Paul Beatty is a self-professed loner. His literary accomplishments, though, are anything but singular. Now that he’s the first American writer to win the Man Booker Prize, he might have trouble staying under the radar. The Sellout, which on Tuesday took home the 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and is also a 2016 National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner, follows a black narrator who reinstates segregation on public transit, becomes the proud owner of a slave, and verbally thunderclaps Justice Clarence Thomas. The unorthodox plot moves in tandem with Beatty’s bold formal choices. Carefully crafted page-long sentences are juxtaposed with three-word chapters like chapter 2: “Westside, nigger! What?” The Sellout invites readers to get involved, to join the protagonist in grappling with two questions that echo throughout the novel: Who am I? And how may I become myself?
Beatty is the author of two poetry collections, Big Bank Take Little Bank (Nuyorican Poets Cafe Press, 1991) and Joker, Joker, Deuce (Penguin, 1994), along with three other novels, The White Boy Shuffle (Picador, 1996), Tuff (Anchor, 2001), and Slumberland (Bloomsbury 2009). His work always delivers smart humor and exacting social critique. He pulls it off without coming across as didactic, but he calls things like they are. During our interview, we discussed the state of political affairs, and he asked, “What is progress? Is it progress that a black guy gets to push the button for the nuclear bomb? Maybe it is, I don’t know.” But he does know, and his writing tells us so.
Beatty teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University, and his teaching style matches the introspective rigor of his craft. When my wife gave birth to our third child, he wondered how I was handling things, if I was all right. He always wanted to know what was going on—not just for his own understanding, but to get us to articulate it for ourselves.
I met with Beatty at a bar on the Lower East Side. He walked in sporting a Bernie 2016 t-shirt and was just days away from flying to London for the Man Booker Prize awards ceremony. We discussed the prize, his background in psychology, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, solitude, and the elusive gauge of progress in America. But first, he asked me how I was doing—how I was really doing.
—Christopher Paul Wolfe for Guernica.
Guernica: When I first read The Sellout, I felt like it was yelling at me, and I wanted it to keep yelling. Despite the unorthodox plot, the emotions felt true to life. You’ve spoken about incorporating autobiographical details into your fiction—you call it “folding it in.” Why’s that important to you?
Paul Beatty: I talk about folding it in often with Althea, my girlfriend. She’s getting her doctoral degree at Berkeley and she talks about how even when writing these very academic, and, for the most part, serious papers there’s just so much going on in her head and heart, and it’s a reminder that there’s a reason that she’s studying these things. So, even when it comes to writing fiction, how do you encompass all this stuff that’s right on the tip of your tongue? You have to fold that into what you’re working on.
There are always so many things happening [to us] at one time. We read Isherwood’s A Single Man in class, and we had to ask: How is he talking about all this stuff: teaching, being lonely, all his memories, all at the same time? He’s telling us: This is where my head is at, let me be straightforward. And of course, try be artful about it.
The Sellout is about friends and relatives who have touched me in real ways. I throw those things in, code them, and then fuse them together. Even though I made most of it up, there’s a kernel—okay, maybe more than a kernel—of real stuff in there. Sometimes I highjack memories. Sometimes I switch them around. Sometimes they’re just in the background, like some little bass note. Those things have carried me through, especially when I first started writing. They’re still there, but more in the distance these days.
Guernica: When Oscar Villalon, the editor of ZYZZYVA, spoke to our class, he said, “The center of your fiction is truth.” Can seeing “the truth” laid on the page also reveal some of the inherent contradictions of humanity?
Paul Beatty: Contradictions make people feel off. They’ll say, “Hey, you just said this and now this person is doing that, how is that possible?” My good friend, the poet Kofi Natambu, once said, “Contradiction is how we operate.” We don’t act the same in every situation. Things bleed into all kinds of other things, from behavior to identity. In The Sellout I tried to capture how we can talk and see race, how we see urbanity, and how we see our history. It’s just never the same. At least for me. I know what Oscar means when he says that. But for me, and it’s probably because it’s just who I am, I never know what that [truth] is. It’s so momentary to go, “Oh, yeah, that’s true.” That’s a fundamental starting point for me—to figure out what’s true from moment to moment to moment.
I’m not trying to disagree with what Oscar said either. I read an interview with a Japanese freestyle jazz musician once, and he said something like, “Everything I’m going to tell you is not going to be true.” He’s not saying, “I’m trying to lie to you.” But he’s kind of saying that you can never say what something really is. It’s so hard to say what you really mean. For any number of reasons: to protect yourself, or if you just can’t find the words. He wasn’t saying it to be an asshole, but he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m trying but it’s all going to be bullshit.” He’s just acknowledging that.
Guernica: How does your psychology background impact your work?
Paul Beatty: It’s all the same for me, how I teach, how I write, how I think. Well, it’s not all the same, but there are a lot of parallels. I’m not sure how to answer this, but I think when I was studying psychology I had a professor and a friend who would talk about “process” all the time. Your process, his process, the group’s process. There’s some carryover from that discussion to my creative work.
I co-taught a seminar called Small Group Processes with my professor. I learned so much from it, so much about myself, about groups, how this stuff works. I bring all that stuff to teaching now. There are things I don’t like, like sitting at the head of the class. It makes me uncomfortable. I’ll do it in a seminar if I have to, but with a workshop, I try to put myself in the circle somewhere. Because that hopefully frees up some people by making somebody else sit at the nominal head of the table.
One thing my psychology professor said to me years ago—this was in Boston, a predominantly white school—was, “You’re one of those people who just doesn’t give a fuck who somebody is.” That’s sort of been true, I think, and a lot of that has to do with where I grew up in California; [status] isn’t something I think about that much. The other thing he said to me was that I was always very mindful of the person who was away from the group, that I was always trying to bring them in. It makes me think about how you hear these young people say, “I see you, man.” Or even if you go and watch some basketball game over the summer and the announcer goes, “I see you,” and you see that player smile. You know what I mean? That thing of just being recognized, especially when you do a little subtle thing. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just sensitive to that person who’s on the outside.
Guernica: What are some thunderstruck moments from childhood that have influenced your work?
Paul Beatty: I have so many of those [laughs]. The other day I was watching the James Corden show. He has this segment called Carpool Karaoke, where he has someone in the car and he turns on their music and they start singing. This time he had the Red Hot Chili Peppers on, and they’re talking about going camping, and how at fifteen, Flea and Kiedis made up this song, and Corden says, “I want to hear that song, I want to hear that song.” So they sing the song and it’s all in this nonsensical language, but it’s their thing. You can hear them in their cadence and you can see how that’s so fundamental to all that stuff they did as a group. That’s just like me and my friends. We had our own language. This isn’t really answering your question, but that stuff has really stayed with me. I wrote poems and an essay about that weird language. We still remember it to a certain extent, and it still comes up when we’re all together. It’s so fundamental to how I think.
In White Boy Shuffle, I combined my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Takemoto, who really saved me—I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this—and my first basketball coach, Mr. Shimizu, into one character. Something about the way they talked about things, and their attitudes, had a huge impact on me. Not that I necessarily agreed with them. It was important to me to just put them there to stay grounded. Like when you have the right title for something you’re writing and you get lost—you can always go back to the title and go, “Yeah, that’s what this is about.”
Guernica: Do you prefer life in New York City or Los Angeles?
Paul Beatty: That’s a good question. There are certain things that happen in New York that just don’t happen anywhere else. I just saw some tape on my friend’s Facebook page, she had this guy–it seems staged because he was so good—playing guitar and he’s got this beautiful voice. He’s got cheap sneakers and a cheap shirt. Just a regular person, you know? I’ve also never written anything really in LA. I’ve written a little bit in Germany. If I’m in LA, I’m close to home, and that just brings up all these other things, good and bad. There is a reason why I am not there [laughs]. That’s what I have to remind myself of. But I’m healthier in California, probably a little happier, maybe. I forget how beautiful and calm California is. It’s not so much about the place, but also the age that I came to the place and, well, other things. New York is hard.
Guernica: So, the Man Booker Prize?
Paul Beatty: I’m hugely honored. My British publisher has this independent press. It’s pretty small; they actually won last year. And she’s got this great energy, and she’s fiercely independent, and you know this book was a hard sell. No one wanted to buy this book. But she did, and so it’s paid off for her, I hope. I’m very fortunate. I’m not much of a self-promoter or anything. It’s not something I feel comfortable doing. But sometimes I would get frustrated, I’d think, “You know, this is a good book, how come no one is paying attention to it?” So it’s nice to have some recognition. I don’t write to put it in a drawer, I hope that people see it. But what am I willing to do for that? I struggle with that a little bit. I try to be accommodating, but I’m pretty much a loner. I’ll say this, and it’ll sound like bullshit, but it’s not: I don’t really pay attention to this stuff very much. I think part of it is I can see myself wondering who’s doing what and getting jealous, and none of that’s healthy for me. So I just don’t really.
Guernica: What do you think about the current political climate?
Paul Beatty: Yeah…
Guernica: If you don’t want to talk about that, I understand. I know that in my household, growing up, my mother would’ve rather told me that she had a Kardashian-style sex tape out before she told me her politics. But if you have any views you want to share…
Paul Beatty: I don’t have any real views on any of this. I think there’s nothing new going on. Except that, you’re even more public than you’ve ever been. There’s some good and some bad to that. I’m doing all these interviews with the British press, the Italian press, and others. They all want to talk about this stuff. I don’t have a stance; I don’t have a go-to thing to say about any of this. I should have been more upset than I was, but it didn’t really hit me that they see the book as topical in a weird way. It took me fucking five years to write it; it’s been done for three years. It’s not topical, this is just how it is, you know. And it’s how it’s probably going to be for a long time.
I just rode cross-country and the thing I noticed is just how afraid everyone is, and how nervous and scared and angry people are. From my point of view, I don’t think it’s all necessarily justified, but I think that’s easy for me to say. They feel that way. The thing is that it’s always a constant reminder of how violent this country has been, always has been, you know. I’m still frustrated with these conversations: Obama is black so that means this, that things are better, or it means that you voted for him because he’s black. It’s just these easy notions that everyone has. I can’t have these conversations. The anger and fear are so global. And of course, we live where we live and there’s a hierarchy to who is worth what. It’s been going on for a long, long time.
Guernica: When I mentioned to you that I’m a veteran of the Iraq War, and I teach in the Veteran’s Writing Workshop at Columbia, you recommended the book Bloods, about black veterans from Vietnam. The soldier’s perspectives often clashed, across ranks, and that’s still true of veterans today.
Paul Beatty: That’s such a great book. That’s a perfect way to articulate this thing that we’re talking about. Just because someone is a black general, doesn’t mean this person is going to have a certain outlook on it. Yeah, that person has a personal moment where some thunder-struck thing happens with them, and they’re like, “Whoa, this is not what I thought it was.” For better or worse. My dad fought in Korea. It was one of the first stories I remember hearing about.
It’s weird because there is progress somehow. But there’s so much that just feels the same. How important is that rank? How important is it that I am allowed to make these decisions? What does that really mean? What is progress? Is it progress that a black guy gets to push a button for the nuclear bomb? Is that progress? Maybe, I don’t know.
Guernica: The Sellout is very in the now.
Paul Beatty: People are very comfortable when race relations get looked at retrospectively. Slavery, the civil rights movement, etc. Why are the mainstream buzz things rarely contemporary? It doesn’t happen very often. It’s hard to feel culpable or implicated or even apathetic
Guernica: Your writing always seems to be getting at some deeper truth about the way things are.
Paul Beatty: I’m not searching for the truth, man. That’s too much pressure [laughs]. I just have some things that I’m thinking about and if I’ve got a good story then…
I remember going to see Amiri Baraka. It wasn’t actually too long before he died. He said, “You’ve got to write to change the world!” I was like, “Not me, no, no, no, no.”
I had a student once come up to me and we were talking about this incident, and, of course, I never had the right thing to say. But later on, I realized I should have said: Don’t write about trying to change the world, just write about a changed world or a world that’s not changing. Let that do the work.