Congratulations to Man Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre on his new book Release The Bats: Writing Your Way Out Of It, published today by Faber & Faber. When he burst onto the literary scene in 2003, DBC Pierre arrived with no particular literary education and no writing education. Finding he had something to say, he made a solo journey to that place where dreams and demons live, to try and turn feelings into words. Release the Bats explores the mysteries of why and how we tell our stories, and the craft of writing fiction from scratch, proposing a new way to approach the job and its frustrations. Part memoir, part reflection, part practical guide, DBC Pierre shares everything he has learned the hard way. We’re delighted to welcome him back to Festival No.6 this September to share his invaluable insights. Read an exclusive extract from Release the Bats below…
EXTRACT TAKEN FROM CHAPTER: STORIES
To start the engine, pick any story. I’ll pick one: there was a friend in my class called Charlie. His grandmother had a macaw parrot. I loved parrots, and especially macaw parrots. It seemed uncanny to know somebody who had one, macaws were almost as big as me, they were zoo parrots, movie parrots. Charlie’s grandma had one. I used to ask after her health, then after the parrot’s. One day Charlie said that his grandmother couldn’t deal with the parrot any more. It was noisy and made a mess, and she was getting old. He knew I already had a menagerie at home, and asked if I would take it.
‘Hell, yeah,’ I said. I spent some days dreaming about the parrot’s arrival, then Charlie came around with the bird on a perch. It was a magnificent bird, a scarlet macaw, red, yellow, green and royal blue. ‘Does it have a cage?’ I asked.
‘No, it lives on the perch.’
‘Won’t it fly away?’
‘Its wings are clipped.’
So I left the parrot on its perch and within a day saw the fucker circling overhead at two hundred feet. It wasn’t a great flier – but it could fly. It did a victory lap and flew away. I ran onto the street and saw it land high up in a tree two houses away on the corner. I didn’t know who lived in that house, but it was the corner I caught the school bus from, and the gardener there was called Rufino. He was a good man and soon went up the tree to grab the bird, even though he was portly. But when he got close the bird flew away.
So with the parrot gone, the point is this: I’ve picked a random anecdote from childhood and told it as I would in speech, more or less a bare story – but by now an engine runs in it. It can go places. Hopefully apart from concern for the bird, you feel some sympathy for Charlie, and some for me. The anecdote has framed two equal friends and armed a problem between them. Each has a viewpoint: to Charlie, the bird is a cherished family mascot of many years which I have neglected and lost within a day. To me, Charlie has conveniently removed one of his grandmother’s problems to my house and neglected any measures to keep it put. Conflict. Now we want to know where it will end. Where can it go? The case is that we’re involved in the story. It has everything we need for writing: imagine it was the first scene in a novel where Charlie and I were later pitched against each other as adults vying for the same prize. We would know the scene was significant in some way, and would wait to see how. Would it mean that Charlie held a grudge that authorised underhandedness? Or would I capitulate owing to feelings of guilt? The answers would lie in whatever transpired between Charlie and I after I told him about the bird’s disappearance; but if we left that part out, wouldn’t it create tension throughout the book, wondering how that scene would affect the outcome? Obviously Charlie’s a great guy, our friendship would appear to continue – but underneath that, in the dark where novels take place, we would know the scene held clues to the outcome.
If we wanted to really string out the tension we could release the anecdote scene by scene, until just before the climax when we’re pitted against each other – and then the parrot flies away. Anything can happen in our story: if it’s a TV movie the parrot eventually returns and everyone lives happily ever after, if it’s literature the parrot gets run over and both characters undergo life-changing crises, if it’s fantasy the parrot liberates all the parrots in the jungle. In having written down a story, any story where something happens, we have the opening to something much bigger. And a beautiful mystery of the writing process is that whatever that first story is, you will end up writing what you have to write as a result of it. Maybe not a parrot, but raise the stakes with the same elements: Charlie and I are in a crime gang, and when Charlie goes to prison for a year he entrusts his beautiful wife to me to watch over. He brings her around to my house, but after one night she disappears on a binge and I have to find her before Charlie gets out. Better still, she has the chequebook Charlie needs to survive in jail. Until I find her I have to pay for Charlie, but after a month I’m so broke I resort to gambling, and before long I’m being chased by debt-collectors; then on my last outrageous gamble, with everything riding on a win – I meet Charlie’s wife.
Maybe she’s who I have to play. Maybe we fall in love and run off. Maybe she’s who put Charlie in jail.
It all started with the parrot on paper.