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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 14:57 GMT
Ask 2003 Booker Prize Winner DBC Pierre
2003 Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre
Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre answered your questions.

  • Transcript


    Author DBC Pierre has won the 2003 Booker Prize for his novel Vernon God Little.

    The author, whose real name is Peter Finlay, beat nominees Margaret Atwood, Damon Galgut, Zoe Heller, Clare Morrall, and bookies' favourite Monica Ali to win the £50,000 prize.

    DBC stands for "dirty but clean" and his friends have called him Pierre, after a cartoon character, for years, he has said.

    The book, the quirky Vernon God Little, was published this January and has been described as "a showpiece of superb comic writing", with the author likened to JD Salinger.



    Transcript highlights


    Rebecca Jones:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum. I'm Rebecca Jones. The author DBC Pierre has won the 2003 Booker Prize for his novel Vernon God Little. He beat nominees, Margaret Atwood - a former winner - Damon Galgut, Zoe Heller, Clare Morrall, and the bookies' favourite Monica Ali to win the £50,000 first prize. Promising to pay off debts, DBC Pierre has also revealed his real name is Peter Finlay.

    His book, Vernon God Little, was published this January and has been described as "a showpiece of superb comic writing". Well I'm delighted to say that DBC Pierre has come to join us. Thank you so much for coming, I know it's been a busy day.

    We've been inundated with questions, so I think we should get straight to them. The first is from Adam Rogers, London, UK: I would like to know how a man such as yourself comes through the torment of drug addiction and financial difficulties to still find mind space in order to write such an acclaimed novel, this in my view will give lots of people inspiration.


    DBC Pierre:

    That's an interesting way to look at it. I would have said that the only way I could find mind space was to get a lot of this out and that would happen through writing. It's if these type of regrets build up a head of steam - I found so anyway - creatively and if I didn't have a valve of a big work like this then I probably would have blown my head off. So it could be the other way around in fact that I had to work through it.

    I'm not an expert, but if you look at the lives of a lot of artists, you find the more tormented ones tended to have a lot to say, the tormented ones - it could be the pressure of friction makes you have to do something - compels you. I certainly felt compelled to do something and feel a bit better having done it as well.


    Rebecca Jones:

    There may be people viewing and listening who aren't aware of what we could call your "colourful past". But that might tie into the next e-mail which is from James Burridge, Cambridge England: How did you come by the nickname "Dirty But Clean"?


    DBC Pierre:

    A friend named me many years ago, Dirty Pierre, after a cartoon character. There used to be a show called Super Six in the 1970s or 80s. I can't to be honest remember how it went but it had, I think, a French Canadian in it called Dirty Pierre who would get up to antics and he gave me that name. That's was at the height of my "colourfulness", as you delicately put it. I've simply upgraded it after a dozen years of sober reflection to "Dirty But Clean" and hopefully if I can work myself out in the longer term I must just become clean.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Johnny T, London UK asks: How have you stayed clean?


    DBC Pierre:

    Well really I beat the hell out of myself - life's kicked every type of colour out of me because I did get into a massive crisis that had a crescendo all at once - every type of debt and addiction collapsed on me at the one time to where I literally found myself in a hopeless situation. A situation of you either going out in the forest and hanging yourself or finding a way forward. So it was ten years festering with some of these and reconstructing myself personally - staying clean or being cleaner - it hasn't been a hard thing. I've repolarised - I had to go and take a look at the mechanisms of mine. We can be very self-deceptive creatures - I certainly was - and we can get away with lots of self-defeating characteristics which if you look at them are silly and wasteful. So I deconstructed all of those and it kept me hopefully now humble and calm.


    Rebecca Jones:

    We've just had an e-mail in from Frank in Ipswich who asks: You said that you basically had to either write your story or kill yourself. Did you always believe that you could write? Had you tried writing before? It seems strange that you turned to something where the odds are seemingly against success and which actually take such time and effort.


    DBC Pierre:

    That is a good point. I did think I could write something of value until I got halfway through it and then I realised I was mad. But I'd already gone too far and had to finish it. So if I'd have known what it would be like to write, I wouldn't have started is the answer to that question. It made even my former life look peaceful. I spent most of that writing time visiting the doctor literally with physical symptoms, all sorts of anxieties and stresses just from the stimulus of writing. I find I get into a hyper-exciting state. I tend to work by night as well so I couldn't sleep and I put myself into a very dicey headspace which may have given the book energy but made me wonder if I wasn't going mad or if it was doing the right thing.

    So he is right to say I picked something with long odds but I never thought about it. It was something I did think I could do and then I wasn't so sure once I was into it, but sheer cussedness and the fact there's nothing else really for me to do anyway and I had to continue with it just to say that I didn't quit.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Ingrid Mclaine, Vancouver, Canada: In a BBC article you were quoted as saying something like you had spent most of your life in a drug-induced haze which led to you selling a friend's house and pocketing the proceeds. What does that mean? Did you sell it without your friend knowing?


    DBC Pierre:

    In the first instance, yes. I was still in touch with this man but yes, I basically undertook to purchase the place from him and I did so, I exchanged the title without paying him and sold it on, still without paying him. It's a longer story than that - I didn't wake up in the morning and say, how will I swindle this man - it stretched over a number of years. But the end result is that I talked the man into signing his flat over and I never did get around to paying him - I'm now paying him.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Sarah, London, UK: Who or what gives you inspiration?


    DBC Pierre:

    Music - Russian symphonic music principally - any symphonic music after that - big, big detailed music. It may not be correct but I really feel that if I could have played a musical instrument I wouldn't have had any of these creative problems because I think I'm very musical and I just didn't have the discipline and chance to learn something when I was a kid. But I feel genuinely like a Russian composer trapped in the body of a cartoonist.

    I've always felt that my skills are too small for the detail of my feelings and that's where writing at least is as detailed in some way as music - not just symphonic much but every kind of music from hip hop through to foreign music. I'm into Bollywood film themes at the moment. I can be transported every time I hear music.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Vanessa, Dublin asks: How do you structure your working process? Do you find it difficult to sit down and write? Also how did you support yourself while you were writing?


    DBC Pierre:

    A very lovely girlfriend supported me then because I was useless and couldn't get a decent job. I can draw and paint - I've been a designer before but I've really been on the outskirts of commercial art, just doing patchy bits here and there when I can and never really capitalising on anything.

    As to the structure of the working processes - they are dictated by nature because I am very stupid when I wake up and to the extent that I ever get smart, I gather it during the course of the day and at night time I'm much smarter than I am in the morning so I work by night. I tend to revise during the day without making any firm decisions and I then at night time once the sun has gone from about 9 o'clock until dawn, that's when I'll work and it's quiet and I just race through those hours.


    Rebecca Jones:

    John, London, UK asks in respect of Vernon God Little: What triggered the idea for the story?


    DBC Pierre:

    It was a TV picture of a lad who had just committed some gun crime at a school in the States. I know it was before Columbine - I can't remember which incident but I just remember this image of him being bundled into the back of a police car and driven away - a 13 year-old with pants and baseball cap. He was just a dork in a way - he was just an awkward kid who'd done something appalling. The kid had just destroyed his whole life and other people's lives and I looked at him and it just seemed he couldn't possibly have been, in the true sense, responsible for that.

    It seemed such a motif of the times we were in - the frustrations. These are like the bubbles around the edges of the pot - the culture we live in now is being heated up from the bottom commercially and there's pressure to be this and do that, buy this etc. and I just took this as one of the more sinister bubbles rising from that pot. It was the image of that kid that made me think, was he responsible and what's going through his mind and who was around him - who was there for him to fall back on. So that's where the original inspiration came from.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Edmond TG See Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia: I have always been wondering whether a fiction author should himself or herself have lots of life experience in order to write an inspiring novel? Please advise.


    DBC Pierre:

    Yes - I do. Certainly, think about it, if you want a spy novel you would like it to have been written by a spy and optimally a crime novel you want it to have been written by a criminal if you want to taste the actual guts of it. Here you might distinguish between commercial and literary works because obviously anyone - an accountant can take a year off and write a workable story. But certainly the deeper into literature that we get the more colourful and perhaps the novels that really you can taste in subtle details will come from people that have had life experience and then simply found a way to express them.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Koting, Taiwan: Do you think one could possibly write something totally beyond your own life experience?


    DBC Pierre:

    Well yes you could imagine it - a work of imagination - a work like science fiction, which is beyond all of our life experiences. If you invent a world that has your own rules to it then you can set the agenda if you have the imagination for it. The tricky thing is when you want it to resemble life - most people will relate to a book when there are characters in there which they can relate to and that means giving them life experiences which are detailed in the way that the readers' lives are which means having felt those details for yourself and passed them on.Somebody said you have to write the truth when you write a novel - like things that we think but never speak about. So yes and no - how's that for a straight answer.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Edi, Athens, Greece asks: What does Vernon God Little mean?


    DBC Pierre:

    It's in the book. It came to mean that in a certain way Vernon was a little god. Vernon Gregory Little is a character and throughout the book you find that, depending on the situation he's in, he likes to play with his middle name - he's been Vernon Godzilla Little and Vernon certain other words Little which I can't use. But there comes a moment - the premise being that he has a culture around him that places great store in self-confidence and self-assertion and Vernon himself doesn't have that, he's quite awkward and innocent. So in a certain way until he can carry himself off as a god he's unsuccessful in the book and it came from that. Also in a certain way there been a clichéd habit of using little to describe something massive.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Rory, Boston Massachusetts asks: Do you think it will ever be possible for Americans to listen to Vernon and laugh and say "hey, that's us"?


    DBC Pierre:

    I don't know. In a way it's not really directed at them - he suffers all the modern world's evils. But it wasn't so much about America writ small - it truly is, in my mind anyway, an adventure of a particular individual and if you can love that character you don't have to realise the rest of it is the modern world - that is just his particular world. It does have fantasy and romance to it as well for all it's a little bit harsh at the edges.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Simon, London, UK: What is your advice to new writers as to how to get their work seen by publishers/agents?


    DBC Pierre:

    I found it really hard - I was rejected by everyone - rejected by about a dozen literary agents. First of all I heard that it was harder to get an agent than to get a publisher but that once you'd got an agent things would go much better and you were liable to get a better deal.

    It seems to me that publishers and agents are looking at less work - they are getting inundated. Maybe more and more people are attempting to write books. I know my agent gets many hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and the problem is they all need to be read and looked at and responded to and they have to farm them out to readers who might be students or helpers who just quickly revise the first few pages and see if it's going to be readable. In many cases if you send it to an agent or publisher they won't even necessarily see it themselves.

    I think it has always been hard and it's getting harder. I've heard as well in the last year that certain publishers and agents are actually closing down their slush piles now because they are just inundated. I think the ratio is something like one in 3,000 manuscripts that arrive ends up going on to be published. So it's time-consuming and costly for them and it's not helpful for us at all. I went through all of that and I am an author that was picked off the slush pile. I posted it in an envelope and hoped that it would speak for itself.

    So the same advice applies, they have guides that list all the agents and publishers and if you get something like that and you can identify pretty much who deals with your type of literature and then really the trick is in making your work start with a bang. If you hook them on the first page - make it something that they are going to be compelled to continue with - you have to hook them in the same way you want to draw a reader into your book. It's very tricky and I count myself very, very lucky.

    Also send it to as many people as possible because like many first authors I sat around expecting that my manuscript would arrive on an empty desk and a venerable literary type read it and wade through it carefully - but these places can be like circuses with the amount of paper etc. that comes in and out. You have to make it something that screams at them off the page.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Adam, England: What's next?


    DBC Pierre:

    The story of globalisation and immigration.


    Rebecca Jones:

    Have you started it?


    DBC Pierre:

    Yes - I'm near the end of it now. I've broken the back of it - its back is well broken - I just need maybe a few more weeks to go back through it. Then I've got another one after that - in fact I can see about sixteen that I would like to do so I'm going to have to get quicker and get better because they've set the bar so high up for me - either that or go into chicken farming!


    Rebecca Jones:

    On that note. I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. Thank you very much for coming in to talk to us. Congratulations again to DBC Pierre for winning this year's Booker Prize. Goodbye.




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