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A Talk With DBC Pierre, Creator of Vernon God Little

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With DBC Pierre
Author of Vernon God Little
Winner of the 2003 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

By Doris Booth

December 2003

Vernon God Little Cover

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LONDON/12/02/03 – —Australian-born author DBC Pierre, whose real name is Peter Finlay, won the 2003 Man Booker Prize for Fiction in October. He will earn £50,000 ($80,000) with a satirical tale of contemporary America, titled Vernon God Little, published by Faber & Faber.

Pierre's debut novel, portrays a fifteen-year-old boy, innocently accused of a high school massacre. DBC Pierre's unique novel has been described as like "Flannery O'Connor on an overdose of amphetamines and cable television." The author is an internationally published cartoonist, who was born in Australia, grew up in Mexico and now resides in Ireland. Here's an inside look into his thoughts and working life.

 

AUTHORLINK: The selection of your book for the United Kingdom's most prestigious fiction award has been somewhat controversial. Why?

PIERRE: In the history of the prize, Vernon God Little is a distinct and unusual choice. In my mind, the prize has gone to venerable and crusty heavyweight literary types who have produced a body of work. My book is not only a first novel with a story line, but it's comical. So it's an underdog choice.

AUTHORLINK: Where did you get your pen name?

PIERRE: My best friend gave me the nickname when I was about 14 years old. It comes from the cartoon character, Dirty Pierre. But I've worked my way to a cleaner life. I'm a much tamer man now.

AUTHORLINK: What is the story about?

PIERRE: Vernon God Little constructs a world made entirely of sewn-together media clips and impressions of America and the developed world. We live in a media-controlled age where really the only information we get is in one-minute sound bites. We never see 95 percent of the culture that gets up, goes to work, and makes the place tick. The novel takes salacious bits and patches them into a setting. Vernon is a regular 15-year-old kid caught in the middle. The coming-of-age story kicks off just after a high school massacre in his little town in central Texas. The book is not really about that, but it deals with the increasing guilt the character comes under for involvement in the massacre. Between the media and townspeople he gets slowly drawn into the vortex of guilt and tries to find himself.

"The novel had

 

to be set in Texas . . ."

—Pierre AUTHORLINK: How does a British author write about Texas? And why Texas?

PIERRE: I spent some part of the first sixteen years of my life in Texas. I grew up in Mexico where my Dad was working as a scientist. My family often visited friends and relatives in Texas. One of the sound bites I refer to in the book is about the death penalty and execution. The novel had to be based in Texas so the character could face that situation. So I carefully constructed a fictional place in the middle of the state.

AUTHORLINK: Why has your book been likened to some of the classics?

PIERRE: The work has been compared to Catcher in the Rye. It's narrated in the boy’s own voice. Never mind the trouble he gets into, the story begins with the adolescent phase, which can be either really great or really awful. Vernon has a cynical dissatisfied voice as he is tries to figure out truth. The adult world is only interested in its own needs and purposes. He is a classic teenager. I suppose the voice bears a resemblance to Catcher in the Rye, but it is a much more lurid story.

". . . in a curious way, America has

 

misrepresented its success."

—Pierre

AUTHORLINK: How did the idea for the story originate?

PIERRE: There were two catalysts. In 1999, before terrorism, back when things were normal to the extent they ever are, I thought about what an interesting position our shared British and American culture had gotten itself into. It's as if the news media has thrown a wreath around us. We’ve espoused a free market philosophy, and the market will only play the things that sell. The stuff that sells is only the outrageous from the edges of culture. Our views of the world are formed from those outrageous pieces. It occurred to me that it is getting harder to gain a realistic opinion. Ninety-nine percent of the world never comes to America to see what the country is really like. Secondly, in a curious way, America has misrepresented its success. Not only is weird stuff getting shown on TV, the phenomenon of the high school incident becomes a curious motif of our time—that well fed children could take guns and blow other kids away. I based the book on a specific event that happened before Columbine. A 13-year-old boy destroyed his own life and a bunch of others. This telling image made me ask all sorts of questions. Who was around him? What were the circumstances? The images led me to symbolize the old innocence, bright-eyed and optimistic, and the novel came out of me in the voice of a teenager. What would it be like to grow up in this day and age and make sense of it? Your own environment might be normal, yet still under the influence of the media.

Vernon God Little takes all of his information about life from TV. He feels the world runs the same way as a TV movie runs. The novel is written in a bright, "B" grade movie format with a farcical plot. It's about kids in the middle trying to figure out what’s real.

AUTHORLINK: How did you become a writer?

PIERRE: In a way, I became a writer out of desperation. It was an organic thing. I have always been an artist, tried everything—painting, filmmaking, cartooning. None of these professions did much for me; weren't big enough. [Note: He’s well-known for his cartoons in Europe]. I had completely messed up my youth with a serious drug habit and ended in debt. I cheated people out of money and by age 30, I went into drug treatment for a couple of years. I had lost the confidence to land a decent job, and spent the last dozen years just reorganizing myself. In an act of desperation at the end of my 30s, I had to do something to get me back into life. The writing fueled me. I was energized by the story of a kid in increasing trouble. I turned the energy of regret into the energy of work.

AUTHORLINK: How did you find a publisher?

PIERRE: I didn’t have any experience at writing. I jumped into the deep end and found it very hard. I had no craft and had to learn as I went along. I finished the work in March 2001, but I didn't know how to sell it. I sent it out to agents from a writer’s guide, posted it to a dozen people and to this day I have not heard from half of them. By August that year, after a number of rejections, I was ready to give up. Curiously, I was offered the first job I had been offered in years, as a designer in Saudi Arabia. I took the job in the least fun city of Saudi Arabia. Out of the blue I was contacted by agent Clare Conville. Somehow my manuscript had made its way up the slush pile in her agency. She said she loved the novel. I signed on with her and within ten days she sold it in seven languages. Since then, I have discovered how very busy publishers and agents are in London. We live in a time when everybody thinks he can write a book. All these pros can do is box up the manuscripts and send them out to college readers. If they find one good novel in 5,000 they consider themselves fortunate. I had a stroke of luck. And I was knocked flat when Faber and Faber bought the book.

"The book nearly killed me. It was the single biggest thing in my life."

 

—Pierre

AUTHORLINK: How does all this success feel?

PIERRE: Extraordinary! I haven’t made sense of it yet. To end up on the long-list for the Man Booker prize among 117 submissions this year was, in itself extraordinary for me. To be short-listed a month later was truly amazing. I thought it was a great honor to be long-listed, but I didn't think to get any further. The Prize in England has a curious fallout. The British bet on it. My odds shortened at the bookies. I was in the back end of the field 4-or 5-to-1, I felt like a horse for the whole month of October when the judges were deciding winners. Monica Alee had been picked as the 2-to-1 favorite for Brick Lane. Vernon even beat out Margaret Atwood. I don't know what the judges saw in the book, perhaps a certain timely energy.

AUTHORLINK: As a poor artist, how did you sustain yourself while writing?

PIERRE: I've got a girlfriend who supported me while I wrote the book. She used to get up and go to work, and I would cook and clean and keep house. After she had gone to bed at night, I would sit down to write. Now I have been able to take her out of work and send her back to school. We have a kind of alternating current!

AUTHORLINK: What was the actual process of writing like for you?

PIERRE: The book nearly killed me. It was the single biggest thing in my life. At one point, I began hallucinating about rats and cockroaches. If I had known how hard it was to write, I might not have done it. By the time I knew, I was too far into the process to quit.

AUTHORLINK: What kept you going?

PIERRE: The single biggest thing was to keep at it, not give up, and not be afraid to edit the thing. Sometimes I would wake up euphoric and other times in despair. I would lose the objective sense of what I was trying to say. I used my nickname on the book to give me a sense of detachment. Looking at it as someone else’s work made me more objective in editing it. I once thought that a manuscript just came out fully formed. Ninety percent of the work is in the editing, and in keeping the book out there in the marketplace all the time.

"For me personally,

 

I feel I have found my niche."

—Pierre AUTHORLINK: After such a misspent youth, were your parents proud of you having won the Man Booker?

PIERRE: My father died when I was 19, but my Mom was there for the awards ceremony. It was the first opportunity I had had to give her a proud moment. I had been one of those kids everybody said had promise, yet I did the opposite and disgraced myself. It felt extraordinary to give my mom one evening to make it all worthwhile.

AUTHORLINK: And what does this literary success mean to you?

PIERRE: For me personally, I feel I have found my niche. I am grateful that I can continue doing such a lovely thing. When all the fuss dies down and the book tours are over, I’ll be able to sit quietly and do the thing I love doing— write.

AUTHORLINK: When do you find time to write?

PIERRE: I still write all night when it's very quite and the hours fly by. I do inconsequential bits of cleaning up and editing during the day. We all have dream energy that happens at night. I get my characters to awaken then, and I am more creative.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have other novels underway?

PIERRE: I have nearly finished a second book. It is set in Europe and involves migration and globalization. A couple of smug British characters think they can bring order to the rest of the world and get eaten alive by the hungry humanity around them.

I have moved from London where the rent was killing me to a tranquil little corner of Ireland to plumb my imagination.

I have ideas for 21 other novels. I’ll die before I get them all done, unless I work really fast.

—Doris Booth