Paula Spencer is the narrator and unlikely heroine of Roddy Doyle’s fifth novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The mother of four children, she lives in a working-class suburb of Dublin. She is also a battered wife and an alcoholic. Paula’s husband, Charlo, has been killed while escaping the scene of a crime he committed. Though Paula threw him out a couple of years ago, she recalls their early times together, filled with joy and lust. She remembers her rebellious adolescence, boys she dated and fantasized about, family outings, and summers at the sea, and she reflects on the events in her life that brought her to where she is today.
Doyle’s portrait of a working-class woman in contemporary Ireland illuminates many of the problems facing that country’s working poor, yet Paula is a wonderfully unique character—honest about her feelings, fearless in her efforts to protect her family, subject to fits of anger and depression that threaten to undo all that she has accomplished. Doyle takes his time revealing Paula to us. This account of her life is not chronological but spiraling, driven by memory and recurring images that spark these memories. Roddy Doyle’s lean prose and his uncanny ear for dialogue brilliantly offset the drama that unfolds as Paula tells her story. It is this restraint that makes his writing so compelling, that allows us to accept, understand, and champion Paula in her struggle to reclaim her dignity.
Roddy Doyle jokingly acknowledges that he might have titled the novel Paula Spencer Boo Hoo Hoo. However, there is no doubt that he has reached a new level of mastery in this deceptively complex portrait of a woman and a family in trouble.
For fourteen years he taught high school geography and English in North Dublin, but during his holidays and spare time he concentrated on writing fiction. His efforts have made him one of Ireland’s most popular authors. He is the author of four previous novels, the first of which, The Commitments, was made into Alan Parker’s 1991 hit movie. His second novel,The Snapper. was also made into a movie, with a screenplay by Doyle and directed by Stephen Frears.The Van was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize; Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993. Doyle has also written two plays, Brownbread and War, which enjoyed successful runs in Dublin. His four-part series, Family, was written for the BBC and was aired in England and Ireland to great acclaim, attention, and controversy over its handling of the topic of domestic abuse. It was through writing the teleplay for Family that the story of The Woman Who Walked Into Doors emerged.
Since winning the Booker Prize, Doyle has ventured further into filmmaking. The film version of The Van, for which he wrote the screenplay, is slated to be released later this year, but he says he prefers writing fiction to other mediums.
Much of the praise for your last novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, was directed at your uncanny portrayal of a ten-year-old boy. Now you’ve chosen the perspective of a middle-aged woman, and she may be one of the most fully realized characters of all your novels. How did she develop? What resources do you draw from? How does it feel to write from the point of view of the opposite sex?
The story originated about five years ago when I was invited by the BBC to write a television series about a struggling Irish family. Each installment was presented from the viewpoint of a different character: the father, a son and daughter, and the mother. What I found was, when I wrote the character of the mother, I realized she had much more to say, that the story lay with her. And so I set out to write the novel about her. I did a fair amount of research about biology and psychology, of women’s erotic fantasies, and about the issue of spousal abuse. I’d done research for other novels, but this was the first time I felt it was really imperative, the first time I’d really relied on research. I’ve always been a reader of women’s fiction and that has helped. But it was very slow going writing from the point of view of a woman. You sort of take on the role of an actor. I had to be very careful.
Many of Paula’s memories of Charlo are happy ones, yet he really does come across as a cruel, irresponsible bum. How do you feel about him? Do you perceive goodness in him?
Well, the series started out from Charlo’s point of view, and he really was a brute—in fact it caused quite a controversy. But when it came to shaping his character in the novel, I wanted to make it clear that he really had loved Paula. I think the scene from their wedding day shows that. It seems that society wants to find a scapegoat in these situations: unemployment, alcoholism, and of course abusive husbands. But there’s a reason why these marriages happen and I wanted to show that, show why Paula stays with him for as long as she does. Of course, the distance of time helps her see things more clearly, even helps her forgive him. I also tried to inject a bit of humor into his character. The way he dies, in a car, when he doesn’t even know how to drive.
Popular music plays a pivotal role in some of your earlier work. It has a different, more subtle effect in this novel, setting up a kind of background against which Paula spins her fantasies and replays her memories. Obviously, music is very important to you, but how—and why—does it find its way into your writing?
I think I’m no different from most people in my appreciation for music. I think everybody has a soundtrack to their lives. For Paula most of this music occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s, during her adolescence—which she remembers rightly or wrongly as a happy time. And the music sort of matches that. It’s pop music—very upbeat and romantic. She can’t remember much music from the ’80s, but that was a very unhappy time for her, when things with Charlo were going badly. I also used music as an ironic accompaniment. For instance, Paula hums a Disney tune, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” to herself one night when she’s drunk in the house with the kids asleep. I can’t think of a better use for a Disney tune! But most of these pieces of music came to me while I was writing the novel. I didn’t really plan them out beforehand.
Your early work is filled with rapid-fire dialogue and with humor that helps alleviate—and even celebrate—the hardships of working-class life. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha you used humor to make the darkness more tolerable. In this novel the humor is less prevalent and the novel is driven less by dialogue than by a strong narrative voice. What’s the reason behind this evolution?
I don’t really think of it as an evolution. Both Paddy Clarke and this novel are written in first person, so using a lot of dialogue didn’t make sense. You have to use interior monologue, and it makes for a different type of book. The pages are fatter. Also, when you use a lot of dialogue the reader listens a lot. With more narrative the reader really needs to read. It takes more time to write this way, but I have more time now than I did when I was teaching.
You were brought up in a stable middle-class home, yet your writing turns again and again to the working classes, and to families experiencing the mixed blessings of joy and tragedy. Why is that?
Reality is a big umbrella, and I really am writing about families that could be real. The Rabbitte family, which I write about in the first three novels, is a wonderful family. They’re very warm, very intelligent, but there’s some dark stuff as well: unwanted pregnancies, unemployment. There’s a son who’s left whom they never hear from. But they’re surviving, and there’s a lot of love there. Well, after three novels I felt I’d explored them as much as possible. I think of the Spencers as their next door neighbors, figuratively speaking. Their story is a little different, and the tone has to match that. But I don’t think my work is getting darker. I don’t see it as a “maturing,” the way some critics have. In fact, my next novel will probably be a lot lighter, with a lot more humor in it.
The issue of spousal abuse and the cause of battered women loom here in the U.S. headlines these days. How are these issues being addressed in Ireland? Why did you choose to deal with these issues in your work?
I think the country is much more open now, they’re beginning to pass legislation on the issue. You know, they passed a referendum last November to allow divorce. I think people realize that some marriages are just bad situations. Part of this came about as a result of the Family series, I believe. About one-half the households of Ireland watched it. But I’m primarily a writer, and I don’t set out to write about issues. This novel came about as a result of the work I did on that series; the idea of domestic violence came out of Charlo’s character.
In 1993, you won the coveted Booker Prize. How has winning the prize affected your work? Do you feel more freedom to do what you want?
Well, to be honest I view the Booker the same way I do the Oscars. It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t really take the prize that seriously, and I certainly won’t be upset if I don’t win another one. I don’t think it’s influenced my writing at all, really. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was a great success, and I’m very pleased about that. I started writing The Woman Who Walked Into Doors before I won the Booker for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and I think this is a better book. And if it doesn’t do as well commercially, that’s okay.
Do you view yourself as part of the Irish literary tradition? Which writers have been influential in your work?
I’m not sure what the Irish literary tradition is. People keep dragging out the same names and, frankly, there aren’t that many of them. I think if I were to hop on the train of great Irish writers I’d be pushed right off. I’m Irish and I’m a writer, and I’m definitely influenced by the place and the language. You know, the country’s largely Catholic, and that comes through in my writing, even though I’m not a Catholic myself. As for literary influences, I think I’ve been influenced by every book I’ve ever read. But certain books come to mind. I read Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage some time ago and that had a tremendous effect on me. Also I read Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, which helped me in the scenes in which Paula is revisiting the pivotal incident in her life, when Charlo hit her for the first time. Richard Ford’s Wildlife comes to mind as well. It helped me a lot when I was writing Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. A lot of writers say they don’t read fiction when they’re writing their own, but I don’t have a problem with that at all. I’m always reading. Right now I’m reading A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy, an Irish writer, and it’s magnificent.
Who did you read when you were younger?
Well, I grew up in a house filled with children, and there were always books around. I remember reading a lot of Enid Blighton—I think she’s written something like a hundred books, and I think my sisters had a lot of them. I also read a lot of books about football, for some reason. Later, in high school, I remember reading John Irving and really liking him. And my friends and I passed around books that we liked. I remember reading Flann O’Brien, who’s really quite funny.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a screenplay about an Irish family during the potato famine. It’s a lot different writing screenplays than novels. It’s draining, but in a different way. It seems to take a lot less out of you. I’m also working on a new novel, but I don’t want to say much about it yet because it could change; I’ve only just started it.
Are you surprised at your success?
Oh yes. Five novels in ten years. If you’d told me when I first started writing that that’s what I would have produced by now I wouldn’t have believed you. But I’m very happy, and if I’m not always a success, that’s okay. I’m not one of these people that feels tortured by their work. I generally work until about five o’clock and then I’m done, even if I’m in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. You see, it’s just a job, really, and I have to help my wife get dinner for the kids.