Debut novelist defies odds to win Booker prize

By Louise Jury,Arts Correspondent
Wednesday 02 October 2013 02:43

A reformed drug addict and gambler who won the £50,000 Man Booker prize with his first novel last night said he would spend all of the money paying off his debts.

Peter Finlay, 42, who writes under the pen name D B C ­ for Dirty But Clean ­ Pierre, looked stunned when he beat the bookies' favourite Monica Ali to win Britain's most prestigious literary prize at the British Museum in London.

Joking that he had "picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue", he paused to embrace another shortlisted author, Margaret Atwood, thanked his family for having "planted the idea I could do anything" and then apologised to them for having taken so long to do so.

He confessed it was regret at his past behaviour that had compelled him to write. "To be honest, if there's a single pressure that has brought me to writing, it's regret. That's rocket fuel for this kind of art. I've got regret for the rest of my life," he said.

He spent years as a drug addict, had sold his best friend's home and kept the proceeds, and accumulated debts at least three times the size of last night's winnings. But he said it "made sense" that the money from his novel, Vernon God Little, should reimburse the many people who had supported him in the past.

Vernon God Little was the unanimous choice of the Booker judges, chaired by Professor John Carey, who took less than an hour to decide. The novel is the black comic story of Vernon Gregory, a Texan teenager who is put on trial over a massacre at his high school. Professor Carey described it as a "coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with modern America". It beat a shortlist which included Brick Lane, the highly favoured first novel by Monica Ali, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, the only established author to make it through to the final round of judging.

Martyn Goff, the director of the Man Booker prize, said he was "absolutely amazed" at the swiftness of the decision which was made after the second shortest debate in the prize's 35-year history. "Four of them jumped as one and the fifth [member of the jury] was not unhappy," he said.

The judges were particularly convinced by the way the author was able to create such a strong sense of America. "There was a feeling that it could only have been written by an American whereas we all know it wasn't written by an American," Mr Goff said.

Finlay said there were some elements of his own life written into the book. Although he describes himself as British, he was born in Mexico into a wealthy family which lost virtually everything when the country's banks were nationalised in in 1982. He later spent some time in Australia. "My youth was an incredibly deviated and mis-energetic affair," he said. He currently lives in Ireland and is close to finishing his second book.

Of last night's prize, he said: "I'm very honoured and rather than any kind of glory, I'll take it as permission to write more."

Martin Higgs, literary editor of Waterstone's, said: "The storyline for this book is one that you would as much see played out today on the six o'clock news as read in a novel and has for this reason struck a chord with book-lovers.

"The book is unusual and quirky and also follows the tradition of small guy getting back on top which is hugely appealing. The fact that it has won may represent a generation shift for the Man Booker towards younger writers."

The book was second favourite to win last night, behind Ali, the 35-year-old writer who created a flurry of interest even before her debut novel was published when she was named one of Granta's best young British novelists.The other shortlisted books were The Good Doctor, by the South African writer Damon Galgut, Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall, a 51-year-old music teacher whose first four novels were all rejected by publishers and Notes on a Scandal by the journalist Zoe Heller, 38.

Professor Carey described this year's Booker as the year of the giant killers when big-name authors including Martin Amis, Melvyn Bragg and Graham Swift failed to make it through to the shortlist.

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