WRITERS TELL ALL
I had the amazing opportunity to sit and talk with Robert Doyle about his new novel, Threshold, which I'd describe as a nice collision (it's intense at times, which is great) between the odd and vivid writings of Marilynne Robinson, the more autobiographical novels of Mario Vargas Llosa (more Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), and some of the philosophical nature of writers like Iris Murdoch (only sadly without the murders and suicides and dramatic plot twists!). A brilliant book, something to consume slowly and all at once, Threshold is yet another reason to contact your local indie bookstore and purchase something by a great writer.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Rob! I’m excited to interview you, so I’ll go ahead and begin. This--Threshold—isn’t normally what people imagine when they think of their favorite novels. Yet, it’s absolutely absorbing and amazingly well written. Were you ever scared writing the novel—something like this, a travel log of sorts, a discussion of work, of authors, of creativity—that this novel would never see the light of day?
Rob Doyle: Not really, the reason being that it’s my third book and so I knew readers (and my publishers) had a certain confidence in me to try something new, something different. The first two books (Here Are the Young Menand This Is the Ritual) gained a gratifying amount of praise, which internally gives you a certain degree of licence. Also, three books in, you know what you’re doing, you’re not a rookie, and so when I embarked on writing a book that blended personal confession, humour, essay, fiction, and various other elements, I was reasonably confident it would be given the green light.
MT: Lev Grossman, I believe, made a case that there are too many people writing so much that great literature is hard to find, or becoming devalued. You touch on this briefly, with conflicting feelings. How do you feel about the state of literature today, and how do you feel all groups of people are being represented, and not just white men like you and I?
RD: I think literature is doing just fine, and will always do just fine: along with art in general, and perhaps religion too, it’s humankind’s great adventure into the unknown, into the abyss which turns out to be made of pure light. Which is not to say that a vast quantity of bad books aren’t getting written – more than ever, even. But you have to trust that the good stuff will get a hearing, and devote yourself to seeking out and relishing it, books from the past as well as the present. As Schopenhauer wrote, the art of not reading is of vital importance: that is, the art of not being distracted by whatever the great reading public happens to be getting in a lather over at a given moment, because they’re more than likely excited over something rubbish. Unless of course they are excited about mybooks, in which case I urge everyone to join in the adulation and the book-buying! As for the question of representation, I’ve always been a very international reader, reading a lot of stuff in translation, and because there’s a greater demand these days for diversity, there will likely be ever more of it available, which I welcome.
MT: You talk extensively about Bolano, who is at once a very publicly troubled and interesting person, and now a mysterious deceased author hipsters choose to read to stay cool. What drew you to Bolano, and why do you feel he fit into the novel so well? Would you consider him a character in the novel, even?
RD: Far from being merely an author for hipsters, Bolaño is a friend for life! I go back to his books regularly – in fact, all this week I’ve been reading a few pages of his collection of non-fictional writings Between Parentheses every morning, as a sort of tuning fork for my own writing day. I love how his mind works, that sense of humour, the combination of lunacy and control. I love his generosity, his endless fascination with all-but forgotten writers - minor poets, doomed novelists and so on. In Threshold I take a trip to Blanes in Spain where he lived, and reflect on his life and work, but mainly this is a means to get to grips with more personal questions of my own (and an excuse to take a nice long train journey from Paris to the Costa Brava and back again).
MT: While you do talk about literature extensively in the novel, what are the books that you feel shaped you in your formative years? What are the books you look to for inspiration now? Who do you feel are the most important authors working today, fiction or nonfiction (or anything else)?
RD: Here are some key writers for me: Friedrich Nietzsche, Roberto Bolaño, Rachel Kushner, Michel Houellebecq, Geoff Dyer, Svetlana Alexievich, J.L. Borges. As for books that shaped me in my formative years, all through last year I wrote a weekly column in The Irish Times, on precisely this question. It can be read on the ‘Column’ section of my website robdoyle.net. Needless to say, many of the books that formed me are also the ones that deformed me.
MT: The novel defies so many typical conventions, and you’ve received lots of praise for Threshold. Why do you think people are attracted to this book, and do you think it will last—honestly speaking, since you’re so honest about yourself in the book—and might it have a big effect on literature in the now, and in the future?
RD: Lord only knows. I think there’s no way of ever knowing the answer to those questions – you just have to give it your all while you have it in you to write, and hope that posterity shows favour on you. I mean, in the long run, we’re all bound for oblivion, what with the eventual heat-death of the sun and all of that. Even Shakespeare will eventually disappear, if the species which is his native audience wipes itself out. Our only hope, then, is the Singularity.
MT: You talk frequently about women, masturbation, sex, adventures (often with women)—so many men, male authors I mean, have thought of women as distractions to their work, but I don’t know if that’s the case here. Do you feel women, or rather sex and romance in general, is beneficial or detrimental to the design of one’s writing and the power of a novel today?
RD: For all the carnage and chaos of my life, most of the goodness in it has been brought into it by women. Most of the badness in it too, come to think of it. But yes, I’ve always found love and romance highly inspiring, and more than inspiring, nourishing and a source of meaning. That’s what love is, a kind of nourishment. And it nourishes writing and art as much as it nourishes the spirit.
MT: What do you think is the truest part of the book? How hard is it to write about oneself and remain true, if you try to remain true about yourself and your experiences at all?
RD: I would say that allof the book is true - even the parts that are invented or exaggerated. Furthermore, I would say that all my books are true, even the ones that are more explicitly fictional. What I mean by this, of course, is that fiction, if it’s any good, expresses truth in the form of illusion. That said, the ‘Rob’ who is the narrator of Threshold both is and isn’t me: he’s a persona of myself, like me in many ways, but not absolutely identical with me.
MT: Who do you want to read this? Every writer, I think, has one writer, one celebrity, one person in their life they’re secretly writing for. I really believe this to be true, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. Do you think you really wrote this novel for someone, or at least hoped a certain person would pick the book up and read it, and perhaps learn from it in whatever way imaginable?
RD: Wooh! An interesting question, though I’m not quite sure if there is an answer, or if there is, what it might be. Well, I guess there is one obvious answer, which is that I want everyoneto read Threshold, and then to buy copies for their mother, their cousin, their spouse and their self-isolating neighbour.
MT: My mentor, a wonderful and amazingly talented and famous author, loves Malta. It’s her favorite place. What do you feel your favorite location is (you definitely said NO to the US) and do you think it’s beneficial to your writing? What is your writing style like, when establishing a writing pattern, when including or excluding something from a book, when developing characters and voice? What’s the most important thing for a writer to remember when creating something like this brilliant novel?
RD: The latter question first: for me, trial and error is absolutely the most important thing. That’s how I create each book, and of course ‘trial and error’ means not being afraid of error, of going down a blind alley before retracing your steps and striking out in another direction. As for my favourite location, well, there is more than one - there are quite a few really. As I imagine becomes clear in Threshold, I have a great love for the cities of Paris and Berlin (though for quite different reasons – they are as unalike as two European capitals could be). Right now I’m in quarantine in Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. My favourite location at the moment is this lovely house, and the beach and cliffs just past the harbour, where I go walking every day.
MT: What is the hardest part of writing a novel, and what was the hardest part of writing Threshold?Was there a scene, a series of discussions, a whole chapter you considered removing from the book, and if so, do you still wish you had, considering the critical acclaim you’re receiving now?
RD: All the parts of writing a novel are the hardest part! Well, perhaps that’s not true – some scenes or voices or passages come easily, and that’s a joy, but not a frequently occuring one. I tend to splurge out a rough draft of a chapter or scene first, and then rework it over and over till it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. I kind of sort of partially vaguely considered thinking about removing the penultimate chapter, ‘Psychopomp’, which concerns taking LSD in Paris while researching the work of the surrealist André Breton. Arguably Thresholdwould have been a somewhat tighter read as a whole if I had done so, but that’s okay: it is what it is, as the Zen-like saying goes.
MT: What would I be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
RD: Perhaps The Holy Bible. I was raised a Catholic, but fell out of the faith as a teenager and never looked back. However, over the years I’ve come to hold a new respect and admiration for many aspects of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus. I bought a bible a couple of years ago with the idea of reading it through, one book at a time, but I never got round to it. Every now and then I’ll dip in and read a massacre-scene or some arcane list of laws. There’s a lot going on in that book.
MT: Toni Morrison is often accredited with the quote regarding writing the book you’ve always wanted to read but never have found. What’s the book you’ve always wanted to read but never been about to find? Do you feel Threshold, or one of your other previous works, fits this bill?
RD: Absolutely, Thresholdfits the bill! Morrison is right, it’s imperative to write exactly the kind of book you want to read. If you do that, you can’t go far wrong. Another way to say this is that artists, or good artists anyway, become masters at following their instincts, being true to their natures, their preferences and aversions, their boredoms and fanaticisms. I hope to continue to do this for the rest of my life, with each book I write.
MT: Threshold is so strange and wonderful, about something and nothing, everything at once and so little at the same time, and it’s brilliantly written and wonderfully absorbing (I believe I’ve used all these words before), but what would you say the book is about, and why is it necessary today? Why do you think people should read the book, and what do you feel you’ve accomplished in this writing that hasn’t been done before?
RD: I would simply say that Threshold is the most intimate, personal, revealing book I’ve yet written – but also the most fun, the most colourful, the most humourous and the most expansive in terms of its themes and settings. It’s got a bit of everything: there’s travel and philosophy, art and humour, mysticism and psychedelic drugs, madness and optimism, sex and loneliness. It’s a book about the struggle to write, also the struggle to live, to find some sort of transcendental truth in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of being alive.
MT: At the end of the book, there’s mention of a tomb, which reminds me of a New York Times article I read on the death of books, and I wonder which books you think will die and fade away in time, and what you think literature and the literary world needs more of nowadays. Why end with a tomb, other than some metaphor for the end of the book?
RD: That’s the ancient pre-Christian tomb in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, I believe. It’s where the narrator and his friends go to undertake one final and major experiment with DMT, the incredibly powerful psychedelic drug that some people even believe permits us to travel to other dimensions of reality. I didn’t intend it as a metaphor for the end or the death of books – but if you want to read it that way, who am I to say you’re wrong!
MT: Do you have another work-in-progress on the way? I have to admit, I think my readers will be buying your books for the first time, which is exciting, and when they’re done I bet they can’t wait for more.
RD: I’m very superstitious around talking about what I’m working on before I at least complete a first draft, so I’m afraid all I can say for now is that I’m working on something entirely non-fictional. In the meantime, my first novel Here Are the Young Menwas adapted for a film starring Anya Taylor Joy, Dean Charles Chapman and others. It’s not out yet but when this coronavirus situation is over, I hope you’ll be able to see it.
MT: Rob, thank you so very much for being interviewed by me here for Writers Tell All. I love being able to interview great minds like yours, and I hope we get to meet one day, and maybe be included in some of your wild adventures (preferably not too wild). Until then, I hope you have so much success with this new book, and I hope you enjoy all of the acclaim and hopefully sales you’ll be getting, and I hope I can contribute to that in some way. Please feel free to leave us with any lingering thoughts or ideas or anything else you have left to say. Thank you again, Rob. Writers Tell All loves you.
RD: Hah! Thank youvery much Matthew – it’s been a pleasure. I promise that if I do write about you, I won’t get you to do anything too wild. At least, nothing I wouldn’t do. Stay safe, stay healthy, and thanks again for your questions.