From the Barrytown trilogy and his 1993 Booker winner, Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, to 2015’s The Dead Republic, Roddy Doyle’s fiction has been steeped in the cultural particulars of his native Ireland. He’s addressed such hot-button topics as out-of-wedlock pregnancy (The Snapper, 1990) and domestic violence (The Woman Who Walked into Doors, 1996), so it’s no surprise that his new book, Smile, an October release from Viking, is narrated by a man who as a boy suffered abuse at the hands of a priest in a Christian Brothers school. But Doyle’s take on a topic that has been the subject of furious public discussion in Ireland for more than two decades has more personal roots, he explains, seated in his book-lined office in Dublin.

“There was an event that occurred when I was 13, in the academic year 1971–1972,” he recalls. “A Christian Brother said to me, ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.’ To be clear, it never went any further than that—the man never touched me or ordered me to stay after class or anything like that. But the memory of it has remained steady through nearly 50 years, whereas other things that I would have attached huge significance to when I was 20 or 30 or even 40 have dropped away. I decided I’d start a novel using this—it’s not at the start of the novel now, but, as often is the case when I’m writing, I wasn’t completely sure what I was writing about. Eventually, when I had a clearer picture of what I was doing, I realized that stories of clerical abuse have become almost expected; they fail to shock anymore. I wanted to tell the story in a way that could still shock or stun people, and in that way do justice to the narrator.”

The device Doyle chose to shock his readers is a last-chapter revelation that puts a stunning spin on a story that opens with what appears to be a typical midlife crisis: journalist Victor Forde’s marriage has ended, he’s moved into an apartment not far from the area where he grew up, and in a local pub he encounters someone offering unwelcome reminders of his past. “Well, if it’s midlife, he’s going to live to be 120!” Doyle remarks, laughing. More seriously, he adds: “I personally really dislike these labels that are attached to people; I never understood what a baby boomer was, and midlife crisis strikes me the same. But I suppose in part I wanted to intrigue my readers and maybe mislead them a little bit, lead them down the wrong alley.”

Smile shares with two earlier novels a nonlinear structure. “Generally in my second and third and fourth drafts, the book is getting shorter and shorter, but I knew relatively early when I was writing [Smile] that I was going to have to get down on the floor and surround myself with the pages, the same way as I had done with Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha and The Woman Who Walked into Doors, to find the structure that wasn’t there in the first draft. With Paddy Clark, I was a teacher at the time and the father of a baby, grabbing any moment I could to write, and the first draft was a complete and utter mess. It actually became one of the strengths of the book, because when I started putting pages into an arrangement that told the story, I realized all the material was there. With The Woman Who Walked into Doors, I didn’t want it to go in a straight line from the very beginning of her life, so again I was messing with the structure.”

“I remember writing both those books with fondness,” Doyle says. “So I actually looked forward to doing the same thing with Smile. It’s great to be able to dive into a novel that you don’t really understand just yet with the knowledge, because you’ve had the experience before, that it’ll all be fine. I ended up literally on the ground in my office surrounded by paper, deciding, will this be chapter one or will it be chapter three?”

Choosing his protagonist’s profession was easier, Doyle says, though Victor’s inability to write the book he’s been talking about for years bears no obvious connection to Doyle, who has had a long, productive career. Nonetheless, says the author, “I know what avoiding writing entails, I know what running out of steam and ideas involves, and I know what feeling inadequate on a particular project means as well.” But he’s careful to disclaim kinship with Victor’s estrangement from his roots: “Just to be clear, I see my mother several times a week!”

Doyle, 59, has a mischievous glint in his eye as he pretends to worry someone might think he’s a bad son. He’s wholly earnest, however, when he distinguishes himself from isolated, alienated Victor in another way: “One of the great joys of my life is friendship with people I’ve known since we were children; if that was stripped from me, my life would be a lot less. I love communicating with them, I love meeting them, I love sitting with them, and I think they feel the same way. The contact doesn’t need to be profound; we could end up just talking about football, but the subject matter isn’t really relevant. We’ve grown older together, we’ve had children”—Doyle has two children, Rory and Jack, and is many years married to his wife, Belinda—“and, in the cases of some, grandchildren; it’s marvelous to be able to share moments of a life, you know? Victor has cut himself off from that, and he knows it.”

The Ireland where the author and his friends grew up was very different than the multicultural nation of today, in which more than 10% of the population is foreign born, and he’s observed this sea change with pleasure. “It’s very common now in the city to see black kids with African parents, or kids with complicated Polish last names, speaking with Dublin accents because they were born here,” Doyle says. “I’m involved with a writing center for kids and teenagers, and what’s great about the writing coming from some of them is that there’s another grammar underneath the English, a bit like Gaelic bubbles underneath Irish English. The Gaelic Games, which are only played in Ireland, have an Asian guy on one team, an African guy on another. It’s extraordinary, not something we would ever have anticipated, and all part of the adventure of joining the E.U. It has made us far less insular than we used to be.”

As he mentors the next generation of writers, Doyle continues to range widely across genres in his own work, producing in the past year an English libretto for Don Giovanni and a site-specific play called Two Pints, based on dialogues he had posted on Facebook. “I always called myself a novelist who did one or two other things, but the last few years I’ve been doing more other things,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “What I want to do now is concentrate on long-form fiction. But sometimes opportunities or invitations arrive, and if there’s a sense it might be a bit of an adventure, I’ll do it.”

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