DBC Pierre exploded onto the international literary scene with Vernon God Little in 2003 – a fiendishly funny tale set in the ‘barbecue sauce capital of Texas’. With a vernacular mingling the profanity of South Park with the poetry of Rabelais, Pierre set a new precedent for contemporary novelists, testing the boundaries of the form and dividing critics.
Now, he has returned with Lights Out in Wonderland, a kaleidoscopic, angst-ridden journey with disaffected aesthete, Gabriel. Recently returned from a stint in an English psychiatric facility, Gabriel discovers his political activist friends have turned against him. He flees – ironically with activist funds in hand – in search of the ultimate bacchanalia, an odyssey which takes him to Japan and then Berlin, to new heights of licentiousness and debauchery in the underground chambers of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport.
With the same laugh of despair, DBC Pierre has crafted a yarn that zings with political gravitas, casting a critical eye over contemporary Western society, revealing all its ills and foibles.
– Rebecca Starford
KYD: DBC Pierre, thank you so much for talking with Kill Your Darlings. Is it good to be back in Australia?
DBC: Yeah, it’s very good. I only got off the plane at eight o’clock last night, and I was just reflecting that one of the things that makes it a special trip is the travel to get here. You’re in that dream-time for the twenty-four hours of the flight, which you can’t avoid, and it always adds to feelings of interplanetary travel. I’m always zoned out, but I’m particularly touchy-feely about being here.
KYD: I imagine you have a punishing schedule over the next couple of days?
DBC: Well yeah, but compared to writing… It’s actually a pleasure: you get to meet people. The space I was in, particularly writing this book, was a bit dark and solitary – you sort of feel like you’re recovering from a long illness. But now, as long as I get a bit of sleep in, I’ll be fine.
KYD: Congratulations on Lights Out in Wonderland. In the publicity material provided by your publisher, it mentions that the novel brings together a loose trilogy of novels, in the sense that it’s exploring many of the same themes in Vernon God Little, and then – perhaps more so – in Ludmilla’s Broken English. The strongest parallel, to me, is the indictment of the post-capitalist world. What struck me most, however, is how much angrier you appear to be in this novel – were you angry when you were writing it? And why?
DBC: Yeah, I was. I don’t know – I get angry with the world. Do you know what’s probably at the foundation of it? If we refer it to me personally, it’s that a lot of the shit and attitude that got me into trouble, and the arsehole that I was as a young man – that had to be kicked out of me by life and circumstance – is the way the culture has gone now. So a lot of the qualities that I disliked in myself, which I was actually forced to correct to be in society meaningfully – the market now feeds off these same qualities. And so, underneath everything, that is what pisses me off. I don’t sit around thinking that, on the surface of it – I just think that we’re living in a limbo between ideologies. Capitalism obviously hasn’t worked, because it doesn’t service society; we’re in a much worse place than we have been for a long time.
But there’s at least some massive tweaking coming up, and we don’t know yet what form that’s going to take. So that also interests me as much as it angers me – but I’m also part of the problem; I don’t operate in an any more ideal way, and so as part of that problem I’m also fascinated, watching which way we’re going to head.
KYD: Gabriel, your protagonist, begins the novel in a ranting mode of voice. There’s an insanity to him, initially – and of course he’s in a psychiatric facility outside of London. But as the novel progresses, he seems to change – to shift in and out of these registers. He seems very ambivalent to these feelings, to his rejection of capitalism and all that it represents: seemingly his father, and political-activist friends who ousted him. Ultimately, however, there’s hope at the end of the story.
But in spite of this hope, cynicism really is at the heart of the story – along with deception, and trickery. Gabriel’s relationship to this is very interesting – his attitudes are fluid. I wonder how much you identify with Gabriel? We know a lot about your personal story, which was made very public when Vernon was published. Was this something you were writing with an awareness of?
DBC: Everything is very deliberate. All of it’s supposed to reflect how I see things around us, and the mechanism by which we now live – the economy – is run on trickery, on a very basic level. So Gabriel, shifting in and out and changing position (because, of course, he is the symbol), is allegorical of the market which he so hates. But it also reflects the weaving in between the culture: we’re playing a double game, too. We have one foot on the brake, one foot on the accelerator, and we’re just running ourselves into the ground.
KYD: The activist collective – Gabriel’s friends – will be familiar to many readers, perhaps from their own university days. In Lights Out, they don’t understand the fundamental hypocrisy of their organization – they’ve commodified what they’re doing, they’re selling all the merchanise – and Gabriel totally rejects that. But there is irony at work in the story, too, because Gabriel flees to this ‘Old World’ Berlin (where we fetishise this lifestyle), so in a sense he is doing exactly the same thing. Really, we’re just entrenched in that system we can never break out of – and it’s funny, because Gabriel’s always lured back in by the promise of decadence, which lures us all!
DBC: Good stuff! I haven’t spoken to many people, but you’re the first person to identify that, which is nice. They haven’t yet, in Britain, figured that out. To them, it’s still the story of a boy looking for a party. And I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who’s gone into the symbolism of it.
KYD: How are you expecting people to respond to the book.
DBC: Well, I don’t know. I expect it’s going to take a kicking from the Establishment over form. And I can answer to those questions, so it doesn’t matter – but it’ll get the shit kicked out of it there. And then who knows? Hopefully some people will get and enjoy it on the other side, and some of the early reviews are pretty much showing that trend. But again, like in the two previous books, it hasn’t pitched into the heartland of popularity.
KYD: The Establishment is very conservative…
DBC: Well, I think their time has come on that. It’s worth saying now that naturalism, and the novel itself as a form – to the extent it is trying to reflect the way of life – are dead. I think that’s gone, but I’m not sure the next form has necessarily come along. Children who are, say, ten years old today, those books will be utterly defunct – they’ll be entertaining and understandable, but in terms of expressing how we are as a people – how we think, how we form expectations – the ideas are no longer worthy.
Having said that, I can’t think of an individual who is the Establishment (I don’t think I’ve ever met the Establishment), but whosoever they may be are in their dying days critically. The book is a laugh at that, it very deliberately takes the form that is does. In a certain way, it also baits them to do that. I think it’s probably the last time that the Establishment can uphold those very early twentieth-century structures that are so sacred to them. That’s not a bad run, for a form, but it’s gone now. It’ll be nice swansong for them to have a good go at this. But I do love the novel – it’s a beautiful form – but in terms of saying anything useful in this respect…
KYD: I read something recently, in the Guardian, in regards to comments made by Christos Tsiolkas. He’s been shortlisted, of course, for the Booker Prize…
DBC: Ah, I was drinking with him last night!
KYD: Well, there you go. He was somewhat lambasted in the UK press about comments he made recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He was presenting, and he said that he thought contemporary European fiction, short fiction particularly, was very staid – it wasn’t gritty and real enough for him. Tsiolkas very much comes from a grungy, realist, coarse sort of prose – which often sets readers on edge here in Australia. So, it’s still clearly a complicated and divisive relationship between tradition and contemporary voices. And this is what you do, too.
But in some ways, if you look at the premise of Ludmila (in terms of narration and character), it is very traditional. But when you bring together your prose, it collides in such a way to daze – or dazzle – your reader, so much so that they sometimes don’t know what is going on! To me, that’s what makes your writing political.
Do you consider yourself to be a political writer? Is this something that’s important to you?
DBC: You know what I wouldn’t have done – it’s funny, I have to answer in a whole different tense! If you look at interviews for the first two books, I made a point to say: ‘These aren’t political comments.’ In fact, of course they are, and I came to notice it only before writing this one, and so did this one so much more consciously, and it probably reflects that in the way it runs. I wouldn’t have done – and I have to say I won’t be again. Or I doubt I will – now I’ve freed myself up, and not worry about social commentary. Just worry about the structure that suits. They were political, and this one I’ve finally sussed out what I was doing, and did it very deliberately. The others were a bit more intuitive.
KYD: I think that it was Ali Smith, when reviewing Ludmilla, who said that reading your prose ‘is like being hit over the head with a hammer. And then hit again.’ She then goes on to talk about the story being kidnapped by the language itself. Which is a really fascinating way of reading it.
DBC: I give a nod to that. I do get carried off with the language, I actually reference it in Smuts’s line to Gabriel: ‘It’s like being stuck on death row with fucking Enid Blyton.’
KYD: How have you cultivated your style, if in fact you have cultivated it? Because your voice is very distinctive – and I think this is another element of continuity that links the novels. Has this changed for you, from Vernon to now? And what is your process of writing in terms of engaging with this voice – particularly when it came to the planning of Lights Out in Wonderland?
DBC: They came in waves. Vernon started with the voice. It was completely intuitive – and in the beginning, and the whole first draft, that’s all I had. I literally wrote 300 pages of it in five weeks, and it was only this voice – it had zero structure. It took another eighteen months to get ‘something’ out of that, then I had to go back in and build a house out of it.
With the second novel, I was knowing of what I was doing, but I didn’t have a better way of doing it – so I did the same thing. This third one is the first time that the idea and the character have led the thing before the voice of it; I attached a voice to it. I took time to do that. The other thing, too: I didn’t come into this with a lot of forethought, or writing with a lot of ideas about myself as a writer.
What you’re seeing across the works is me discovering writing, and although they have instinctively had that quality running through them, the way in which they shift across the three books is the way I’m trying to identify that, grapple it into some workable form. I’ve only just done that, and now I’ll stop and do something completely different. But it’s an adventure – if someone reads from the first book through to the third, they’re going through what I did writing it.
KYD: Do you think you would have written this kind of novel if you were living elsewhere in the world – that is, not in the UK? Is this a reflection of your own experiences and opinions located where you are? Obviously things are very different here, in Australia, economically and politically, to some extent. How much is your writing informed by where you are located?
DBC: A lot. Yeah, if I’d been living in Mexico, I would have been writing something completely different, if I was writing at all. That could have been the spur: the fact that I was in these places, overwhelmed by the setting. It could be that the spur couldn’t have existed without that; irritated, like a salmon, snapping at the thing. That’s my culture, our culture – and it pisses me off no end.
KYD: Ludmila is certainly very negative about the UK – it’s intriguing, then, that you want to remain living there.
DBC: Yeah, well I love it, too. It’s like living with myself. I piss myself off a lot. But I still want to be here, more than less. It avails of the freedom we currently have to criticise ourselves and our culture, which I think is valuable and should be used – because I’m not sure that will always be the case. I think we’re coming into a phase, a little bit further down the track, where at the very least it’s going to be discouraged, if not put a stop to.
KYD: To me, there seems to be a real distinction – at least here in Australia – between so-called political novels, and everything else. Your novel meshes politics and storytelling. And I agree: it’s certainly terrifying that we’re shifting into a new age of conservatism.
DBC: Well, it’s everywhere.
KYD: It really is. And you see it in a shift across the Western world. What’s scarier is that more Left-leaning – or alleged Left-leading political parties and movements – are aligning themselves more to the Right.
DBC: It’s all moved to the centre, yeah. It’s fucking scary. It’s interesting, though, with Obama – his centre is now moving more towards the Left. A few years ago, we could have accused the States of all modern ills, but if you look at their calibration of the free markets, and look at their calibration of free society, in fact suddenly they’re the model. Britain is the one that’s now desperately out in the middle. And that’s a huge problem. I think it was Jeremy Clarkson who made the point that it used to be that you’d fly to the States and go, ‘Oh my God, how weird is this.’ Now it happens when you fly back.
KYD: Why has this happened? What have been the key factors that have made people so apathetic to these changes?
DBC: When you’re talking about Britain… Who knows? The thing they cite is that they have been an Empire, and now it’s declined and all their symbols are dead; the Second World War is dead, though it’s still the last triumph that they had, and it’s still referred to daily on the TV and in the news. The point is, it’s gone now, and they’re way down the league table in most if not all the markers of civilisation – and so things come unstuck. Also, it’s an historical function, Britain’s just at the end of its cycle.
People also cite that it’s one place in Europe that’s never overthrown itself. Speaking of the question of apathy: they don’t have a taste for revolution that the French and the Italians have, they don’t feel the daily need to exercise democracy, and that suits governments. And they don’t foster that – that’s why they’re very parental, a very guided democracy, because they don’t necessarily want people saying, ‘Excuse me, this is us representing ourselves, it’s not you representing us.’
KYD: I guess, in that kind of forum – where there isn’t room for such powerful dissent, because it’s never really motivated – do you think it’s the responsibility of artists, like yourself, not so much to hold government responsible, but to at least make people aware of these societal shifts? Here, for example, there’s not a lot of this kind of questioning…
DBC: This is a comfy country, things are too good here. There’s milk and honey…
KYD: Milk and honey for some, if you’re already implanted here.
DBC: Yeah, of course. But, you know, it seems a bit sour grapes. Comparatively, on a world scale, things aren’t so bad – maybe there isn’t a need for that. It’s not necessarily a model of how life should be, but Australia is very well calibrated, and wealthy – with pretty well distributed wealth.
KYD: Like you say in Lights Out, we’re sick with all that milk and honey, we’ve gorged ourselves…
DBC: We’ve grown fat on it.
KYD: Gabriel is the one screaming and railing against it, when no one seems able to even knowledge this.
DBC: It is ugly. And that’s the whole English-speaking culture.
KYD: Why did you take Gabriel to Japan? Is there a comparison between Japan – and the other countries in the novel: England and Germany?
DBC: Japan’s in an interesting position. It’s just come out of the top of a cycle of Empire, and an economic empire, in a sense. But they are also very tight, a very cohesive society. And it was also important to reference them because there was another allegorical thread running under here, which is the monopoly on violence, and the war particularly. And so Germany and Japan, at different places at the top of their game – Germany now is really at the top of the game – having been the vanquished so recently in the war we hold so dear seems ridiculous.
It’s a very exquisite position because we haven’t changed our tune about that. People still makes jokes… There was a beautiful moment just before the World Cup, four years ago: the German government issued a notice specifically directed at British visitors to the football that said that Nazi salutes and goose-stepping are not welcome symbols here in Germany, so don’t come doing that. To which the British response was:
‘Make up your bloody minds!’ That thing is still going on, and I find it exquisite. I’m part of that same culture – my father flew bombers over Germany, for God’s sake. So, in a family sense, he had a very different version of Berlin than I do.
It’s also a sad position – five or ten years ago, that pointed quite a hurtful finger at Germany, which stuck. Now, automatically, when we do that as a culture, we’re isolated and look kind of sad (and you know that’s no longer a German issue).
The paradigm’s really shifted around that, and I wanted to make the most of it. Gabriel Brockwell stands for ‘G.B.’. So that little thread runs under there, as well.
KYD: I’m curious: who are the kind of writers you like to read – and who has influenced you?
DBC: I’m very affected by books, and I always have been. I’m a slow reader; I’m not well, well read. The likes of Evelyn Waugh really touch me, and I’m sure, if I look at it, something comes from that in terms of the recurrences and the whimsy, and the shifting positions of people in life. But none that I can say I aspire to… Gore Vidal, I also like to read, especially some of his crazier stuff, like Duluth. I’m sure some of that has flowed in, at least in giving me a sense that I can even head that way – I might not, by myself, have thought that you could just walk off a path and go anywhere like that. The sense of freedom I’ve taken from writing: Kerouac, even. Anyone who’s come away from accepted forms and made it work, and really said something – that’s always inspired me.
KYD: It’s a hard path to take in some ways, I can imagine. As we talked about earlier: it’s almost like people have a natural aversion to something that’s different, and your style is very different. So often you see first novels, in particular, that are traditional – and that’s why people were so taken by Vernon, especially for its vernacular; the book was set apart. One critic in the UK wrote that this vernacular is like a combination of Holden Caulfield, Bart Simpson and William Faulkner.
DBC: It’s a wonderful thing, and a generous thing to say.
KYD: If you’re not going to take up the strands of this trilogy in your next novel, what would you like to write about? Will it be something completely different?
DBC: Yeah. I’m not sure the form it will take, but I know what I want to do… I’ve got a list of two dozen things I want to do, and I best get cracking if I’m going to do them.
KYD: A list of things to do in life?
DBC: Before I die! [laughs] Of ideas that need to be made into books. I have open documents on my computer, and I go back and save notes to them, but of that group there are five of them percolating up near the top, and of those five, there’s one that’s ready to fall into, that’s got the most energy behind it.
But what I want to do now is look at humans. The thing that fascinates me, of course, about all of this is the human position, which is so whimsical and stupid. And the beautiful thing is that we have all these structures, but we’re the same animal we were ten thousand years ago, just as derailed by the same stupid things. Our capacity to govern ourselves and become anything useful is at the heart of all of that – and my personal feeling is we need to be a bit more tolerant of that. We’re a bit too big for our boots.
KYD: The way that Gabriel changes throughout the novel is indicative of this. It seems to me that he’s empowered and then disempowered; he seems to fluctuate. He mentions, at one point, that experience is only felt when it’s in the past, when it’s been ‘had’. But towards the end of the novel, he comes to the revelation that you appreciate what you have in the present, because that is as good at it gets.
DBC: That’s the best thing we can do right now. The problem is that history is biased automatically; our biases kill us. So it is interesting. I don’t put forward an answer in any of the books about whether we are capable – that’s confounded philosophers forever. But do we have to be?
KYD: But you have always posited the idea of changing the model. You quote Nietzsche…
DBC: That’s the other thing – it’s really superseded. There’s decadence that’s happening on so many levels, but none of it has completely corroded and twisted the tools of reasoning that we’ve had up to now. We’re still using ancient Greek modelling, which were often flawed, and themselves were a product of human whimsy and ambitious thinkers pitting against each other. But those tools are the basis of diplomacy and government, and inform all the really big things that happen to us. And you can see it in governance now – the way that governments still, to a large extent, get away with something. But they themselves aren’t even served by the model. It is time for some new way forward. It’s not there, it’s not visible what that will be yet, but it needs to be.
KYD: I think that’s really true. It’s timely, actually – now, here, we’re in a sort of deadlock. Politically, we’re not functioning. Clearly, it needs to be changed, but no one is prepared to revolutionise anything…
DBC: Yeah, but it’s hard to get radical change! Who would do it? Democracy doesn’t suit that.
KYD: And this is what happens in the book: you paint this scene where people have gone wild – in a mass orgy – but they remain (or are entrapped) in these so-called structures. It’s all very much broken down. And so it seems that no one is beholded to these structures, anymore. They’re false boundaries and systems, so they can be changed; it’s just a matter of pushing those limits.
It’s especially pertinent at this time, when the book’s come out, that this is what is happening here… I’m interested to see if it does in fact have this contemporary resonance.
DBC: It’s good that you identify it. It gives me a lot of heart that you read straight into that. As I said, a lot of the feedback I’ve got – although it is early days – is that it’s really just about a drunk looking for a party. I mean, no one has to dive into the depths of the thing, but it’s nice early on that that cabling has come through to you. So, thanks for that.
KYD: That’s all right. I’m curious about something. In Kill Your Darlings, we published an article in our first issue, examining the state of literary criticism. For you as a writer – and I know it’s different in the UK, there are many more outlets for critical writing – what do you think about literary criticism? Do you give it much weight?
DBC: Well, I’m in a tricky position. Because while that’s my skin exposed to it, I have to be a bit insular. But it’s like everything, it’s pretty much taken over by the markets. So it’s not what it used to be. If you go back a couple of centuries, it was a very important function, and in some ways it was a completion of the work… It was a checkpoint through which motivations, the author often was unaware of, were uncovered and put forward. And so it was a very important gateway between an author and the public in terms of its interpretation. And so they automatically took it as an artwork. It’s very different to today, where in England it seems to be more about the commercial power of the thing.
It’s disappointing – but I don’t pay too much attention. I don’t look for any critiques, first of all. When I do come upon reviews, I take very seriously – more seriously – those that are written by authors themselves. I don’t take tips for swimming from those who have never been in the water. That disqualifies the vast majority of reviewers. Really, after about a year, I can take a sample – there will be a feeling in the air, a generality. But as they come up, as individual works, I can’t give reviews too much particular credit, and I don’t think it is what it should be. It’s a function of filling space in a commercial organ – it doesn’t serve either the writer or the reader. They’re a bit blind and summery for me. It’s a bad state. Sorry! [laughs]
KYD: What’s it like going on the festival circuit?
DBC: As a phenomenon, they’re very good. After all, we’re dealing with ideas, and the transmission of ideas, and it’s important to come together with readers and other writers. And to go back in history, no writer really had access to these networks. I feel it’s synaptic; the energy of the idea in the work, transmitting to you, and then someone else and so forth. We’re connecting that way. The type of thing they’re connecting the internet with today has always happened with books…
KYD: The author can’t be invisible anymore.
DBC: That’s the function of marketing, as well.
KYD: You were interviewed by Andrew Denton a few years ago, and you recounted your experience meeting a notable Italian literary critic and publisher…
DBC: Oh, she died! Fernanda Privano. She was about ninety-five or something. She was amazing. It was my first ever book tour.
KYD: And she told you, apparently, that you needed to create a persona.
DBC: A figura.
KYD: Yes. Does that figura still exist – which, presumably, was created after this meeting?
DBC: No! Do you know what happened? Vernon wasn’t even published in English when I went to Italy, and she was an amazing woman – she made a big point of that figura – and I argued with her on the day, against it. She wrote an article for me – she said, ‘Don’t you worry, I will make your figura for you’, and she wrote this incredibly poetic thing about how I was raised in the forest by foxes and my father committed suicide in New York. It was a whole fiction that she wove together. But what happened is that the very formatted news that broke with the release of Vernon made the figura, and the truth is it’s kind of fulfilled her wish, because that’s not me, either. That one piece of news has become the whole of my character, and so people expect everything to reflect off that one facet.
KYD: Is that frustrating?
DBC: Sometimes, if I think about it. But I also benefit from it, because it’s sufficiently incomplete that it is in fact a persona behind which I can live peacefully. People don’t look very far beyond that; it’s kind of a magnet for questions, and all the questions pitch to that one thing. So I can live a little bit anonymously behind it. It’s a freedom, so I don’t complain. And anyway, the gist of it is true enough – and it’s a kind of justice that I should be tarnished with that one thing, it’s very human. No one’s going to write about the time I sent flowers to my nana. They’re much more interested in stealing a house, and all these other great stories. That’s the cost of doing shit. And so it’s a figura – and it does move books, from a publisher’s perspective.
KYD: It certainly is a hook. Do you want, therefore, for there to be more of a recognition – a focus – on the books themselves? Or is it more a case of: ‘Well, them’s the breaks.’
DBC: It really is. I had zero power to influence it – and it absolutely erupted by itself. You see, the news came side by side. The Booker Prize in isolation wouldn’t have really made a ripple on the surface of the world. Both together in the same week: that’s an explosion that will never shift. Resignation comes with that. I don’t think about that writing – it doesn’t influence me, that’s the main thing.
KYD: Gabriel is certainly someone who is going to linger with me; he was so unpredictable. It’s almost like he didn’t want to take responsibilities for his behaviour, and in a sense hid behind this idea that suicide was the possibility… It’s an odyssey, in some ways, of personal maturation. Gabriel is exposed, too – and there seems to be a reluctance to really delve into those unpalatable aspects of human nature, the grittiness of it, to show ourselves. We’re a culture who hates our faults; we work hard to keep them invisible.
DBC: Literature – it is a function. You asked me earlier if you thought it was a responsibility… The first thing that Fernanda Privano told me when I met her was that she had been imprisoned three times by the fascists in the 1930s and 1940s for importing American literature, and she said that she can smell that in the air again.
KYD: That’s scary.
DBC: She was speaking earlier in Berlusconi’s term – his first term – and it’s true, in European milieu, that Italy was the first one to take a big step to the Right. And of course he owns the media – so there are many things they don’t see about Berlusconi that we see on the outside, because there’s a cap. And, of course, after him came Blair. And now the Dutch and the French and everyone’s fallen in that direction… And that’s a huge shift for the Dutch – traditionally very liberal, well centreist anyway, and that’s gone, now.
Angela Merkel, thankfully, isn’t so bad although she is a conservative in German terms (she’s also crippled a little bit in a coalition; they were the first ones to make a deal) but also Germany is very powerfully federalised, so she has limited clout compared to other countries, to just plunge the nation into these situations.
KYD: Did you live in Berlin, for a period of time?
DBC: I was good as, but I was never resident there. I did a lot of on the ground research while I was there – for three years or more. I flew in and out of Tempelhof airport and investigated all of that, and made friends. I have some very good anecdotes from those times.
KYD: So what’s actually happened to the airport now?
DBC: Do you know, it’s really funny. It’s typical Berlin, because all of that in the book (about the closure of the airport) was true, and the dateline is correct.
It was true, too, that the Estée Lauder heir wanted to buy up the building to turn it into a clinic and research centre – which is a funky idea – but the Berlin government is still communist, and they didn’t want to turn it into an elitist monument. And so they’ve just opened it up; and now it’s a park and you can just wander around. You can skateboard, you can roller-blade on the runways.
And in a beautiful touch, recently, on a weekend, somebody organised the most massive indoor rave that’s ever been seen – and they used the whole terminal for it. Unbelievable!
KYD: Did they eat tiger, like they do in Lights Out?
DBC: Yeah, I wonder – I hope they did. If they were ravers, they probably just drank a lot of mineral water.
KYD: Berlin appears to be a city of contrasts. And interestingly, at least for my generation, there is a real tendency to fetishise this ‘Eastern Block’ city and lifestyle. Why do you think this is? Is it because we perceive actual qualities in living under this regime – what is the allure?
DBC: It’s such bold history, you know. And it’s extraordinary to have happened in such recent history, because they’re such extreme ideologies to imagine that this was going to work. East Germany was the most successful example – it’s unlucky, and to many East Germans unlucky, because that was working for them. They were wealthy, they were producing, they were more or less functioning. The Stasi and the state police control? It depends who you speak to. A committed East German will still now say that it wasn’t nearly as bad as we think. Others will say that whole families were broken apart by spying on each other.
Another thing that makes it popular, and this is more superficial, is that it’s a very stylistic period. It’s the fashion – all that Soviet drab is cool, and it’s a counter-culture statement straight away.
KYD: Could you ever imagine yourself not being a writer?
DBC: I worked once, in an office, as a creative director in an advertising agency in the West Indies. Very funky little place. It’s the only office I’ve ever worked in, for two years. I would have had to have done something. This still feels accidental – but I’m glad I came into it. I’ve always been an artist of some kind.
KYD: Maybe your next novel still needs to be a political novel?
DBC: Yeah, maybe. I always wanted to write one about Muslim butchers on High Street, spending the whole novel under the suspicion of terrorism, but it turns out to be the old ladies in the charity shop next door. That wouldn’t be inflammatory enough to get any attention – it’d just be funny.
KYD: It’s been great chatting, Pierre. Thanks so much.
DBC: No, thank you. It’s been my pleasure.