Rob Doyle: 'I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still drawn to Berlin's famously decadent side'

Updated: May 25, 2021

For someone who’s made it his mission over the last 15 or so years to actively drift from one continent to the next, briefly hanging his hat in Paris, Calcutta, Kassel and the Costa Brava, you’d think pandemic repression might’ve gotten the better of 21st-century flaneur Rob Doyle. But the long stretches of lockdown monotony, laced with too many late-night wine binges and a miserable, frostbitten Berlin winter have done little to dampen a rambunctious 18 months for one of Ireland’s most acclaimed new authors.

Since the turn of 2020, Rob’s published his third book Threshold, relocated from Berlin to Dublin and then holed up in Rosslare Harbour on Ireland’s southeast coast (with plans to return to the German capital), seen the star-studded adaption of his debut novel Here Are the Young Men recently hit the big screen and is now dabbling with his next book. Oh, and he collaborated with close mate Kieran (Saint Leonard) on an exclusive spoken word composition for our debut compilation Das Wasteland Berlin: Vol 1&2.

We caught up with Rob — now back in Dublin soaking up the city’s gradual return to relative normalcy — to chat about the highs and lows of lockdown, thrill of finally watching Here Are the Young Men and inception of History’s Children, the first track on Das Wasteland Berlin: Vol 1&2.

Rob Doyle. Photo by John Minihan

How did the collaboration with Saint Leonard come about?

I met Kieran around the time I moved to Berlin a few years ago. He’d read some of my stuff, so we initially got chatting about that and became good friends pretty quickly. We had many common interests in terms of books, music, fascinations, and passions, so it was inevitable that we’d collaborate at some stage — especially since we spent so much time hanging out during lockdown, listening to music and drinking far too much wine.

He told me about this compilation LP he was helping to put together and asked if I wanted to get involved. I didn’t really want to just read, though. All these excellent musicians and artists were involved, so I was worried about sticking out like a sore thumb, so we decided Kieran would come up with some music to accompany it. We went down to Klangbild Studio one day and just thrashed it out there and then. I told Kieran what I was going to read and he felt his way around it, sussed out the atmosphere and, almost on the fly, made a track that merged with the reading within a few hours.

We knew that he was going to put something ambient behind it and I had a vague idea of what it should sound like, but I left that to Kieran. That’s the fun of collaboration: you get an insight into other people’s creative process. There are some mad, atmospheric effects going on. If you listen closely, for instance, there are these manic screams towards the end of the track. There were microphones hung up everywhere and Kieran was writhing around on the floor, howling. The track ended up being pretty apocalyptic — you can trip out a little bit listening to it.

The scene from the reading takes place in a Berlin apartment, but what other reasons were there for picking that particular excerpt for the track?

The book is a semi-fictional, self-portrait travelogue made up of episodic journeys and essays about places I’ve been and passed through. One of the eleven chapters, called Nightclub, is set in Berlin, so it was inevitable that I’d read something from that. It’s a loose personal account of my early days in Berlin and the stuff that was going on in my head at the time. There are some lurid and dramatic parts elsewhere in the chapter, but this particular excerpt had a dark, philosophical, slightly comical vibe that we decided would work well. It’s also suggestive and enigmatic enough to not know anything else about the book.

There’s a part where you (well, the character Rob) talk about feeling uneasy with your writing being called ‘brave’ and reflect on the problem of authenticity. Is that something you’re often aware of when writing?

I reimagined all the stuff in the scene, so it’s hard to recollect what was real and what was made up. But I do remember someone once describing my writing as “brave” and wincing with embarrassment, thinking I’d maybe exposed too much of myself. It was nice to include that bit of humour in what is otherwise a fairly downbeat text.

Rob and Saint Leonard at Klangbild Studio. Photo by Martyn Goodacre

The film adaptation of your debut novel Here Are the Young Men was of course recently released. What was your involvement in the project?

The director Eoin Macken approached me about a year after the novel was released in 2014 to discuss optioning it. He initially said that he'd only adapt it if I was willing to collaborate on the screenplay. Everyone wants their book to be turned into a film, so of course I agreed, and we each wrote a first draft. I read his treatment and he read mine and I think we both agreed immediately that his was better! I’d been living inside that novel for years and was so sick of the characters. I’d also moved on to thinking about my next book, whereas he was coming at it fresh with these great ideas.

How are you feeling about the finished product and its reception, so far, from the critics?

It’s interesting for me because I’ve been fairly detached from the film. I’m obviously elated if my books get decent reviews, and wounded by the shitty ones, but I’ve been able to watch the feedback on the film unfold with a cold eye. The reviews have been pretty mixed so far, and that’s fine. It is what it is. It’s a very different vision from the book, which I knew to expect. The novel is quite brutal and intense, and the film has some of that, but it’s not able to go as far into the extremism of the characters for obvious reasons. It does other things however that the novel couldn’t really do.

One thing I noticed is that even the bad critics all agreed that the acting was superb. It features some serious stars like Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit), Dean-Charles Chapman (1917; Game of Thrones) and Finn Cole (Peaky Blinders; Dreamland) — and they’re all incredible.

Would you have rather the film had made it to screen nearer to the novel’s publication or do you think it’s benefited from the distance?

In mercenary terms, it’s great. I’ve written two more books in the years since finishing Here Are the Young Men, but now the film is out, it’s almost an advertisement for the novel and keeps people reading it. In fact, it’s been a really fun year or so with loads of diverse projects on the go, including the publication of Threshold, the film release and the Das Wasteland record.

It’s obviously disappointing that it didn’t get to come out in the cinema immediately due to the plague factor but I can’t wait to see it when it does, which should hopefully be soon. It looks like it’ll be a proper blast watching on the big screen, especially given the soundtrack, which is one of my favourite parts.

What’s on the soundtrack?

There are some great techno tracks and tonnes of different artists on there. Ryan Potesta came up with this gorgeous, ambient score and in between, there’s a bunch of classic late-90s, early-00s tunes from bands like Fontaines D.C., Primal Scream and Slowdive.

Any chance of Threshold hitting the screen?

It’s such a different book from Here Are the Young Men. Obviously, I’d never sit down thinking I’ll write something that can be adapted, but I was already imagining Here Are the Young Men on the screen by the time I’d finished it because it’s so visual. Threshold though is far more personal, non-linear and introspective. In fact, it’s probably unfilmable, although I’d love to see someone attempt it!

For anyone who hasn’t read Threshold, what is the Berlin you were looking to portray and how has your perception of it changed over the last couple of years?

The chapter on Berlin is about mid-30s drift and disquiet. I wrote it around the time I moved to Berlin in the winter a few years ago, so it conveys something of where I was mentally back then and the doubts I had. It was a rich time in my life but also a period of loneliness. I would take the S-Bahn around this cold, dark city and it felt like there was a real mood. At the same time, I was discovering Berlin, especially the nocturnal, hedonistic side of it, and wanted to capture that alongside the melancholy.

These days it does feel like it’s home for want of a better word. A bunch of my mates are there and I have my favourite places. Berlin is just a very congenial place for art and creativity with an enjoyable quality of life. Although things have changed a lot since I moved there, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still drawn to the city's famously decadent side!

Das Wasteland Berlin: Vol 1&2 is Das Wasteland Record's debut release. Pre-order the limited edition double vinyl here

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