Paul Beatty read from his newest novel, The Sellout at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. He was joined in conversation by Sam Lipsyte. When Beatty took the podium, he seemed momentarily overcome with emotion. He explained that he felt similarly overwhelmed recently at a reading in Detroit. The reason, he explains, was the feeling of satisfaction from completing the book: “I realized I was really close to getting what was in my head on the page.”
The novel required four years of typing, Beatty says, but there are hints that other years were required before that. “It was a really hard book to start,” he says. He kept writing blocks of thirty or forty pages and felt he didn’t really have a framework for the novel. Once he found the setting though, he was able to finally start writing.
“I knew where it ended,” he says, and then wrote towards that, even if he wasn’t certain of what would happen in the middle. He says when he writes, he usually knows where he is going.
The New York Times has given Beatty a positive review and profiled him. But he is also critical of the paper. “They only call me when a black person dies,” he jokes, adding he feels like he is biting the hand that feeds him to receive a good review and then criticize them for the lack of people of color on staff. Lipsyte jokes that they have already fed him with the good review.
Lipsyte brings up Beatty’s history as a spoken word poet. Beatty though is immediately defensive. He says one of the first times he heard the term he was in Germany. “I was like what does that even mean?” The people in Berlin all seemed to talk about being bold and pushing boundaries, he says, but to him, everything they were doing was really safe. “I try to not be safe when I write,” he says.
Beatty also teaches writing. He says that he has a few rules he gives his students. First is what he calls the “here and now.” Everything the writer needs should come from right there in that moment. He doesn’t let them talk about books, for instance.
The second rule is to listen to yourself listening. He says this creates distance between the writing and the author. It allows the author to think about what she wants to say. The rules usually come up when his students are trying to figure out what they’re writing about, he says.
Finishing a book feels a bit less rigid than a set of rules. Beatty explains that Toni Morrison has said a novel should take six years. He disagrees. Some novels might take two weeks. Others might take ten years. Its about the feeling of the work being finished. Beatty mentions Percival Everett. Everett has a bit of a different perception of writing than Beatty who describes Everett as a completionist rather than a perfectionist. Regardless though, Beatty says, “at some point you gotta finish; at some point you gotta start.”
Though he mentions other authors, he says he doesn’t consider himself as writing in any kind of dialogue with them. “I’m not really friendly,” he says. He doesn’t show people what he is writing. He says he figures it out himself.
“I panic. And then I sit back down and figure it out,” he says. He believes in writing the sentence well: if the writing is right, the rest takes care of itself.
Growing up, his family didn’t keep a television in the house. Instead, he read his mother’s books. His mother never censored him or his siblings, and she never censored the books he read. He says his mother is the reader that is most important to him.