Novelist Rob Doyle discusses drink, drugs and philosophy, and how writing has been his great redemption.
Aha, you picked up on the musical reference in the title!” laughs author Rob Doyle, looking suitably impressed. “I suppose when I was a teenager, like everyone, I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.”
Doyle might have to settle for being a literary star instead. The title he’s referring to is that of his widely acclaimed debut novel, Here Are The Young Men. The 31-year-old Dubliner filched it from the lyrics of the Joy Division song ‘Decades’, which ends their second and final album Closer.
“I still like Joy Division,” he says, speaking in a Dublin accent undiluted by years of peripatetic world travel. “Music has always been huge for me, but I tend not to listen to very much new stuff nowadays. I guess it happens when you get into your 30s. When I was younger I played guitar in a lot of punk bands. We were bad, but we were passionate. We were called Powerhouse Terminator, which is an absurd name, but it was fun. The band names used to morph every couple of weeks, every couple of gigs.”
It’s a pleasant July afternoon in Dublin, and we’re meeting over a couple of pints. Impossibly tall, artily bearded and looking mildly shattered at the tail end of a debilitating flu, Doyle is in extremely good form nonetheless. With very good reason. Having received almost uniformly glowing reviews for Here Are The Young Men, he’s just got the news that his debut is about to go into its second print run.
He’s pleasantly surprised. Set against the vacuous and vulgar backdrop of Celtic Tiger Ireland in 2003, his novel echoes the likes of Ballard, Banks and Easton Ellis, and is as chillingly bleak as it is blackly comic. The first Irish debut to feature a graphically described snuff movie, it’s hardly your typical Irish bestseller..
The young men of the title are Cocker, Rez, Matthew and Kearney – four troubled Dublin teenagers who’ve just finished their Leaving Cert and are facing into the void of their adult lives. Drifting aimlessly around the city, fuelled by drink, drugs and dark fantasies, they spend their days and nights fleeing a gauche reality that they utterly despise.
Doyle captures teen angst and despair brilliantly, but this isn’t yet another coming of age novel; more like a coming of rage. As the weeks pass, each of these young men struggles to maintain a connection to reality – and they don’t all manage it. Murder, suicide, rape and torture suddenly take a very real shape in their lives.
Doyle smiles uncomfortably when I venture that it reads like the work of an obsessive, if not downright disturbed, mind.
“Well, I am totally obsessive,” he admits. “Usually to my detriment, you know. My obsessive nature certainly got me in a lot of trouble in my earlier years. In the evolution of my life and my psyche or whatever.”
A self-admitted tortured type, he maintains that it’s the act of writing that keeps him on the right side of the edge. “It’s like everything that’s kind of bad, everything that’s detrimental in most walks of life, or in most things you do – when you’re writing, they’re your friends, they’re your tools, you can use them. So if you’re obsessive, if you’re neurotic, if you’re weird – you can write with that. You can use that somehow. That’s the great redemption of writing.”
He grew up in Crumlin with his parents and two brothers (he’s the middle son). “I guess I come from a totally working class background,” he explains. “My father worked in the post office until he retired a couple of years ago. He’s 60 now. He retired at 58. From the time he was a teenager he worked there. And my Ma, she was a housewife for years and then she worked in the post office, too. I actually spent a few years working in the post office as well. So we’ve all gone postal at some stage.”
Was it a very literary household?
“Well, they read, but to call it a literary household would be a staggering stretch,” he smiles. “My parents aren’t what you would call well-educated people. Neither of them did the Leaving Cert. But my mother’s a reader. She wouldn’t read the stuff that I read. My da has a real passion and enthusiasm for the arts and for culture, so he would always encourage that in us. It was a real sports house, so they’re football obsessed.”
Football was one of Doyle’s own earliest obsessions. “Looking back, it’s almost alarming how obsessed I was until I was about 13 or 14. I followed Man United, like my dad, and if Man United won I would be elated for a week, and if they lost I'd be in a kind of crippling abyss, in some kind of depression, you know? And then I just dropped it and couldn’t look at football for about a decade and a half. It’s only in the last couple of years that I can enjoy it again. Without any hint of fanaticism. I’ve been watching the World Cup and enjoying that.”
Much like the listless characters in his novel, Doyle was unsure what to do with his life once he’d left school. “I came to the end of my Leaving Cert and just had a lack of interest in doing anything,” he admits. “I was a very nihilistic teenager. I was reading a lot of very dark books and forming a world view. Quite confused, but kind of rigorous in its way. I didn’t have a very good attitude to life. I didn’t really want to do anything.
“I messed around for a while,” he continues. “Ridiculously, I went to study information technology in Blanchardstown. And after about three months I was completely miserable and depressed. I realised it wasn’t for me so I dropped out, worked in Superquinn selling fish for about nine months. Getting drunk, you know, having a laugh.”
The characters in the novel are all avid dope smokers, speed snorters and pill poppers. Were you a big drug user?
“Yeah, yeah,” he nods. “But more so when I got into college. I did shitloads of drugs then. Even as a teenager, there was a lot of drinking and a lot of smoking. But it was more when I left school that the drugs started.”
Having always had an interest since first reading Nietzsche as a teenager, he eventually went to study philosophy in Milltown. “It’s a Jesuit-run place where, until just a couple of years ago, they taught philosophy and theology. So there was an interesting division there. But it’s one of the few places in Ireland where you can study pure philosophy rather than as part of an arts degree.”
As it transpired, drink, drugs and philosophy proved to be a great recipe for extreme depression. In a recent essay on controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq written for new Irish literary magazine Gorse, Doyle admitted to suffering a major mental breakdown around this time.
“Frankly, I was living a very unsustainable lifestyle – psychologically, emotionally, you know,” he shrugs. “You can imagine: lots of drugs; minimal sleep; a lot of unresolved shit: serious, deep stuff that needed to be resolved, that I was just ignoring. And so when I was in Milltown, I crashed. I enjoyed philosophy. I had a feel for it, because these questions fascinated me, and they still do. The ultimate questions. The grand themes of human life and so on.
“But at the same time I was really caning it. Lots of pills. Lots of speed. Whatever. Lots of smoking, lots of dope. And I had an extremely bad crash. I was also working in the Dublin Mail Centre at the time, which is this terrible kind of dystopian place out in Clondalkin. A vast building where you sort through mail. Real sci-fi shit. It wasn’t good. And I had just a terrible meltdown. Really, really bad.”
He wound up feeling suicidal. “It was real extreme depression – but somehow I didn’t drop out of college. I started seeing a psychoanalyst. That was a crucial decision, absolutely transformational. That was in second year, I would say. And I was trying to deal with all this stuff and not drop out and still working in this place. But then in third year – it was a three year degree – I managed to channel all of that angst and dark energy into a bookishness and academic focus, so I became completely into philosophy or into studying. I did really well. I ended up getting a First, which was good, considering I felt that close to death. I don’t know how I pulled it off. Then I went to do a one year Masters in Trinity in psychoanalysis. And again I was very nerdish. I still am, but then it was just books, books, books.”
He now realises that consuming a literary diet of extremist philosophical literature along with copious amounts of drink and drugs probably wasn’t the best idea. “It was probably a medicinal thing at that time, but maybe it wasn’t helping things. I was in a lot of pain.” As often happens with troubled young men, he was saved by the love of a good woman. “Around the time when everything started going badly I met a woman. She was kind of a friend, but then we got together. She was a couple of years older than me. And that was great. I also learnt to meditate, which I don’t do anymore, but, Christ, that was very, very beneficial. And then a good relationship, yeah. So through all those things, I more or less got myself back into order.
“But it was like when you read books or you see films about someone who comes back from Vietnam or World War I or Iraq or something. They’re looking around and the world just seems like a place they can’t trust. It’s like they’ve seen the abyss and they’ve lost all trust in the solidity of the world. I was like that. My mind got very weird, put it that way.”
A concerned look suddenly crosses his face. “One thing, when I say all this, Olaf, I hate the idea that people will read this and think that the book is only going to appeal to people who have extreme psyches or something like that. It’s not really like that, you know.”
Soon after graduating from Trinity, Rob decided to go travelling. “I really enjoyed the Masters. Learned a lot. Then I’d saved up a hell of a lot of money working in this Dublin Mail Centre. So I went travelling, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But like everything I’ve done in my life, I went too far with it. I went away for about a year but ended up not coming back on the return ticket and staying away for two and a half years.”
He started off in Southeast Asia, spending almost a year in Thailand. Initially, he gave up drink and drugs, but the abstinence didn’t last. “When I got into meditation, I had given up booze, smokes, drugs, even coffee. For a year, I went all militant with it. But then, towards the end of that year in Southeast Asia, I really got back into it.” He smiles. “I felt that something was lacking in my life.”
He travelled through India for six months (“It sounds like a terrible cliché but I was very interested in Eastern philosophies, Eastern mysticism and all that”), before eventually washing up in South America. “I had a fucking wild year in South America,” he laughs. “A lot of mad stuff happened, you know? There was a lot of coke going on. My advice to anyone is to buy a return ticket from that place. La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, is the most fascinating city in the world, but I always felt like it was a vortex. It sucked you in and it’s hard to get out of.”
Having escaped the Bolivian vortex, he wound up in Colombia, following in the footsteps of William S. Burroughs by experimenting with the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca (better known as yagé). “I ended up living in Colombia and hanging out with a bunch of academics and intellectuals,” he recalls. “One was this amazing woman – she was a professor of philosophy at the national university there and all her friends were intellectuals and artists. Their life revolved around investigations into yagé. And so we would go to this big artist’s house and take it. You always take it with a shaman. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. You couldn’t take it casually. It’s the most psychoactive substance known to man.”
It was during these wild, drug-fuelled travels that he first began to write seriously. “I was doing a lot of writing – very obsessive writing. You know, filling journal after journal with my own philosophy-infused thought processes and that kind of thing.”
He also kept a travel blog, which proved somewhat controversial amongst his family and friends. “It was called Deserter’s Pages, which is kind of silly. It was taken from the Mercury Rev album Deserter’s Songs. I was writing a hell of a lot, every day. But I decided to do it Gonzo-style, with no holding back. It wasn’t just, ‘we visited the Taj Mahal today’, it was like, ‘crazy shit’s happening’. And I’d talk about it. So I’d alarmed and alienated a lot of people back home who were reading it. But it was good training.
“By this stage the idea of becoming a writer was more and more fully formed,” he continues. “I didn’t do it in the most straightforward way but, when you’re writing, there’s so many trajectories. The way a lot of people do it would be to stay in their country and get to know the other writers and all that. That’s good, too, but I did it in this completely roundabout way.”
When he eventually returned to Ireland, he initially wanted to write a thesis based on his yagé experimentation. “I came back to Ireland with the idea of writing a PhD in philosophy on atheistic mysticism and the psychedelic shamanism of South America. I had this meeting with my dean of philosophy back in Milltown and I was throwing all these ideas at him and he was going, ‘It sounds very interesting but I don’t know how you’re going to find someone in Ireland who can supervise this thesis because I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!’ I quickly lost interest in doing it.”
Bitten by the travel bug, he did a TEFL course in Dublin and jetted off again. “I only stayed here for about seven months or something. Did a teaching qualification, English teaching, so rather than doing it cowboy style like I did in Colombia, I could actually work in reputable schools. I was still into this kind of roaming, wandering lifestyle. Still felt fairly disaffected. I didn’t want to get a career and I didn’t want to ‘join the game’ as it were. So I thought, ‘I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep wandering’.”
Over the course of the next few years, in and out of various teaching jobs and long distance relationships, Doyle travelled extensively, living for extended periods in Sicily, London and San Francisco. Having written an unpublishable first novel (“It was called The Off Season and it was pretty worthless, but again good training”), he began work on Here Are The Young Men about five years ago.
“I got the idea in Sicily,” he explains. “It’s a fascinating place. Beautiful, but sad and melancholy, and it was on the west coast, which is still run by the mafia. The mafia is not this glamourous thing, it’s a pretty sick cancer on society. And the economy is fucked. They'd send us out to these little towns, teaching in secondary schools to lethargic teenagers. It'd be two o’clock in the afternoon, like 38 degrees or whatever, and I’m there going, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ Not feeling particularly good about things.
“So I called a mate back home in Dublin and said, ‘What are you up to?’ And he was like ‘Oh, we’re just going out on the DART, out to Killiney, to drink White Russians and have a White Russian party’. And I thought, ‘Oh man’. It just seemed such a desolate image. The emptiness. The inner emptiness of it. Maybe that’s just me, and I’m just projecting my own melancholy on it, but anyway, I decided I wanted to write about that.”
The novel opens with a group of disaffected teens travelling out to Killiney to get smashed on hash and vodka (and hurl vile abuse into the intercom at the gates of Bono’s home). Writing the book proved to be a long and arduous process. “I still didn’t really know how to write a novel,” he admits. “I could write, but it’s one thing to write and another thing to craft a novel. So I splurged out this first draft. While it had many flaws, I'd say it was apparent to people who read it that there was something going on here.
“But, the real challenge then – at times, the heartbreaking challenge – was to channel all of that chaos and that raw energy and madness into a cohesive novel. And that took a long time. And it took a lot of heartbreak and despair. Contacting editors. Getting feedback. Spending months, or even a year, going down one direction because an editor tells you to. And then realising what you knew all along: that it was the wrong thing to do. And then having to undo it. It took a lot out of me, frankly, but I got there.”
Although a hugely gifted writer, Doyle only saw his name in print for the first time two years ago. “The first thing I ever published was in 2012,” he says. “Actually, I had published some shitty story about a guy who takes acid on a beach in Goa. It was juvenilia, basically, that got published in some American journal. But I don’t really count that because I never even saw it. The first proper thing I had published was when Dave Lordan, the poet, was guest-editing The Stinging Fly. I read his call to arms editorial statement online. And at this stage, I was punch-drunk from rejection and I knew the nature of the stuff I was writing didn’t quite fit in with the prevailing literary mood.
“I knew that but I read Dave Lordan’s ‘here’s what I’m after’ editorial. And I thought, ‘Right, if this guy doesn’t get it, then nobody gets it!’ So I sent him a couple of stories in the spring of 2012. He accepted this pornographic, brutalist, Bret Easton Ellis style story about Mexico. He published it in The Stinging Fly and that was great because it was my first publication.”
A good feeling?
“It really was,” he says, nodding enthusiastically. “I mean, I was 29. Most people have published stuff by then, but it was my first. So it felt really good. And actually, it kicked a lot of things off. Once you get one published it’s a lot easier to get more. So The Dublin Review started publishing stories, lots of other journals, and so suddenly from having nothing published I had about 10 pieces, and then reviews, essays. It’s ongoing, you know?”
Indeed it is. Doyle is currently single (the book is dedicated to his Vietnamese poet ex-girlfriend) and back living in Ireland while he does the publicity for the book. He’s hungry to travel again, but the unexpected success of Here Are The Young Men is keeping him busier than expected. A number of UK publishers are interested. There’s talk of a movie version.
Before he takes off again, however, there’s another book almost finished. “It'll be a book of short stories. Because at this stage, I’ve written a lot of them, and some of them have been published already in places like The Dublin Review. One of them is going out in France next month. Then there’s this mini-novella thing that Gorse will be publishing. So I have another book’s worth of material.”
It won’t ruin your enjoyment of it to reveal that Here Are The Young Men doesn’t have a happy ending, but the young author himself has never been more content. “This is a great time for me,” he declares, smiling broadly and raising his pint glass. “I’m happy to have gone through all that stuff and written a book I’m proud of. I’m living a good life. I’m very happy. I’m pleased to have reflected on everything I’ve seen and experienced of the world, and put it into a fictional form that I hope is actually universal – that anybody can read and see the truth in, or see the insight in, regardless of their own life experiences.”
Here’s to that...
Here Are The Young Men is published by The Lilliput Press
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On a break from his day-job fronting Elbow, Guy Garvey talks about his "vanity" solo project and the song he may (or may not) have written about Angela Merkel.Read More
Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen knew that when they took the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour to Dublin, it would be an emotional time. But even their expectations were surpassed – and then some – on a spectacular final night...Read More
English soul singer returns with another hit-filled blockbusterRead More
In the run up to their Irish sojourn, The Edge spoke to Hot Press in an exclusive interview, in which the U2 guitarist gave an extraordinary insight into the band's meticulous approach to their Irish shows, talks openly about the state of the music industry, the bad luck that seemed to stalk the band at the start of the tour cycle and the benefits of that Apple deal - as well as the rise of Donald Trump and repealing the 8th amendment.Read More
One of the country’s most renowned barristers, ex-Hot Press contributor Michael O’Higgins also enjoys a parallel career as an award-winning crime author.Read More
It was a strange week in the life of Hot Press Writer At Large, Olaf Tyaransen...Read More
Most recognisable over the past decade thanks to her role in RTÉ’s hit comedy show Hidden Camera, Maeve Higgins has also now penned her second collection of humourous essays. She discusses relocating to the US and appearing in Amy Schumer’s hugely successful TV series.Read More
Nearly 20 years since he drove a milk-float at break-neck speed on Father Ted, Ardal O’Hanlon is going retro and playing a retired milkman in his new Sky comedy.Read More
London-Wexford rapper Maverick Sabre talks about his long-awaited comeback and the turmoil behind his new LPRead More
There have been big changes in the show between the opening date of U2’s Innocence + Experience tour in Vancouver, and last night’s show in London.Read More
He may have eased off somewhat from the heady days of Minority Report, Photo Booth, Intermission, and In Bruges, but Colin Farrell is now clawing his way back to critical approval with his latest - wonderfully bizarre - box office offering The Lobster. Olaf Tyaransen caught up with the former party animal and dug deep...Read More