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January 28, 2015Feature

We went to the Odessa Club on Sunday 14 December to see author of ‘Here are the Young Men’ Rob Doyle speak with Tony Clayton-Lea. Here’s a condensed version of the, very interesting, interview with one of Dublin’s brightest new literary talents.

Tony Clayton-Lea: Tell people a little about yourself? Where you’ve come from, what led you to writing the book?

Rob Doyle: The book itself took years to write. I started writing it when I had just turned 27 and I only got it published when I was 31. But I was writing for years without showing any of my work. I wasn’t even writing fiction I was writing stuff for myself.

After I finished my master’s degree I spent years travelling around, living abroad in south America and Asia and I was writing furiously all those years. Again though, I had no thought of publishing. But then when I was in my mid-20s I decided now is the time to write a book.

Tony: Did you feel it was practice, or was it a compulsion to continue writing?

Rob: It was a bit of both. I did have it in the back of my mind for years that at some point in the vague future that I would write with intent to publish. But the results are also a compulsion to write, to somehow order my vision of the world, or order my thoughts.

I lived for a while in Sicily where I wrote a novel called ‘The Off-Season’ which I never even considered inflicting on anybody else, publisher or otherwise. It was rubbish. It was good to write though, because again, it was practice. Then I moved to London in 2009. On my very first day living in dreary, dystopian London I set to work writing what became ‘Here are the Young Men’.

Tony: Just explain to people the outline of the plot of ‘Here are the Young Men’, you will do it far better than I would.

Rob: It’s set in 2003, in Dublin. It’s a very Dublin book. It’s about a bunch of lads, Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney, who have just finished their Leaving Cert. They’re all epically disgruntled, pissed off young men, for reasons which we’re never entirely clear about. They take a profound amount of drugs, they drink copiously and constantly in their first summer of freedom in Dublin.

The Iraq War is kicking off in the background as well as other things they drift off from a world in which they feel radically alienated from. They are immersed in pornography, snuff movies, violence and drugs. They begin to transgress the rules of society, more and more as the summer progresses and it all goes to hell.

Tony: (With the dawn of the internet) were you trying to get across that the lines between reality and fantasy were becoming blurred to these kids?

Rob: Google only came online in 1997, so in 2003 the internet as we know it was still in it’s infancy but yes in the book they’re flooded by web-porn and other atrocity footage.

I was more interested in something more general, which was the inundation of media culture in all its forms. From television to internet to films, I was interested in writing about things that were unreal or hyper-real. With these characters it’s not that the line is blurred, but that there is no line for them between the real and the fantasy. And this causes them serious problems in their way of relating to reality.

Tony: Another part that I found interesting was that you weren’t particularly afraid to write things that would shock people. I think it’s fair to say that the series producers of ‘Fair City’ will not be in touch with you. I wondered why you wanted to put across a certain level of what is essentially masculine disfunction.

Rob: I would love to see my novel recast with ‘Fair City’ characters. That unholy blend of ‘Fair City’ and my novel would be fascinating.

But yes, that was the interest. These are the things that obsessed and fascinated me. Like you said, it’s a book that is very much about masculinity or the collapse of it. It’s about young masculinity in crisis. It deals with misogyny, sexual malfunctions, sexual cruelty, all of this is in the book because these are very rich themes.

Tony: So the antics that the lads in the book get up to, sex, drugs and music, was that part of your collective experience, growing up in Dublin?

Rob: I’ve noticed that in nearly every interview someone asks me whether or not it’s autobiographical. It’s a novel so it is and it isn’t. I think it would be dishonest and people would see through it if I said nothing that happens in the book was something I had witnessed, or I made it all up entirely.

Certainly, all the characters in this book are fairly fucked up in various ways. In fiction you can extrapolate on things you may have experienced yourself and explore them and push them to their logical conclusions. At the same time, yes it’s fair to say that a lot of the stuff that happens in it I, like many others that experience youth today, had observed for myself.

Tony: Would it be fair to say that you wanted to challenge or contravene a certain literary Irish tradition?

Rob: There wasn’t a conscious decision to go against the Irish tradition, it’s just I couldn’t have written a book like that if I tried. My instincts, my impulses, my mind, my taste, they wont go in that direction to write the sedate, polite, gently, melancholy novel.

It’s a very uninhibited book, I didn’t hold back on anything and I decided just to go for the jugular as much as possible.

Rob's debut novel is available now

Tony: There were times when I was reading it and I was thinking as a reader, “No, no don’t go there” and you did. What was it like a writer?

Rob: There was a glee in writing it. I was writing it in London while I was living in a series of sordid rooms in North London, not really giving a fuck to be honest. Nobody knew who I was and there was a radical freedom in that. I could put anything I wanted in that and there was an aggression and glee in that.

It was after I signed the publishing deal and I knew the book was coming out in a few months when I started to get the dread and the panic.

Tony: When I finished it I was wondering did any parents of teenagers come up to you saying, “This book scares the shit out of me”?

Rob: John Kelly sent an email saying that he loved the book but as a parent it really disturbed him.

It’s a book about masculinity but an even more gratifying reaction is that it’s gone down really well with a lot of female readers. They saw something in it that hadn’t been addressed before about masculinity and men, there was something that seemed to clarify things for them.

Tony: One of the things that I was gratified to read in the book was that the teenage females are smarter. Was that part of what you wanted to get across?

Rob: I think when you write fiction, you rely so much on the unconscious, what bubbles forth from your own imagination. The way that the book came out was that the strongest, most mature, most integrated characters in it are the young women.

Maybe that’s related to my own memories and experiences growing up. Women tended to be the more solid stable ones, the beacons of clarity and maybe that filtered into the book, but it wasn’t conscious.

Tony: It’s not a glib question, but was your background in psychoanalysis helpful in formulating some of the narrative arcs and character traits?

Rob: Funny, somebody asked me exactly the same question yesterday. Thanks for pointing that out! No, no it’s an interesting question! I had never thought about it before, but no it didn’t contribute, at least not consciously.

I think when you’re writing fiction particularly it’s your own sub-conscious and instincts. If you try to filter those through someone else’s theoretical framework of the human condition then you’re selling yourself short and you’re not doing justice to your vision. I don’t think it would have any energy.

Tony: You agree then that all writing is self-exposure, so what does the book tell us about you?

Rob: I probably shouldn’t think about that too much because it would just make me self-conscious. But it is self-exposure and that’s the terror of writing but also that’s the exhilaration. It’s like you’re a flasher or something. Not that I’m a flasher.

I think you just have to accept the fact that when that when you write something you’re telling your own autobiography.

Tony: The book was originally picked up by the Dublin-based publisher Lilliput Press, then it got picked up by the very prestigious UK based Bloomsbury. Briefly how did that happen?

Rob: The Lilliput Press is an Irish publisher who are small but very respected, so I was very pleased that they were going to publish it.

There are so many books that come out and people can’t pay attention to them all. Luckily for me, in the following months it seemed to strike a chord. Then the agent who was selling the book via Lilliput got attention from many UK publishers but the one that put the best deal on the table was Bloomsbury. They are so lovely to work with.

Tony: What does that mean to you, who this time last year many people hadn’t heard of?

Rob: As all of my friends know I have put the work in throughout the years. If there are budding writers in the audience, it’s an anxious time when you don’t know if you will be published. Or you have no way into that literary world, you don’t know any of the editors.

For me it was the only thing I cared to do. I was teaching to pay the bills but that wasn’t where the passion was and you never know if it will happen or not. The fact that it has happened in such a quick and sudden way, it’s really gratifying.

‘Here are the Young Men’ is available now. For more information on upcoming Culture Vultures events, click here.

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