An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview
with BOOKER PRIZE Winner DBC Pierre
on MEANWHILE IN DOPAMINE CITY
(Faber and Faber, August 2020)
Winner of the Man Booker, the Whitbread First Novel and recently shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for his latest release, MEANWHILE IN DOPAMINE CITY, a satirical dystopia about a widower struggling to raise two children in an age of digital big tech, DBC Pierre is simply a cut above the rest. Sharp and psychadelic, his words are an intoxicating poke in the heart – each sentence a luminescent story unto itself. We chat to him here at Authorlink about his latest creation.
AUTHORLINK: Pierre, congratulations for being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2020 for Meanwhile in Dopamine City; a complex, refreshing read with an impressive comment on the shift from the organic world to the digital in the last 15 years.
When did you start developing the idea for the themes of this book, and do you remember the initial trigger?
“This was a five year example of an allegory taking a writer hostage…”
DBC PIERRE: Thanks. This was a five year example of an allegory taking a writer hostage, just as Big Tech takes over the town in the book. I started on a completely different theme, but as I have an open door policy regarding contemporary reality entering a book, it was quickly seized by the chaos machine of the day.
AUTHORLINK: We want to know more! What was the original theme? Nowadays, when adults look over at the kids table on an evening out, they see them transfixed with their mobile phones or tablets. No talking, no running amuck. In this regard, we appreciate your observation, that, ”It’s ironic that kids don’t play outside any more because of all the threats on the street. But the moment they have a phone they’re getting date-raped by corporations, farmed by a new kind of capitalism. (23 July 2020, The Times). Would you kindly expand on this?
“…the world’s greatest technological minds are employed designing covert surveillance of even the most intimate human behaviours…”
DBC PIERRE: Some of the world’s greatest technological minds are employed designing covert surveillance of even the most intimate human behaviours via the devices and services we use. The aim is to groom and control behaviour for profit. And if anyone wonders why we suddenly face the comedy of Zoom participants in court hearings being turned into cats, or police authorities tweeting Vulcan salutes, it is that the new market is designed to target adolescents, in the period before they form independent identities, when they can be hooked much more onto likes. Even ‘smart’ dolls and toys can stream data to shadow profiles and algorithms which we’re not entitled to see, the results of which are sold to bidders whom we can’t know. Think about this: in the midst of a juvenile mental health crisis, one social media platform has boasted to clients that it can identify and deliver teens when they’re feeling insecure; the depth of this isn’t really being talked about. So from the point of view of this novel the situation is one of unique human blindness. Tragic enough that only comedy could treat it.
AUTHORLINK: It’s deeply worrying. It now feels preordained and irreversible. In Dopamine, when Lon, the main character, acquired a Smartphone, you formatted the chapters into split-screens imitating the simultaneous tug-of-war between physical and the (infantile) sound-bites of the social media world; being bombarded with different texts (some more accurate than others) mirroring the incessant and insipid web-content reality of today on a readers attention. We understand it took you eighteen months to do this type of rolling news, (where the font fades and brightens alternatively, like white noise), in the right-hand column compared to the main action on the left.
Your original intention was to rewire the brain of the reader. You said, “…the columns were completely relevant, and you had to work out whether to read the whole left-hand side and go back, or whether to read left and right across every page, breaking the experience of the narrative.” It’s so interesting. “Now you can skim it or ignore it and stay on the left-hand column; that was an editorial suggestion which I think worked very well…” (1 August 2020, The Guardian).
Would you ever consider releasing an Addendum booklet inserting your original vision for this exercise?
” The important thing is that we’re aware of a binary life unfolding.”
DBC PIERRE: That would be neat. Though I also just love booklets. The current version can still be read that way, for the forensically minded. I tried to put an evolving history across the binary columns to make it a worthwhile read. But in this version we have the choice, if it’s the kind of thing that’s going to drive you crazy, you can skip the second column. The important thing is that we’re aware of a binary life unfolding.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. Whenever you hit a hard patch when writing Dopamine, you would invent different Apps to include in your story. ‘GoWay’ used radar to pinpoint people you wanted to avoid and found an alternative route (very useful) or ‘Chhrush’ which matched partners based on their first crush. Many novelists are looking at how technology is changing the way we live and think.
In the meantime, can you remember your first crush? Can you describe them?
Do you think you can write in a different genre from what you’ve been writing so far? Like a great Tudor romance? Or do you think technology would inevitably be referenced in your books?
DBC PIERRE: My first crush was in the first grade, an impossibly sophisticated older woman who wasn’t even in my class. She also had a twin, it was an unfeasible blast of braggadocio by nature, I didn’t stand a chance. At five-and-a-half you’re like Dougal McGuire from Father Ted while every six-and-a-half year-old has turned into Katherine Hepburn. You don’t even know what a crush is, there’s just this mysterious unsolicited sense of awe. You don’t even know what you would do except stand nearby smirking sideways at them. Later I invited the twins to my birthday party. At the last minute they declined and sent a consolation bar of chocolate, very Katherine Hepburn, before sweeping away into fabulous lives while I kept losing teeth.
As for books, I don’t know which way the breeze could blow. I would like to build other things, my problem is that strict genre is already so masterfully furnished. It would need to have a unique spin for me to generate the interest to research and compete. Also I find what we say and do as contemporary beings much more vivid than fiction; the problem is that it’s implausible, hence it needs a fiction to be understood. Nothing whatsoever has changed in humans since Tudor times and beyond. So think of my work as neo-Tudor, just light on historical research.
AUTHORLINK: We don’t think we’ve enjoyed an answer to an interview question quite this much! You have been described as “a writer who has something of a reputation as a literary ‘bad boy’”. We enjoyed reading the trajectory that led you to the publication of Vernon God Little, for which you won the Booker Prize in 2003, but you feel it wasn’t part of some Hollywood ending or ‘redemptive schtick’. The mundane rules applied – you worked hard, you put a little money aside and got back on track.
However, and we’re certain it’s not the first time it’s been suggested, your life story could be made into a movie. You’re tenacious and kind and talented, but also had the misfortune of having a childhood tragedy (your beloved father passing) that perhaps led you on the wrong course. Have you forgiven yourself for your ‘wild years’? Do you now feel that you happy ending was in fact, well-deserved?
DBC PIERRE: Yeah, forgiven but not forgotten. Same as saying that the key to a long healthy life is to have a heart condition and look after it, my gratitude at second and third chances in life should be spent ploughing back what I can.
AUTHORLINK: For how long though? We’ve all messed up in some way! In March 2011 you also said, “Narratives are only triumphant in the end because that will sell the movie and make you feel good. The odds across the world are incredibly slim that this will actually happen.“ (March 2011, The White Review)
Do you still feel this way, and if so, isn’t that a matter of subjective opinion? Isn’t it possible to rewire one’s brain to see ‘the brighter side’ of the coin? Do you believe both good and bad exist in equal measure? Perhaps, we, as humans, are preordained to look for the negative as a means of instinctive survival? After all, to be taken on by such reputable publishers, such as Faber and Faber, after half a lifetime of ‘epic underachievement’, we surmise with respect, was just like out of the movies!
Have there been any other narratives in your life that have been triumphant – other than your success as a writer?
“What’s fascinating is how we build narratives around our unfolding lives…”
DBC PIERRE: Ha, that’s true, I’m the recipient of an implausible triumph. I can’t think of any others to match that, though we all have our little triumphs. Sure they do happen and we should aim for them, and yes, it’s a matter of viewpoint. But as it relates to books and movies there are a great many stories which in life wouldn’t, and don’t, triumph, and have no particular orientation towards defeat or triumph. Working at the paperclip factory for nine years before opening your own stationery store and handing it on to your kids to run is a good life; but try writing the soundtrack for it. What’s fascinating is how we build narratives around our unfolding lives, and if we can free these up from the snap-to-grid function of tropes, then life grows more subtly weird and wonderful, with much less winning and losing, more of a musical continuum, I think. And the truth, if we look, is much more vivid than the trope. So I mean: no, the high-tech command centre in the USA will not necessarily defeat the alien invasion in real life as it does in the movie; but the command centre in real life will have a fabulous lady called Moira who’s worked in the back office since Kennedy and is the only person in the building who knows where the maps are; she also makes a mean pie for office birthdays. This is the beauty of real.
AUTHORLINK: Ha! Love it. Do you proofread/edit all your books or do you get someone to do that for you?
DBC PIERRE: I do my own editing and proofing, but it all gets done again when it reaches the publisher. There’s always something you’ve grown blind to in the text. Also, because you grow so familiar with the story, some clues can get too buried, they seem so obvious after a while; the book’s editor might bring clues to closer foreground as they were missed on a first reading. But the process of editing yourself is good, and important, I think. Satisfying like cleaning a filthy surface, the work visibly sparkles when you trim it down. And there’s a nice fastidious OCD to the season of editing. I treat the job in two parts, or seasons: getting everything down in first draft, in a whirlwind, without attention to anything but the feeling and the story; then when I’ve got about a third more words than I need, go back and clean it and clean it and clean it, reading through for rhythm as I go. If you read it back for rhythm the work suggests by itself the words that need to change or go, it’s like playing back a pianola roll.
AUTHORLINK: That is so helpful to our struggling writers out there (including me). How do you take professional (constructive?) criticism versus observations from a layperson? Do you take it on the chin, and ignore it? Do you try to analyse it and learn from it? Perhaps you stay in bed with the blinds drawn?
“…in the end what you see just depends on where you’re standing in life.”
DBC PIERRE: Well you get them all. I don’t look for reviews around launch time, you get a sense of progress from how quiet the publisher goes. But I’ll see them in due course. Critical reviewing is a fine art in itself, so you get your great and lesser reviewers. Sometimes they confirm feelings you had about aspects of the work, which is good feedback. But here’s the thing: there’s nothing more you can do to the book. It can’t be corrected. It has gone and by the time it gets printed you can feel like just another reader, in a strange way. So you have to be philosophical. What I try to do while I still have the book is make it strong enough to stand up for the things I want it to be and say. Make it go out with confidence in itself. Also important because the topics can be prickly, which will polarise more people. My favourite way to vaccinate a book is to include characters who are the types of people who will not like the book. Cock a snook in advance. As for casual commentary, it’s always welcome. What I think I’ve learned from being read is that people and characters and stories in books are opalescent. We can have few or many shines in few or many colours – but the shine you get when you observe, or read, is one of many from different angles. I try to put more than one angle, one shine, in a book, but in the end what you see just depends on where you’re standing in life. I don’t expect many people to stand where I do to look at these books, but it’s great when they do.
AUTHORLINK: What a brilliant answer. Thank you. You once said, remarkably, that you find hangovers a good time to write, “especially at a certain point the next afternoon because it is an incredibly serene and a strong- feeling place, filled with gratitude to have survived another Friday night”. (23 July 2020, The Times)
Do you ever write when you’ve been drinking? Or do you only ever write when you’ve been sober…or hungover? What are the benefits or disadvantages of either state?
DBC PIERRE: Okay this is pertinent writerly information. I found personally that I can’t write if I take alcohol. It distracts me in a curious way. And it’s probably just as well, if the writing is night after night, so I confine a drink to the weekend. But what I can, and do, is scribble a lot of notes. I get vivid ideas with a drink, and some of them have legs, so I scribble them down and keep them till I’m back at the desk. Then I see which ones still make sense. So drinking can sometimes be an invisible skeet shoot, ideas fly into sight and I try to wing them and take them alive. Then a hangover, later after food and coffee, can be a great space to write. I just find there are more acute benign feelings in a hangover. Maybe there’s an engine there, winging mad ideas for translation later in serenity.
AUTHORLINK: Fascinating. You told us once here at Authorlink (December 2003) that you, “…have ideas for 21 other novels. I’ll die before I get them all done, unless I work really fast.” Do you remember? Is that still the case? What are you working on now?
“…life tends to spill itself into books without needing too much help.”
DBC PIERRE: I remember, and things are just the same. I’ve since discovered that works prioritise themselves, in a way. I open a document when I think I have a theme with legs, and add the synoptic idea. Then over time some of those documents attract more and more notes, the mind starts filtering in the direction of one theme over others. Also I find that ideas collecting for one story will siphon into another, as a sub-plot for instance. So life tends to spill itself into books without needing too much help. Right now I’m finishing a short reflection on risk, called Little Snake, which has been fun. Risk includes gambling but also the cascades of maths that drive bizarre coincidences. This, for example, is a book including some notes from a few drinks.
AUTHORLINK: Can’t wait to read it! Okay, quick shot answers:-
- Favourite songs or pieces of music?
- – They vary every day. All-timers include the Brahms violin concerto, Little Roy’s reggae covers of Nirvana, and anything Country
- What’s the last book you read that made you laugh? The last book that made you cry?
- – The same book, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
- What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
- – Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette
- You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
- – Petronius Arbiter, Gustave Flaubert and Clarice Lispector
AUTHORLINK: Brilliant mix! Would love to be at that dinner party. Pierre, it’s been such a wonderful experience chatting to you about Meanwhile in Dopamine City and your writing process in general. We are so pleased to have met you and wish you continued success!
DBC PIERRE: Thank you and likewise onwards and upwards. I hope everyone’s works are behaving like charming pets and laying down where they’re supposed to. I send that wish.
About the Author: Australian-born DBC Pierre was a visual artist based in Mexico and Spain before writing his first novel in London. The debut Vernon God Little became the first book to win both a Booker and a Whitbread prize, and went on to be published in 43 territories, leading to another three novels – Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland, and Meanwhile in Dopamine City in a loose quartet of comedies. Petit Mal, a “picture book for grown-ups”, followed in 2013; the modern horror novella Breakfast with the Borgias in 2014, and his personal guide to writing, Release The Bats, in 2016. Pierre has spent the pandemic writing in the UK countryside.
You can find out more about DBC Pierre at http://www.dbcpierre.com/ and https://twitter.com/FaberBooks/status/1224292025555734529
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable online and print publications.