, love, loneliness, travel, sex, pain, drugs, hope, literature, friendship. I knew early on I’d hit a certain vein in my writing – candid, intimate, humorous, playful – that I could explore at book-length, and which would allow me to move with ease between narration, philosophical reflection, humour, criticism, autobiography and other registers.

On what’s next

My first novel, Here Are the Young Men, was adapted for film by the director Eoin Macken, with an excellent cast. I have a cameo, dancing at the illegal rave scene with my mates. I’m told the film will be released this year – naturally, I’m excited to see that. Throughout 2019 I wrote a column in The Irish Times about rereading my favourite books: I’m awaiting word from a publisher interested in turning that into a little book, which would delight me as I had such fun writing the column. Beyond that? Well, I really ought to get working on another book, now oughtn’t I?

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