DBC – ‘Dirty But Clean’ – Pierre, can lay claim to a personal history that is a great deal stranger than fiction. Growing up, it was lavish Mexican mansions, Bengal tigers and neighbours who gave their daughters 13 cars as wedding presents. In his teens, things only got stranger. With the passing of his father, DBC, whose real name is Peter Warren Finlay, embarked on the party of a lifetime, which he would later say lasted “for more than a decade in some form or other.” Though he would travel the world, working as a cartoonist, photographer, graphic designer and film maker, severe drug addiction and debt would soon make a normal life impossible.
Throughout, one thing DBC could never be accused of was being boring. In his 20s, he would develop an interest in the fall of the Aztec Empire, and in particular the legendary lost treasure of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. A failed, and possibly illegal, film production that put him many thousands of dollars in debt was all that came out of his obsession.
During the same period, he would sell the apartment of an American neighbour in Spain and spend the proceeds, approximately $34,000, on financing a drug habit. He even took illegal possession of a police car in Mexico, driving around in it for many months.
Against all expectations, perhaps even his own, DBC survived into adulthood. He wrote his first novel on the floor of a box-room in Balham and signed a deal with Faber&Faber one hour before the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September, 11, 2001. ‘Vernon God Little’, an eerily prescient novel that explored the aftermath of a school massacre in Texas, won him the 2003 Booker Prize.
“My clearest memory was the day before the Booker, I haven’t had a clear memory since,” says the author, who spent a significant chunk of his £50,000 prize money on settling long overdue debts. “It changed life permanently, and in an instant – not only by giving me a job and something to live up to, but in the way it changed people around me; the aftermath has been a study in the human mind, in fact it gave me the best material I’ll ever have for a book!”
DBC now lives a quiet life in Ireland and has two more books to his credit – ‘Ludmila’s Broken English’, published in 2006 and 2010’s ‘Lights Out in Wonderland’. He even returned to Mexico with Channel 4 to make that documentary about the Aztecs.
Today, he says he’s looking forward to his first “fully conscious” trip to Sri Lanka. “Not that I have been while intoxicated, but rather stopped in Colombo as a child, on a ship. The whole thing will be a sweet surprise, but I’m looking forward to meeting contemporaries, discovering the food and hearing local jokes (fast track into the mind and spirit),” he says. DBC is already at work on three new books, the first a non-fiction account of writing “when all you have is a feeling.”
What are you reading now?
The Idiot, by Dostoevsky. I am enjoying it, and am also slightly relieved because it’s a hugely fun and accessible book – which the name of Dostoevsky doesn’t always make you expect!
Where do you most like to read?
In bed and on aeroplanes. So especially in bed on an aeroplane.
Vernon is a pretty unusual 15 year old. If he had a favourite book, what would it be?
It would have to be Bukowski’s ‘Women’. A strange choice maybe – but then he was strange, like life.
You’ve made Ireland your base in recent years. Which books would you count among some of the finest novels to come out of the country?
Ireland is one of those places which has a disproportionate amount of talent for the size of its population – hugely disproportionate, any list would have to include Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula), James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift – the list literally includes cornerstones of literature in English. But for more choices, our contemporaries, I would cite Roddy Doyle (The Commitments), John McGahern (The Dark), John Banville (The Sea), and Keith Ridgway (Animals).
If you had been put in charge of choosing the Booker of Bookers prize, would Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children still have won?
The thing about the Man Booker is that judges change every year, so selections naturally are more subject to the spirit of the times, and to the collective taste of judges, which is a good idea – you can’t write a novel to win the Booker because the judges are unknown until the year of the prize.
But with the Booker of Bookers there is a benefit of hindsight and history, more attention to strict quality than to the flavour of a year; the selections by definition have stood the test of time – so I think I would go along with Midnight’s Children – the energy of the writing seized us from the first words, it was a perfect journey.
As someone whose youth was once described as “spectacularly misspent,” which fictional characters do you think your younger self would you have been most comfortable in the company of? Would there have been some it would have done you good to encounter?
Comfortable? Probably Oskar, from Günter Grass’s Tin Drum. Or no, wait – Pussy Galore from James Bond.
Who I should have encountered was Spencer Tracy in ‘The Mountain’, and that wasn’t even a book.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 27, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy DBC Pierre.