Literary bad-boy DBC Pierre: 'It's a spoilt, decadent, self-absorbed little culture'
DBC Pierre burst onto the scene with the arresting Vernon God Little, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and is now being adapted for the screen by Werner Herzog.
Part memoir, part writing guide, the South Australia-born 54-year-old's new book Release the Bats reflects on his unconventional journey from lying, indebted addict to literary sensation.
It begins, poetically and engagingly, in Berlin's maximum security Tegel Prison, where Pierre taught writing.
Why did you write Release the Bats?
I wrote it with one prisoner in a high-security Berlin prison in mind. I found it unexpectedly touching and very difficult to have to leave all those guys behind. They're in a maximum security prison, they've done something horribly wrong. We have to rely on the courts: the courts have correctly judged them of being worthy of being sent to prison. It's not an argument that they should be out.
As a human you go in and they are paying their price. And it was very difficult to just walk out that gate. Those people, at that moment you meet them, are your equals and perfectly lucid and approachable. Literature in prison is a damn good idea. I get the feeling that many of the things that probably sent them to prison might not have existed in the same way had they written outside of prison, before it all happened. Because you can do a lot in writing. If you're a killer, you can kill in writing.
You're an empathetic, earthy guy. Empathy is vital for writers?
Empathy is the heart of the novel. I'm not the only one who says that if there's one thing a novel has to do, it has to be empathetic in one direction. Writers have to have an interest, near or far, in their fellow creatures.
Release the Bats' disquisition on drugs and creativity was informative. Do you have a current favourite?
They all have their moment. For writing you probably can't do better than a good spliff. I think I say this in the book, just the tip unhooks you from the day, and sets your mind off wandering. Marijuana's not just helpful for insomnia. They're now discovering how many valid clinical applications it has, it's a real panacea in many respects, especially if you remove the smoke. In the last 10 years they've banned kava in Europe and England, presumably because it actually works. When I used to get insomnia, kava used to be my favourite thing. A couple of drops of kava in water was a great chill out.
"[London] f****** runs on [cocaine]", was one of your sharp lines on drug policy hypocrisy.
It's ridiculous. That's TV land, media land. Everything is supposed to be one way, and of course it's not. The highest offices in the land, in a great many cases, are fuelled by drugs. As is most of our history. Even Winston Churchill is notorious for the various things he used to like to take, and a good brandy on top of that. He used to get up in the middle of the night in the war room, and just move whole battalions to their death on a whim.
As you say, "Writing is heavy bombing". I also like your line about shifting the "demonic mass" of your enduring problems like a "rugby ball…home on the written page where I can joust it and write it into reason". You've been enjoying the rugby lately?
Big time. Last 18 months there's been some good rugger on. I've had so much piss taken out of me for this, but I was number eight on my international school team in Mexico City. I was 17 stone when I was 17. I've lost a lot of weight since then.
I was right up the back of the scrum with my head up someone's arse. There's a wonderful demi-monde of roving, free-spirited, very educated teachers. A Kiwi, Tim Cooper, was my coach. A superb geography teacher, he was mad for rugby, and got our side on its feet. He came with stories of everywhere he had already lived. He'd done building jobs in the Middle East. You never learn as well as when a teacher has personal anecdotes.
Do you draw any connections between rugby and writing?
Yeah, I would. Both, in a very broad sense, are about trying to control boisterous energies, in different parts of the field. They're both restricted by certain things, you can't just run off and do what you want, you have to pass backwards and whatever. If writing has a blessing, it's that I've still got both my ears.
The Eminem-inflected Vernon God Little deftly satirised American mass-TV hysteria and poorly-regulated gun culture. It holds up today, as US TV erroneously freaks out about Ebola and "ISIS in Orlando".
Who's holding the gun is often the television. It's the same thing with ISIS and Al-Qa'eda and all these f******, we built them. We turned it into a brand like Spectre, a James Bond movie. These global masterminds in a cave with f****** wifi. I can't even get wifi in my f****** house in Europe. Now we're doing the same thing with ISIS, because people are making a f****** fortune from it.
These crimes we hear about are random nut cases. If you go to Holland, one of the many sensible things that they've done there is said what these madmen want is attention, so we're not going to give it to them. They deal to them as criminals, under existing laws. Murder is murder. They made a policy not to feed oxygen to any of those fires.
It's very much a television, video phenomenon. A print newspaper is different from walking into a 24-hour TV newsfeed, which is very much like post-traumatic f****** shock syndrome. Every 10 minutes they are replaying and replaying these shock images. Reading a newspaper you have control over the speed and form of it, you have time to form opinions. Your brain can engage and digest, and fill out your own pictures.
Do some people take offence too easily online?
What matters is your carrot allergy. Our middle-class Anglo word has become ridiculously precious. It needs ruffling up, for sure. I don't like them legislating against certain types of jokes.
It's a spoilt, decadent, self-absorbed little culture. We're sitting here with a low-energy light-bulb thinking it's going to make a f****** difference.
* Release the Bats (Faber & Faber, $33) is out now.