Photography Rohit Chawla
His writing teacher told him to choose another profession, yet he continued to write. He hates writing yet he says writing has given him life. Paul Beatty is not an easy man to get to know, yet there are layers in his conversation that give you insights into his life. He works at his own pace and is unburdened by any kind of literary pressure and/or rat race. He only shares on paper and that’s why at some level, writing frees him of all that is buried inside. The Sellout, his last book that released in 2016, was rejected 18 times and yet it won The Man Booker Prize, making him the first ever American to win the honour [after the rule change that permitted authors of any nationality eligible for the award, so long as they were writing in English and published in the UK]. The Sellout, for him, was a hard book to write and yet it had to be done.
I got a chance to interact with him to understand him and his relationship with writing…
Can we start the conversation with you telling us a little about your growing up years?
I grew up in Santa Monica with my sisters and it was a great place. And ever since I knew how to read, I have been reading. My mom reads a lot and we always had a library of books, we did not have a television so my sisters and I spent a lot of time reading. My mother never censored what we read so we read everything. Our family is such that we don’t ask a lot of questions. I never went to my mom and asked her what a particular word meant, or what the sentence implied. And then at some point, we moved to LA and I continued to read. I must have been in 2nd grade when I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, it’s a sci-fi book. There was a story in the book that stayed with me for years. When I wrote my first novel I must have been around 30 or something, but that story was really important for me even though I read it when I was in the 2nd grade. It kind of inspired me, as there was a little twist in it that I wanted to do in my book. So writing and books have always been a part of my life.
Have your growing up years and/or your family influenced the writer you are today?
Oh yes, totally. I can’t really explain it. We are all really good writers, my sisters write really well. My mom can write and she is an artist. She just dragged us everywhere so we saw movies, we went to art exhibits. She is really into Asian culture so that was a huge part of our upbringing. Our household was weird and the neighborhood we moved to in LA, was really unique and unusual though my sisters think it’s like anywhere else. For me it was a strange neighbourhood, a mishmash of class and culture. I found it to be a really outlandish place. It had a little bit of everything. It was somewhere near the beach, sort of near the rich neighbourhood. It was a special and small area. We lived in our own world, we had our own language that we made up. My closest friend came from that neighbourhood and the entire area really influenced me. I have learnt so much from them.
“I hate writing but I do enjoy doing it the most. It does not necessarily give me a high but it does, at times, give me pleasure especially if I conquer something I didn't think I could do, or if I was struggling with something and I manage surpassing it.”
Your initial years as a writer were difficult as many didn’t quite get what you wrote, so much so one of your teachers even suggested you take up another profession—so when did you find your voice?
I think part of it was when I wrote a poem in class and there was a girl called Mary Green who sat next to me—she picked out this word—it was a terrible word. I had just moved to NY and heard kids use this word—‘styli’, I don’t think it meant anything. And I was really using it for effect. But Mary started accusing me and saying this word is forced etc. and at first I got really defensive, but then I realised she was right. That’s when I realised people could really see through you. She didn’t know me but figured I had used that word for effect. And that observation by her was really important for me as I realised that people look through you and your work. Another instance was when I wrote my first poem called Zoobang. I was struggling, trying to figure out how to write or do anything, and so I had a memory of these kids who used to torment my friends and me. One day, one of these kids had cornered us. Him bullying us was a reason for him to unburden himself of all the terrible things he had gone through. His conversation really stayed with me and it’s not that I mimicked him or anything, but something about that conversation made me write something and when I read it I really liked it, and then I lost the poem on the train. I lost my knapsack. So I had to rewrite it, which probably helped, even though I’d rewritten it a bunch of times before I’d lost it. And so, finally I had a poem that I really, really liked. Even though I might not like it now, then I liked it. And this one kid went on and on about how he didn’t understand anything in it. And so the next year, I was asked to bring in my best poem, so I read Zoobang again. And there was silence. Then people started dissecting it, and the person who hated the poem most the semester before was going on and on, “This line is brilliant, blah, blah, blah.” And I was looking at him like, what happened in three months that made him do a 180? Because one of the things I had been dealing with was, who is your audience? How far do you go to appease your audience? All these things that most people deal with sooner or later. I can’t really say all those instances led me to find my voice but I think it was something.
You share a very interesting relationship with writing—as at times you say writing gave you life. Yet you say you hate writing but you continue to write…
I don’t know what it is but I do know it gives me some kind of satisfaction. I hate it but I do enjoy doing it the most. It does not necessarily give me a high but it does, at times, give me pleasure especially if I conquer something I didn’t think I could do, or if I was struggling with something and I manage surpassing it. And the pleasure of being able to touch people, and people responding is what is most gratifying. In my life I am not a big sharer, but on the page I am braver and it’s a place where I share.
You have been teaching for a while as well. Does it help the writer in you in anyway?
I can’t teach and write. But it’s nice to see the kids so energetic, so smart and so willing to learn. It reminds me how important writing is and how tenuous it all is. You learn by talking sometimes. I am quicker about solving a few problems and I think that comes with teaching.
“I write to push everyone away but I leave the door wide open.”
There was not one particular thing that drove you to write The Sellout, so how did the story and your writing flow? Can you tell me a little about the writing process?
I don’t really know what’s going to happen in a book but I have these broad scenarios, broad ideas. Sometimes it’s a character; sometimes it’s a place. And then I just start thinking all these things together that I have been thinking about since years and just kind of mesh it all together. It takes me a long time and I don’t give any deadlines to myself. I know there is an end but I don’t give a deadline for the end. I am very slow. I have never written a book and sold it to the publisher. I write 50 pages and those pages take me years, after which I am exhausted. And then I realise that somebody has to see this and I usually send it to my agent. And if I am lucky I manage selling it.
Parts of this as well as your earlier books have been taken from your own reality. Is it a conscious effort or does it occur unconsciously?
It is very conscious. It’s not personal but there are touchstones for me to build on, and they help me get started. They are not very personal but the rudimentary things are personal.
In your book, you have touched upon serious issues but you have added humour to those. Do you see life like that?
I guess I must. I often laugh when I am not supposed to be laughing. Humour is all over the place and often it’s ignored. I did this anthology on humour and one of the things was that I tried to find Martin Luther King funny, and I couldn’t even though many said he was funny. But after I finished the book I came across a short story that he wrote which was really funny. I don’t do this consciously… that’s just the way I write and express myself. My cynicism, my reluctance is just a way I express myself.
Lastly, The Sellout was rejected about 18 times and today it’s a Man Booker Prize winner and one of the most celebrated books—why do you think the initial rounds saw rejection?
I don’t know. But maybe there are things in the book that people didn’t quite want to acknowledge. Either you read it and you don’t like it. Or it pulls you in but you don’t connect with it. And then there is another reaction, where you read it and you just don’t know what to do with it— is it the fear, you don’t want to be associated with it, you want to read it in the dark. I really don’t know. But I am really glad there were people out there that took the time to read it and gave it a chance and I am really appreciative of that, and that people thought the book was beautiful, important, relevant and good. I don’t write in a way everyone writes. I don’t write with that kind of accessibility. I write to push everyone away but I leave the door wide open. And I think I am like that in life too. I am a very hard person to get to know. My work, I feel, is a little bit of a reflection of that.
Our conversation with Paul Beatty was first published in our Literature Issue of 2017. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra