May 02, 2010

In Conversation: Roddy Doyle & Colum McCann

Today was another of those perfect New York days. It was the final day of the PEN World Voices Festival, which hosted a conversation between Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann at the French Institute Alliance Francaise. I bought tickets months ago – this was not something I was going to risk missing. And, as expected, they were both brilliant. After picnicking in Central Park, my friend (a fellow lover of all things Irish) and I sat starry-eyed in the audience, trying to soak up everything they said. A lot of ground was covered; the conversation flowed from what it means to be a contemporary Irish writer, to The Quiet Man, to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, to Japanese translations, to Don DeLillo, to talking dogs, to Wife Swap. I only wish I took detailed notes.

Because McCann and Doyle are friends (reinforcing my belief that all the best contemporary Irish writers are part of a close-knit circle), the event truly was a conversation. Though it was really all about Roddy Doyle, with McCann asking him the questions, the dialogue that emerged from these questions meant that we learnt much about both writers. McCann mentioned that the first time he came across Doyle years ago, he was trying to sell copies of The Commitments outside of a Northside Dublin concert venue. And I was amazed to learn that The Commitments was first self-published. In this age, where the number of writers that are self-publishing books is skyrocketing and the stigma attached to them is decreasing, that is encouraging for writers to hear – the truly great stuff can be recognized, even if its not through the regular publishing avenues.

Doyle also talked a bit about the business of writing, from what it means to go on tour to how long it takes to write a work to what his favorite medium is (fyi, out of the many forms he writes in – short stories, novels, children’s books, plays, Young Adult books, and screenplays – it is the novel that is most important to him). As I often hear from authors, Doyle approaches his characters like Michelangelo approached a block of marble, seeing the figure inside that needs to be released; rather than creating them, he is giving them their voice on the page. He spoke of how he was interested to see how Henry Smart had aged when he began writing his most recent book (The Dead Republic is the third in his trilogy of Henry Smart books, preceded by A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). I was also amazed/ impressed to learn that he never reacts physically emotionally when writing his books (other than his sense of relief upon finishing a book) – I can’t imagine reading, let alone writing The Commitments without lots of laughter.

Following the discussion, both writers came out for a chat and book signing. I approached Roddy Doyle like a giddy 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert, mumbling something about loving his work and studying at UCD thanks in part to him, for which he graciously thanked me and signed (personalized!) my tattered copy of The Barrytown Trilogy. Colum McCann was no disappointment either; he was so friendly and personable, signing my copy of Let the Great World Spin (which I will write about soon – amazing book) with my name and a ‘Slainte.’ I will be sleeping with both these signed books very close to me for a long time.

So, at the end of a wonderful day, here is a short excerpt from The Commitments, which I reread frequently because it is just so much fun (and it can literally be read in under 2 hours, so if you haven’t read it and have 2 hours to spare, DO IT). And, of course, a musical bit from the film adaptation, the screenplay of which was also written by Doyle and is no less amazing.

"Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) Dublin. (He asked another one.) – Wha’ part of Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) – Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) – Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from. – Say it once, say it loud, I’m black an’ I’m proud."
- The Commitments, 1987