Interview: Why little is best for DBC Pierre
The Booker winner tells Paul Bignell how he first became inspired to write his new volume of short stories
Paul Bignell is an Assistant News Editor at The Independent. He has previously been the acting News Editor of the i Paper, a home news reporter for The Independent for one year and a reporter for the Independent on Sunday for six years.
Saturday 31 August 2013
Despite having only just stepped off a plane from Australia, D B C Pierre is in a buoyant and garrulous mood when we meet at a central London hotel. Aided by two cups of coffee, which he drinks in quick succession, the winner of both the 2003 Man Booker and Whitbread First Novel prizes for his debut novel Vernon God Little is trying to get into his new collection of short stories.
Petit Mal looks more akin to one of those lavish CD box sets, complete with hard case and collectors' edition postcards. "We wanted something where the object was good, you know?" he says in a hybrid accent of Australian, American, English and now Irish – the remnants of his chaotic and peripatetic upbringing.
The new book, a collection of short stories and vignettes punctuated by his own photographs, illustrations and cartoons, neatly bookends his previous three novels. It contains the trademark "Pierrian" themes and ideas with which readers of his previous work will be well acquainted: the absurd; the lurid; the whimsical. Peppered with drink, drugs, descriptions of food and memories, they also now feature fragments of memoir.
One story, "Pharmageddon", which begins, "You know it's a hard party when your dog has a breakdown", is about his time as an adolescent when he was entrusted with looking after the family home in Mexico City. His father had become gravely ill and had to be treated in New York, leaving the 16-year-old Pierre to his own devices (and vices): "Yeah, that was growing up," he says. "I had a very rarefied upbringing in Mexico City. Mexico is a chaotic, mad place. Most of the mates I grew up with are dead."
Pierre, now 52, (real name Peter Finlay - DBC stands for "Dirty But Clean") says the idea for the new collection grew after his editor heard him reading some short stories at a literary festival.
"Since I was first published I'd found it difficult to find a nugget to read from a novel. They're all on their way somewhere, you know. They all have a beginning, middle and an end …. And so I gave up about 18 months ago. Then, at a show that my editor attended, I read some pieces that were short and complete within themselves … it grew from that."
In his baritone voice, with the occasional roguish chuckle, his answers sometimes wander into pseudo-philosophical realms: "I'm fascinated because we're in a time now where the 'real' has departed from what we deal with every day – they've been levered apart."
But it's when he's blunt and straightforward that he's at his most compelling: "I was a great bullshit artist all my youth."
Things have quietened down for the author since his life changed irrevocably 10 years ago. His last two novels, Ludmila's Broken English in 2006 and 2010's Light's Out in Wonderland received lukewarm reviews and suspicion grew that he might be a one-hit wonder.
"My only problem is that since Vernon did so well the publisher has demanded more. The freedom to do what you want only really happens when you don't make a deal with a publisher. So, I'm back at that deal finally – with this new book I could play with ideas while I get the next novels going."
He uses such adjectives as "weird" or "mad" to describe the giddy moments after finishing Vernon. After sending it to 12 literary agents only to hear nothing, he tried his luck with a new company, Conville and Walsh. Another year passed before it reached the top of their slush pile. "Boom! Within 10 days they had sold it in seven languages," he says. "It's amazing how stuff can turn on a dime like that."
The deal, signed just 45 minutes before the horror of 9/11 struck, was a triumph against all the odds, he felt. "It was strange, because the first novel I wrote was about a kid in an impossible situation who had a completely implausible triumph against all the odds, and writing that gave me – in a similarly impossible situation – a triumph."
The "impossible situation" he talks of could realistically be many points in his life prior to the penning of Vernon.
He was born in South Australia, but as the son of a university lecturer in genetics, he was already well-travelled before he started school. The family eventually settled in Mexico where he spent most of his childhood, though his later travels took him to Britain, the US and back to Australia.
There he "spent the whole time either in court or in hospital" (he lifts his fringe to reveal a huge scar running from his hairline to the top of his nose; the right side of his face around the eye contains a metal plate, the result of a car crash).
After a spell back in Mexico, during which he was caught smuggling cars over the border from Texas, and some years spent in a drug-induced haze, he was, by the 1990s, holed up in a flat in Balham, south London, writing Vernon.
From the moment he won the Booker in 2003 the paparazzi laid siege to the town of Ballinamore in County Leitrim, where he had moved and still lives, trying to figure out who this outsider was who had turned the literary world upside down. But his new compatriots have kept him grounded. "The locals are as good as gold," he says of his neighbours. "They treat me the same now as when I first arrived."
Thankfully for him, the peace and solitude of rural Ireland has afforded him the anonymity and stability he has perhaps craved.
'Night', from Petit Mal By D B C Pierre
Faber £25 (special edition) £9.99 (ebook)
'The sky rose glowing city-black, moth eaten, till earlier coatings of night shone through in a blue of young flame. I was lit again after a long, deplorable state, heavy with all things of life, only grunting instead of speaking crisp words, not daring to care. My friend: the first thing is to arm a bacchanal. If we live half as angels and half as pigs, it's because we don't do the things that unite our halves.'
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