Short Story

An Open Letter of Thanks to Roddy Doyle for “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”

Dear Roddy Doyle:

I am writing to let you know that I admire your work.  I read The Commitments several years ago and admired it greatly.  At the moment, however, I would like to tell you how “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner” offered me a brief moment of relaxation that I truly needed and what the story taught me about writing craft.

This time of my life is very stressful.  I’m bogged down by some of those family issues that can sometimes hold us rapt for decades.  I’m not where I would like to be in my career.  I have been so unsuccessful in romance that I’ve just given up on the prospect of ever having a happy relationship.  (I hasten to point out that the blame is entirely mine.)  A few days ago, I picked up a copy of The Deportees and Other Stories.  The book, thankfully, lived in my car until a few mornings ago, when I found myself up and about at a very early hour in frigid Oswego, New York.  I decided to go to a local diner to have a good, old-fashioned American breakfast.  Needing something to read, I brought The Deportees with me to the table.  My goodness, my problems were gone for an hour and a half as I read a bunch of the stories in the volume.  Instead of spending time alongside money and personal concerns, I passed the time with Larry the loving father, the unnamed young man in love with a Nigerian girl and Alina the nanny.  I love the generosity with which you treat all of your characters and the way you treated your marginalized characters.  At no point are you preachy and boring; the immigrants are real people who simply happen to be from elsewhere.  

I also have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Ireland and its writers.  I spent a wonderful week in your country many years ago and instantly fell in love with the Emerald Isle’s people, food and beer.  (Even the weather, though rainy, suited me just fine.)

Most of all, I am writing to thank you for teaching me about writing craft through your story.  “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner,” originally published in serial form in Metro Éireann and later revised for The New Yorker, is about Larry Linnane and his family.  Larry prides himself on his very progressive outlook on life.  He acknowledges that his grown daughters are human beings and have sex lives and he loves his wife Mona as an equal.  Then his daughter Stephanie mentions Ben, a Nigerian immigrant with whom she has been spending time.  As was the case in the movie from which you borrowed, Larry suffers a number of internal conflicts regarding his daughter’s relationship with a black man.  I don’t want to ruin too much of the story for my readers, but the story is most certainly a fresh look at the subject matter.  (And it’s a lot of fun.)

It’s definitely a very small issue, but it’s one about which I care deeply: what are writers to do with alternative methods of casting our dialogue?  As you know, many writers eschew quotation marks completely, which adds some ambiguity at times.  (I sometimes feel as though the writer is challenging me to put them in so I can know which words are spoken by the character and which aren’t.)  You used the same technique in “Guess Who’s” that you did in The Commitments, placing em-dashes before each line of dialogue.  I admire the way that this choice keeps the lines flowing while keeping the reader informed as to when he or she is reading words that are spoken by characters.

I knew when I read the introduction to your collection that I was going to enjoy the stories.  The brief comments make it clear that the stories were going to be about interesting social developments in Ireland and that you were going to tell me real stories about real characters; you saw that your message was clearly subordinate to your responsibilities as a storyteller.  Further, I loved the conceit of all of the pieces.  You wrote 800-word chapters as your deadline approached.  Sometimes, this resulted in what you call “tennis racket moments,” a reference to the “character in a U.S. TV daytime soap who once went upstairs for his tennis racket, and never came back down.”  Perhaps it was unintentional, but you’ve offered your fellow writers wonderful advice.  Even if our stories aren’t published in serial form, it’s a very good idea to set a deadline and to just WRITE, regardless of the loose ends that we can see poking out of the story as we compose.

Most importantly, your writing is FUN.  During that lonely diner breakfast, I read a horror story, an amusing family drama that ends somewhat unexpectedly and a story about a teenage boy who demonstrates his love for a young Nigerian woman in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated.  I can’t say that I’ve read all of your work, but it is safe to say that you have a wide readership because you appeal to our hearts and our minds in equal measure.  Books such as yours surely capture a great number of readers who may not yet fully understand the awesome power of literature.

So congratulations on all of your well-deserved success and I wish you the best of luck in 2014 and beyond.





Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:

  • Hold your reader’s hand at least a little bit when it comes to dialogue.  So you want to make the artistic choice to omit quotation marks?  Smashing.  Just make sure you give us some easy way to know when your characters are talking.
  • Compose in serial form…even if that’s not how your work is eventually published.  Add 1000 words a week to a story each week and you’ll have a great first draft in a month’s time.  (That draft will probably be filled with dramatic peaks, too!)  Ignore the little mistakes that you notice along the way.
  • Make sure your work is FUN!  We need to win back the proverbial “woman on the bus” who falls into her seat after a long day of work and reads a story on her way home.

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