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Paul Beatty's love-hate relationship with writing

Paul Beatty. Photo/Getty Images

Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty talks about his relationship with writing and the creation of his scathing American satire.

With his acclaimed novel The Sellout, Paul Beatty became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. The main character of the caustically funny novel about hypocrisy and race in the US is an African-American man known only as Me, who lives in the rundown Los Angeles neighbourhood of Dickens.

When his father dies, Me discovers the lies his father told. At the same time, the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens is literally erased from the map. Reeling from these betrayals, Me decides to bring Dickens back through reintroducing slavery and segregation – a shocking plan and one that ends up before the Supreme Court.

Such an outrageous story could have gone wrong in the hands of a less talented writer, but Beatty, who teaches at Columbia University, has been called “the funniest writer in America”.

He drew insight for the book from studying psychology at Boston, and from his childhood experience of LA. The book’s humorous and politically incorrect descriptions of discrimination and violence feel like a rebuttal to a particular excessively optimistic political rhetoric that won’t acknowledge the complexity of race in America. In interviews, Beatty, though eloquent and generous, often looks a little uncomfortable and bemused. During our conversation, I got to find out why.

When did you first start writing? You’ve spoken very generously about your mother. Did she encourage you to write as a child?

She didn’t encourage us to do much. She didn’t discourage us from anything either, so that’s the good part. She left it up to me and my sister to figure it out. I didn’t start writing until I was probably about 25. I was going to grad school and getting my doctorate in psychology, and at some point I realised how much I enjoyed writing, how much satisfaction it gave me. It just clicked on some level.

Beatty with the Man Booker. Photo/Getty Images

What is your writing process? What time of day do you write and where? I’ve read it’s not always something you enjoy: how do you make it easier for yourself?

I don’t write very much. I don’t write reviews or essays very often. I use the word “enjoy”, but actually I hate writing. It’s a lot of work. I only write when I have something to say or if I can’t stop myself from saying something to be more accurate. When I’m writing, it’s something I try to do every day, but I don’t have set hours. It depends on how the day unfolds; I live in New York, and as I get older, I’m more sensitive to how busy everything is. I write not so much when the city goes quiet, but when my head goes quiet.

You published poetry before moving to fiction. Why the shift?

The performance thing wasn’t me. I’m not a performer or an entertainer, and I wasn’t comfortable with people expecting that from me. I still love poetry, so it’s not poetry [that’s the problem]. But I remember writing a line of a poem and going, “Oh, they’re going to love this,” and I thought, “Who the hell are ‘they’?” It was the first time I thought about audience, because you have to read poetry to an audience. The shift was about how uncomfortable it made me, but also how it was changing how I thought about writing. My awareness of “they’re going to like this” struck a chord in me. I was slowly figuring out my first novel idea, and poetry was more interactive – not the writing, but the articulation of what you’ve written – than I wanted it to be.

So with a novel you can be in the background and the novel can come forward?

A little bit. It’s changed, having won these awards. I’m doing a lot more talking.

In interviews you’ve given about The Sellout, you’re often asked to make grand, summarising statements about race relations in the US. Your response has been to say that the book came from your own experiences and creative interests, that it’s not a “big statement” novel. With that in mind, why are you drawn to this humorous, absurdist style?

I don’t know why. I don’t really ask myself those questions. Something I’ve realised the more I talk about the book is that I write to create space for myself, for my own expression. I usually write about characters who are creating their space – their head space, their physical space, elbow room. It’s a thing that I think about a lot. In part I think it comes from growing up in LA and that city was all I’d ever seen, and then going to school on the East Coast and coming back to LA and feeling, “Oh, wow, LA is different.” It’s weird to come back to a place when you have a new reference point: LA became different.

The word “absurd” can have a negative connotation, but for me it’s where the fun and uniqueness are. The unique part is important for me. When I started writing, I didn’t tell myself that I wanted to be unique, but in my head I was trying to figure out how to create a language I hadn’t seen before, which is not to say it wasn’t there, just that I hadn’t seen it. I had an idea about language, about the world, about characters, about space somehow. I’m not using absurdity for any one purpose, and I’m not saying it doesn’t serve a purpose, but it’s just how I write.

It sounds like it gives you the space to do what you want creatively.

Absolutely. To me, how I write asks the reader to be astute, but that astuteness is going to be different for everybody. I remember when The Sellout came out, I did a reading in San Francisco and a guy started saying, “I’m so tired of everybody calling this satire; this is reportage.” That cracked me up. He was identifying with the book in ways other people weren’t. It was more experiential for him.

Somebody once said to me, “It must suck being you because everybody only gets 50% of what you’re trying to say.” But that doesn’t bother me. I’m writing about people trying to understand and trying to figure things out. I’ve heard someone say about the Marx Brothers that they tell jokes in such a rapid-fire way that if someone doesn’t get a joke, they don’t even know that they’ve missed it. It doesn’t have to be a joke: it can be a reference point or an emotional point, but that’s the beauty; everybody reads things differently.

I would like to suggest that race is only one theme in The Sellout, and that the novel is also about how identity is created, from how we’re raised to where we live. Because Me is Black, and because the novel deals with slavery and segregation, it speaks to the Black experience, but issues of race and agency are also relevant to other groups, say Native Americans. What do you think?

Yes, absolutely. I think that reading makes perfect sense; it’s valid. It’s not the only reading, but I think that something that shaped me in terms of what I wanted to do with the book was listening to Rebecca Solnit talk about her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She talked about navigation, and the notion that you’re one person in one place and another person two blocks over. It was so smart to me, and something I know from psychology – identity is tied to place and tied to perception. There are many things happening in a person and none of them are a negation; you can be more than two things at once.

So you’re saying that people often hold contradictory ideas?

Absolutely. That is something that I learned early on, that contradiction is in us. Contradiction and hypocrisy. Everybody wants to ask me, “What’s your take on ‘Black’? What’s America going to be?” Everyone wants a straightforward answer. You could make a good living by giving these straightforward bullshit answers, because they are comforting in a weird way; even if it’s dystopian, it’s comforting because you have an answer.

I understand that, but for me it’s not enlightening or thought-provoking. I have never operated that way … well, I can’t say never, but I don’t see the world like that. If I do, I get uncomfortable and upset with myself, I try to mock that. I might read a book and only be focused on one aspect of the book, but that might be my problem, not the book’s.

What are you working on now?

I’m not really working on much. I’m going to travel – I’m going to New Zealand – and I’m trying to keep my eyes open. I’m trying to rest and I’m having a hard time doing that. I’m just thinking. I have a couple of ideas, but I’m not good at doing two things at once.

The Sellout is brash, scathing and also beautifully eloquent. I was wondering, what are you like at parties?

I’m usually pretty silent. I’m not very social. When I do go to parties, I usually find a corner and do not move. Or if there’s somebody there that I know, I stick right on their shoulder. So, sorry about that. I don’t really go to parties.

Paul Beatty is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 16-21.

This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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