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'Life Without Children' collection tells stories of love, hope and grief

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Irish author Roddy Doyle wrote his new collection of short stories during the pandemic. Each of the 10 stories in "Life Without Children" paints a portrait of Dublin during these strange last two years. Now, Doyle is known for writing dialogue for capturing how people really talk, which during the pandemic has been tricky.

RODDY DOYLE: You know, I suppose I'm famous for my dialogue. And the challenge about these stories in our case is there was no one to talk to.

KELLY: Oh, I hadn't thought about that. Yeah.

DOYLE: The character in a lot of cases is all alone.

KELLY: Sound familiar? So many of us have felt alone, isolated. And for Roddy Doyle, who's made his name writing novels, including "The Commitments," the pandemic brought another challenge.

DOYLE: I couldn't see myself writing a novel because I didn't know how I'd cope with the shifting times or where it was going. But I told...

KELLY: Plus it must have felt like such a commitment. You know, who knows where...

DOYLE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Life would be in the year or so that it would take you to write a full novel.

DOYLE: You know, and what a loss to world literature if I happened to, you know, contract the disease while I was writing the novel.

KELLY: You jest, but I agree. Yeah.

DOYLE: (Laughter) You know, the great unfinished novel - but there wasn't a novel in me at that time. So I thought short stories would capture moments.

KELLY: One of those moments takes the form of the story "Worms," as in earworms - music you cannot get out of your head. It's about a middle-aged man who finds himself falling madly in love with his wife of three decades. Doyle read a passage when he joined me the other day from Dublin.

DOYLE: (Reading) They spent hours listening to the worms and covers of the worms. See, that's a big difference between us, she said. What, he said. Go on. He'd fallen in love with his wife. I'll tell you, she said. You call them covers, and I just call them versions. The songs. We're talking about the songs. Yeah. Is that all, he said. You think they're precious. I think they're only our songs (ph). She laughed. He could feel it. He knew it. She understood him. She got him, 34 years after they'd met. And he got her, he thought, he hoped. Something had happened. They'd opened up to each other. He wasn't sure why. It made no real sense.

KELLY: What was it about the pandemic when this, like all the stories in this collection, are set that gives this couple who have been so lost to each other for so long, despite the fact that they live together, that give them the permission, the space, I guess, to find each other again?

DOYLE: Well, I suppose that they're sharing a good, spacious cell. You know what I mean? They don't have a choice. It's one another or nobody because the kids are gone. So it's...

KELLY: They're not really missing the kids, by the way.

DOYLE: No.

KELLY: (Laughter) They're like, no, you're not coming home to visit.

DOYLE: They've gone past kids at this stage, and they're beginning to see - and he, I suppose, being the center of the story, is beginning to see a life beyond kids, you know? And the pandemic has given them an opportunity to actually look at his life and see this very funny woman, you know? She's great - you know, as we say in Ireland, she's a great craic. She's great fun. And I think he probably knew that when he met her, and he'd forgotten.

And they probably very successfully and politely bypassed each other in the house for years - shared the bed, shared the kitchen, probably exchanged gossip in and out, you know? And now because they can't go in and out, he kind of looks at his wife, and she looks at him, and they realize, you know, I could do worse. And then they become actively almost like teenagers really.

KELLY: The last story, "The Five Lamps," which is a reference to a corner in Dublin, it's the story of a man searching for his son...

DOYLE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Having driven him away a few years back because he was cruel to the son. And what struck me in the story is that almost to a person, everyone this father meets on his search is so incredibly kind, offering food, offering encouragement, as though they are teaching him, you know, this is how you do it, this is how you live, this is how you love.

DOYLE: Yeah. A couple of the stories, several of the stories, the characters see the lockdown as an opportunity. And this man, seeing the deserted streets - he lives outside Dublin in the countryside. And he sees these deserted streets. And he sees, with our streets are so empty, I can find my boy, you know? Here's the chance. It's a real - it's a real opportunity. And I was very keen that instead of him striding through a post-apocalyptic scene where, you know, at every corner, there'd people who are going to shake him down or mug him or - instead of encountering danger, he actually encounters, as you said, kindness.

And that started with the first person, a woman outside a methadone clinic on Amiens Street here, very close to where I live. And you would expect a certain desperation on her part. Life hasn't been kind to her. You would have thought, you know, of all people, of all the people he meets, she's the least likely to be kind to him, but actually she's very kind to him.

I'm glad - you know, I called it "The Five Lamps" because he walks by this Victorian structure, the five lamps, you know, on his trips every day. And it also, again, I was thinking, where am I going with this? How many people is he going to meet? I just thought, well, five.

KELLY: Five.

DOYLE: You know, I wanted us to have a certain, I suppose, fairytale quality to it as the last story and for things that perhaps just perhaps are on the verge of unfeasible - you know, the little girl at the end of the story, the wisest little girl, the wisest person in the story, giving him out advice, you know? And...

KELLY: She looks him in the eye. She says, be nice when you find him, when you find your son.

DOYLE: Yeah. And suddenly, it struck me - it's only a little kid can say something like that. So it was a difficult one to write, as I said earlier, because it was - I was dragging the character back a year and therefore myself back a year in a very - probably the most dramatic year of our lives, or certainly mine, I think. And it was really hard to go back to that point, not emotionally, but just purely in terms of the language, really.

But then, as I wrote it, I really began to enjoy it. And I was coming up to my office thinking, who will he meet today, you know?

KELLY: I love that.

DOYLE: Trying to think of a variety of people that he would meet.

KELLY: Well, it was a beautiful way to land the collection...

DOYLE: Thank you.

KELLY: ...You know, with the kind of meditation on the fact that the worst of times, in many ways, brought out the best of us, the best of people.

DOYLE: I think so, yeah. Well, it's a work in progress still, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Yes, it is. That it is.

DOYLE: So far, certainly as a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, so far, not so bad. You know, I mean, it hasn't - certainly in the early months of it, I just felt very comfortable being Irish, which is, you know - it's a good thing.

KELLY: Well, Roddy Doyle, this has been a total pleasure. Thank you.

DOYLE: Thank you.

KELLY: Roddy Doyle. He's the author of many books. We have been talking mostly about "Life Without Children," his collection of short stories out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT REVIVAL'S "THE PASTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.