Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty
May 7, 2015 | by Chris Jackson
Paul Beatty’s recurring themes—race and tribalism, human psychology, ambition and failure, and the haunting presence of history—are the heavy ones. But he moves through them with light steps, his precisely choreographed Southern California meander broken by exuberant outbursts of buck dancing and the occasional disemboweling. His early poetry and his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, opened up expansive new territory for writers trying to build an alternative literature, one that found its energy and idiom outside of the traditional American literary complex. But he has always belonged only to himself, unrushed and unburdened by any scene or movement.
I first encountered his work through the Nuyorican Poetry scene in the nineties. I remember feeling that wash of recognition and estrangement that certain books conjure—I was surprised by the familiarity of the voice, and thrilled by the weird, reckless shit it was saying. Paul seemed to come from the world I knew, a world filled with outsiders and cultural polymaths but still thick with the strange incense of African American life—where Amiri Baraka was a comedian, Kurt Vonnegut was black, and Ice Cube was an arch satirist. It was life-changing to see that world animated by Paul’s particular offbeat, backtracking, culture-swallowing genius. Beatty writes laceratingly funny books that often turn on the subject of race, but more than that, his novels are flares sent up—for anyone who happens to be looking—that illuminate the persistent and irreducible feelings that rumble in our deepest places. They’re about hope and failure and loss, the absurdity of systems and the loneliness of being our own weird selves. And they’re about the beautiful consolation of seeing it, really seeing it, in all its pain and nothingness, and laughing.
Paul’s latest novel, The Sellout, comes at an interesting moment in the eternal—and eternally recycled—American “conversation on race.” The protests that have broken out across the country over police violence have had a powerful undercurrent of black humor. My Twitter feed is illustrated with wild, vivid scenes that would be right at home in a Beatty novel: Newsman Jake Tapper in Ferguson for ABC News with a protestor behind him holding up a sign: IS IT OPEN SEASON ON A NIGGA’S ASS???????; CNN reporters getting their microphones jacked midinterview by angry protestors; a (probably doctored) photo of a young black boy riding a hijacked police horse away from the scene of a riot. Years ago, Beatty identified the source of this sort of dark comedy. “African Americans,” he wrote in one of his section introductions for Hokum, “like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting … black folk are mad at everybody, so duck, because you’re bound to be in someone’s line of fire.”
Paul and I had a long talk in front of a single cup of coffee at a café in the East Village. That wide-ranging, candid interview was cursed by the gods of Cupertino and lost forever. Paul, being a mensch, agreed to meet me again at a different East Village café, and just as he started to open up about the path of his career, we were interrupted—our quiet café hosted a comedy night. We fled to yet another café, where we had this conversation.
Has your take on the significance of race changed over the years? I’m asking because of a scene that struck me as one of the most powerful moments in the book—the narrator is at a comedy show with a black comedian on stage who berates a white couple in the crowd by saying, “This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” And the narrator ruefully says, “I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: ‘So what exactly is our thing?’ ”
It’s funny—in White Boy Shuffle there’s a similar moment. I remember being in London and someone coming to me to talk about White Boy Shuffle and he says, I love the scene where Gunnar is getting ready to leave to see some white people and his black friend says, Stay black, nigger, and Gunnar asks, What the fuck does that mean? And his friend says, It means be yourself. That’s not something I agree with, but I understand why someone would take that away from the book. And it’s a very similar construction to that moment in the comedy club in The Sellout. There’s still that idea of basic self-examination—Who are you? Most people are like, Be yourself, that’s enough—but in Slumberland there’s a line where the narrator decided he’s not going to tell anyone to “be themselves,” because most times when people are themselves they act like assholes. Why would I encourage that? It’s an idea I play with and try to reshape from book to book, about our individual responsibility and culpability. There’s something in the shift from White Boy Shuffle to Slumberland to The Sellout that shows a progression, but it’s the kind of progression that I completely believe in—things change but remain the same.
He first wrote that piece in the seventies, though he’s revised it. This guy’s research was about, for lack of a better term, what a self-actualized black person is, or more specifically a black man—not explicitly, it just read very male, but that changes over time. As he updated it over the years, it evolved. It became less tied to gender, less tied to a nationalist sense of black consciousness. It became a little more accepting of other ways of thinking, other ways of seeing the world. It’s really interesting that as the zeitgeist around blackness, around race, changed, his idea of this general racial identity changed, too—the essay became weirdly less about race as he adjusted it. It’s really interesting to think about the progress he made in doing this. It probably parallels the way black writers have portrayed themselves and the community over time.
Do you think white writers write about race in the same way that black writers do?
I think they do. Maybe not explicitly. I’m trying to think of a book—but almost anything will do, really—think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realizes it or not. And the problem is we don’t think about it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.
And the white writers themselves are not self-aware.
They don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter. I realize it. I could be wrong. But this is a lesson I learned a long time ago, in M.F.A. school as a matter of fact. Ginsberg was absent once and Gregory Corso came in. We read our poems—it was me and this poet named Karen, a really good poet, and another poet, Pamela Hughes. And the three of us read our things, and Corso got so mad, he just didn’t know how to process what we were doing. Because it wasn’t about shit that he cared about. He kept saying, Where’s your universality? I’d never heard anyone argue that out loud before. I was like, Oh, this motherfucker thinks his is the only way to see the world. And I realized that’s as much about race as anything. I have a terrible habit of listening to sports radio for the half hour I’m in my car. And again, 80 percent of what they’re talking about is about race in some way—what they talk about, how they talk about it, who they talk about, the language they use when talking about certain players, the words they don’t use. It’s about race, it’s about being white. They don’t know it, and it’s easy to argue that it’s not. But it is.
It’s so interesting that Corso’s response was anger.
He was so pissed. And we got pissed at him, too. But it was a good thing to learn, about distinctions in how people see things, why people see certain things. I’ve never mapped this out or written a paper about it—but in a strange way it’s similar to how people see plot. I think plot is very subjective. If a book’s about something you care about it, it doesn’t matter what tangents it goes on; as a reader you’re tied into it in a way that feels like plot, that feels like structure. But if the book is about things that are really, really tangential to how you read, or the things that are in your world, your reaction might be, Oh, there’s no plot here.
But then there’s another way of looking at it. I remember running into Greg Tate one day, and we were talking about something, just meandering all over the place, and he said, Well, you know niggers can’t stay on the subject anyway. And I was like, Oh, it’s a whole cultural thing now. I don’t necessarily agree with that. But for him, maybe, it’s just how we do.
I’ve always loved the sentences in your work, but also the accumulation of sentences—you go through these riffs that feel like they’re very controlled, like the construction of a joke, almost. Do you do a lot of revision to achieve this effect?
All the time. From word to word. It’s all fucking revision. I’m always going back. I’ll start by writing however many pages feel right, say five pages. And then I go back to the top of those five pages and write my way back down. I don’t go forward until I’m really satisfied with that block. It takes a long time. And even after that, I go back and redo the whole block again just to make sure it’s tighter and tighter. So eventually I got to more or less the first draft of the whole thing, which took a while. Then I just thought about it for a long time and didn’t do any work on the page for six months, which is when I met with Colin Dickerman, my editor, and he had some good things to suggest. At that point it was tight enough that I could go back and rip it apart and improve it without losing anything. I could take big-ass chunks out, and still think to myself, Yeah, it’s still working. There were some obvious things I knew he would say.
I knew he was going to say, You need more of these nigger-whispering episodes, like more chances for the reader to see him do it. [In The Sellout, nigger-whispering is a kind of improvised talk therapy developed by the narrator’s psychologist father, applied “whenever some nigger who’d ‘done lost they motherfucking mind’ needed to be talked down from a tree or freeway overpass precipice.”] And I knew he was going to say, You need more of the father. And I’d think to myself, Nah, it’s not a book about the kid and his father. One thing I did in response to Colin’s prodding was add more to the shooting and the burial and the background. Colin also told me to move all of the book’s action to within the limits of Dickens, which really helped to focus the action. I did try to do more of those little isolated nigger-whispering episodes, but it didn’t make any sense.
Did Colin say nigger-whispering?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know. He probably did, but I couldn’t say that for a fact.
When you were younger, you read Heller and Vonnegut, and you’ve said they had a strong influence on you. Someone like Vonnegut I always thought was gentle as a satirist and also a humanist—there was something affirming but something also vicious about Vonnegut. Then there’s Chester Himes, whom I loved because he confirmed what I believed, which was that nothing really mattered, just layers of absurdity piled on each other, stacked up. Do you think you write in that tradition at all?
I think you could easily put me there. I’m not attempting to. But you could put me in that lane and I wouldn’t complain that much.
No, not at all. In my head it would limit what I could do, how I could write about something. I’m just writing. Some of it’s funny. I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else. But I definitely don’t think of myself as a satirist. I mean, what is satire? Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire. It’s a word everyone throws around a lot. I’m not sure how I define it.
Do you write with some kind of reader in mind? Do you feel like you’re addressing your reader’s ideas about something, subverting or upending some preconceived idea?
I guess I am. I don’t think about it while I’m writing. I was talking to a friend and she said, Your audience is just a bunch of weirdos. But she meant it in a very positive way. There’s a special kind of weirdo who’s going to appreciate it. At least, I think that’s what she was saying.
I’ve always felt that—and this is my own narcissism—I am actually your target audience. But I don’t feel pandered to.
Because you’re black, the age you are, the world you travel in, the circles you travel in. There was something someone told me a long time ago and it fucked me up for a long time. I was reading a poem, and this woman says, It must be really hard to be you. And I was like, What, why, what are you talking about? And she says, Because everybody, no matter who they are, they only get half of your jokes. And I was like, Oh no, don’t say that! That just messed me up. But I understood exactly what she was saying, and then I just had to let it go.
In the recent Toni Morrison profile in the New York Times, Morrison commented that she’s interested in writing without the “white gaze,” without any outside pressure about what her books should be or how they should feel. Do you ever feel any pressure around your writing? For example, do you ever feel any sense that you need to have a more familiar structure to your novels?
No, no, no. It’s almost like how a black sitcom will have a completely useless white character, or a white sitcom will have a completely useless black character, to ground the audiences in something, to make sure that in that weird panorama, the viewer is like, Oh, here’s where I fit in. I don’t think I do that at all. I never even talk about it. I’ve been having all these conversations about contemporary books, and what’s so weird is that these books are structured for a certain target audience—mostly white liberal intellectuals, who respond really positively to them. But the books are written for them! Which is absolutely okay. No one talks about that. It’s just like, Oh, all right, that’s fine. And those books get a certain kind of attention. I’ll see it and think, That feels like pandering—but that’s just who these people want to talk to, which is absolutely fine. I hope I’m not doing that. I don’t think I’m doing that.
I don’t know if I consciously think I don’t want that white gaze, although I know what you mean. I hope that in my audience of weirdos, there’s some of those people of all races. As people of color, as black people, we all have to have this ability to speak these different languages and make these different references—we don’t have to have it, but it helps. So for me, it’s still all in one big thing, and these cultures overlap more than they ever have. You know, in the 1970s people wanted this “authentic angry” stuff that was still directed at them but in a weird I-want-to-slit-your-throat way. I’m not saying those people aren’t a part of my audience. I’m just yelling. I know their ears will hear. But I’m hoping there are a ton of ears out there that hear. I’m trying not to yell in one direction, even though I can’t really help but to do that.
Yeah, I try to a little bit. Part of that fear just comes from criticizing shit that I really like, that I really respect on some level—like when I criticize the Civil Rights Movement. Not criticizing, but teasing and parsing out certain aspects of it. I mean, how can you not have respect for the Civil Rights Movement? So there’s a risk in that. There’s the risk of exposing shit about myself that I don’t want anybody to know, but at the same time I have to try to do that. Sometimes the humor is a way to mask all that, so the reader won’t know that what I’m writing about is me, or figure out what side of the argument I stand on. Then there’s a risk in just trying to say what you mean to say. And not, as we were talking about, to not speak toward this target group that I know, if I want to, I can please on a certain level and tell them the shit they want to hear. I think I could do that if I wanted to, but I also know that I can’t do that. I’ve learned that I can’t do that. Writing is a risk no matter what. I don’t think there’s the risk that I’ll drive myself crazy—I’m not going to do a Sylvia Plath. But that’s the subtext of a lot that I write about. There’s a lot of suicide in my work, for instance. These are things that are really personal to me in a real way.
You do talk about death and loss in your work—and for a comic novel, there’s a strong elegiac quality to The Sellout. There’s always some kind of utopia that briefly forms in the mind of your characters in some way. Some kind of heroic mission or utopic possibility that disappears, that falls just out of reach. Sometimes I feel like the humor is a way of dealing with those things—loss and failure. Even the idea that nothing ever changes is a suggestion of that existential absurdity we talked about.
I feel like I saw some documentary recently where they were talking about exactly this. How people deal with failure. You never have classes about how to deal with this shit. I remember being in college and my friends were talking about the old hard-work trope, you know—you work hard and your dreams will come true. And my friend said, My dad’s a janitor from Nashville, and he’s worked hard his whole fucking life and none of his dreams have come true. The thing I want is just to write. And hard work goes into all of it. But there are no guarantees. I’ve had the good fortune to have come of age when I did. Writing is a way I can go back and think about what came before. Like in the book where I have Martin Luther King saying, Man, if only I’d tasted how nasty the fucking ice tea was at those segregated lunch counters, I never would’ve started this thing. It comes back to this question—is it worth it? Most people think that it’s been worth it—I mean, obviously it has—but we don’t know how to measure that, still. And we can’t measure it in terms of the kind of guilt we have—some kind of survivor’s guilt.
The same questions and problems continue to manifest themselves. I remember reading some Aristophanes play where the narrator is basically saying that the other playwrights who are so popular—the shit that’s getting all the acclaim—is just worthless commercial stuff. So even that idea is old—I’m real, they’re not real. That flipped me out, but it was also really soothing. All this angst, all this stuff we all feel, is just tied to making art. It’s so ancient. These discussions we’re having, people have been having them for a long time. Not that the work hasn’t changed—of course it has—but these fundamental things are the same. We’re still just humans creating.
Chris Jackson is executive editor at Spiegel & Grau.