Issue 5

Matthew Hull
Interview with DBC Pierre

Trying to get hold of information regarding DBC Pierre’s third novel, Lights out in Wonderland, had proven very difficult. The internet was abuzz with anticipatory mentions: appearances in lit-bloggers' ‘top 10 for 2010’ lists, talk of forthcoming reviews, and chatter - as there always seems to be - of the author’s chequered past. There was nothing concrete though, nothing from Pierre himself, and even the official channels seemed confused or confusing.

A call to his publisher, Faber, yielded little: “I don’t have information on that title yet, except for a release date.” Browsing his agent’s website turned up a detailed recipe for ‘Olive Ridley Turtle Necks in Parmesan & Brioche Crumbs’ in place of a synopsis for the book. Was there a conspiracy to prevent me from discovering any more about the book? I was beginning to feel like a character in one of Pierre’s hallucinatory satires.

“What is the release date they gave you at Faber?” Pierre asks, his voice at once gravel and syrup.

"The second of September, they say."

“Really? The second of September.” His voice quavers a little. He shifts in his chair. Is this unease? Maybe not, his phone is ringing in his pocket; “It’s my editor, sorry.”

We're sitting in the green room at the Martin Harris Centre, which is really a sort of dirty-beige room still buzzing with admin staff from its daytime use as one of the university’s undergraduate affairs offices. Pierre is due on stage in just over an hour, to read from the highly anticipated Lights Out.., and afterwards will be in conversation with his personal friend and Centre for New Writing lecturer, M.J. Hyland. The next morning he will give a short seminar on writing to the Centre’s students, by the end of which he will have charmed them all.

“Yes, they’re looking after me very well,” Pierre says, giving the bottle of beer in his hand a little shake. He nods and cracks a smile.

“I think it’s there. The only thing is that it needs to unfold very clearly and tie itself together correctly. Lay it down for a night and look at the writing.”

Pierre hangs up the phone and takes a drink from the bottle. “My editor has just forestalled the possibility that I would read tonight from a book that he hadn’t read.”

Confirmation, then: there isn't just a tangle of blind alleys, it hasn't been just a labyrinthine Borgesian hoax - the book is real. Now that I know I am eager to find out everything I can. I take a breath and click on the Dictaphone.

Matthew Hull: Can you tell me a little about Lights out in Wonderland? There's a recipe on your agent’s website for turtlenecks in brioche crumbs, is this a reference to something that happens in the book or an elaborate red herring?

DBC Pierre: The book is an allegorical bildungsroman, not quite a novel as we know it. It’s on the theme of decadence. It takes the story of a young product of our time in Britain who has a whole range of modern afflictions: he is an anti-capitalist and manic depressant, he has decided that the place has gone to the dogs like the fall of Rome. The markets have leeched every protein out of the culture; there is nothing left which is unaffected by the notion of profit. This is to the extent that he begins to see this even his anti-capitalist action groups.

So, in the tail-end of one of his depressions, he decides he will kill himself. But then he realises he doesn’t have to go through with it immediately and decides to have one last good drink, one last great party. This is where it starts and the whole book is him trying to find that one last good drink, and getting a re-education in the process.

This guy is a failed chef - he was always a bit timid around knives and flames - and so in the course of the story he comes upon some real hardcore kitchen underworld chefs, and at his last party ends up involved in a banquet that's like nothing anyone's seen since the fall of Rome. They’re eating endangered species – panda bear and Bengal tiger and the like. And this is where the allegory really kicks in, his final binge is exactly what the market has been doing: eating, deforesting everything around. So that's where the recipe's from.

And the recipes I’ve included are completely genuine. I’ve spoken to a combination of vets, zoologists and chefs who’ve collaborated to see how you would make a great meal from these animals, so there are seven recipes up for rare creatures.

MH: I read recently that Charles Darwin was an experienced eater of rare and unusual animals.

DBC: Yes the giant tortoise - apparently it’s meant to be really delicious!

MH: I read that he took several on the journey back from the Galapagos but that he and the crew managed to eat them all before they got back to England.

DBC: Yes! There’s a giant tortoise in the book. Apparently the best thing is you can eat every part of them. The brain and the flippers and the belly – everything is great in a tortoise. I heard somewhere that there was no Latin name for them across two or three hundred years because one didn’t last long enough to make back for study. They were just automatically eaten.

MH: There is a master’s degree here at The Centre for New Writing in Creative Writing. Can you teach someone to write?

DBC: Oh, definitely. I don’t know if you can teach them to write something good, but you can definitely show them how to do the mechanics of it. It’s surprising how much technique there is in it.

It has two sides to it. The pure creative side, which I always treat in the first draft 'hell-for-leather' without worrying about structure or anything: just write complete crap and then sift through it for the good stuff and build on them and build on them. So I suppose in a way I do the whole thing backwards: I put the architecture on afterwards, and that’s the practical element.

There is an aspect of carpentry to the way you put together a scene and sequel and all those devices used to keep the reader with you in a novel, which I think is an absolute duty. Certainly that can be taught, but whether the things you put in there are any good - well, I can’t say. If you weren’t taught the carpentry, you would have to, by yourself, learn as you went along.

MH: And that’s how you put it together, a mass of creative viscera that you learn to put to bones?

DBC: Yeah, absolutely. It took three drafts, the first one [2003 Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little], but this was helped a little bit because I wanted it very commercial anyway. It was going to be in this TV movie format, so the structure was a little bit worked out for me: I knew it would have cliff-hangers and hooks and all the rest of it. But I did the voice and much of the writing in one burst - about five weeks it took for the first draft - and then, the second draft, I started to have to knock it into order and I put this storyline in but it was complete crap. And then the third one nailed it. And that’s still how I do it, backwards in a way.

I feel there is a body of spirit in you that needs to come into literature and that doesn’t want touching, by any form of technique whatsoever. Put down exactly what comes, put down things you would be afraid to have published in a huge mass - all the midnight oil stuff, the 4.00 in the morning can’t sleep stuff. Then, in a different frame of mind, go through it with ideas for form; and take out the really good stuff.

I have it in a Word document and I literally go through it all and tag sentences and paragraphs and lift them into another document with a table in it, and I would index all the ideas, all the parts of the book, and when I built the structure of it up I was able to pick it out and say 'that will go there, that will go here'. And then I put the thing back together like the brickwork of a house.

MH: That sounds very much like what I have read of Nabokov’s process. I know his unfinished novel [The Original of Laura: A Novel in Fragments] was recently published with index cards so that your reading of the book could in some way reflect the way he was trying to put it together.

DBC: And that’s it. If you believe you’re creative it’s too easy to imagine that whatever you put down on paper is by nature interesting, but really 90 per cent of the work of the book is in editing it and organising the thing. And what I was really heartened to see once I started structuring the thing is that the spirit of what you're trying to write is not killed or dampened by the process but is actually brought out, like setting a gem.

And that must be, of course, part of what the students of creative writing learn here: this process of setting and re-setting. It’s the creative bit they can’t teach but they can teach you the structure of the thing. That is just slog work, like any other job.

MH: Back to the coal face...

DBC: It really is just like that. It’s just onerous, just a horrible grind. But you can get your rocks off in a first draft - you can create the excitement and see something sparkling in all the mud, and there will be mud. I probably write double the words in a first draft that end up in a finished work, that’s how much shit is in there.

And that’s the way I have to do it. If I sat down and thought about structuring sentences and getting everything in the right order I’d never finish anything, I’d still be on the first page. I still do have a bit of a problem with that, but once you learn accept that you’ll be writing crap and embarrassing yourself for around nine months to a year you’ll find stuff within that that you can run with and expand on. Then you can take those bits out, clean them up and build them into something.

MH: In researching your career I came across a wonderful documentary that I had never heard of that you filmed for Channel 4 called The Last Aztec; would you consider working in film or television again?

DBC: I didn’t make that, I just voiced it – sort of led it round. I would love to direct a film. In fact I did once try but got so hammered by the process of trying to get money together to make the thing that I had to end up abandoning it.

My books are quite visual; all I’m doing is describing what I imagine I see. But television, no, and the documentary, no. This [The Last Aztec] was the one I tried to make myself or about the one I tried to make myself.

MH: Even though you might not have written or directed it your passion for the subject really came through. Hernan Cortes, Moctezuma, the Aztecs - is that sort of stuff the kind of subject you would consider mining for a novel?

I spent years trying to get together a story about that, I found this lost valley and all kinds of stuff and I was really excited and it was a movie I wanted to make. As for a novel, probably not but you never know. A lot has already been said about the Aztecs and the problem is it’s a very visual story and I think it lends itself naturally to being filmed. But as I say, never say never – you don’t want to embarrass yourself by having said you won’t do it and then down the line you end up doing it anyway.

MH: DBC thanks.

DBC: No problem. Now you’ll have to sift through all the mud and shit like we just talked about; find the good bits, set the gem, all that stuff.

February 2010