Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Rob Doyle
By Yong Shu Hoong
Rob Doyle's recent visit to Singapore was for participating, as a featured author, in the Singapore Writers Festival 2017 that was held last November. Armed with two books, he was part of the contingent of writers from Ireland, the country focus at the festival.
If Doyle did not impress with his humorous prose in a panel discussion on dark humour (where he read from his 2016 short-story collection, This is the Ritual) or his movie-star good looks (he plays the lead role in Daniel Sayer's upcoming feature film, Hit the North), he certainly made an impact for holding the fort for an hour as the solo author at another session entitled 'The Art of Depicting Violence', after two other writers had to pull out.
His debut novel, Here are the Young Men (2014), described by The Guardian as mixing "existential crises with drugs, drinking and sex", was chosen as a book of the year by The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post and The Independent, and shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year. This Is the Ritual was, likewise, the choice for book of the year in several newspapers, like The Irish Times, The Sunday Times and New Statesman, while his fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in The Guardian, The Observer, Vice, The Dublin Review and many other publications.
Doyle is also the editor of The Other Irish Tradition, an anthology of Irish literature, which will be published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2018.
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm in Berlin, so I've been reading Max Frisch's Berlin diary, which he wrote when he moved here in 1973. I've just finished Chris Kraus's biography of Kathy Acker. I'm about to read a novel by an Argentinian author, Alan Pauls, titled The Past.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play, or poem, who would you be, and why?
Shylock from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. I warm to characters who are spat upon, dishonoured, cast out from the community. It's the Christian in me: I love you more in your humiliation than in your victory. Empathy ought to be an extreme sport.
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
Because some of my published work to date has been violent and sinister, it's possible that people think I'm evil. In reality, I'm a sunflower.
4. Name one living author and one dead author you identify with most, and tell us why.
Living author: Michel Houellebecq. I admire his conviction in the face of hostility, ridicule, and the fury of herd opinion, and I share his obsession with the meaning of sexuality. Dead author: Roberto Bolaño, because I love his wit, his imagination, and his sense of fun.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I believe in the Buddhist principle of Noble Silence, which means that when you have nothing to say, it's best to keep quiet. There are days, weeks, months when I have nothing to say, but at such times I wouldn't say I feel blocked. Nevertheless, I'm undecided about the existence of writer's block – I can't rule it out.
6. What qualities do you admire most in a writer?
Courage, which means not joining the herd, not subscribing to fashions of thought and opinion in order to gain popularity, but striving to see clearly. I admire writers who have the guts for the loneliness that this entails. I also admire originality and flair, passion and generosity, honesty and mischief, danger and play.
7. What is one trait you deplore most in writing or writers?
I'm not usually turned on by a certain species of career novelist: the kind who churn out book after book, each resembling the last, without striving to master new modes of expression every time. My favourite novelist is David Bowie, because he was much too fast to take that test.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
"To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures." – Friedrich Nietzsche
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
came very close to dying alone in a New Delhi hotel room (it's a story I've told a few people, but never in writing).
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
I rarely go to see comedies, because when I watch them I'm constantly aware that I ought to be laughing, which makes me feel like crying. I can enjoy action thrillers, but there's an exhausting tendency in contemporary blockbusters to climax with 45 minutes of noise and bombast. I recently enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, a film which proves that blockbusters can be ambiguous and thoughtful and poetic.
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
I don't really have a favourite word, but I do have words that I tend to overuse, such as "intensely" or "fascinating". Sometimes I combine the two – for example, to describe the work of the philosopher E.M. Cioran. My least favourite word? They all have their uses…
12. Write a short-short story in three lines that include the following three words: "winter", "deep" and "ritual".
I don't think I'm able to, but I can imagine a song by an American rustic folk band called 'Deep Winter Ritual'. It would sound a little like 'White Winter Hymnal' by Fleet Foxes, but deeper and darker and more wistful, the kind of song to listen to on December nights, with the wind howling outside, drinking hot chocolate, missing someone.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Aside from the tools of writing themselves: caffeinated drinks.
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
The quiet time, which can be late at night or early in the morning, or in the afternoon or in the evening. Sometimes, though, a wave of inspiration will hit and you'll be able to write with focus even in a noisy cafe, or at a railway station in any city on earth.
15. If you had a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Roberto Bolaño, because I imagine he was good fun, and because he liked the Pogues, who made the best drinking music. Then I would have Virginie Despentes, the punky French novelist, because I imagine she and I would get along, despite her angry exterior. Finally, either Marguerite Duras or Jean Rhys, because those girls could really drink. So we'd be two boys and two girls, with wine flowing and flirtation in the air. We would read aloud from each other's work, but not for more than 30 seconds at a time, to prevent boredom.
16. In view of Ireland's rich literary tradition, what burdens are upon the shoulders of young Irish writers of today?
There are no burdens, only freedom to draw inspiration not just from our tormented little island and its literary past, but to look outwards to the planet at large, and even beyond. Too many Irish writers now, perhaps, look mainly to America, that great collapsing empire. The future is not American, but we keep letting them call the cultural shots, out of force of habit.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018
"This isn't over."