Stop Calling Paul Beatty an ‘Angry’ Writer
Talking to the Author of the Man Booker Prize-Winning The Sellout
This profile originally appeared in Dutch in Trouw, March 2017.
While I’m talking with the poet and novelist Paul Beatty in his Amsterdam hotel, we spot another Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, sailing through the lobby. Both have novels newly out in Dutch translation, and both did interviews the day before for a books program on Dutch TV. Beatty envies her interview skills, he tells me. “She has her thing all ready. She knows what she’s going to say when she goes in there.”
Beatty, on the other hand, doesn’t always know what he thinks, or he thinks a lot of things, some of them contradictory, or he wonders what you had in mind when you asked the question. He stops himself halfway through a sentence; he queries everything, including his own statements. He chooses his words judiciously, cares how things are said. He doesn’t deal in received ideas but in context, intentions, and the rest of the story.
This should be clear to anyone who’s read The Sellout, the unsettling and wildly funny novel for which Beatty won the prize. A love song to the city of Los Angeles and the history of California, a tale of one person’s quest to be himself, it also makes comedy out of the sheer existential absurdity of racism in America. It was recently translated into Dutch, which is why its author has left his home in New York to come here, on the first stop of a brief European tour. (Italy is next.) He wears a long-sleeved black T-shirt and jeans, the classic unmarked outfit—the clothes of someone trying not to make a statement. Even with the deepest jet lag and only a few hours sleep, he’s warm and friendly.
He’s also reserved. He doesn’t easily feel at home, he tells me; he’s “not comfortable much.” He lived in Berlin for a year in the 1990s, but didn’t like feeling that he was in the position of representing America. He teaches writing at Columbia, and though he likes the work he’s uneasy with the “imprimatur” of the university, the identity connected to it. “I have trouble with the pronoun ‘we’. I think that’s basically it,” He adds, “So the way people use ‘we’—the idea of the group—is really interesting to me.”
What does it mean to you that The Sellout won the Booker Prize?
“I don’t know yet, to be honest. I mean, it’s obviously a good thing. But… I’m not that good with the attention. It’s nice to get the attention, I just don’t want to be around for the attention, you know? Because you get used to it. And it doesn’t stick.
“One of the reasons why I stopped writing poetry is because you had to do so many readings. I remember writing a poem, and I wrote some line, and—again, with the pronoun—I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to really like that.’ And I just stopped and went, ‘Whoa! I can’t believe I had that thought. That’s not why I do this.’
“You start to care about who’s saying what. And you have to turn that off.”
Have you been able to get any writing done, between the touring and the prize?
“I don’t write very much, so that hasn’t been a problem. I’m very slow. It took me five years to write that book… [The prize] has made a difference, somehow. I was on TV. But that’s nothing real. The real changes I don’t know yet.”
Do you want to talk about politics in America?
The Trump part? What’s your explanation? Do you have an explanation?
What do you think?
“I can’t explain it. I wish I could, but I can’t. I don’t even know if I really wish I could. It’s so much stuff. It’s that need to believe in a myth, which affects not just Trump supporters but a lot of people. How do you want to be led, how do you want to be represented? How you want to be yourself… There’s a lot of fear. That’s always there.
“And people’s sense of themselves, their ‘we,’ changes. My wife tells a story about her step-grandfather, who grew up in Hamburg in the 1930s, Jewish. He had a teacher that he really loved who was very progressive, very open-minded. And Hitler’s coming to power. The class is nervous, he’s nervous. And the professor was like, ‘Oh, no, I’ve looked at his policies, we’ll never accept these, these’ll never go anywhere.’ And then 1933 came, and he said, ‘Class, there’s a fresh wind blowing.’ He’d changed. He was like, This is my side now.
“There’s this not-so-fresh wind—this jet stream blows around the world. It’s always there. You’ve got this Geert Wilders guy here. These guys in South Africa who are killing migrant workers, Duterte in the Philippines—it’s nuts.
“And yet you watch these things, you read about the shit they say, and it sounds like farce. It’s all smoke and mirrors at some level. It feels like it can fall apart at any time, so I think that can put you at ease.”
Is it all just talk, then?
“Look, with Trump there’s a huge level of, for lack of a better word, incompetency, and complete cluelessness. It’s like the Keystone Cops. But you know, the Keystone Cops were still cops. They still had the power to arrest you if they could catch you. They can still do some damage.”
The Dutch newspaper NRC reviewed your book and used the “n-word” in the headline, in English, in a quote from your book.
“What was the quote, do you remember?”
“N—–, are you crazy?”
“Oh, that isn’t me, that’s Richard Pryor. That’s even older than Richard Pryor, I think. [laughs] I remember seeing something about [the controversy around the quote] and thinking—not to try to run away from it, but I got that from somewhere else. That’s just the shit that people say.”
People were angry about it, here and in the US. I don’t know how you feel about it.
“I don’t know how I feel about it to be honest either. I can’t say much about it, because I don’t remember the details. But I remember when my first novel, White Boy Shuffle, came out, Granta wanted to run a condensed version. And they had done a really good job of putting sections together, and they called me and said, ‘We’re trying to figure out how to title it. Can we title it “Niggers Will Be Niggers”?’
And I was like, ‘No, you cannot.’ Even though that’s in the book. I was just so suspicious of what they were trying to say by titling something that….
“Because those words are in the book as a belittling device, and to title something that is like belittling the text that comes after. I remember that really upset me. I was like, ‘Really? We can’t do better than that?’
“Whereas with the Dutch thing I went, ‘Naaah, might be some overreaction here.’ It didn’t bother me as much, because there was a point they were trying to make around the word. But if it pisses you off, you’re allowed to be pissed off about it.”
After all the touring he’s done for the book, Beatty says there are a few subjects he doesn’t like to discuss. His use of the n-word is one of them. “There’s nine jillion words in the book, and every one of them is hopefully there for a reason… I think I have a hard time talking about it because people tend to just talk about that word, and they never say, this word made me feel this way. I don’t want to do that work for somebody else.”
He also doesn’t like to hear that he’s an “angry” writer.
“I was talking to [writer and editor] John Freeman; we were talking about humor, and he was saying, ‘I think most good books have an element of humor in them.’ And I’m thinking, do most good books have an element of anger in them also?…
“Before this Man Booker thing we had to do forums or panels, and I did one. The host was talking to me, and she was like, ‘The book is so angry,’ blah, blah, blah, and she had this kind of snide look on her face. And I’m not sure what I’m feeling—I know I’m feeling something—but then afterwards I thought, My book may or may not be angry, but you’ve got all these books about a serial killer, about an old woman who kills her neighbor. It’s interesting why my book is an angry book.”
When I mention European problems of immigration and assimilation, he comments, “No one ever talks about what assimilation means. You say these words and you never say, when have I assimilated, when have I not assimilated?… Basically I think what people mean by that is, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with you. If you would disappear, that would be great.’”
Beatty doesn’t want to let problems disappear; he would rather probe the places where it hurts. He says he was recently in Oxford, where students campaigned to get a statue removed of the British politician and imperialist Cecil Rhodes. “There’s a ton of people who are perfectly willing to say that statue has to come down. You can’t use that word; you can’t do this, you can’t do that.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘easy,’ but that’s the word that comes to mind: it’s the quick solution, to tear down the fucking statue. And for me it’s like, OK, tear it down, and then what? What are you saying when you tear this down? Does your pride stop at Cecil Rhodes, who’s hugely responsible for this university running the way that it runs? It’s important to know what decisions you’ve gotten into….
“And then how do you do context? I remember talking to someone who said, ‘Oh, well, they’re going to put up a plaque.’ And I was like, ‘That’ll have to be a damn good plaque to contextualize all this history of Cecil Rhodes.’
“I didn’t say this at the time, because I’m slow, but I was like, yeah, maybe you contextualize the Cecil Rhodes statue by putting a statue of Mugabe next to it. That’s me. Here’s this one guy, and here’s a dictator… It’s more than just Cecil Rhodes; it’s really about the country, it’s about colonialism, it’s about a lot of shit.
“I don’t know how to talk about it necessarily. I know how I can talk about it. But I’m not a person to ascribe to somebody else: ‘This is how you should talk about it.’”
I ask what home is for him, and he tells me that outside his own apartment in the East Village, there isn’t anyplace he feels entirely at home. “Home is a thing I struggle with; I don’t know why. If I did, I’m not sure I’d say.
“I guess I feel most at home in LA, though I’m not sure I’d ever live there. The memories, false or otherwise, that I have in LA are just so fundamental, because I’ve had them the longest. There’s some kind of psychic ground that’s firm for me there. It’s a place where, although I don’t know the city, I know where I am. And even in New York I don’t always have that….
“There’s a line that really stayed with me when I read it, and lines don’t really stay with me very often. It’s in a John Fante book about LA called Ask the Dust. He talks about still seeing the desert sand in the streets. Whether it’s metaphorical or not, I don’t know. But it’s a beautiful line. You’ve got this place built on top of something. You still see that in California…
“I did try to hold on to my sense of Californianness. For a long time I kept my license. There used to be a really good magazine that some Asian American kids put out called Giant Robot, about this Asian sense of multiculturalism… And [the comic] Love and Rockets. They were very California for me. So I’d try to hold on to those things.”
Beatty is his own person. When we talk about contemporary novels, I mention how rare it is to find a work that’s really original. He lights up.
“That’s true. But when I see it, when I feel it—if we’re going to disagree about what’s original, that’s good too. But that’s the stuff that really makes life nice sometimes. When you go to something, a movie, art show, whatever, and you say, ‘Oh, man, I didn’t know you could do that.’ That’s such a good feeling. That’s all I’m trying to do.”