It's a farce, people. Let's get that much straight from the get-go. Leave your literary pretensions at the door.
The Guardian compared Vernon God Little to South Park. Entertainment Weekly referenced filmmaker Wes Anderson's Rushmore. Clearly something about the novel begs comparison to other forms of entertainment media. Maybe that explains why some reviewers just don't get it; a select few have been downright nonplussed that this misfit of a book somehow could have earned the 2003 Man Booker Prize. Vernon God Little is not your typical literary prizewinner. No wonder, really. DBC Pierre isn't a typical novelist.
"He's hardly even British!" literalists complained when the judges announced their selection. This particular argument, at least, isn't entirely unfounded: though he was born in Australia to English parents, Pierre was raised among American ex-pats in Mexico. But, hey, if your citizenship is good enough for the Olympic committee...
At a small-town Texas high school, an unpopular student has gunned down sixteen of his classmates. Before the killing spree is over, he turns the weapon on himself but these events occur before the novel's opening page. When DBC Pierre eventually introduces readers to the traumatized residents of Martirio, Texas, we find a gaping hole in their hearts and, with the gunman dead, a great big void where their scapegoat should be.
Enter the killer's only friend, innocent, incontinent, foul-mouthed Vernon Little.
Dave: I don't have any questions written down, so the idea is that we'll sit here and talk for thirty or forty minutes about whatever we get to.
DBC Pierre: Okay, that's different. That sounds good. I'm pretty new to all this. Two weeks of madness [since Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize] two weeks today, actually. But so far I get pretty much herded in a direction. I don't know what I'll talk about now. I haven't practiced anything. I've got nothing down pat.
Dave: I suppose that could be a good or a bad thing.
Pierre: Well, it probably sounds crap, but at least it's genuine.
Dave: How about starting with "Congratulations."
Pierre: Thank you. It was a crazy thing.
Pierre: Not really. The shortlist was surprise enough. The thing is, I haven't come from a literary background. I'm not somebody who dreamed of being a writer. The Booker... I knew it came around, but I hadn't really investigated it. In my mind it was kind of summarily filed away as one of those things that Chaucer and Shakespeare might be attached to. The kind of books I would have read at school...
It seemed like a long shot. Put it this way: the moment I sat down to write the line, "Honey, I Butt-Fucked the Family," the Booker Prize wasn't the very first thing that passed through my mind.
The shortlist was a surprise, then I started hearing about the prize and how it had been heading in more of a story-driven direction; they were starting to pay more attention to the market, maybe, and to readers. Getting a bit less stuffy with it. I felt that it had come some distance up the road to meet me, already.
Dave: The judges are meant to distinguish the best British novel of the year. What about Vernon God Little do you think appealed to them?
Pierre: I haven't chatted with them about it, but I would say that it's energy. I don't know, though. I don't have a depth of knowledge to draw from, but I would say that it spoke of a lot of midnight oil rather than studied intellectualism. It obviously wasn't the result of a graduate education; neither was it the work of a writer that took a year off an accounting job to write a novel. Hopefully, it burned a little bit off the page for them.
Also, I think they got the point that it's very much a satire on impressions. A lot of folks will say, "That's taking the piss out of America," but the targets are too soft for that: fat, greedy, gullible people. The judges would have gotten the inkling that it was cobbled together from our impressions given the extremes of media we get. It's meant to cut both ways.
Dave: You hadn't written a novel before this. Did the idea to write a novel precede the idea to write about this character or subject?
Pierre: I did want to write something. I was having real trouble getting a regular job. I'd been an artist and a designer, but my CV is a bit crap. It's all over the place. I've never really capitalized on it. And I was getting a bit old for the core of that industry, anyway.
I've been convinced always that I would be an artist in some way, and I thought maybe the only edge I had was being able to go a longer distance. I figured I had the patience to sit through a three hundred-page work, just try to hammer it out. That would give me a bit of an advantage; most people were too tied up to set that space aside.
By this stage, I just wanted to raise some flag at all, even if it killed me. Just to say, I did this in the end. For what it's worth. That was in my head, then the voice came out one day. His voice came out, first of all.
One of those curious days, a roller coaster, the type of day when you're pissed off and then you're happy and all kinds of different stuff: at the end of it there was a picture on the TV of a kid who'd shot a bunch of people. He was being put in the back of a sheriff's car. It was before Columbine. I didn't know anything about it, but somebody since said that was here in Oregon. In fact there was a whole back story I knew nothing about. The image of this awkward, kind of dorky adolescent being shoved into a car stuck with me though, and made me start to think what might be around him.
I wrote down the first pages in his voice, in a voice I attributed to him, and during the course of the thing I turned him into an innocent man. The story built up around him, but that was the start of it. It's mysterious really, where it comes from. Nineteen ninety-nine, it was, when I started. I was thirty-seven.
Dave: You grew up in Mexico and Texas mostly. Having lived on both sides of the border, you probably wouldn't develop any kind of singular vision.
Pierre: No. It was interesting, definitely, looking back. I came from a good family. All my dad's colleagues were American, looking after their pensions, all quite eminent people. A quite conservative milieu of families.
Being in Mexico, there was a magnifying glass effect, as well, especially as a kid because this was before NAFTA and you couldn't get any of the toys and trinkets down there. It was all up here: this shining, glittering, toy store of a country with optimistic and friendly people. And Texas didn't have that crushing contrast of wealth and poverty that's in your face in Mexico all the time. It was an interesting spot.
Having said that, my schools there were majority ex-pat American occupied, and the little rites of passage like Thanksgiving and Fourth of July burn a bit brighter for ex-pats; they hold a bit closer to their culture. It did give an interesting view. Then coming up here and seeing things on a normal level was great. I considered it my culture. I even had an American accent when I was a kid. Every time I went back to visit either England or Australia I'd get the chronic piss taken out of me for being a Yank.
After a while, I felt pretty homeless. I clearly wasn't Mexican, though I ended up feeling quite Mexican; I was certainly corrupted in a Mexican way. I wasn't English. There was nowhere I fit into. Of all the cultures I moved amongst, it was the Americans that would most take me in. They were the ones that least needed to categorize me. I was just another asshole. I was one of their assholes, and that was good for me.
Dave: There was an extended period between then and now when you weren't so productive. You've had some strange jobs, for instance, and I've read here and there about gambling and drugs. Do you see any particular shape to it or progression? What do you make of it, looking back?
Pierre: It was an unraveling, then an attempt at re-raveling.
My life can be broken into quite precise decades, I think. From birth to the age of ten, things were fairly cruising. Ten to twenty, I became pretty corrupted. I hadn't been a good student, but one thing I had was a very solid family life. Pretty affluent. I was clearly an artist already. Even my school, in the end, they didn't care if I came to class or not; they kind of took for granted that some way or other I was going to do some form of art someday, and they left me alone because I was such a pain in the ass.
Dave: Where were they getting the idea that you would be an artist? Were you musically inclined?
Pierre: Funny you should say that. No, it was from visual art: drawing and painting and stuff like that...later, photography and filmmaking. I tried everything visual. I was published as a cartoonist when I was still a teenager and commissioned as a designer.
At the same time, I was lazy. I was looking for something different. Nobody mentioned a career path to me. Then about the time my folks would have started suggesting a direction, my dad fell ill with a brain tumor. He went back to New York to get treatment, and my mum went with him. He died three years after that. The solid family backup with which it was presumed I would proceed, the backup that would have absorbed some early adulthood excesses and supported me through to some kind of stable course vanished between the age of sixteen and twenty-one. Because not only did my old man die, but there was also a humongous devaluation in Mexico within a couple years of that when the government nationalized the banks one night and it basically wiped a whole bunch of zeroes off the end of any deposits there. We essentially lost everything.
By this time I was already on a mad trajectory. I was already well into every type of drug that I could find. I'd already missed my opportunity for college; the chance to pay for college had gone down the drain. I wasn't an active permanent resident of any country to be able to go and get free school or anything. Suddenly I was cut adrift because we really relied on my old man.
There are all sorts of lurid and shameful stories, but the years of my twenties up to thirty was just a story of me being like a jumbo jet, powered up and ready to lift off, then having to slam on the brakes except I went through the fence and a few houses and across the freeway and wiped out a whole bunch of shit, and ended up crashing into the mud in time for my thirtieth birthday.
I arrived at my thirtieth birthday a couple hundred grand in debt. Some of it I'd achieved deceitfully; other was just good people who'd had faith and either invested or loaned me at some point, and their faith had been completely dashed.
I was a kid that everyone said would do things one day. I never knew what these would be or how that would happen. So I hit thirty with a bang and every type of substance, then it all stopped and I went into treatment for a couple years. Counseling and that. They brought me back down to the real world where you're clearly not going to make a couple hundred grand to pay everyone back, and if all you can do is fry chicken that's what you're going to have to do.
I came down to ground level, then spent from thirty to thirty-seven reconstituting myself and discovering what, if anything, I could do. That's why I was trying to resurrect my artwork: I thought maybe I could work in advertising. And I applied to people like you guys to see if I could get in, but my CV was too weird. By then, having reprogrammed myself, I didn't have the confidence it would have taken to pull one of these jobs out of a hat. You know, you need a certain bullshit around you. So that never came about. It was a kind of desperation to think, Maybe the only edge I have now is to go for a bigger, an orchestral, work, given I've got all this time anyway. I jumped into this. After a few pages I figured I'd make something out of the voice, and I just chased it.
If I'd have known how hard it was going to be, I wouldn't have done that either. I would have gone and trained myself in hotel management or something. As it was, I got far enough in that I was committed; I just had to stick with it.
Dave: It's hard at the moment to read it without thinking of the Booker Prize. The sticker isn't on the book jacket yet, but still...
Pierre: I hope that doesn't fuck it up, either, because it was a real underdog.
Dave: Well, for example, parts of the book are entirely farcical, totally over-the-top, and that's not what you typically expect when you're sitting down with a prize-winning work. I think it was the Guardian that compared the novel to South Park. I read that and I thought, Yes.
Pierre: I think it's the first comic novel ever to win that one. I don't know for sure, but someone told me it was. High farce, for me... There was a point, especially during that time, when reality and things around me seemed like the highest possible farce. It was beyond satire. It was impossible to satirize because it was the most flippant farce, and macabre in the sense that it would have death and misery as its price for somebody.
It did seem incredibly farcical, and does so even more today, but my head's moved around it in a different way now. At that time, all of life seemed to live in that giddy upper centimeter of gaseous ridicule. It was a hysterical laugh. I had a feeling that the whole culture all of us, all of us developed English speakers was just fiddling while Rome burned. Obviously I brought my own energy to that equation. And this was pre-September 11th and the more sobering shift of these last few years. It was the height of unfettered trivia.
This took a shift after those attacks and the ensuing wars, and now the paradigm has moved on, which is weird because the book is about shifting paradigms. It's almost in a revolving door of paradigms itself now, which is curious. Thankfully we're in a slight lull. We're not actively bombing anyone, today at least. And we haven't again been attacked, either of our countries. Hopefully that will last. But before any of that, I felt we had hit the absolute zenith of trivia worship.
It was crazy. Looking at it from London, as well, where they have their own particular spin on it that can be a ridiculous place in terms of their love for the inane and silly there was a time when I honestly felt it was photorealism and not satire.
There were conversations... I would hear people around in cafés. I could transcribe verbatim conversations between people, and nobody would believe them; they'd be unpublishable for how off-the-wall and ill-conceived they were. And that fascinated me. That's our culture. I wanted through this to see if I could find the redemption, some compassionate thread.
Dave: The shooting occupies virtually none of the book's foreground. It's just the set-up. The story is more concerned with the idea of how quickly people will rush to judgment and how emotional people can get in the process. That rush of emotion is a frightening thing to see, the way people find meaning in judgment, regardless of whether or not the judgment is itself rooted in legitimate evidence or logical argument.
Pierre: There's enormous pressure now to form judgments in the culture around you. If you stand in a room, and one side's left and one side's right, you are very quickly prodded to join the club one or another way and they have every type of armory to make sure that you do.
I came to really distrust my judgment after the escapades of my youth. I thought, The safest thing for me, in the interest of a stable life, is to work from a position of doubt and avoid any kind of certainties. The more I looked at things, I thought that as creatures we do make incredibly snap judgments without consequence. The media helps us by sound-biting and encapsulating things; they make it easy for us to see who's the baddie and who's the goodie and whose side we're on. That seemed really dangerous. I was interested to put a sensitive kid into a situation like that and see how he came out.
Dave: There are a lot of faith issues in the book. It would be easy to imagine another author taking the story in a different direction because one target that's not central is religion. It's in there, but not as a primary theme. Still, Vernon is forced to confront various issues of faith, and I found it interesting that most of the opinions he forms start within himself. It's more typical in a satire that some religious figure would be trying to impose religion on this desperate and impressionable young boy. That's not the case here.
Pierre: No. It's not. Nobody around him gives a thought to anyone but themselves, really. As you say, religion is all around him. There are symbols of his martyrdom and his ultimate nailing to a cross. It's true that there is a pastor in there, but he's pretty much interested in his own agenda. That was it, really: everybody was completely self-interested. They pay lip service to the kid's needs, but essentially there were more pressing issues for them. Like disposable income and its use for fun and profit.
Dave: Are you working on something now?
Dave: Where is it set?
Pierre: In Britain.
Dave: And is it as biting?
Pierre: Yeah, in a more British way. I don't want to give too much of it away, but there's less a sense of triumph to it. It takes its characters apart slowly and with great relish. Not to say I'm utterly in control of everything I do, either, because the characters drive the thing themselves.
Dave: If a cultural outsider were to look at Britain and write this kind of story, what might the book be about? Is there a correlative, do you think?
Pierre: I would say the subjects, barring Death Row, would be exactly the same. And if anything it would be more lurid because it would have that awful, naked fear of class mobility in it. But all of these things are true. The media is more savage and more interested in scandal, certainly. The entertainment temperature on scandal is more giddy and stupid, but it's got that gorgeous sense of fear that you lack here; there's real fear there of descending into the class below.
Basically your middle classes there are completely on an island by themselves. If you get a room and put upper and lower and middle classes together, you'll find the upper and lower classes get on fine and get drunk and swap addresses, and the middle classes will stand in the middle and say, "Don't talk to them. Don't talk to them...." There's that awful naked fear of middle England that's been there since the Industrial Revolution.
If it were a British novel, I would say that the mother would be the central character with her desperate tragic fears of being seen without the right accessory. The truth is, to be historical, the whole phase that this farce is coming from is actually an infection from Britain anyway: last century, the whole Industrial Revolution and all that stuff. You guys are running with the ball and doing so more successfully than they, or us, depending who I am. But that all started there.
At least you've done it without that horrible class thing. I suppose money is class here, but you don't have to worry about your accent. You can be a hillbilly and still have money. People will still talk to you in the lobby of the hotel and that.
The book I'm working on now is a globalization story, all about the phenomenal smugness that allows us to go into supposedly "lesser" countries and reorganize them and have what we want and sort them out and all that. It's very lovely because the protagonist in that one sets out with that idea in mind and gets absolutely and deliciously taken to pieces, gets fucked well up the ass throughout the length of the thing.
It's a hungry and quite desperate world out there, the seventy or eighty percent of it that watch us whiteys gallivanting around with moral missions and such. Those people work fourteen hours a day for nothing, and they're used to having every type of shit fall on them. They're incredibly strong people. I think that'll be the next big story for our culture. All that's going to start coming back to us. These people will get themselves together, and that'll be really interesting because we have been really smug with the rest of the world. It's still got that missionary zeal to it: We'll save Africa or We'll save this one. Pig's ass. We haven't got the least understanding.
Dave: Did you have any formative influences that brought you to comedy and humor?
Pierre: I've always been... Well, my old report cards from school always had some kind of comment. I was a fat kid. I had to develop the defense mechanism of humor and wit, right, because I was spoiled and fat and dumb. To hold my head up that was one of my mechanisms early on. Apart from that I was watching the same stuff as everyone: All in the Family, and reruns of Leave It to Beaver, these old shows.
It makes me wonder if it's not true humor rather than titillation because a lot of it is quite dark. If you look even at my old cartoons and stuff that I did, there was always a slightly bitter edge to them, some darkness, and I don't know where that comes from. That's a bit cynical. I do find life generally has a humorous edge, for all its misery. Even if it takes fifty years to look back on something. Just how whimsical and dumb we can be is always nice. Humor seems honest to me.
Dave: Any favorite funny books?
Pierre: One I haven't read that I have to is Confederacy of Dunces. That's come up a couple times, and it sounds like something I would absolutely adore. I get a feeling I would relate a little to the late author as well. He sounded like a classic guy. So I'll get into that.
It's funny: when I was a teenager, I read Duluth by Gore Vidal, which is the first thing I read that had any kind of surrealism. It was a strange one and it really took my attention at the time. But see, I didn't read it in a political context. Now I look back and that was actually a quite hellish indictment. Since then I realize that's what the guy does pretty much generally. But that impressed me.
Dave: So the interview circuit is still new to you, and I imagine you're hearing pretty much the same kinds of questions over and over again. Is there information that's just not out there about you?
Pierre: There probably is. I think one of the things I'm bumping into and this is probably the same for everyone: you don't actually have a scripted back story of yourself in your head. It's hard, a question like "What did you do that for?" I didn't have an assembled life story, so it catches me off guard to go back and think about it. And now it's being assembled for me. The thread is essential truth, but it's starting to spill at the edges and I can see that it'll end up sailing on without me.
I know I come away from interviews thinking, I wish I'd told him that. But because I'm in one now, I'm condemned to do it again.
Dave: The music in the book: When push comes to shove and Vernon has to jettison most of his CDs, he holds on to the country-and-western classics. Is his preoccupation with those songs a window into your own tastes?
Pierre: I love music, and I reckon I should have been a musician. I think my whole instinct to do any kind of art is because I didn't learn to play an instrument. I think I've got a good ear even for speech, accents and vernacular, just the joy of the weight of words, writing them. I even made up words just for the sound of them.
So I love music, good examples of all kinds of music, and in Vernon's case, I share a generation with his mum, so I was familiar with her milieu. If you're a bit of a loner adolescent, you do tend to get weaned on what your folks like. Unless you rebel really early, you're stuck with that old shit. So I thought, Here's an opportunity to slide in some of those numbers.
I wanted him to be under the control of his parents' milieu, not yet coming out quite. Just trying to touch him back on comfort music, stuff that made him feel secure during his adventure so he could not freak out.
Some of the kids I went to school with were particularly patriotic country-and-western listeners, especially when they were in that adolescent phase when you're starting to rebel; country music had some good harsh words. It would have been that or heavy metal, but as Vernon says, you'd cut your wrists listening to a lot of that.
What it needed then was a totally new song at the very end to signify his coming into a new world, but I didn't do it.
Dave: Maybe in the paperback afterword.
Pierre: We could tack one on. What would it be though?
That's the other thing, just from a strategic point of view: I had to be really careful to choose music that was going to be around forever. I didn't want to date the book. You had Britney and whatever, but at the time, I didn't know if she'd last a month. Who'll know her in five or ten years? We don't know. So it helped to have stuff that had come and been something and would be around forever to a certain extent. Good old songs, though. All of the songs in there I really like as well.
Dave: "Sailing" by Christopher Cross really tugs at your heartstrings?
Pierre: Well, not anymore, but I can relate to his mum. I think I met Vernon's mum in those days, outside of Houston. She was a funny girl. A progressed Houstonian.
DBC Pierre visited Powell's City of Books on October 28, 2003.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State