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"Write what fires you up, the rest will come:" interview with the author DBC Pierre

DBC Pierre was the surprise-outsider who won the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for his debut novel Vernon God Little. The “recovering Booker-winner” talks about his own worst demons, how that first manuscript rose to the top of the slush pile, and offers advice to other writers who may be feeling lost. Interview by Sophie Haydock

  • Your pen name is DBC Pierre, which stands for “Dirty But Clean”. There’s obviously a story behind how you got it – can you share it? Why use it instead of Peter Finlay? Did you feel the need to hide as a writer?
    DBC comes down to a philosophical decision, which is: when we’re hanging by a branch over a cliff and promise to join the priesthood if we’re saved, or when we’re drinking around a card table and pledge to wear a bear costume to work on Monday – do we respect those pledges from the cold light of a later day? I say we have to. DBC thankfully arose at the card table and not the cliff – or I’d be Father DBC – and was never a pledge, but a nickname given me in youth, during bad times, by a great friend – himself known as Hedgehog – after a cartoon character of the 1960s called Dirty Pierre.

    It stuck to me and I argued over the years to have it changed to Clean Pierre, but the closest my friends would allow was Dirty But Clean. I was known as Pierre for so long that I never thought of putting any other name on my first manuscript, it had really grown out of those times.

    Then, having used it on the manuscript I discovered something – by using an alter on the work, I could judge and edit more harshly, as family pride and expectation weren’t present there in my name. Good technique for anyone to achieve objectivity, put Ernest Hemingway on the title page and rip it to shreds. As for the philosophical decision, it came when the work was going to be published – having unthinkingly used the nickname for the writing, did I now change it for the work’s publication? I had to stick with the spirit of that card table. Or what else do we have in life?

    You won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for your debut novel Vernon God Little in 2003. How did that feel? Did you feel it that you deserved it?
    Who knows if I deserved it, obviously it also takes some luck, and there’s a curious disconnect between a writer and her or his books once they’re finished, as if we’re strangely not responsible, as if we’re just another reader. It was an amazing and unexpected win, and if for no other reason than the book was in the right place at the right time, it deserved it, I guess, even if I didn’t. I had never turned up for my literature A-Level at school, and the Man Booker in 2003 was chaired by the emeritus Merton professor of literature at Oxford, John Carey –that was the biggest buzz for me. Although he told me the school board wouldn’t necessarily accept the Man Booker in exchange for an A-Level.

    There’s a quote that you regard yourself as “a recovering Booker-winner”. How did the win affect how you wrote afterwards and your own sense of self as an author? Were there any dramatic changes?
    Huge, I guess especially for a rookie, because you still haven’t found your feet, still haven’t worked out if or where you fit. I took it as a licence to two things: to keep trying to write, and to really take some punts, to not sell-out with it. The only difficult thing about a win like that is it puts the industry into profit, which can put it on your back with a riding crop, plus your days suddenly fill with publicity work. The sheer noise of it works against writing for a while, but what a trip, I feel as lucky as hell, and I’ve met some great people along the way.

    Tell us about your writing process – what are you biggest obstacles and demons?
    The only obstacle and demon is myself. It took me a while to figure out that the combustion that comes from not knowing what we’re doing, not knowing where a narrative will go, or if it will even go, or if it should go – all that uncertainty, that fear, that space of “negative capability”, I suppose – is what drives much worthwhile writing. My process is to write by night and edit by day, a kind of schizophrenia, a bipolarity of abandon followed by sober reconsideration. It takes some coffee.

    You wrote a collection of “short fiction, philosophical vignettes and aphoristic interludes”, Petit Mal, published in 2013. Why go short?
    Petit Mal was a family day out. The notion was that kids have it best with books, they get picture books with all kinds of lurid ideas in them whereas adults are stuck with lengthy texts – so it was a kids’ book for adults, a collection of fragments and pictures and foods for thought.

    Which is the favourite short story that you’ve written – and why?
    Suddenly Doctor Cox, a true story from the Caribbean – I felt it all the more strongly for being about a character I knew well, a guy with an unbelievable life. It was originally written for Oxfam, and is now published alone as a cool little hardback by Hay Festival Press.

    Do you enjoy the short story form? Are there any short stories that have had a profound effect on you?
    I love reading short stories, and I’m aware from brief experience what a specialist form they are. It’s easier to lose mistakes into a novel, whereas a good short story has no fat, seems halfway to a poem in many respects. I love the discipline of it; I bow to those masters of the form. The one that most recently lit me up is a short story by Robert Coover called Going for a Beer, and so help me, the thing is as close an expression of life and time, and perception of life and time, as I’ve read in any form – it shifts and skips in just the way a memory does.

    Was it hard for you to be taken seriously as a writer? How did you convince your literary agent at Conville & Walsh to take you on? Why do you think yours emerged victoriously from the slush pile?
    Taken seriously? I’m still trying to take myself seriously, so let’s all work on this together. I finished my first manuscript before looking for an agent, sent it unsolicited to 12 agencies and got nowhere – half still haven’t replied. I decided to send it to a 13th, unsolicited, which was Conville & Walsh – now C+W – where a reader sent it up to the attention of Clare Conville herself, and she got it. She read it on the Tube, kept reading, and got the thing, tracked me down and sold it in a number of countries within days – just a whirlwind. When you make a connection like that it feels fated, you really learn about the energy that travels between people through writing, that reaches out to find cohorts, even just one is enough; and if you’re lucky it’s an agent like that.

    What advice would you give to others who are struggling with the writing process and feeling lost and nihilistic? It can all be found in Release the Bats, of course, which is an excellent treatise on writing and your own creative process, but if you had to sum it up…
    Pledge never to show anyone, then write what pleases you. Sounds stupid but much of the time we’re agonising over something that comes from expectations. Come away from what’s agonising and write what pleases you, write the dialogue you should have had with the last person who got on your nerves, make it personal, write your real opinion – then put it in a character’s mouth. As soon as we’re fired up it will take off by itself. Write what fires you up, the rest will come. And remember: anything goes.

    What’s the best advice you’ve never taken?
    “Never listen to anyone.” Ha.

    Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It (Faber & Faber £12.99) is out now