Commitment to the Short Story

Recorded on date : May 10, 2017

Recorded at Location : British Library Knowledge Centre

On a rainy autumn evening, members and fellows gathered at the Irish Embassy in Belgravia to hear Roddy Doyle in conversation with Paula Johnson and to learn the winner of the 2013 V.S. Pritchett Prize for the best unpublished story of the year. The event, supported by ALCS, was held in ornate and gilded splendour in the embassy’s main reception room. Guests were greeted by the Ambassador and his wife and ushered into an anteroom for drinks, including whiskey and Guinness as well as wine. In a welcoming speech, the Ambassador reminded us that the Irish were good at short stories and proud of their writers, which made him doubly delighted to host the evening.

It would be hard to imagine a more relaxed and amiable writer than Roddy Doyle, or one whose good spirits were easier to understand. The stage adaptation of his first novel, The Commitments, had only just opened in the West End, to rave notices. The Guts – his tenth and latest novel, a belated sequel to the Barrytown trilogy – had just been published, also to excellent reviews.

Doyle had been a teacher in a deprived area of Dublin for fourteen years, during which time he wrote his first four novels, the last of which, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993), won the Booker Prize. Had it been hard to combine teaching with writing? ‘Very easy,’ he replied. Teachers had three months off every summer, plus Christmas and midterm breaks: plenty of time to write. He never brought work home from school, leaving evenings and weekends free as well. When he gave up teaching, he treated writing ‘like a job,’ working five days a week, nine to six, and never on weekends, evenings or holidays.

He was then asked how his novels came to him: ‘With a burst of dialogue,’ he said, followed by a period of ‘meandering’. Characters turned up ‘unplanned, like a lot of children in Dublin’; a first draft could be as much as twice the length of a finished novel. Dialogue was what mattered to him; he didn’t see the point of describing a character’s appearance if he could get the speech right. When asked which writers he most admired, he answered Dickens. Among contemporary writers, he named Richard Ford, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and the young American novelist Willy Vlautin.

He then read a funny and touching story called Sleep, first published in the New Yorker, then in a collection titled Bullfighting (2011). The story’s narrator, a teacher turned writer, sounded much like his creator – wry, self-deprecating, steady – though nowhere near as steady as his steadying wife, who loved sleeping and could sleep all day, a fact which ‘made him feel lucky, or privileged. Or trusted. She could do that beside him, turn everything off, all the defences.’ The winner of the V.S. Pritchett Prize, Peter Adamson, then read his own prize-winning story, Sahel, a very different sort of work: dark, sombre, richly poetical. Both writers were warmly applauded and the audience left the embassy entertained and sobered.

Zachary Leader is Professor of English Literature at Roehampton University. His books include The Life of Kingsley Amis.

Meeting: 28 October 2013

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