The author of “The Guts” will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com). Free beer will be provided by Big Time Brewery.
In 1987 an unknown Irish writer named Roddy Doyle self-published his first novel, “The Commitments,” the story of a motley group of out-of-work young Dubliners who are melded into a soul band by a young impresario named Jimmy Rabbitte.
“The Commitments” launched Doyle’s career. Millions have followed his story, through the book, the movie based on the novel, the movie soundtrack and most recently, a musical version of “The Commitments” currently playing in London’s West End.
At the end of “The Commitments,” the band breaks up. Now, 27 years, later, Jimmy is back in Doyle’s new novel “The Guts” (Viking, 328 pp., $27.95). Jimmy contends with bowel cancer, rides the highs and lows of family life, and jumps back into the music scene with both feet.
“The Guts” is a hilarious, compelling and ultimately joyous look at a man facing possible mortality with courage and the support of a wide circle of family and friends. “Doyle has never written anything that is not about love and its transformational power,” wrote actor Gabriel Byrne in an Irish Times review. “It is all that matters, ultimately, to love and be loved.”
Doyle appears here Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the University Book Store, part of an eight-stop American tour. He answered some questions via email about “The Guts.” Here’s an edited version:
Q: Describe what Jimmy has been up to since he appeared in “The Commitments.”
A: Jimmy is a fictional character and has no existence outside a few novels and a short story. So, the question, “What has he been up to?” is a difficult one to answer. I could say, “Waiting twenty-seven years, until I was ready to use him again.”
I stopped writing about Jimmy and his family in 1990, and then went back to him in (I think) 2001, for a short story called “The Deportees.” He was now eleven years older, so I gave him a wife, called Aoife, and a young family — four children. And that was the end of him until 2012, when I decided to use him as the main character in a novel I was just starting, which became “The Guts.” I made him older again, and made his children older, and gave him a dog, and an old job and a new job, and receding hair — and cancer. Gradually, while writing the new book, I filled in the empty years.
Q: What made you decide to bring him back?
A: I wrote “The Commitments” during a time of recession in Ireland, the mid-1980s. Jimmy was a very young man in that book. When the word “recession” started being used again in Irish radio and in conversation in 2009, I began to wonder how Jimmy, if he existed, would be coping with this new recession.
I’ve written ten novels, and only one of them, “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1993) stands alone. I often go back to old characters ... Add years to them, and it’s almost as if they’re new — and well worth visiting.
Q: Talk about your decision to introduce cancer into the story of Jimmy Rabbitte.
A: A good friend of mine died of cancer some years ago. It was a shattering experience, to witness the death of a dear friend who I’d known all of my adult life. And I’ve lost more friends since. I’d reached a point where cancer became a regular topic of conversation; it’s a part of growing older.
We often hear the phrase “fighting cancer.” I wanted to see if middle-aged Jimmy had fight in him, how he’d cope or wouldn’t cope, how his sense of humour would help in his battle.
Q: Jimmy Rabbitte has an intense and lifelong love of music. Do you share that with him? Do you play an instrument? Sing? How has that relationship changed as you have matured?
A: I love music — a very bland thing to say. I’m no different from millions of people. I see it as a thread — or a guitar string, perhaps — that goes right the way back to my childhood, a consistency in my life.
More than anything, despite his career, Jimmy is simply a fan. And so am I. I think that’s why “The Commitments” works, and — hopefully — “The Guts.” The stories are told from the perspective of an enthusiastic outsider ... with a mix of love, admiration, envy and cluelessness.
I started learning to play the trumpet when I was starting the new novel, and I decided to make Jimmy learn, too — to use my own experience. As I get older, I take great enjoyment from listening to the work of musicians who are much younger than me ... Somehow (it) makes me feel reassured when I hear great music created by kids! I’m listening to James Blake this morning. I was 30 when he was born. I don’t know why, but I find that hilarious and a little bit wonderful.
Q: In an interview you described your style in “The Commitments” as having “the characters as near to the front of the page as I could get them, nearly all the time.” That is the way I feel as a reader as I read “The Guts” — that I am right there in the thick of it with Jimmy, his kids, his family and his mates, in part because the book is written mostly in dialogue. What do you like about this style?
A: I suppose it’s just the style I decided was my own, after years of experimenting and failing and, sometimes, succeeding. As I wrote “The Commitments,” I remember vividly — it was as if something clicked, and I thought, “This is what I want. This is how I’m telling the story.”
The challenge is to find the language that brings the reader close to the character — the character’s age, place in the world, gender. ... If you’re getting to know somebody — if you want to know somebody — you listen to them speak. They hand you the words; you build the character who is actually right in front of you. You interpret and fill in gaps, and you might only be talking about the rain and the price of potatoes. You fall in love with words.
Q: “The Commitments” has been made into a London musical. Any chance it will come to America?
A. The musical is running in a theatre in the West End of London, and it seems to be doing well. I wrote the “book” — that is, the script, so I attended rehearsals for 10 weeks last year, and watched the whole thing coming together — a wonderful experience. I went to a Saturday matinee recently. The place was packed and the show was, I thought, great. A show and a gig at the same time — two experiences for the price of one! I haven’t heard of any American plans — but it’s a nice thought.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.