paul beatty talks about his award-winning, post-race novel, the sellout
“It’s not like I’m trying to make it difficult, but I think what I write about is difficult.” The Man Booker Prize winner discusses the demands of writing a difficult book.
You don't so much read The Sellout as much as it reads you. It's an utterly acerbic, brilliantly biting, linguistically dense, completely challenging book that is in turns provocative, compelling, beautifully rhythmic and brilliantly humorous. It's bonkers. Utterly, but brilliantly bonkers, thanks to its author's wildly imaginative narrative that utilises slavery and segregation to challenge ideas around politics, political correctness, civil rights, race, identity, psychology, law, as well as the people, ideas and constitution of the United States itself. An unflinching look at a post-racial America, The Sellout is living, breathing literary activism written with flamboyance, elegance and style.
i-D meets Paul Beatty, the poet-turned author and academic, and the second ever non-British person to win the Man Booker Prize (following in the 2015 footsteps of Jamaican Marlon James) to discover how, when and why he conjured up one of the best books of recent years.
So, Paul Beatty, 2016 was quite a year for you.
That's fair to say, it was absolutely amazing. I got married also, so it was a good year.
What effect has winning the MAN Booker last year had on your career, your life?
It's still too early to tell. There were all these interview requests and I didn't do any of them - I was tired of talking. I have a job, I teach, I had to make up all these classes I missed. It's definitely had an effect on sales, but I'm not that public. I don't tweet, I don't Facebook, I'm not one of these people that organises [signing] events. What's nice is that people are really happy for me and feel it's long overdue. I know how hard I work, so that part is nice, it's nice to be acknowledged. The book seems to have really touched on something and hopefully my previous work has done the same. My wife showed me this article in the Guardian, which said 'Fuck you America, it took the Brits to show you what you had' (laughs). So, yeah it's been good. A friend told me, 'It's time to cash in', but I have no idea how you do that. It's just not how I operate. You can see my name is out there or whatever and people want stuff, but I tend not to do what people want so I'm pretty sure it's going to return back to normal.
Did you read the previous year's Booker winner, with whom you share a publisher - Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings?
I haven't! It's on my kindle, it's there, and I really want to read it, so I will get to it for sure.
You began writing The Sellout over six years ago, but its release seems particularly timely in terms of themes we're seeing in both British and American politics and broader issues around race, identity, police brutality, and so on.
I think for some people these are everyday, quotidian issues, and for some people, it's just stuff they've been reading about in the paper for the past couple of months. For me, it's just how I see the world, so I guess it's timely for some people, maybe overdue for others.
The Sellout is very confrontational read in many ways. It's rare that a book can challenge thinking in the way I think The Sellout does. It feels like a more complete response to politics than we see today, which is more often engagement from afar - a retweet, an e-petition, a status update. How much is the book - are books in general - a type of literary activism.
Yeah, I don't know. I don't consider myself an activist by any stretch, I'm just a writer; I write about things that I think about, I write about things that I pretend to care about, or I try to figure out how much I care - and that's what the books are about. It's trying to weigh up what progress is, what being an activist is, what concern is - all those things. So yeah, I don't consider myself that.
How on earth do you come up with a concept like The Sellout?
In some ways it's not so different from what I've been doing… I guess I like putting these characters in conditions where they're trying to do the impossible and I have fun trying to figure out how to do it - how do you fake accomplishing the impossible? I don't know where these books come from. It's mostly just from my memory. I have this weird perverted nostalgia for things and it's me kind of indulging that. I think, 'how can I render these crazy ideas about segregation, slavery, the post-Soviet era, all of these kinds of things. I wish I knew where these ideas come from cos I would go there more often.
The Sellout is an incredibly articulate and rhythmical read. The language and the way you play with language is pretty incredible, yet it doesn't feel like you're 'trying' to be clever, like you've excessively right-clicked for synonyms…
I try not to do that.
So how do you make something so incredibly complicated and complex read so effortlessly?
I mean, it's impossible; it's why it takes me so long to write a book. For me, the language is the most fundamental part about why I do it and how I do it. I started writing poetry and I was trying to figure out, how can I express myself in a way that's unique. It also felt like there was a void in the literature that I was reading. People were making all these distinctions between high and low and poetics and prose. For me, it all exists in the same box and so it's the challenge to get the language that's in my head, the language that I speak with my friends, the language I talk to my mum in, the language that I use in my academic background, how do you squeeze all that stuff together into one thread? That took time to figure out. At some level I figured out how to get these crazy thoughts in my head onto the page, but it took some faith in myself and faith in the reader also, that people would come to understand what I'm doing, how I'm doing it and why I'm doing it. I was just talking to a young writer yesterday, I told her about how I would send things I'd written to magazines and get rejected but I'd always get these really interesting letters back from them. 'We love these but we just don't know what to do with them' (laughs). In a weird way that was very encouraging to me cos I just knew I was onto something, that I was challenging some people. It emboldened me a little bit.
The book has been called difficult; you've called it difficult yourself. Why is The Sellout so difficult, and in what sense?
I think linguistically it can be tough for some people to read. The vernacular can be difficult. But for me the difficulty is in bringing this stuff to life, bringing the neighbourhood, Dickens, to life, which is sort of based on a real place - how do you make it real and absurd at the same time? I think that's difficult. Then I think people see a book about race and culture, and presume they'll come away thinking 'Oh, this is how he thinks about this, so this is how I'm supposed to think about this'. The book doesn't do any of that. I think people are very used to feeling part of the discussion and sometimes I think the book can make you feel like an outsider. I think sometimes people want to see themselves in a book and I don't think you can really do that here. It was a fear of mine that people were going to wait for permission to talk about the book, or to like the book. I was on a panel once and this woman was like, 'I write to bring everyone together, so we can all have a common experience', and I was like 'Oh god, I kinda do the opposite'. I push everybody away and just leave the door open ajar a little bit - if you're curious, come in.
At the heart of the book is the relationship between a son and his father. How much of your own relationships and experiences did you draw on?
It's all weird, disjointed memories, I don't know my dad at all and at some level that has an impact. Mostly it was my mum that raised me and my sisters, a lot of it comes from that. My mum never censored us from anything, she raised us really independently. My sister has a friend who always teasing us about coming to our house and hearing theories upon theories. We have these very non-conformist theories about how the world runs. My mum had an excellent library, we never had a television, we just read and she never told us how to think. So all that is a part of it. And emotionally how a family dynamic works, or doesn't work, that's all in there.
Where does your love of words come from?
It starts from my best friend back home; he was from a Mexican-American family, the Chicones, and they had their own beautiful language that everybody imitated; they are a family of poets. So it comes from them, being around them, but mostly from just reading when I was young. I don't know how these things seep in, I really don't. I grew up in California, and California has its own language. And to live in different parts of LA, people act differently, speak differently, move differently. From body language to spoken language you realise there's so many distinctions, and so many ways to read and misread and you realise how important it all is. When me and my sisters' moved to the part of LA where my mum still lives, it was such a culture shock for us. It wasn't a bad neighbourhood, it wasn't a great neighbourhood but it was really diverse. Gangbangers, surfers, everything in the same neighbourhood. I always consider myself fortunate that I grew up there. The language was something we had to figure out in different ways, how to navigate. I never know what anybody means by anything. I always think I do and then I realise I have no idea.
In the book you ask the question, 'who am I, how can I be that person.' Is that a refrain in the life of Paul Beatty? Who are you?
You know, I started writing as a poet and occasionally I would come to LA to do a reading and my friends would show up. My friend, Rollo, who I've known forever, he came up to me this one time like 'Man, who the fuck are you'. I love that he said that, and he says it all the time, and it's a question I ask myself all the time cos it's always changing. Some of it comes from my psychology background also, this thing about identity. Cos it goes from 'who am I' to 'who are we' to 'who are we in this context, from this perspective', all these kinds of things. Also implying who do I think you are. There's so many levels of perception happening. It's so fluid and it's the fluidity that I think we have a hard time embracing and remembering. We want these things to be static, but they aren't - well I guess they are in some ways, sometimes - but it's a question I ask every now and then.
It seems your books come from you thinking and thinking for a long time about things and then writing about those thoughts in a hugely entertaining, challenging and inventive way. What are you thinking about now? What will the next book be ruminating on? How mad will it be?
Oh, I have no idea. I just got married so I'm thinking about going back to California and enjoying that. I have two ideas in my head I'm trying to work through. One is a story I've been thinking about - you're not going to get what the story is out of me! You know, when I had to do this Man Booker thing they wanted me to give a few remarks, I didn't have any. I tend to have 20 years of remarks that I save up and put in a book. I have two good ideas for a book, I think. I'm just going to try to keep doing what I do, keep my head down and go back to my little hole.
The Sellout is out now.
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Mark Rusher