Roddy Doyle preaches honesty on dealing with death in children's books at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature
The adults arrived first, interested, no doubt, to see how Roddy Doyle could square his adult books like the 1993 Booker Prize winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha with writing for children. Then came his younger audience, lively and attentive, ready to hear about Doyle’s new book, A Greyhound of a Girl. He was being interviewed by author and Bath LitFest artistic director James Runcie as the headline act on the opening night of the 2011 Bath Festival of Children’s Literature.
Sitting under starry chandeliers on a stage swathed in red curtain, Doyle told the audience that his new book is unafraid of tackling the subject of death head on, via the tragicomic tales of four generations of women in a single family – the oldest of which returns as a ghostly young woman.
“Children accept things adults don’t,” said Doyle, going on to add that he doesn’t believe in writing for a specific audience. “When someone says this is a book for women, I find that absurd.” Yet children, he added, “metamorphose all the time”, making the challenge of writing for them all the greater. His young adult writing has always been for his own children, he said several times, but because they change by the time the books are finished he had several times “flung them in the bin and started again.” Doyle began writing books for younger readers because he felt that those tales he invented for his children on the fly were too much like “winging it”.
The author’s interest in identity – played out in the mutual conflict and affection of those women in A Greyhound of a Girl – originally stemmed from his discovery that he had an elder brother who died a baby who was also named Roderick. Who would he, Roddy, have been had that brother lived with his name? That idea inspired the (adult novel) A Star Called Henry; “Names are vitally important in my books,” Doyle stated.
Doyle’s love of language, the craft of putting together words, shone through, especially as relating to his native Ireland. “I love the way we use language in the country,” he said. For the new novel, finding the voices and dialect patterns of four generations was the real task – he compared paring back his use of the word “like” for the character of 12-year-old Mary to the rules he set himself about slang for his first novel, The Commitments.
The melancholy of Mary’s age, “when she is waving goodbye to things”, leant a sentimental sadness to some of Doyle’s talk – for the parents in the audience at least. But there was warmth too, as he told the story of meeting a five-year-old fan with his mother for the first time, whose opening line was: “The last time I saw you, you were way smaller.”
“Being in the company of children is a reminder of what we still have in our brain soup,” said Doyle, speaking of their unique takes on the world and smiling. “I love that.” It’s this honesty and openness to the world that makes it vital to tell children the truth about death, he said. It was clear from the warm response he at the end that his humour – and way with telling a story – make these darker aspects of his storytelling acceptable and even loved by children.
A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle is out now from Marion Lloyd.
For more information on Bath Children's Festival of Literature, see www.bathkidslitfest.org.uk