Paul Beatty on Los Angeles Lit, The Sellout, and Life After the Man Booker
In Conversation with Oscar Villalon
In 2016, Paul Beatty became the first American author to win the Man Booker Prize. Given that perhaps most readers came to know Beatty’s prose through an excerpt from his first novel published in Granta in 1996, the honor seems especially appropriate if not foreordained.
That first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, wildly comic and set in the Los Angeles that would erupt after the Rodney King verdicts were announced, was critically lauded, but also became something of a cultural totem for its knowingness about race and identity. (Early in Phil Jackson’s tenure as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, he gave a copy to Kobe Bryant, who appreciated the gesture, the New York Times reported, but “given the provocative content, he thought Jackson assumed a bit too much about his upbringing so early in their relationship.”)
Beatty’s next novel, Tuff (2000), was set in New York City, where Beatty used to live year-around until recently splitting his time between there and the Bay Area, and featured the mammoth and Candide-like Winston “Tuffy” Foshay. His following novel, Slumberland (2008), takes place in ’80s West Berlin where a Los Angeles DJ tries to track down a reclusive jazz musician. And in 2006, Bloomsbury published Hokum: An Anthology of African American Humor, which Beatty edited. Beatty is also the author of two poetry collections, 1991’s Big Bank Take Little Bank and 1994’s Joker, Joker, Deuce, and studied with Allen Ginsberg. If one asks him might there be any more poems he’s completed, he says no in such a way to make you think he hasn’t written any poems in years. Then in 2015, his novel The Sellout was published and the reception arguably surpassed the excitement that greeted The White Boy Shuffle. Along with glowing reviews and its inclusion on best-of-the-year lists, the book garnered Beatty a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker.
It might be an understatement to say that when it comes to talking to Beatty about his work, he’s less than comfortable. There are many good reasons for this. (A disastrous onstage interview at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia is but one example. “Do you think that people become black? Do they have to learn what it means to be black?” Beatty was asked by a white interviewer. “Things,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “became heated.”) And among those reasons is an author’s reluctance to have to explain his or her work. Shouldn’t the work speak for itself? But also the author’s personality: Not everybody enjoys being the center of attention.
The following conversation with Beatty combines interviews that took place on two occasions. The first was in August 2015 at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, where Beatty appeared to a packed house as part of the book tour for The Sellout. The second occurred in July 2017 at the Morgan Library in New York City at a reception sponsored by the Man Booker Prize. Among the people in attendance were other recipients of the prize, notably, Marlon James, whom Beatty addressed during our talk.
Oscar Villalon: Your first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, was set in LA, and the following one, Tough, was set in New York. Slumberland was set in Berlin. And now with The Sellout we’re back in LA. What drew you back to your hometown?
Paul Beatty: That’s a good question. I think even Slumberland—in my head—is set in LA. I made a conscious effort to start The Sellout there for some reason. At some point I just made a decision that I’m very comfortable writing about LA. One of the things that always strikes me about LA is how little LA changes in some ways.
OV: What do you mean?
PB: I think in terms of language, is what I mean, really. I remember—this is around 20 years ago—I remember listening to some Snoop Dogg song when he first came out, and he was saying all these rhymes that I think people thought were new, but they were rhymes that kids had been saying in elementary school. He was using all these old words. I also think about style, how there’s a certain thread that people really hold on to in LA.
But I think the real reason I set The Sellout there is that there’s this weird neighborhood in LA.
OV: Which one?
PB: There are a lot of weird neighborhoods in LA. [Laughs] This one is called Richland Farms. It’s a small little section of Compton. My sister teaches there, and when we were little my mom used to drive us to—I don’t even know if they still have it—to the Watts Parades, which were like a celebration of the Watts Riots. Not a celebration of the riots, but . . . I guess a celebration of surviving the riots?
You’d go through there and occasionally you’d go down these streets and you would see black people on horseback, just riding down the street. It’s something that stayed in my head. My mom also used to take us to these polo matches in Will Rogers State Park. There’s a weird connection there for me. So one day my sister was telling me that her students come to class with milk that they’ve bought from their next-door neighbor’s cows—like the neighbors milk the cows and sell the kids the milk for 50 cents. So it’s this weird section of Compton that’s zoned for livestock and stuff like that. It’s just something I’ve always been thinking about and no one knows about it.
Do you know who this basketball player Arron Afflalo is? He’s from Richland Farms. So when I was researching the area, the only thing I could find was Afflalo talking about growing up listening to cows and chickens. That’s the only thing I could really find online. So it was something I had in my head for a while and I had to find a story that lived up to the setting.
OV: From there sprung this narrator, Bonbon.
PB: Yes, the narrator and some of the other characters.
OV: How would you describe Bonbon?
PB: These are hard questions, Oscar.
PB: [Laughs] How would you describe him?
OV: I think he’s affable.
PB: He’s affable?
OV: Yes. I don’t want to say he seems like a “jokester.” He has this everyman quality. He’s certainly observant of his world and part of his community, but with distance. So he has a frankness and a directness that’s appealing.
PB: I think he’s damaged, actually.
OV: Well, who isn’t?
PB: His father has invented what he calls Liberation Psychology and has done all these classical experiments on his son. Do you know the Milgram experiment where you hook people up as a test of authority? He does a perverted version of that. He just fucks with his son.
OV: And then his father gets shot by the police. He’s sort of untethered by that. He’s now on a farm, he drifts, and then one thing after another happens and he acquires a slave: Hominy Jenkins. Who’s Hominy Jenkins?
PB: Hominy is the last surviving Little Rascal and he was Buckwheat’s understudy.
OV: Then that develops to the point where Bonbon is trying to segregate a desegregated school. Now this is one of the things that struck me about the book . . .
PB: I know Oscar too well for [doing an interview]. This is the problem.
OV: The book is extremely funny, but I also think it’s extremely incisive. And it could be described as satirical but I kept coming across so many reviews and pieces where what was being described made me think, “Well, that’s real. That’s actually not satirical.” For example, at one point there is a screening of extremely racist cartoons, and I’m pretty sure all the ones you’re describing are real.
OV: And that Bonbon rides on a horse. There’s nothing satirical about that, or that the neighborhood of Dickens suddenly disappears. Its borders no longer exist. And, of course, that’s what happened to South Central Los Angeles. South Central Los Angeles doesn’t exist. Now it’s called South Los Angeles. So these aren’t zany things that you’re making up.
OV: That’s it?
PB: No, no, I’m trying to help you a little bit.
OV: Don’t kill yourself now.
PB: [Laughs] No, I’m glad to hear you say that. I mean, the reason I’m so tired lately is that I’ve been talking a lot about this book. Everybody’s very comfortable with saying, “Oh, you’re a satirist, you’re this, you’re that,” and all this other kind of stuff. For personal-freedom reasons, I say, “No. That’s not me. I just write. Whatever it is, is what it is.” I guess people don’t often think about what satire really is—but for you to talk about how real it is, is a comfort to me. Because even some of the more ridiculous stuff in there, that you would think is obvious satire, is sort of real—or definitely based in something.
“I guess people don’t often think about what satire really is.”
OV: We know the book is very funny, there are all these delightful things going on with the plot, but there are also all these “serious matters” that come up. One of them is this idea of closure. At one point Bonbon states, “Daddy never believed in closure. He said, people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they’ve achieved is erasure.” So toward that, I think what the book tries to do is prevent that idea of erasure, and show how you may have your own formulation of how you think things are working, but it’s not necessarily the case that it’s true.
PB: It’s not like I realized my intentions while I was writing the book, but because I’ve been talking so much about The Sellout, I’ve been able to make up some fake intentions after so long . . . It’s not like I sit down and outline this shit and say, “I want to address this.” But one of the things is just how we talk about race. Social constructs are part of it, like there’s a “closure,” there’s an “endgame,” there’s all this kind of shit. We talk like there’s just black and white. So one of the things about this neighborhood, Dickens, is that it kind of reads as black, but it’s not a black neighborhood.
There’s a bit in the book that’s inspired by a friend who’s a principal in Compton. I went to visit him one day and we’re standing in the schoolyard, and one of the kids comes up to him and says, “Mr. Principal, Mr. Principal, a white kid stole my blah-blah-blah.” And my friend Ronald goes, “Oh, well go do this, blah-blah-blah.” And I just went, “What white kids?” And the white kids were the Latino kids. That’s just something that stuck in my mind for a little bit! I talked to my sister about it. It was like a little phase that lasted about three or four years as the school population was transitioning. I assume it started with the kids, but the teachers, you know . . . I’m not making any sense.
OV: No, you are.
PB: I have these weird languages in my head. The nonsense language my friends and I spoke growing up. My, for lack of a better word, academic language. A bunch of stuff. And it’s the same with demographics a little bit. I’m just trying to weave all those into one thread, instead of talking “us, them, those.” I don’t know how thick that thread, that yarn is, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
OV: The danger with writing about anything like this is trying to simplify things. There’s nothing remotely simple about it. Especially when you talk about race or class in this country, it’s like a kaleidoscope, it keeps refracting every time you turn it to examine it. There’s always a different perspective. But a lot of this process, as the book would suggest, is just trying to get that clarity, however you may think you do that.
It just so happens I’m reading Robert Grave’s memoir Goodbye to All That, and there’s an introduction by Paul Fussell, who addresses the fact that Grave wrote about World War I with humor, with broad comedy, which some people were really put off by—“How could you write about this terrible thing in broad comedy?” He then quotes Swiss author and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Dürrenmatt’s post-Second World War conviction that “comedy alone is suitable for us.” That’s what he believed. The reason? “Tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility—none of which we have.” What do you think of that?
“The danger with writing about anything like this is trying to simplify things. There’s nothing remotely simple about it.”
PB: I guess I don’t think it that clearly, but I agree with that. I’m evil. I think that everything’s funny at some level, you know? I did this collection of African American humor that no one found funny. I’m exaggerating. A lot of people found it funny, but there was a large part of the populace that didn’t find the cover [which depicts a watermelon rind] very funny. It just brought to mind that there’s a weird lack of irony, especially when it comes to African Americans and what you can do and talk about and say. I’m a big Ernst Lubitsch fan, and there’s this movie, To Be or Not to Be. It’s making fun of World War II . . . and it just always struck me how there’s very little of that type of comedy about people of color in the States.
OV: Why do you think that is?
PB: I think people feel that there’s a lot of stuff to be done first. You have to rehumanize yourself, would be the right thing to say. You’ve got to assert your intellectual equality.
There’s a bunch of shit that you have to do! You’ve got to bring up all the stuff that’s been ignored, you know? At least that’s what people feel like you have to do. I think you can do all that and be funny at the same time.
OV: And then you can be Jack Benny.
PB: Or Richard Pryor . . . I just read this book about a month ago called The Nazi and the Barber. It’s by Edgar Hilsenrath. He wrote it in the early ’70s and it was banned in Germany for a long time, and I think published here in the States. And it’s a funny, really mean, crazy book about an SS officer who’s a concentration camp prison guard who escapes being prosecuted for war crimes by passing as Jewish. It’s just a weird, crazy book—I don’t even know if I like it, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like just flicking me in the ear all the time, you know? But there’s just a refreshing sense of “I don’t give a fuck” to the book, so the book sits on your chest after you close it. And it’s still sitting on me. When I wrote The Sellout—this is also bullshit that I’m saying . . .
You guys know this Steven Wright joke? Remember he used to have this joke where he would say, “You know when you lean back in a chair and you just catch yourself? I feel like that all the time.” But in talking about The Nazi and the Barber, in a weird way that joke came to me. I kind of wanted to be in that space for a little bit, you know. Like I flinch a lot—people touch me, I flinch. So I wanted to have this long flinch, in a weird way. Just in part. That’s not the whole thing, but that’s a part of it. And so I realized that being comfortable and uncomfortable is just something I think about a lot, a part of how I operate. In The Sellout, I made a very conscious decision to talk about that—and it manifests itself in race, class, education, all this other stuff, taking the bus in LA. It manifests itself in that stuff.
OV: There’s a scene where Bonbon surfs and he gets on the 4:30 am bus and heads out to, I don’t know, is it Dockweiler, where is it going?
PB: He’s going down to the end of Rosecrans.
OV: Have you actually ever seen surfers take the bus?
OV: There’s a section in The Sellout titled “Unmitigated Blackness,” where Bonbon is talking about these stages of blackness. The last one is Unmitigated Blackness and that’s when you don’t give a fuck. His examples are Sun-Ra, Richard Pryor—who else did you throw in there?
PB: Frida Kahlo?
OV: Yes, Frida Kahlo. And I read that and thought, “Well, that’s great.” Then I see in the Acknowledgements you cite the groundbreaking work in black identity development by William E. Cross Jr., his paper called “The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience.” Is that what we were reading?
PB: No, that’s not it literally. I was in grad school for psych before I started writing, and I just stumbled across this guy who’d written this paper about the development of black identity, and it was in stages. I don’t remember the stages so you have to forgive me.
So stage one, you’re basically an Uncle Tom, you think everything that’s white is good, everything that’s black is bad. I guess he wrote it in the early ’70s. There’s this gradual thing where by the end stage you’re like Malcolm X or something. But it was really genius the way he thought about the way identity forms, in terms of . . . there’s a word we used to say in college all the time: consciousness. “So and so’s conscious, so and so’s unconscious.” The paper was just so clever, and funny. It wasn’t supposed to be funny but I found it very funny.
OV: Why’d you find it funny?
PB: Because it was so smart. I tend to find things that are really smart somehow amusing. I use “funny” for everything, so you’ll have to forgive me. I remember I blew the paper up, which was really hard to do back then. You had to go to the Xerox machine, you know what I mean? But I blew it up and made a big poster on my wall because it was just so brilliant. And as time went by, he changed the stages. It was interesting how he changed and the stages changed. I found it fascinating and when I first thought about writing [The Sellout], I was going to divide the book up into those stages. Actually, I wasn’t even going to use it in the book but it was such a part of the way I was thinking that I crammed it in there at the end.
OV: Catch-22 appears in the book. Bonbon loves Catch-22. At one point he says, you have to be pretty funny for him to put down Catch-22. Joseph Heller and also Camus and Kafka. In fact, Bonbon and his girlfriend bond over Kafka. I was wondering if you could talk about those three particular writers—Heller, Camus, and Kafka.
PB: Well, I have to talk about my friend [now wife], Althea. I’m going to embarrass Althea, but this book is dedicated to her. She is a person very close to me, and we bond over things like Kafka and Camus and stupid movies and stuff. It’s just really important to how I think. I must have read Catch-22 when I was really young, 12 or 13, but that’s a book that has just really stayed with me.
OV: What about it?
PB: It’s hard to tell. I mean, this is not what I thought at 13 but, again, in retrospect—the fact that he was able to define the indefinable. I remember I once wrote some line about Barack Obama, “the ineffability of being so f’able.” I love when people are able to talk about this stuff that you can’t talk about, and there’s something about that book that has really stayed with me. I even like the movie [of Catch-22], which is terrible. I like Art Garfunkel, too, so that goes a long way, but . . .
OV: Getting back to Los Angeles, might another reason for you setting The Sellout there be because you wanted to figure out that community of Dickens, and get down what that community is like?
PB: I’m not trying to figure out anything, because it doesn’t exist. But when I was writing the book, trying to get that fictional neighborhood right was really difficult. It’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get some traction, to get to the word “absurd,” absurd and real at the same time.
Marlon James said something that I say all the time, I repeat it and I think I credit Marlon most of the time. He said something about his latest book, he said, “My job isn’t to solve the mystery but to render the mystery.” I said, oh, that’s so beautiful, it’s perfect. And it’s a million things. You know, one of the things that’s interesting about The Sellout, is, I think, so many people want to solve their own mysteries, all the time . . . and some people realize that’s not what it’s about. It’s interesting, the different readings. And somehow that applies to LA. I think there are parts of the book where I’m writing about how people write about LA—or how people read LA.
OV: How do they usually read LA?
PB: I can’t say how they usually do, but there’s Bret Easton Ellis’s LA, which comes up in the book. There’s what’s supposed to be Latino LA, what’s supposed to be African American LA, what’s surfer LA. I think people think of these things with borders, which is what I don’t see, really.
I’ve been thinking about reading a lot, because I’ve been listening to people talk about The Sellout and they’re basically telling me how they read. I think it’s changing a little, I hope, but I feel like people put on a “I’m going to read an African American book” attitude, and they read their African American book. “I’m going to read a woman book,” and they read their woman book. It’s just so weird, in terms of how we read, how we talk about what we’re reading. I’ve been asked to do all these blurbs, so it’s making me pay attention to blurbs, reading a little more contemporary literature than I usually do. I think about my book, or Marlon’s book, or whoever’s book, and what you see they compare it to. “Oh, it’s like X, Y, Z, and this and that.” I get compared to Pynchon and all this other kind of stuff. But I have never read a blurb for a book by a white author where they said, “Oh, this book is like Ralph Ellison,” or “This book is like Toni Morrison.” It’s interesting. Everything is so one-directional all the time in terms of this hierarchy of thought. Having said that, there are a lot of people who don’t think like that.
OV: When you won the Man Booker, I was very thrilled. First, because it was you, so I was very, very happy. But second, I was also thrilled because the first American to win a Man Booker did so for a novel about LA. And not only is it about LA, but it uses LA as a way to look at things. Having said that, do you think we’re beyond seeing writing about LA as “regional” yet?
PB: I don’t know if we’re past that. We still talk about the perception that West Coast, Southwest literature—this “Non-New York” literature, is I guess what I’m saying, “Non-New York American”—is somehow niche or cultish.
This is a stupid observation but we’re talking about LA and it’s making me think of my childhood, me and my friends. We used to get terrorized by these kids that later started this gang. They used to terrorize us. Rocky and Byron. And then that would be so funny because you would meet them and they were normal guys, you know? When they weren’t beating you up every now and then they could have interesting conversations. But I remember my friend was saying, “I’m cool with Rocky and Bryon now.” And of course the next week he got beat up.
It’s one of those things that was a lesson for me, where I thought, “Yeah, I’m never cool, I’m never past anything, because next week it’ll be back.” So I don’t know.
OV: You teach an MFA class at Columbia called Literature from Los Angeles. Why did you decide to do that?
PB: Why? I guess my reason is twofold. I stole the idea from a friend of mine who actually taught a class like that. She’s always complaining, “These kids never have any setting!” So I wanted to talk about setting and what setting means, not just in terms of place but what the notions of setting are. So it’s partly that. And partly a way of getting the students to read stuff they haven’t read before. So we read Chester Himes, we read Michael Jaime-Becerra; we read Wanda Coleman, we read Karen Tei Yamashita; we read Bret Easton Ellis, we read Bukowski. We read a ton of stuff.
OV: What was the reaction?
PB: I think they really enjoyed the class. I don’t know how true it is of LA, depends on how nostalgic or romantic I want to be about the place, but a lot of that work is this countervailing “I’m gonna go left” kind of stuff. I think sometimes students are very cautious of saying the right thing, doing the right things, and these books—and it’s not on purpose, these were just the books that we chose—these are books that aren’t in service to anything, necessarily. They’re in service to the stories that they want to tell.
OV: I think this is probably true, too, for California writers in general. They work in a place where tradition, whatever that may be, is not so important. That is, whatever tradition is as defined by NewYork. They do their work and if it works for them, it’s great. They don’t necessarily feel the need for it to fit in within a certain scope. All those people you mentioned—Chester Himes, Bukowski, and Wanda Coleman—you could say they’re iconoclastic. Their writing just comes from a place. It has urgency. This is not to say that they’re not erudite, that they’re not cognizant of traditions of their craft; their writing is just informed by different things.
PB: Yes. I don’t think this is something specific to LA. So we read Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man.” It’s a beautiful book. This is a book about LA from the perspective of someone who’s not from LA—but it’s a very LA book. It has these things, mostly about loneliness. And all these LA books, including mine, are fundamentally about loneliness, I think, because some part of that is geographically influenced somehow.
“All these LA books, including mine, are fundamentally about loneliness.”
OV: Let’s talk about the Man Booker. What’s life post-Man Booker?
PB: It’s good. But I’m not . . . I’m not a person that seeks attention, I have to say.
OV: This is the perfect prize for you then.
PB: So it’s nice to have some attention in certain ways, but it’s hard for me a little bit. I’m really, really appreciative. I’m going to places I haven’t seen, I’m meeting really nice people. So life is good. It’s broadening my own world a little, which is really nice. I’m not the most pro-active person. I don’t travel unless someone asks me to go somewhere. People are asking me to go places, that’s nice.
OV: And what’s it been like going to these different places and seeing the reaction to the book?
PB: I don’t know. The prize is part of a whole spectrum, a whole continuum, so for me it’s hard for me to just isolate the prize. One of the really nice things is, I’ll be in Hackney or I’ll be in Calcutta and somebody will stand up and give an amazing diatribe about what this book has meant to them. How this book has touched them. And it’s not all the time, but often it’s not about that the book’s American or that the book’s in LA, it’s about all these other, bigger things, which don’t necessarily have to do with how we discuss literature in these safe, categorical kind of ways.
Where was I, was I in Sydney? No, I think I was in Melbourne. I did something similar to this [interview], and this woman—she must have been 75-years old—she stood up and started talking about the book, and then she started talking about me and she just saw right through me.
OV: What did she say?
PB: She called me a reluctant turtle or something. I can’t remember what she called me. A misanthropic turtle? Or a crab? She called me a hermit crab, that’s what it was. There was an adjective in front of there somewhere. But she was dead-on. I was like, Oh Jesus Christ. Because I’m not a person who really engages with what people are saying. And I don’t really pay attention to awards very much.
But it was funny, because when I first met—sorry, Marlon—but when I first met Marlon, not the first, the second time? He had already won the Man Booker. So Marlon has a good spine, and I’m like a fucking sapling, you know? It was because of what everybody was saying to you and how they were treating you. Some jealousy that was hidden with smiles, all that kind of stuff. I was just cracking but Marlon handled everything really well. I was like, “Oh, this is a big prize,” you know? And Marlon’s colonial circumstances are different . . .
That’s another aspect of the Man Booker—the Commonwealth. I was getting this—not flack, I haven’t really gotten any flack—but people said, “Oh, American this, and all this.” Althea said a really good thing, she said, “You know what the good thing is about you winning? It’s that somebody else is going to win and America’s this insanely Yankee-centric place, and instead of books always going in that direction, there’s going to be some other stuff coming this way maybe.” I was like, ah, that’s a really good way to think about that. It’s just opening up and I think that’s a good thing.
From the latest issue of Zyzzyva. Used with permission of Zyzzyva. Copyright © 2018 by Oscar Villalon.