About The Author
Paul Beatty is the author of the novels Slumberland, Tuff, The White Boy Shuffle and The Sellout, which won the Man Booker Prize 2016 and was selected as Foyles' Book of the Year for 2016. He is also the author of two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce, and is the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. He lives in New York City.
The Sellout is set in Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, where the narrator spent his childhood as the subject in his father's racially charged psychological studies. He is told that his father's work will lead to a memoir that will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a drive-by shooting, he discovers there never was a memoir. All that's left is a bill for a drive-through funeral. What's more, Dickens has literally been wiped off the map to save California from further embarrassment. Fuelled by despair, the narrator sets out to right this wrong with the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Below, to celebrate the publication in paperback of The Sellout, now available from Foyles in an exclusive limited, signed edition with pink sprayed edges, Frances Gertler talked to Paul about the model for Dickens, where his book is set, why he would never describe himself as an 'angry' writer and how he came to introduce the shocking notion of segregation into his novel.
You can also read an extract from The Sellout here.
Questions & Answers
Was there a particular model for Dickens, the suburb near LA, where your novel is set?
A little bit. There’s a neighbourhood called Richland Farms in a town called Compton in LA, which is sort of zoned. Not for farming as such, people don’t own farms as far as I know, but they have maybe two horses, or a horse and a chicken, that kind of thing, maybe a cow, and there’s a woman there with an equestrian school. I don’t know if they still have it but they used to have a rodeo. I think that was the inspiration for Dickens. I took these little things, combined them with other things and created Dickens out of that.
You obviously had a lot of fun skewering various stereotypes: was humour or anger the uppermost emotion when you were actually writing?
I don’t know. Neither humour nor anger drive what I do or how I do it, or why. They’re there but they’re not the driving force. To me the driving force is trying to be unique and having fun with the language.
It’s funny because when I was here for the Booker, I was asked why I was so angry and actually that question made me angry somehow! I didn’t realise why until later. I think it was because on the shortlist with me there was Graeme Burnet’s book, His Bloody Project, about a man who goes on a killing spree, there’s Deborah Levy’s book, Hot Milk, about a woman angry at her mother, and so on, and I was wondering why my book was the ‘angry’ one out of all them? Graeme and I had an interesting conversation about that and he said he had actually been really angry when writing his book because of the unfairness of the feudal system and so on, but he was never characterised as an angry author the way I was. For me, I don’t think of it as anger necessarily. In fact, when I am angry, I can’t really do anything, I can’t think, I certainly can’t write! So anger is a part of it but only a small part.
Were you conscious of utilising your background as a poet and essayist when writing this novel?
I’m not much of an essayist really but both those forms have really shaped how I write. The poetry is just there, it’s the skeleton to everything I do, it doesn’t go away. I’m not necessarily conscious of it but it’s definitely part of how I became the writer that I am. I wrote poetry for a few years and I had the idea for my first novel for a long time but didn’t really know what it was. Then I wrote an essay, an extremely long one, about Generation X and when I got to the second or third page, I realised I could do a longer piece, I could make these jumps between the forms. So it’s not conscious necessarily but I’m aware of how my writing meanders between all kinds of forms. I think even in The Sellout one of the characters talks about essays passing for fiction. It’s not something I necessarily believe but I do think about it.
You have been keen to express the distinction between satire and being funny. Is that more a comment on your writing method than the outcome?
I just write, I never try to be satirical, I wouldn’t even know how to do that. The word satire just feels a little limiting to me. I had a good conversation with Jon Day [one of the Booker judges] about satire. He mentioned an interview with Nabokov and Lionel Trilling, which you can still see on YouTube, in which the host keeps referring to Lolita as a satire. Jon Day thought I sounded just like Nabokov when he resisted having his book referred to as satire. It was funny because I love that book but I would never think of it as satire and I think it’s one of those words people apply to things that they’re just not that certain about. I’m not comfortable with people trying to shove my book into a certain box.
Like millions of other Americans, as a child you watched the tv series Little Rascals, which features in your book. At what point did you realise it was actually racist and offensive? How did that make you feel about your initial enjoyment of it?
These things go hand in hand. I don’t think there was a particular time when I realised it was offensive. I suppose I think of it more as hurtful or insulting, I don’t know what offensive means necessarily. We grew up without a television, so part of that whole experience was going to my friend’s house and watching it together. But you watch it because it’s entertaining for some reason or there’s nothing else on, or whatever. But when I was in college there was a theatre that had a retrospective of The Little Rascals and they had the unedited versions, which I hadn’t seen. In one episode, one of the black characters is sweating as he does the cooking over a hot stove so he wipes his brow and accidentally flicks a black swatch of sweat onto the white wall behind. But we never saw that, we only saw this weird sanitised version. So that was eye-opening because I’d never realised there were outtakes, that it had been censored. So that was the moment when I went ‘holy smoke’ and later on I bought them all, I wanted to see what I’d been missing.
Do you think people are still afraid in the US to say what they want to say about race, perhaps because they’re worried about being accused of ‘playing the race card’ or because they’re worried there might be a fatigue around the issue even if the ‘right’ things haven’t actually been said?
I have no idea, I don’t speak for what people in the US feel they can say or not say. I can say this: there are plenty of people in the US who aren’t afraid to say what they want to say! And I don’t mean that just in a pejorative sense, there are some people who are defending their rights, defending their freedom of expression, who are also not afraid of saying what they have to say. I’m sure there are some people who are afraid but I think the perception that people feel stifled is overblown and I think a lot of those people want to feel stifled or want to perceive themselves as feeling stifled as a way of demanding, asking, grabbing other things that they want.
At the heart of a novel filled with bold and shocking ideas is a discussion around segregation and re-segregation. Was this particularly powerful and challenging notion the starting point for you?
No. The first thing was the Hominy character. It came in dribs and drabs. The segregation thing didn’t come until later on. The neighbourhood came quite early on too. The rest was me trying to figure out what the narrative was going to be. It was a hard book to start, it took me a year and a half. I had a couple of OK starts, but they weren’t there though I had some notes and had done a ton of research. Then I went to a dinner party and heard two lawyers arguing about their cases, and it just hit me: ‘Oh yes! The Supreme Court’ and I realised the things I had been thinking about could end up there at the court.
I spoke to someone yesterday who is a professor and he asked me a similar question but he’s black British and he framed it around the notion that there’s a school of thought among African American academics that black people were better off under segregation, so he’s familiar with all the literature around that notion. He was the first person to really talk about it with me from that point of view. So when I hear that notion I always wonder what that nostalgia really means to them, are they serious when they say that? So for me, just to play with that idea in a contemporary context was interesting. I think one of the things with the book that not everyone gets is that Me never really has a slave, he never really segregates anything, he doesn’t have that kind of power, part of it is the illusory nature of all this stuff, but even the suggestion of it had a real impact.
There are many endearing and intriguing characters in your book. If you could hang out with one of them, who would you choose?
I don’t want to hang out with any of them! They’re not real, they’re just in my head. I’ve got real friends! The characters are great but they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be!
Have you noticed differences in the way the book has been received in the UK and the US, perhaps in terms of the questions you have been asked or what the reviewers have chosen to focus on?
That’s a good question! I’m sure there are some differences but I don’t really know what. Where I really noticed the biggest difference – and don’t ask me what the questions were as I couldn’t tell you! – but the questions from Ireland and India were always really good. I never had to explain much, people didn’t ask basic questions. But between here and the States, yes, but I can’t think of specifics….
Do you feel that the Booker win here has raised your status in the US as well?
Yes, no doubt. Shortly after I won the Booker, my wife read me a review in the Guardian about how the win was a very finger-wagging gesture towards the US because they’d ignored me for so long and how it had taken the Brits to recognise me. I think there’s something to that a little bit, I’m not sure exactly what.
You’ve had to do more publicity, more interviews for this book than for any of your previous ones. Have you enjoyed the experience?
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I don’t hate it but I don’t enjoy it particularly. I don’t have to do it but I’m a little more okay with it than I was because I’ve been teaching so I’m used to preparing myself a little bit, to speaking with strangers. I was in the UK recently and a woman who had come to see me some 20 years ago said she was so pleased to see how much less shy I was now than then. There have always been some writers who are really good at talking about what they do. I’m not comfortable with it, I prefer the words to sell themselves, that’s really important to me. I try not to tell readers how to read the book. There are writers who are good at it publicising their work though and there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not that comfortable doing it. I’m the worst salesperson. But I do try, especially if the interviewer seems really sincere, or where there’s an audience of people who made the effort to come to listen to me. It’s not like I’m trying to tell people what they want to hear but I’m trying to give something, I don’t know what this is.
Author photo © Hannah Assouliine