How We Met: DBC Pierre & Clare Conville

 

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The Independent Online

DBC Pierre, 50

An author born in Australia and raised in Mexico, Pierre won the Booker and Whitbread First Novel awards for his 2003 debut work 'Vernon God Little', the first in a trilogy critiquing the state of the Western world. He lives in Ireland with his partner

I was incredibly poor and unemployed when I sent out Vernon God Little to a dozen agents in March 2001. By August, I'd heard back from half, all rejecting me. The other half I'm still waiting for a response. On an impulse I sent out an extra copy to a new agency, Conville & Walsh. I'd given up when, a few months later, I had an answerphone message and several urgent emails from Clare. For a book to be effective it has to resonate with somebody; and she was the first person in my life who'd read it and really got it. It lit a candle in the darkness and signalled the beginning of a new life.

She was also the first person I ever confessed my entire past to. Within six weeks of meeting, she took me to a club and I said, "Listen, here's the type of shit that's behind me." [Pierre's drug and alcohol abuse in his twenties fuelled a series of crimes including car-smuggling and defrauding a friend of €30,000 in a property scam.] She was completely unshockable and really forgiving; it was better than going to a priest.

Clare runs very deep, so I like to wax philosophical about life with her, but she can be frivolous, too, so we might be out for a drink and I might start talking about the state of Western civilisation and she'll just crack me up with an incredibly dry comment, and that will be the end of it.

She gives the sort of advice that you might get from Confucius – very simple. Around the time of the Booker Prize, it was, "Don't listen to anyone, even me." She was right, though I didn't follow it initially, as it was impossible to resist all the different people offering advice. But she's also always been my buffer to the literary world, so I could go and live out in the wilderness in Ireland.

We're both survivors. A lot of my friends died young from partying, but I was able to escape from the madness and take on board what happened and readjust. And Clare has that mechanism, too. During her divorce it was difficult to see anyone have such a hard period, but it also made me realise she isn't someone who falls apart.

Clare Conville, 48

One of the publishing world's leading figures, Conville was an editor at Random House before co-founding the literary agency Conville & Walsh in 2000. Her clients, who include DBC Pierre, SJ Watson and Sarah Hall, have won or been nominated for almost every major literary prize. She lives in London

Nine years ago I was looking for something to read on the Tube, so I picked up a manuscript from our slush pile and took some chapters home with me. The thing about the slush pile is that there's rarely anything any good on it. But as I read the first chapter [of Vernon God Little] I realised it was brilliant. It was the originality and precociousness of the voice that attracted me. It was funny and dark and summed up a boy's sense of an outside world fantastically. I only had 70 pages so I was desperate to get hold of the author, as I was convinced 400 agents would be piling in once they'd read it.

I invited him to my house to discuss the book and remember seeing this louche figure on my doorstep. He fascinated me: his past, where he's from and where he's been. He came out of a place that wasn't a literary scene and he said, "I don't want to spend too much time being literary; I want to be a writer." That need for bouts of solitude is something we share, though obviously because of my job I can't do the same. We can both be sociable but we also need periods by ourselves.

The Booker has changed his life dramatically. There was a lot of controversial stuff going down [most of the £50,000 prize money went towards repaying debts], which I knew a little about before it all came out in the press, but he knew exactly what he had to do with the prize money, and he did it quite quietly and I was very impressed with how he dealt with it all.

In a world where people can be terribly insular, Pierre breaks down barriers wherever he goes, so he's great fun on a night out. It's his energy, his interest in others and the warmth that draws people to him. Yet even after a few margaritas he's incredibly poised and ruthlessly intelligent. Our collective toast is to hell.

I've been through some difficult stuff of my own,such as when my marriage broke down, and I've really appreciated his quiet support. I've been to stay with him and his partner, and tasted his fantastic food, such as snail stew with chocolate.

He knows that having an extraordinary moment where prizes and money flow his way may not happen again, but I try not to expect anything from Pierre. His achievements are already extraordinary.

'Dangerous Women: The Guide to Modern Life', by Clare Conville, Liz Hoggard and Sarah-Jane Lovett, is published by Orion, priced £14.99

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