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Recovering from Booker frenzy

DECCAN CHRONICLE | ROHINI NAIR
Published Nov 22, 2015, 5:25 am IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 12:47 am IST
DBC Pierre
 DBC Pierre

His debut novel, Vernon God Little, won the 2003 Man Booker Prize. Twelve years and several novels later, DBC Pierre says he’s finally back to writing the way he wants

It’s a bright November morning, and the writer DBC (“Dirty But Clean”) Pierre has just given a talk at the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest on “Releasing the bats: Letting out the book within”. The audience is appreciative. Pierre has deflected questions on his fabled, checkered past (which included battling a drug addiction, financial cheating, even stealing a police car) with a quiet humour. He has also answered questions about whom you should show your unfinished manuscript to (“ no one!”), how many chapters of a manuscript you should send to a prospective publisher (“three”) and what keeps a writer going from one book to the next (he compares it to swimming in a dark sea, with no glimpse of the other side; then says that the feeling of reaching the far shore is an addictive one that keeps writers coming back for more).

 

After his talk, fans cluster around, hoping for a word with the author, getting copies of Vernon signed (Pierre doesn’t just dash off his name, he draws quirky doodles in each book), clicking selfies (he pulls out a few `100 notes from his wallet and strikes a ‘gangsta’ pose for a couple of them). Then, he follows me out onto the lawns of the National Centre for Performing Arts, with the promise of a chat while he soaks up some sun and smokes one of his hand-rolled cigarettes.

Pierre is in his mid-50s, a tall, fair man with sunburned skin. Even keeping aside all the colourful stories about his past, he seems like a far cry from the sedate, pedantic types one thinks would win Bookers. Instead, he seems to be cast in that other mould of writers — Hemingway, Kerouac, Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud and the like — hell raisers all, with a larger-than-life image. “Well it wasn’t my fault! I didn’t volunteer!” says Pierre, of the public impression of him. He tells us a story about meeting with Fernanda Pivano — the longtime companion or muse of Ernest Hemingway, Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Ginsberg, Burroughs etc and a leading influence in literary circles in Italy — before Vernon God Little was published, and her advice to him then: “You need a figura!” She even created said figura for Pierre, which he says virtually painted him as “being raised by foxes on the mountainside”. “I never used it,” says Pierre. “What you see (and read about) is a condensation of 15 years of my life in 10 anecdotes. And in between all that, I was normal and watching TV and being quiet. But you put all that (the stories about my past) together and people go like, ‘Wow! Wild man!’ and I turn up and they’re disappointed because they expect me to jump from the ceiling!”

Moving on from his past to his literary present, Pierre wrote Vernon — whose titular character is accused of going on a rampage in his high school and killing several classmates — in the pre-Columbine High School massacre era, right after the first-such incident took place. With its plot and focus on the all-pervasiveness of reality television, Vernon God Little was prescient in many ways. Pierre began writing it on a borrowed laptop, and the first page of the novel emerged in a spontaneous rush. The book was written out of anger, Pierre says: Anger at society, at the ‘system’, at our culture and skewed values, the anger of a visual artist who couldn’t afford the mediums he needed to express himself. That anger has continued to spur him on though his later books like Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland, Breakfast With The Borgias as well.

“A novel doesn’t answer any questions of course, but it does ask a question — and all my novels ask the same question: ‘What the hell is going on?’ And they’re all in the voice of someone going, ‘How is that we can value this and not that?’” says Pierre, explaining what moves him to write. He’s also firm in his belief that a novel is one of the “last places where one can still speak the truth”. “Cinema and television as communication mediums are completely corrupt because they’re profit engines. They’re not trustworthy and because they’re broadcast, there are a lot of restrictions on what you can say. But with a novel or a book, you can still say what you want. It’s getting more restricted now in some senses, but you can still tell nuanced truths. And though a book has to have a plot to be profitable, literature exists to say the things we can’t say in polite conversations. The life underneath, that we all live, but can’t talk about.”

His next novel, Pierre reports, is about the speed of change, and of a character trying to deal with it. It’s early days yet, but “the writing’s much better”, he says. “It’s taken me 10 years to recover from the Booker, to recover from all the pressure and what I’ve learnt about publishing. With this book, I don’t care anymore what anyone thinks, which is how it should be. With the others, I was thinking, ‘Oh my editor wants this’ this will be the first book since Vernon God Little where I have expressed myself clearly, the way I would if it was never to be published.”

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