DBC Pierre

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 4th November 2016

The genesis for his book on writing, Release the Bats, came when Pierre’s publisher asked him to write his memoir — a sensible request considering the author’s colourful past. Born in Australia, he spent most of his affluent childhood in The States, and then Mexico. Running wild in his teens, he went through a dark decade when he was essentially wiped out by drugs.

He had reached rock bottom when he was ‘rescued’ by a clinical psychologist whom he sat with for two to three years.

“He was the right human being at the right moment,” says Pierre in his rich baritone.

“He would challenge me and would chat with me, and allow me to make my own discoveries.

He made me think about stuff and that was the end of my desperate career with drugs. “I came out of it with a good idea of how fucked up I was, but also with a license to do better,” he says.

Pierre felt unable to write his memoir because too many other people were involved, and he wasn’t licensed to tell their story. So he suggested to his publisher, that he should write about the period that followed the wildness; when, holed up in a box room in Balham, he started to write.

The idea cemented when he spoke to students who were taking creative writing degrees.

“Their heads were full of good theory and practise, but they hadn’t learnt what would spur them into doing it, and that interested me a lot,” he says.

Release the Bats retains that element of biography; He starts each chapter with a scene from his past, but uses this as a springboard to demonstrate how stories are made. He passes on everything he has learnt the hard way, and it makes for a fascinating yet practical guide.

There are wonderful insights on how to improve dialogue, and how to build up characters, and there’s a chapter dedicated to organising work — suggesting useful computer folders.

Pierre gives controversial advice on whether or not to use drugs or alcohol as an aid, but his main message is simply, do it; and keep doing it. The book finishes with succinct quotes. My favourite is, Write in a Reckless Fever. Rewrite in a cardigan.

The book makes a pleasant change from the plethora of ‘how to’ guides which concentrate on writing for publication. I sensed a hint of Pierre’s displeasure, even anger with the publishing world seeping through the pages. Indeed, advising writers to ‘sack the jury,’ he says that “nothing will drive you away from your nature further than trying to imagine what anyone else wants — least of all the market.”

“I can’t begin to tell you,” he says, sighing. “The central psychological issue of the last 13 years has been trying to find the answer as to why that first win didn’t buy me space. In fact, it brought me the opposite.

“The Booker changed the landscape; it was one hell of a ride, but the book came from this voice and the publishers want you to do it again. They want more of that bottled formula and that is a curse. It is my nature to do the opposite and go to the risky end of the scale. It was weekly deadlines and they only let up when the books were less successful. Then they move on to the next big thing.”

The guide is for anyone who, at 2.00am, has started to write a book, and at three pages in wonders how it is all going to work. And the pages that follow, based on Pierre’s experience, show that the process of writing literature is far from easy. However, Pierre’s real problems came when he knew what he was doing, and began to like his book. Because that’s when physical symptoms started to appear.

“I was with my doctor every fortnight with symptoms that added up to over-stimulation. He’d prescribe Valium and beta blockers. I’d describe my smell hallucinations, light hallucinations, loss of balance, and anxiety, and he would reassure me that I did not have temporal lobe epilepsy,” he says. Establishing that Pierre was writing a novel from the floor of a box room in the house he shared with single friends; and that he spent his entire waking hours there, the doctor said the symptoms were par for the course.

“He said, ‘Why do you think artists go crazy?’”

Pierre believes some people are programmed to fail. And he includes himself. And the day when, happy with the manuscript, he was due to write ‘The End’ a strange thing happened.

“I could not, physically, get my hand to the keyboard,” he says. “I had to have two beers from the fridge, and, almost with my eyes shut, and hyperventilating, managed, somehow to get the last words down.”

Soon after his success with Vernon God Little, Pierre moved to Co Leitrim, and he only recently returned to England — to north Cambridgeshire.

“But I still have the place in Leitrim”, he says, explaining that his house there needs a lot of work.

Pierre is great company — laid back, and happy to chat freely. We continue to talk well over our official allotted time, and only stop, when his need for nicotine — he smokes rollups — necessitates a walk outside, into the drizzle. He says that press interviews are rarer these days. He misses them.

“Print journalists tend to cobble together stuff of the internet, and, maybe, speak to me so I can confirm or deny it.” This can lead to errors. Pierre’s real name is Peter Finlay; a name shared by a one-time actor.

And on Wikipedia the two are combined; it states that Pierre was an actor before he became an author. “When journalists quote that, it becomes a citation. Some loved actor somewhere is missing out on all that credit.”

We talk about the new novel Pierre is writing. Clearly excited by it, he says he has finally learnt how writing works for him. The novel starts in the present and goes forwards into the future.

“It’s about the vertical curve of progress we’re currently experiencing, “It’s two and a half million years since man became tool makers, yet 99.9% of our progress happened in one century. And that is warming up. We are now approaching the moment when machines will design themselves better than we design them,” he says.

“I get the sense that we will get sucked into an unknown future — an oblivion where the only errors left in the system will be human errors. For the first time in our history, we have no goal; no idea where we are going. The church has gone — the government has lost its direction — even utopian dreams have vanished. We’ve become slaves to computers, and no one is in charge.”

Of all the advice Pierre gave out in his book, which nugget does he believe is the most helpful?

“To let the book breathe, by alternating fast and slow writing. I enjoyed going into poetic dreamy reflections, but each one killed the story dead. It was an interruption and that wrecked my brain until I figured out there is a place for fast and slow writing, and one should follow the other.”

Release The Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It, DBC Pierre, Faber and Faber, €15.10; Kindle, €10.06

Published in the Irish Examiner Saturday, October 29, 2016

© Sue Leonard. 2016

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