Q&A: DBC Pierre

Booker Prize-winning author

Your new non-fiction book Big Snake, Little Snake is subtitled “An Inquiry into Risk”. What’s been your biggest?

In terms of “bigger picture” risks it was probably first writing a novel. Among lesser risks was the time I was mauled as a child in Mexico by a clearly rabid dog, literally foaming, but then told my parents it had been the sweet little terrier next door (we had just learned at school about the excruciating treatment for rabies).

What do the snakes of the title signify?

Big Snake and Little Snake are two of the symbols in an old Trinidadian lottery game. They stand for the numbers 35 and 27. The game features symbols to allow for influence from dreams, coincidences and superstitions. I first played the game when a little snake appeared on my doorstep.

Did your gambling days change you?

They made me feel luckier in general, as if the universe was more benign than I’d been given to understand. And this is the gist of the book – that we tend to grow up assessing our odds via second-hand information, while I feel odds are better in many respects than we think, and also feel we can influence some of them.

What’s the most valuable maths lesson? 

That each of us, and each moment, carries their own laws of maths. What works this time won’t necessarily work the next. We have to forget the statistics and learn to feel again, to sniff the breeze every day. The clues tend to all be there.

Roulette or poker? 

In this context, roulette. Poker is a game of deception; roulette serves up straight odds.

How did Mexico form you as a child?

It must have added a billion more receptors for colour, noise and smell, and a keen sense of human probability and paradox. It also made me corrupt as hell, which took another decade to get kicked out of me (in no way Mexico’s fault).

You travelled in the Caucasus for “Ludmila’s Broken English” (2006). How did that affect your world view?

That was an extraordinary trip. I quickly learned the Soviet Union wasn’t all bad news, countries like Armenia were worse off. But the stand-out takeaway for me, having explored refugee towns, was that when humanity hit rock-bottom 99% of women still functioned and did the basic work of civilisation, while seemingly the same percentage of men turned to vodka.

Which leader/politician do you most admire and why?

For a writer, Napoleon still has the best ideas and quotes. As for current politics, we’ve made democracy such a bitter affair that I want to give a shout-out to the Wangchuck kings of Bhutan, quietly democratising on their own initiative; being guided not by economic indicators but by a measure of public happiness.

Which do you least admire and why?

Those people who write fair elections out of the constitutions of their previously democratic countries. The world has been plagued by the undergrad concept of the “benign dictator” as a perfect form of government, which sets up a notion that there’s a spectrum of dictatorship. But there are no good dictators. Today is unfortunately their new golden age.

And the current government?

Fair play, it’s had its hands full from Day One. With heartfelt respect for all our bereaved (and I also lost some crew), and putting aside “partygate” (if only on the basis that a. if we want government by the people for the people that must be called a Labour vote, and b. is it really a party if you’re not doing coke off someone’s bum?) I think there has, in the background, been some deft nautical steering over historically considerable swells.

A measure to improve the environment?

Force the first acknowledgement that modern economics is the driver of our destruction.

Your takeaway from the pandemic?

That we have as a species the power to move mountains – but see ourselves in normal times as flat-ground dwellers.

Your novel “Meanwhile in Dopamine City” (2020) skewered big tech, social media and the surveillance society. How can we tackle our tech addiction? 

Just like “the environment” this is being framed as a matter of individual blame, as if it’s a neutral force and we’re all simply compulsive. NO. A tiny handful of living motherfuckers are directly responsible for decisions to steal our most intimate cerebral behaviour and use it covertly for their gain. The best way to handle tech addiction is to kill the algorithms mostly responsible for it. As simple as removing cocaine from Coca-Cola.

Strangest place you’ve had a drink?

Okay, we can’t publish the strangest, but how about this: at the deserted stumps of a test cricket stadium in the pre-dawn hours before a major international test match?

Which five people would you ask to a dinner party at the end of the universe?

As well as buddies? Today it would be John Waters, Willie Nelson, Susana Alvarado, Nick Cave, Tina Turner, Sanna Marin the prime minister of Finland. That’s seven but maths unravels at the end of the universe.

DBC Pierre’s “Vernon God Little” won the 2003 Booker Prize. “Big Snake, Little Snake” is out on 14 April (Profile, £15.99)

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