Release the Bats
By D.B.C. Pierre
Faber & Faber
It wasn’t until I was really cornered, until I had begun to run out of options, that I began to write, which as a youngster, I thought would be the most difficult thing to do. I didn’t think I had the stamina or the ability. I punched myself into a corner and eventually that was all I had.”
So says D.B.C. Pierre, describing the desperation that produced his extraordinary debut novel, Vernon God Little. Broke, nearing 40 and going nowhere in London after a decade of dissipation, drifting and deception, Pierre threw a creative Hail Mary pass that was caught by Faber & Faber. In 2003, Vernon God Little won the Whitbread First Novel Award and one of the biggest prizes of them all: the Man Booker. Pierre immediately announced he’d use the prize money settling debts he had run up during his wild years.
Such swings of fortune seem to dog Pierre. He learned Vernon God Little was going to be published an hour before the first plane crashed into the World Trade Centre. His reputation is that of the literary world’s contrarian-in-chief or its prime scoundrel. Famously described as a “conniving bastard” (by himself), he admitted to swindling his close friend, the painter Robert Lenton, out of his home. The initials in his nom de plume stand for “Dirty But Clean”, a nickname invented by another friend who believed that whatever Pierre tried would achieve the opposite effect.
What, then, are we to make of his new book, Release the Bats, which to all intents and purposes is a writer’s guide, albeit in the deeply personal vein of Stephen King’s On Writing? There are moments reading its heady mix of impressionistic memoir, fervent encouragement and sage advice about everything from twists to organising your desk that make you suspect a cosmic joke. Consider the inclusion of Somerset Maugham’s witty proclamation: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Such suspicions are not entirely disabused by Pierre himself, who occasionally sounds like the worst candidate for a writer’s guide.
“I have never taken advice,” he tells me at one point. “I have always had to learn things the hard way. Not by decision but just by nature.” Nor is Pierre’s unsuitability as a literary role model entirely lost on him. “I was particularly naive and unprepared for it,” he says of writing Vernon God Little. “I was less educated and less well-read than most of the people I deal with.”
Here is someone who describes writing fiction as “the Burma railway of art”, whose primary ambition was to become a visual artist (he has variously painted, drawn cartoons, taken photographs and acted) and for whom even the physical act of putting pen to paper sounds painful.
“I never learned to hold a pen correctly,” he says. “I hold it kind of like a claw. It is good for drawing in small areas, but after a page of writing you have completely killed your hand.”
So why write a book such as Release the Bats at all? The simplest answer is that Pierre’s artistic struggles are actually his prime qualifications for writing about them. As he notes in Release the Bats: “The more naked and clueless I grew, the more power I found, and it was correct.”
Other reasons are more prosaic. Release the Bats fulfils a two-book deal struck during the depths of the financial crisis. Faber suggested a memoir, not surprising given his vibrant and controversial past: the son of a geneticist, he was born Peter Finlay in Australia, and raised in Mexico and New York, before rioting erratically across the globe.
“I said that would be lovely. There are lots of colourful stories. But there are lots of colourful people involved in those stories, and I can’t put them in sh*t. It would be difficult to write honestly.”
Pierre countered with a literary autobiography that traced his storytelling talents from childhood to Vernon God Little and beyond. His focus was sharpened by close encounters with creative writing students.
“They were being taught things I knew nothing about. But nobody had told them how to put one foot in front of the other. There are shortcuts, which, if you do it from scratch, you’re going to have to find for yourself.”
The final, and suitably outlawish, push was a conversation about writing with a prison inmate.
“He had been in there long enough that he had forgotten what the streets were like outside, and was having trouble writing settings. We began to talk about how our points of view are all a little bit imprisoned away from the truth of things.”
Unable to finish the exchange (“We were interrupted by guards”), Pierre decided to write his thoughts down. These can be summarised as: excavate raw feeling and learn to control it in prose.
Throughout Release the Bats, Pierre comes across as an instinctive, emotional artist, willing to experiment and follow even his most outlandish inspiration, yet it is clear the “crazy” side of the creative process needs to be managed, or endured. His more memorable exhortations express this balancing act: “Every strong feeling is rocket fuel … harness those forces, become single minded”; “My feeling was that shout … I was harnessing the only thing I had to give.”
Many of these axioms sound like they could apply to Pierre’s life as well as his art.
“You can also punch the wrong way and then it takes extra effort to come back,” he says, citing another Pierrism: “punching through”, a phrase inspired by martial arts movies.
Release the Bats is far from a tell-all tale but it does offer tantalising glimpses of his past: a wild friend (“Bob”) who pretends to commit suicide; memories of illicit affairs (not his own) during Pierre’s formative years in Mexico; a moving account of his father’s final days in New York.
What is noticeable is that Pierre is rarely the protagonist in these stories, at once a part of the scenes he describes and apart from them. He suggests that might have something to do with the expatriate experience.
“The sense that you are not from here, not from there, not from anywhere. But it could be something else.”
“That is exactly how I felt and feel it in my life. I don’t know what the reason is. But I am always more an observer than a participant.”
A similar sense of displacement can be detected in his damaging tendency to flee from problems rather than resolve them.
“I was a runner. That’s still the best advice for anyone with sh*t. It’s what we do. If a situation turns sour, a relationship turns bad, a job gets difficult, we move on from it.” He pauses. “This is like a therapy session for me.”
Writing has provided an antidote. As well as presenting him with a job, the craft demanded the itinerant Pierre settle down, or try to.
“Stopping to write, staying in one place, was stopping to let all that sh*t catch up with me. I went back and saw what there was to be frightened of. In every case it would be a fear of myself.”
Novelists tend to disavow cathartic aspects to their work. Pierre, refreshingly, is not one of them.
“People with conflict are the ones who feel they should write, and are the ones that should write. I was quite f***ed up. It is therapeutic. Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Putting out a story automatically brings those demons to light.”
I sense Pierre is itching to move on. A cab awaits. I ask what writing Release the Bats released in him.
“It took me back to the beginning and reawakened all the stuff I learned the first time around. Once you fall in with publishers, there are a lot of new voices around you. You can kind of forget what you need to stay close to – that initial bewilderment. There is something authentic about working your way through.”