Q & A: Paul Beatty

Posted on 2nd September 2016 by Sally Campbell
In the tradition of satirists as caustic as Swift and as hilarious as Vonnegut, Paul Beatty’s new novel The Sellout is, as the Financial Times puts it, a ‘howl-a-page assault on the pieties of race debates in America’. Already the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this exuberant, irreverent and exceptionally funny book is set to be one of the most important titles of 2016. In the following interview, the first of our Man Booker Longlist coverage, Beatty shared a few thoughts with Waterstones Online’s Sally Campbell 

Author image: Paul Beatty (c) Hannah Assouline

While it is unusual to ask this question, please can you briefly describe the plot of your novel in your own words?

Boy meets girl. Regrets it, but still pursues her because he’s a glutton for punishment, or if you need cultural relevance: black boy meets American dream. Regrets it, but still pursues it because he’s a glutton for punishment.

The Sellout is a satire and you have said in interviews that you believe great satires continue to have influence long after they are written. Can you describe your own definition of what satire is and why it is such a powerful form?

I wish I could. A friend once said that the best satire shouldn’t be described as being “too soon,” but as being “not soon enough.” I’m not sure what he meant, but maybe good satire, satire that lambasts the morbid absurdity of life is by definition always and inevitably too late.

The Guardian described the book as ‘fearless in the way that it takes apart our sacred cows and shared delusions.’ Can you explain a little of which sacred cows and shared delusions you intended to take apart?

The conflation of suffering with pride and nobility. 

As you say in the book, some people wish to ‘turn the page’ on the most traumatic and catastrophic parts of history, yet your novel suggests this is the wrong approach. What do you say to the people who refer to a need to ‘draw a line’ and ‘move on’, in particular with regards to the history of slavery and segregation?

‘Turn the page’ and get past your desire to ‘draw a line’ and ‘move on.’  

Do you have someone that you try your writing out on - a favourite, trusted reader? Or do you show no one until the whole work is finished?

I’m not much of a sharer. Too shy. Too sensitive. Too insecure.



Dickens, the ‘disappeared’ neighbourhood in the book, has a strong presence that many have likened to a character in itself – which neighbourhood did you grow up in and can you describe its character?

I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles in a nameless, working class neighbourhood that had a little bit of everything and everyone. Equidistant from the beach, Hollywood and Beverly Hills, it was a place where the American dream was perfectly visible, yet always just out of reach.

In an interview with WNYC last year, you discussed your aversion to pomposity and pretension, would you mind elaborating on this again for our readers?

I’m envious of anyone else’s success and obviously more comfortable revelling in my failures. What did the famous labour leader say to the press when he was spotted smoking an absurdly expensive cigar? “Only the best for the working class!”

In the WNYC interview, you also talked about the earnestness of the, specifically Black, literature you were taught in schools and you said you hoped there was room for more fantasy and satire in the curriculum in future… I wondered, what would be your selection of the ideal books to teach all young people in secondary/high school?

While I have a personal canon, I’d never dump it on anyone else. Teachers should be free to teach books they find meaningful. But if they happen to find meaning only in books written by writers who think like them, then we’ve got a problem… 

Who are your heroes?

My mom. Bruce Lee. Joni Mitchell. Langston Hughes. Art Spiegelman. Einstein’s barber. Anne Frank. Gerhard Richter. Gong Li. John Coltrane.


How would you sum your life up in five books?

Dust Tracks on a RoadZora Neale Hurston

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches - Basho

The Man Who was Thursday –G.K. Chesterton

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Candide - Voltaire

You have advanced degrees in psychology and creative writing... you have worked with people who have mental health issues, you have been a teacher…you are a poet and you have been described by The Guardian as the funniest writer in America… so, from all that experience, what is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

Genius is commonplace; it’s the ordinary that’s rare.


Elizabeth Letch

CONGRATULATIONS ! Cheers, Paul, from one affiliated member of the Dead Poet's Society, to another. RIGHT ON ! View more

Elizabeth Letch
27th October 2016
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