Following the recent publication of The Sellout, which has been called “among the most important and difficult American novels written in the twenty-first century,” we asked Paul Beatty to sit down with his editor, Colin Dickerman, and discuss his explosive follow-up to The White Boy Shuffle. He took stock of his influences, the state of Taco Bell, and the process of transforming a shoe box filled with notes into a finished novel.
Colin Dickerman: We’ve worked together for a bunch of years now, but when I signed up The Sellout, it really felt to me like it had the potential to be the novel you were working toward your whole career (and I think you pulled it off). Can you talk a little bit about your history as a writer? How you started in the slam poetry scene, and your splashy debut? I think it’s really interesting that you hold both an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in Psychology.
Paul Beatty: Well first, thanks. I’ve always been a reader, but came to writing fairly late—in my mid-twenties. There was no magical moment. Psych or writing. I just pursued what interested me. It’s not that deep. But I had a gradual realization that I’d been in Boston too long and that writing gave me satisfaction in a way nothing else did. Maybe a cold glass of Welch’s grape juice and a Taco Bell taco used to, but these days Welch’s is too sweet and Taco Bell’s beef and cheese doesn’t taste like beef and cheese.
So I bolted to New York and landed at Brooklyn College where I met my mentor, the poet Lou Asekoff, who—along with Allen Ginsburg, Pamela Hughes, and Karen Kelley—helped me figure out how to get what was in my head onto the page. Lots of luck involved, of course. I met the poet Lee Ann Brown at a Brooklyn College lecture. She asked me if I wrote and I mumbled, “Yes.” A little later I had my first reading at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where I read for way too long and Evelyn McDonnell spotted me and decided to write a profile in the Village Voice. Poetry has had a huge impact on how I approach literature. Slamming, not so much. Poetry is the backbone to how I think about structure and the page. And I’ve yet to break myself of the notion that every word is vitally important—though I’m trying.
About the time my first volume of poetry was published (Big Bank Take Little Bank, 1991), I was just trying to keep my head down and improve. In the mid-nineties a cat named Henning Gutmann asked me to write an essay for an anthology of Generation Z writing called Next. I penned “What Set You From, Fool?” an essay that changed how I thought about my writing. It crystallized my voice and sensibilities, and convinced me that one could do anything on the page, and that there was a decent chance that the novel swirling in my head and on five years-worth of shards of paper stuffed into a size 13 Adidas shoebox might actually make some sense. Then I wrote The White Boy Shuffle.
CD: What do you like and dislike about the editing process? When you hold the finished book in your hand, does it feel like the realization of what you started out to accomplish, or has the vision changed with the process?
PB: For me editing and writing are pretty much one and the same. I sort of hate writing, but when I’m editing I feel like I’m making some progress. Plus, it’s usually really quiet. Throughout I just try not to ignore myself—my thoughts, my goals, my ideas. I just sit down and write. Like Louis Asekoff so often says, “Writers write.” There really isn’t much more to it than that. Sit down and write.
And for the most part, finished books feel finished, which sounds trite but completion is really an accomplishment—something that’s beyond and immaterial to whatever my intentions were. But I will say that The Sellout is the closest I’ve ever come to getting the polyphonic narratives, agendas, and contradictions rattling around my head onto the page exactly as they feel, exactly as they sound, exactly as they read.
CD: Your caustic sense of humor sets you apart from a lot of novelists working today. Who are your biggest influences? Who produces work, in any medium, that you find funny?
PB: Tons of influences: Richard Pryor, Steve Cannon, my mom, my neighborhood, the Chacon’s, the Keaton’s, Toi and Nica Russell, jazz, Joni Mitchell, Vonnegut, Lynda Barry, Love and Rockets, Mizoguchi, Osamu Dazai, sumo wrestling on Channel 18, Kobayashi’s trilogy The Human Condition, early-Taco Bell/pre-the chalupa and all the goddamn sour cream, the Big Dipper (both Wilt and the constellation), Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Ann Meyers, Film Forum, Bob Dylan, Theater 80 when they showed films (double features no less), my backyard, Kinuyo Tanka’s poise, Takashi Shimura’s pate and lips, the Santa Ana winds, Joan Didion, Wanda Coleman, pomegranates, Volvos having no motors, social media marketing, financial planning skills, people who sacrifice themselves for others, and the beach. Mostly the beach.
CD: You circle around the same themes: race, identity, racism, pop culture. How have your views changed over the two decades you’ve been writing?
PB: I don’t circle around the same themes. If anything I circle around my life. And to my mind, everything anyone has written since the advent of the sandal, the wheel, and the raft, circles around “race, identity…pop culture,” whether they know it or not.
CD: Ok, point taken! These issues are present all the time, but the past few years (with Ferguson and Trayvon Martin) racial tension has been front-page news, as it should be. How do you see your work relating to current events?
PB: I don’t. Whether on the front page, repressed, or in our collective nightmares, oppression, cruelty, prejudice, discrimination, and general tension are omnipresent. And always will be unless I win the lottery. Then everything will be as it should.
CD: Was there any point when you were writing The Sellout when you worried that it might just not work?
PB: I worry about everything. I worry about the creative part, and I worry about the reception. I worry that not everyone will get all the layers, but still try to make them work on a number of levels so two readers might be laughing/crying at the same passage, but crying/laughing for two completely different reasons.
Paul Beatty is the author of the novels Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle, and two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He is the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. He lives in New York City.
Colin Dickerman is the editorial director at Flatiron Books.
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