Interviews / Novelists

Interview with DBC Pierre: “I wake up stupid and grow sharper as the day progresses.”

DBC Pierre was born in 1961 in Reynella, Australia. He spent his childhood in both Mexico and the UK, and now calls Ireland his home. Prior to his career as a novelist, Pierre worked as a designer and an internationally published cartoonist.

Pierre burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel, Vernon God Little, in 2003. The novel, a dark satire set in the aftermath of a Texas high school massacre, was an immediate success and was awarded the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction that same year.

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Hi DBC, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Vernon God Little was awarded the Man Booker Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award in 2003. Can you describe what inspired you to write this book and what the experience of winning such prestigious awards was like for you?

I was inspired to write Vernon by the extraordinary and tragic modern phenomenon of highschool shootings. How can we normalise an age where affluent young people kill their affluent young fellows, what kind of monster has society become; these were the thoughts. Sometimes we all get that fleeting jamais-vu where we feel like aliens suddenly glimpsing a foreign planet – the book is that. What is really happening? And yet our situation still has abundant love, no harder to find than it ever was.

The book looks at all the human forces at play in the aftermath of a shooting. It was wild that it went out and got some prizes. Numbing, because many things which would have been a highlight in life individually – particularly the people you meet – now come at you in deluge, like a years-long wedding where you meet everyone for two minutes. You have to sit later and gather up the memories.

Vernon God Little is a darkly humorous novel, and you have been described as having a unique comedic voice. How do you approach infusing humor into your writing?

Humour naturally lives around tragedy, and the only way to treat it in fiction – for me – is to ramp up the colour and spice. Because look at us – we are gloriously absurd, forgivable in general but with a great appetite for darkness and pain, and for playing with fire. I found that humour also gives an adjacency effect: we can stand alongside reality and maybe process it more easily. Humour, I think, is a therapeutic reaction from the unconscious, where horror lives.

Your background is quite unique, with your childhood spent in Mexico, followed by time in Ireland, and now living in Cambridgeshire. How has your life experience influenced your writing?

Broad tastes! Nothing seems unusual when you’ve seen how different people do things. You come to realise how truly universal we are, how similar in most ways, which does help when crafting characters; everyone might react differently to a given situation, but all will react in some understandable way (even if – or perhaps especially if – the reaction is whimsical or wrong). In the end, the little gap between unfolding facts and the truths we make of them is the workspace of life and of literature – the more we can see that gap at work, the better we can create and understand characters.

Vernon God Little was adapted for the London stage. Can you tell us about the process of adapting your work for the stage and your experience with this project?

Ha, I can tell you how the process of adapting the work for theatre went for me, it only involved showing up to the premiere and getting drunk afterwards. All its genius was provided by the writer Tanya Ronder and director Rufus Norris, who took the ball and ran headlong with it. I think I gave some pointers on Mexican swearing to the cast, but that was all – and I’m glad, as it was brought to life in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. It was strange to watch, so familiar but so new.

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What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Coffee. Coffee. Smoke. Angst. Calm. Coffee. Resolve. Coffee. Smoke. Reflection. Tea. Writing. Bed.

I write by night, as every day seems like a tiny lifetime – I wake up stupid and grow sharper as the day progresses – so it makes sense to work at the wiser end of the scale. I do often wake up with ideas, though, snatched from half-dreams, but otherwise the daytime is best for mundanity and administration. After dark, when all the meals are eaten, all duties are carried out – then a clear space opens up, a timeless space punctuated only by owls, and that’s when I write. By midnight the blood is singing and I can go until dawn if there’s a following breeze behind the work.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

It would probably be Thomas Mann, or Goethe. I mean, we can imagine the routine of anyone as messy and modern as us, its variations from our own would be down to individual habits and quirks. Baudelaire would be fun, but we wouldn’t get around to talking about routine.

Likewise we can imagine the writers of deeper history being confined to the rhythms of their time, working longhand by daylight through a window, or by candlelight. But those writers of the highest order who appeared after the novel took its recognised shape, when it was ascending as a form – they broke the ground we now tread, and some did it with strict and tireless discipline. I think Thomas Mann would be the masterclass, or Flaubert if we needed the impetus of romance.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite reads?

Just now I’m plowing through Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, as a socio-historical exercise. Before that, Mexican author Benito Taibo and his novel Persona Normal; and speaking of Mexico, one of my favourite works, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño – a Chilean who set the work in Mexico City. Beyond them, I liked Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo, My Documents by Alejandro Zambra, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, and my all-time good read – Papillon, by Henri Charriere. Really, every book is my favourite for a while, the list is endless.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Remarkably presentable, and not a fire risk of post-it notes.

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