It could be said that Rob Doyle’s first novel, Here Are the Young Men, caused something of a stir. Chosen as a book of the year by the Irish Times, Sunday Times, Sunday Business Post, and Independent, it was also shortlisted for “Newcomer of the Year” at the Irish Book Awards. Indeed, the Sunday Times said of Doyle: “God may be dead, but a new literary star is born.”
No pressure following it up then.
But follow-up, he did. And his second novel, This Is the Ritual, is a different beast altogether, in that it isn’t a “novel” as such.
“This Is the Ritual is a series of linked short stories set in various locations,” Doyle tells me. “Mexico, Berlin, Paris, London, San Francisco, Dublin. The stories depict characters in desperate situations: sexual obsession, despair, madness, isolation and exile. That all sounds heavy, but they are humorous stories. A drifting figure named ‘Rob Doyle’ also appears throughout the book, often coming in for slander.”
He says he wrote many of the stories while working on drafts of Here Are the Young Men, “when I needed a break and wanted to have fun with new ideas and styles. I’m proud that it’s a collection which tries out all kinds of new ways of telling a story, blurring the line between essay and fiction for example. There’s also a lot of autofiction, as the French would call it.”
His first novel was met with such critical acclaim that I wonder exactly how difficult was the “difficult second novel”?
“Well, it wasn’t a novel! It was easier to write than Here Are the Young Men because that book nearly killed me, driving me to the edge of despair and sometimes over it. I had tremendous fun writing these stories, making myself laugh, plunging deep into the weird, the horrific and the awesome.”
Here Are the Young Men is – as Doyle describes it – “a novel set in Dublin in 2003 … about a bunch of hard-drinking, drug-abusing, fairly disturbed youngsters, who have finished school” and is reflective of life in Ireland for a certain generation during the first decade of the 21st century. I ask Doyle if the stories in This Is the Ritual – and the characters in them – are reflective of what is happening in Ireland in 2016?
“Not really,” he says. “These are stories about characters who are in flight from Ireland, or who have been broken or traumatised by it. Our fundamental situation – adrift in the cosmos – is perplexing and terrifying. That has little to do with nationality. These are characters afflicted with a deeper loneliness, tumbling through the void, clinging to their delusions or their obsessions.”
In keeping with a book that is experimental, Doyle name checks experimental writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño as influences.
“Borges was utterly impatient with the conventions of fiction as he found them, so he ripped up the rule-book to do things his own way. His stories are so immediate: they fascinate me all the way through, rather than just giving some tepid emotional payoff in the tender ‘epiphany’ at the end, or whatever. Bolaño inspires me because he’s simply a wild, reckless, brilliant, and infinitely seductive writer. There are many others who inspired me as I was writing these stories, Geoff Dyer and Thomas Bernhard being two of them.”
Despite the critical acclaim which greeted his first novel, it wasn’t simply an overnight success for Doyle. “I was punch drunk with rejections,” Doyle told the Irish Independent. “It was a difficult time. There’s a happy ending in my mind. It’s a dream come true, but it was really tough. However, I would tell any aspiring writer to persevere.”
Having written a lot of Here Are the Young Men while living abroad, I wonder – now that he’s back living in Ireland – if this has affected his writing?
“I have written relatively little about Ireland since coming back here,” he says, “other than a few essays (one on magic mushrooms for example). What has been interesting is tapping into what’s going on over here again, where the culture is. I’ve been doing a lot of watching, learning, listening. That will all probably emerge in my writing some way or another.”
As well as being an author, Doyle also plays the lead role in a feature film to be released in 2016. “It’s an independent road movie,” he says, “titled Hit the North. It’s set in the UK in 1984, and involved a hell of a lot of travelling around over 8 months. I really don’t know what kind of distribution it will get, whether it will be accessible to Irish audiences, but I’m excited by how it will turn out. I play ‘the Hitcher’, a gaunt, disaffected lad who leaves London to roam north along the A1 in search of his father. I got to wear a cool battered old trench-coat.”
And now that novel number two has been released, thoughts turn to novel number three.
“For the past year or so I’ve mostly been writing non-fiction. I have the bulk of a collection finished, which I will probably title Vengeance Is Mine. As for a novel, I have some vague ideas but I’m more the kind to sit down at the desk and figure out what I’m doing by doing it.”
And – as I’m sure many aspiring novelists would like to know – as he’s about to embark on novel number three, does it get easier or harder?
“To be honest, writing is something I find incredibly difficult. Almost every time I sit down to do it I am confronted by self-doubt, anxious that what I’m doing is not good enough. But then you work at it, and the words on the screen or the page begin to look like something, and you relax a bit. I’ve become more accustomed to this pattern, so I try not to take it too seriously anymore.”
(c) Derek Flynn
About This is the Ritual
A young man in a dark depression roams the vast, formless landscape of a Dublin industrial park where he meets a vagrant in the grip of a dangerous ideology. A woman fleeing a break-up finds herself taking part in an unusual sleep experiment. A man obsessed with Nietzsche clings desperately to his girlfriend’s red shoes. And whatever happened to Killian Turner, Ireland’s vanished literary outlaw?
Lost and isolated, the characters in these masterful stories play out their fragmented relationships in a series of European cities, always on the move; from rented room to darkened apartment, hitchhiker’s roadside to Barcelona nightclub. Rob Doyle, a shape-shifting drifter, a reclusive writer, also stalks the book’s pages.
Layering narratives and splicing fiction with non-fiction, This is the Ritual tells of the ecstatic, the desperate and the uncertain. Immersive, at times dreamlike, and frank in its depiction of sex, the writer’s life, failed ideals and the transience of emotions, it introduces an unmistakable new literary voice.
This is the Ritual is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician and runs Writing.ie’s SongBook blog. He has an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found on his blog and on Twitter.