Photo credit: John Minihan
Rob Doyle's third book, Threshold, was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury, and was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. Doyle's debut novel, Here Are The Young Men, was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press. It was selected as one of Hot Press magazine’s ‘20 Greatest Irish Novels 1916-2016’, and has been made into a film starring Dean Charles Chapman and Anya Taylor Joy. This Is the Ritual, a collection of short stories, was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim.
Rob Doyle is the editor of the anthology THE OTHER IRISH TRADITION (Dalkey Archive Press), and IN THIS SKULL HOTEL WHERE I NEVER SLEEP (Broken Dimanche Press). He has written for the New York Times, TLS, Sunday Times, Dublin Review, Observer and many other publications, and throughout 2019 he wrote a weekly column on cult books for the Irish Times. His next book, Autobibliography, is published in 2021.
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Let's start from the beginning. Have you always had creative aspirations? How did you end up wanting to be a writer, and how did you make it happen?
I’ve always had not only creative aspirations but a full-blown creative compulsion — if I’m not making things, be it books or music or art of some kind, either alone or in collaboration with others, I become sick, psychologically and even physically. I come from a working class Dublin family, so being a writer is not something that was ever explicitly on the menu. However, in my teens I was always writing stuff, chaotically taking notes about the lives of my friends and so on, but mainly I was writing songs for various bands I played in. It was only later, after college, when I left Ireland and basically drifted around the world for the best part of a decade, that I went hard at writing. I embraced it because it meant total freedom and absolute control. When you’re making music with others, for example, or shooting films, you need to depend on people to a huge degree. Obviously that can be magical, but it can also be frustrating. When I write, I sit down with my laptop or notebook and I become the absolute autocrat of every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Before I send a piece of work out into the world, I can work it over and over till it’s as close to perfection as it’s likely to get. My first novel, Here Are the Young Men, took me four years to write and brought me to the utter limit of my mental and spiritual resources, threatening my health and sanity. Finally it was published and I was insanely proud and relieved. Since then it’s been easier. Without the recourse to writing, I literally wouldn't know what to do with my life, with the whole quandary of being alive. Somehow, existence alone has never been enough — I need to transmute it, to keep a record, to go to war with it or celebrate it or set it on fire.
In Threshold, we follow Rob’s journey through time and space as he searches for… something. There are many raw, wonderful reflections running through this novel and one of the recurring questions it addresses is the relationship between fiction and reality, especially from a writer’s perspective. In particular, it asks what it might mean to lead a lifestyle just to be able to write about it, which in Rob’s case involves some rather wild and even self-destructive behaviour. At the same time, Threshold also seems like a goodbye to this kind of wild ride. What happens when the adventure is over? Have you ever found yourself running out of things to write about, or have you always been able to move forward fluidly in your work?
I haven’t run out of things to write about because — and this is utterly crucial to what I’m up to in Threshold and in my writing generally — there is no longer any difference between the life I live in order to write about it and life as I experience it per se. As I put it in a chapter that’s set, aptly enough, in Berlin: ‘My life was the research for the book I was writing about my life, and this book, which was many books, would justify that life.’ As I suggested in my reply to your prior question, I’ve always been one of those agitated people to whom existence presents itself as a problem. In other words, I’ve always been compelled to search — in high and low and sometimes very frightening places — for a meaning, a purpose to it all. The essential conclusion of Threshold, it seems to me, is that writing itself has become in my case an essential part of this meaning and purpose, a vessel that carries me through the squalls of bewilderment and loss (as well as joy and excitement). There is plenty in Threshold about the enigmatic vistas opened up by literature, art, travel and psychedelic drugs; about friendship and Buddhism and art; about love and sexuality and loneliness. What binds all this is the underlying conviction that writing somehow redeems the squalidness and chaos of life, its imperfection, the stark limitations on how much any one of us can ever hope to know or understand. And so the book is ultimately about connecting, through this practice of writing, to something transcendent. Some readers described it in this sense as a religious book and, although I’ve more often been associated with a punky, cynical sort of nihilism, I get what they mean and I basically agree.
Travel, and more specifically fully experiencing the places you go to, is another important theme in Threshold. If I’m not mistaken, you're currently back in Ireland, which is where you're from. It's also a place you seem to have a love-hate relationship with. How does it feel to be back there after all of the journeys you've been on? How has it affected your creative process, if at all?
At the moment it feels rather wonderful to be in Ireland, because, benefitting from a gesture of extravagant generosity, I’ve been invited to spend a few months living in a gorgeous Martello tower on the coast at Dalkey, a gilded area in the south of Dublin. It’s hard not to be inspired here, and so I’ve inwardly declared a temporary truce with regard to my perpetual, exhausting, entirely one-way war against everything I find stifling and limited and annoying about Ireland in general and Dublin in particular. It would feel churlish to speak too harshly about my city from this dreamlike coastal interlude. Shout out to the youth of Dublin, the men and women in their twenties who I see around or online, and who strike me as a spirited generation, liberated from the worst excesses of millennial priggishness, who are really starting to see through the various shades of bullshit and to stand up against it, however doomed it may be. All I’ve just said in Ireland’s favour notwithstanding, I’m heading off to Singapore in January (assuming the plague is sufficiently under control by then), and so normal belligerent-ingrate service, replete with caustic embittered sniping, will resume shortly.
You also lived in Berlin for some time. If someone wanted to make a pilgrimage to Rob Doyle’s Berlin, where would they start? What would they do and see?
Be careful, because if you get me started talking about Berlin, I may go on all day! I lived there on and off for about three years, alternating between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain (often whiling away my afternoons in your lovely bookshop, getting caffeinated up to the gills). I love so much about the city, so perhaps I’ll just list a few of my favourite places and experiences. Here goes. Bowls of inexpensive lentil soup from the Turkish joints all over Berlin. Equally delicious bowls of pho from the city’s countless Vietnamese restaurants. Saturday nights at the KitKatClub (there are sections about that in my new book Autobibliography, as it happens). The canal in Kreuzberg and the area around Kottbusser Tor, which is kind of sleazy yet so alive, so cheering. Berghain, which is a cliché of course but there really isn’t anything like it — an overwhelming dystopian-futurist aesthetic onslaught, especially with the right chemicals in your blood. The bridge over the train-tracks and the Spree by Warschauer Straße. Various grimy dive bars scattered around the city. The Grunewald forest on the edge of Berlin, and the lakes out there, and Wannsee, where I first lived for a winter when I first moved to Germany. Riding the Ringbahn train in circles around Berlin with atmospheric music on the headphones. The Saturday afternoon food market on Boxhagener Platz. My lovely friend Dorothea’s GDR-era flat in a block just off Warschauer Straße, with its profusion of plants on the balcony, and every room cluttered with colourful kitsch from Hong Kong, Japan and everywhere else, so that it’s like being inside a huge sweet-box (I had a beautiful New Year’s there last winter in the company of beloved friends, and now I’m getting all wistful thinking about it).
I wanted to ask about some of your favourite authors, though it might just be best to wait for your new book, Autobibliography, which will be out in a matter of days and which covers just that. What can the readers expect from this one?
Throughout 2019 I wrote a weekly books column for The Irish Times about rereading the formative books in my life. Later, when I moved back to live alone on the Wexford coast in Ireland just before the pandemic began, I expanded these reflections into a kind of layered self-portrait in readings. It’s a split-screen book: on one page, you get my meditation on a particular book that, as I put it in the introduction, ‘formed, reformed or deformed me’, and opposite that there is a personal reflection — a musing, anecdote or revery drawn from a life of reading and thinking about books, and of writing and travel and trying to figure it all out. There’s all sorts of stuff in there — the format gave me great freedom to write about pretty much whatever I wanted, in what I hope is a highly readable, dip-in-wherever-you-like sort of way. I’m thinking of it as my pop book — a bit of easy fun, even if it gets into some quite serious, weird, psychedelic and visceral stuff.
Interview by our bookseller Iti Libe