Author Q&A: Rob Doyle
In this highly autobiographical novel Irish writer Rob Doyle’s protagonist searches for meaning in his travels, experimental drug taking, religion and literature. With influences ranging from Bukowski to Camus, the book is comprised of a series of meandering vignettes that combine in an experimental exploration of masculinity, desire and ageing.
Tell us about the concept of this book and what you were exploring in terms of the boundaries of a novel.
I wanted to write a book that didn’t waste time unfurling a plot and having made-up characters interact with one another in order to express the ideas and emotions that moved me. My aim was to write a highly readable book that, rather than rely on that kind of storytelling, invited the reader inside the consciousness of the author-narrator – a persona of myself – as he drifts through the world, reflects on his experiences, lives his life. Threshold is intended as a book that offers the pleasures and insights of fiction, autobiography, travelogue, philosophical meditation and literary essay all at once. It’s about everything from nightclubs in Berlin to Buddhist temples in Asia, from the lives of deranged writers in Paris to hallucinatory cosmic speculations. It’s a highly personal book about art, loneliness, friendship, sex, travel, reading, drugs and many other things.
The opening chapter of Threshold describes your narrator’s adventures with magic mushrooms during a couple of years when mushrooms from around the world were legally available for over-the-counter purchase in Ireland. That abruptly ended following the death of Colm Hodkinson. Do you think that short period had any lasting impact on a portion of Irish society?
I don’t know, but I do know that my friends and I relished this period when mushrooms were legal, as recounted in the chapter in question. By writing in an adult, non-sensationalistic way about psychedelic substances, perhaps I’ll cause people who instinctively regard them as dangerous or suspect to see them differently. For me, these substances have served as portals to realms of beauty, mystery, and even personal guidance, which is how I discuss them in Threshold.
The letters that intersect the book seem to be directed towards an older female writer. Did you have a real person in mind as the recipient and can you tell us who?
I’ll never tell! I’m just kidding: those sections of the book were built up from conversations or correspondences I’d had with a number of female writers concerning literature, politics, art, love, family and so on. Out of these dialogues emerged the implied character of the older woman with whom the narrator is engaged in correspondence. I felt that by including the absent-presence of this unseen female interlocutor, a fruitful counterpoint could be established to the novel’s otherwise unbridled exploration of male concerns and desires – a sort of feminine superego, hovering in the background.
The philosopher Nietzsche – synonymous with nihilism – is a recurrent reference throughout the book and your wider work, and yet your narrator is in constant search of meaning, be it through drugs, Buddhism, or literary pilgrimages – which one friend points out have a religiosity to them. Do you consider yourself a nihilist and does that not paradoxically indicate an obsession with meaning, even if there isn’t one?
The absolutely crucial thing to understand about Nietzsche is that he saw his life’s mission as being the attempt to overcome nihilism. He even defined himself as the “anti-nihilist”. He believed that in order to move past the nihilism of a world without God, it was necessary to confront it unflinchingly – to gaze into the abyss. That still seems to me a gripping imperative. And you’re right: I’m utterly driven to find or create meaning in the world. I definitely don’t consider myself a nihilist – in part because if I did, I’d feel like one of those ludicrous characters in The Big Lebowski. I was raised as a Catholic. After reaching an age when I realised I no longer believed in that worldview, I had to look elsewhere. Threshold is in part a record of those investigations, that searching.
You recently edited a new anthology of Irish writing but your narrator writes that he has always needed to escape Ireland to write with any clarity. What is it about the country that inspires good literature and what is it about it that hinders it?
Right now, what hinders it is the fact that only very wealthy people can afford to live as writers in Dublin. There was an explosion of new writing after the financial crash a decade ago, when more people felt they may as well follow their passions because the status quo was fraudulent and flimsy. Nowadays, rent and the cost of houses are soaring again. If you want to live the bohemian, semi-idle, art-focused lifestyle that is historically proven to promote literary creation, you have to get out of Ireland, or at least out of Dublin. Anyway, my instincts as a writer have always been to look over the fence – to explore the world, be as intrepid and anti-parochial as possible. Ireland can feel like a village – I need to get away or I’ll spend all my time bickering with the neighbours.
Your work appears to be becoming progressively autobiographical – or at least more obviously so. There’s still a self-consciousness about over-exposing yourself but also a determination to do so. Do you think exploring and exposing the most uncomfortable aspects of oneself is necessary to good writing, and will you ever make the leap into straight memoir?
All writing is self-exposing: even if you write history books, you inevitably produce a self-portrait. My writing just dives into that more explicitly. However, it’s not only the uncomfortable parts of myself I want to reveal. Actually, the really uncomfortable stuff is better examined through less overtly autobiographical fiction. There are aspects of experience I explored in my novel Here Are the Young Men and my story collection This Is The Ritual that I couldn’t approach in the more explicitly autobiographical Threshold. This book delves into not only the thornier parts of my psyche, but into that which is most intimate and inspired. I won’t rule out writing straight memoir at some point, but I’m fond of playing around, warping reality, subverting everything. Those instincts will probably always colour what I produce.
Do you live your life in a certain way just to extract stories from it?
No, but I would say I am always seeking inspiration and deeper life. Right now I’m living in Berlin, and I find this city highly inspiring – so inspiring that I’m hardly writing at all these days, just walking through the streets and enjoying the wintry sunlight. Threshold documents, in a lurid and semi-fictional manner, a period of life when I derived inspiration from solitude, wandering, brief romances, drug experiences and so on. The fascination with this way of living had for me largely evaporated as I finished the book. My sense now is that deeper life and inspiration may be found in the opposite to all that – in sustained relationship and stability.