California Book Club: Paul Beatty Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Paul Beatty's conversation with California Book Club guest host Oscar Villalon and special guest Michael Jaime-Becerra.

paul beatty, the sellout
Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

David Ulin: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the California Book Club, our latest installment. It's Thursday, February 18th. Tonight we're very happy to present Paul Beatty in conversation with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about Paul's magnificent novel, The Sellout.

I wanted just to welcome you, go through a couple of housekeeping points before we start the conversation. I want to welcome you on behalf of Alta Journal, a quarterly California and the West arts culture and everything journal. We're doing all kinds of book coverage online and in the magazine and also covering the wide and diverse and ranging territory of the American West. The California Book Club is one of the initiatives of Alta. We are every month having a book club meeting such as this, a book club session where we're discussing signature works of California literature. I'm just delighted to be here and I'm delighted that you're all here as well. I quickly want to thank our partners, I'd be remiss if I didn't, which include Book Passage, Books Inc, Book Soup, Bookshop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vroman's Bookstore, and of course ZYZZYVA. I want to also just let you all know that we are having a sale for California Book Club members on the annual Alta membership. It's usually $50, but with the CBC link, which you'll find on, it is 25% off, so that's $37.50. You'll get four issues, invitations to special events, an email newsletter, and be part of an ongoing and powerful literary conversation.

All right. Without further ado, I'm going to turn things over to Oscar, who's going to introduce Paul and get the conversation started. Welcome, Oscar, and take it away.

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Oscar Villalon: All right. All right. Can you all see me? Good. There I am. Hello, everybody. I am Oscar Villalon. It will be my pleasure and privilege today to be in conversation with Paul Beatty, and then later on with Michael Jaime-Becerra talking about The Sellout and talking about some things related to the book. First let me go ahead and introduce our guest, which is Paul Beatty. Paul Beatty is the author and editor of several books, including the novels, The White Boy Shuffle, Tough, Slumberland, and The Sellout, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and made Paul Beatty the first American to receive the Man Booker. He's also the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, and the author of two books of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank, and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He is also an associate professor in the School of the Arts Writing Program at Columbia. Welcome, Paul.

Paul Beatty: Hey, Oscar.

Oscar Villalon: How are you? Paul, first let me begin by saying I haven't seen you in a very long time, how are you?

Paul Beatty: I'm okay, man. I'm a little tired today but I'm all right.

Oscar Villalon: Tired just from the day to day?

Paul Beatty: I've had a whole of teaching.

Oscar Villalon: Oh, my.

Paul Beatty: I haven't had much sleep, but I'm fine.

Oscar Villalon: I believe you. Like a long haul trucker. You're ready to go. All right, that's fine. Paul, before we begin, I just wanted to ask you something. I'm going to ask you this, knowing that you probably haven't talked to many strangers since March of 2020, and in fact probably hardly talk to strangers at all, but since the book's publication back in 2015, what's been your experience of people's perception of the novel? From my vantage, it seems that people continue to embrace it in a way that makes it a contemporary classic. They adore it.

Paul Beatty: I hope so. We're here talking five years later, so I guess that means something. I guess you're right. I don't really talk to many people. I guess the closest thing to strangers might be my students. That's something that's changed. I've been at Columbia for a while. I think since the book, I don't know, they look at me a little differently I guess. I don't know, the baggage is a little different. It seems to have resonated with folks.


Oscar Villalon: Congratulations, because I know all the work you poured into making this novel, as exceptional as it is, it must be very heartening to see people take to it as such, to recognize that. There's something else I wanted to ask you, something I never thought to ask you about before. Have people assumed because of The Sellout that you grew up in South Central or thereabouts, because you actually grew up in Palms, which is a neighborhood in the West side of L.A.

Paul Beatty: Yeah. Not Palms. I don't know what it's called. It's not Palms really. Now the neighborhood's called Rainier Park. It just never had a name when I was younger. I don't know. We used to just call it the West Side. I'm not even sure it's West L.A. anymore. It used to be West L.A. I'm not sure it's even still West L.A. People see it as mid-city now. It's not Palms, but yeah, that's where I grew up. Do people assume that I'm from South Central? I don't think anymore than people do when they meet a Black person from L.A. I think, so I don't think anymore than normal. I don't think so. It hasn't come up that I can remember.

Oscar Villalon: There's always that difficulty of people reading autobiography into fiction and thinking that everything in there must be some sort of thinly veiled.

Paul Beatty: I would definitely not say that it's never an assumption, but I don't think it happens all that often.

Oscar Villalon: Could you describe the neighborhood you did grow up in? What was that place like?

Paul Beatty: Really good question. I used to think of it as surrounded. We're two blocks from Cheviot Hills. I'm just assuming I'm speaking to people that have some familiarity with L.A. It's ritzy Cheviot Hills, ever-changing Culver City right there. What else? Where we are, I still think of it as a working-class neighborhood, even though it's probably less true. It's a house my mom bought '75 maybe, somewhere in there, 35,000 bucks.

Oscar Villalon: Oh dear.

Paul Beatty: Now houses in the neighborhood, million dollars or so. It's shifting. Then for when I was young, there was a street called Cadillac, that runs between Robertson and La Cienega, which divides a denser part of the neighborhood. There's more multi-dwelling places, a lot of apartments. Then on my side, which is on the other side of an elementary school, called Shenandoah, it's more single-family houses. Everybody in L.A's got borders and turned their garages into mini apartments. It's getting denser, so it feels a little weird. When we moved there, it felt very Jewish. I can't say whether it was or not. It changed really quickly, I guess early '70s. My neighborhood still is and stayed mostly white. It's a little more Latino now. The Black families that have been there have been there a long time. It's a strange mix. We had gangs of all colors and stripes, surfers, skaters. It was just a weird mix of all kind of kids. A kid named Mark, Filipino kid who likes to play basketball in high school. I don't know, I feel lucky that it was just a huge swath of Los Angeles passing through there at some level.

Oscar Villalon: That's the reason I asked that. It's because I think hearing you talk about your neighborhood before, it seems to me that might be more emblematic of what some L.A. neighborhoods are. They're really a mix of people. It's not necessarily just one thing. Not to say there aren't obviously parts of L.A. that are more homogenous in that sense, but that you get exposed to a lot of different things. You get to meet a lot of different people, which may not be I think a perception that people who live outside of L.A. can appreciate.

Paul Beatty: I think exposed but very safe. My sister, we talk about our neighborhood a lot, and I don't know, we saw the group Fishbone. I think a lot of those guys grew up in that neighborhood. I don't really know them at all. We saw them standing out in front of an apartment building bragging about being from South Central. It's a safe place to tell that lie. I don't know why I'm ragging on Fishbone, but I don't mean to be. I went to college and that neighborhood changed a lot, or a part where we spent a lot of time, not where I live necessarily, the part on the north side of Cadillac changed a lot. I would come back in and out and take note of the changes in my friends, just in the lifestyle I guess a bit. There's actually a section in Mike Davis's book where he talks about this gang called the PBG's, Play Boy Gangsters. They were a local gang. I don't know what's true, but it was a weird place during the crack days when you could zip up Cadillac. It was like a safe place. I don't want to say that. I don't want to say things didn't happen there. It was hectic, but not very hectic really.

Oscar Villalon: I wanted to ask you these things, just to give a little context of your personal L.A. before I bring in our next guest, Michael, because as soon as Michael shows up, I think we're really going to get into the book itself and talk about that. Without further ado, let me introduce him. He is Michael Jaime-Becerra. He is the author of two books of fiction, the novel This Time Tomorrow, which won a International Latino Book Award, and Every Night Is Ladies Night, a short story collection, awarded the California Book Award for first work of fiction. His work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, ZYZZYVA, in the L.A. Review of Books. The Alta Journal recently published an excerpt of his story 1181 Durfee Avenue. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside and a proud, proud resident of El Monte, California. Would Michael please join us?

Michael Jaime-Becerra: Hey, everybody.

Oscar Villalon: Michael.

Michael Jaime-Becerra: Good to see you, Oscar. Great to see you, Paul. I'm nerding out right now just being in this conversation with the two of you. I thought we could begin talking about the book just first by saying there's so many ways into the book for me, so many head-nodding moments, references. I think one of the joys of reading your work, Paul, is I think I have a dictionary and a search engine handy, just to get some of the references that you're putting out there. I wore out a highlighter, let me put it that way, reading the book.

Michael Jaime-Becerra: I think the first question that I wanted to ask is this idea that for me, I think my primary way into the story as the son of an immigrant Mexican, a writer from an underrepresented category in terms of race and social class, is this, I think it's a central tension in the book, I think that with Bonbon, or we're going to call our narrator Bonbon, the pet name that Marpessa has for him, I feel like there's this desire to be seen, to be regarded as equal by a dominant racist culture, while simultaneously having the desire to transcend that dominant culture, to do away with its need for approval, leave life on one's own term, and that I feel like Bonbon is continually navigating this tension throughout the book. I guess what I'm asking is how deliberate is that on your part and maybe how much of that might be coming from personal experience in some way? You want to share some of that with the audience?

Paul Beatty: I think for the character, the dominant culture is his father, not necessarily the way we really think of that. I think that's what it is. I think that those are issues that his father's really dealing with and that get passed on. For me it's not purposeful necessarily or anything. I think for me I don't write towards an audience necessarily, especially a demographically defined audience, or I try not to.

In that book, I don't think there are any white characters, if that's what we mean by dominant culture. I think for him the dominant culture is the people that are around him that he belongs to and doesn't belong to. I think all the moors and the language and all that stuff, it's a mish-mosh of stuff. I'm not trying to say he's not aware of it or anything. I think part of it is a little bit of a Foucault panopticon thing, where people, I think it even gets talked about in the book, about feeling observed even though you can't see him watching you necessarily. I don't know, I have students who talk about the white gaze or the dominant gaze. I don't know what the phrasing is for it. I don't think he's aware of it. That's not really a concern of the book necessarily, I think. I don't think so. It's there, but it's like if that was erased, what are the remnants, in a weird way? How does that still manifest itself, I think? Was it intentional? I don't really know if it's intentional or not. I don't think so. The only intention is not to write towards something.

Michael Jaime-Becerra: I think one of my favorite passages, and I'm going to read it, it's quick, if people don't mind, it's on 122, and this is when Bonbon is ... It's the prom night. After prom they go to this disco called Dillons. It's this segregated disco.

"We went dancing at Dillons, an under-21 pagoda tower of a disco as segregated as anything else in L.A. The first floor, New Wave. Second floor, Top-40 soul. Third floor, watered-down reggae. Fourth floor, banda, salsa, merengue, and a touch of bachata in a vain attempt to steal Latino clientele from Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard."

I just want to say I just love seeing Florentine Gardens in print and just feeling identified with that, that resonating with me, and also just the idea of thinking of the way that nightclubs operate as a form of segregation and music as being an expression of that too as well.

It took me right back to one of the running jokes that both my wife and I have are from high school dances that we'd go to and there'd be the shift change. The shift change would happen when you're outside and they're playing Debbie Deb and Expose and all this stuff inside the gym and all of a sudden Rock Lobster starts or Blue Monday, everybody runs inside, and the other crew that's inside runs back out.

I think one of the things I really admire about the book and your work in general is just the way that you're always interrogating things that are accepted or given or commonplace. Maybe you could talk about that, just that motivation a little bit.

Paul Beatty: I think it ties into what you were saying about dominant culture and what Oscar was saying about my neighborhood. I think the dominant culture changes so frequently, about whose side you want to be on. It's so funny, I don't really think about the book in that detail. If I think about Dillons and Florentine Gardens, those are two places, I think I've only been to each of them once.

Oscar Villalon: Once is all it takes.

Paul Beatty: I don't really go out then or now that much. It's the thing of, I don't know why I'm telling you this story, but I remember we never used to have any money and somebody would have a car, we'd drive and go out. My group of friends, we were a mix of Black kids and Latino, Honduran American and Mexican American kids. Each of them had their different versions of what dominant culture, where we're going to go, where we're going to explore. I remember my friend Claudio wanted to go to Florentine Garden, a place that none of us went in. We snuck in and this whole thing. We went in there. There are all these kids hand dancing, which I had never seen before, but it really stuck with me. You're just in that dominant culture of that night at Florentine Gardens. I think I went to Dillons once, and it was kind of like that stratification of music and stuff, where you're in the same place, almost like turning the radio station from KROQ, KGFJ, whatever, all extant in the same places, but you can go back and forth. I don't know, this kind of just reminds me of L.A. in a weird way, somehow.

Oscar Villalon: I think it creates a confusion when you realize there's not a, truly, in the sense of living it, there's no dominant culture necessarily. What there really is are people, particularly I think this is true not only of Los Angeles I would argue, but for many major metropolitan areas, people who embrace all these different kinds of cultures in some way, and to some degree or the other. Then, for lack of a better word, panic comes in, I think this is particularly true for people of color, when somehow you think you have to pick a lane. You can't be part of all these different things. You have to declare a major at some point, like, "This is what X means. Being Mexican American is going to mean X," or being whatever is going to mean this, and that everything else is like, I don't know, at best tangential. The truth of the matter is, all these things really inform you.

Paul Beatty: Yeah. I think me and my friends, I see what you're saying, but I think a lot of us ... One of the things I think that I always appreciate my friends, is a lot of us never really picked a lane.

Oscar Villalon: That's good.

Paul Beatty: Or you'd pick a lane, but the lane wasn't what you would think it would be. A story I always tell every now and then is early '80s I guess, I'm not even sure when this is, this is '82, there were these two punk bands, Neighborhood Watch, I don't know if anybody knows what I'm talking about, and ... What was the other band? I don't know, I can't think of them now. They would throw these parties in Mar Vista. I remember you'd go in. I would go expecting something. I would go expecting like being at the Roxy and seeing the Circle Jerks or something, like, "Oh, this is what's ... " You'd show up and you're in somebody's backyard, a bunch of cholos in one corner, a couple Black kids in another corner, some skater kids in another corner, just all waiting for the opportunity to beat the shit out of somebody. The lanes merge and divide and all this kind of stuff. All that stuff really stayed with me somehow.

I went to Hamilton High for 10 years. I don't want to say there aren't these expectations, but they always got defied. The volleyball team, the Black kids on the volleyball team. I remember their best player was this Japanese American kid. All these lanes, they were there, but there were so many people swerving in and out of lanes all the time. In part because our neighborhood was, I hate the word fluid, but because the borders were so ill-defined oftentimes, that I think a lot of us didn't really pay attention to those lanes. I think it changed a little bit as you got older and things like dating forced some people to pick lanes every now and then.

Oscar Villalon: I think that's when all the interesting stuff happens. That's the whole-

Paul Beatty: Definitely.

Oscar Villalon: That's life as it's actually lived. This is why things like Bonbon taking the bus to go surfing, yeah, of course. Of course. It's funny how sometimes we forget that we do contain multitudes. It may not be as deep as you would like in terms of what kind of multitudes you're talking about, but people are varied. People like different things. People engage with each other in ways that are not necessarily going to be found on an NBC sitcom. I think in some sense that's really the dominant culture is what gets thrown at you. I think I remember, I think you talked about this with Chris Jackson for your interview with Paris Review talking about that, how there's always this sitcom where there's a character, a talking character, whether it be white or Black, who's completely useless and has nothing to do with what the show's about, but someone's idea of what that sort of fluidity might look like. If you don't mind, would you read for us right now?

Paul Beatty: I didn't know I had to read. I don't have a book or anything.

Oscar Villalon: You don't have a book? Don't you have this committed to memory, Paul?

Paul Beatty: No. I had no idea I had to read, Oscar. I'm so sorry.

Oscar Villalon: That's fine. We can still keep going. It's not like we have a girth of questions.

Paul Beatty: I'm sorry, Oscar. Sorry about that.

Oscar Villalon: Don't apologize to me. Apologize to all the children watching right now who are just waiting up to see and to hear you read, and now you've just broken their hearts, Paul... No, it's fine. Go ahead, Mike.

Michael Jaime-Becerra: Actually, I want to read another passage if that's okay. I feel like we can't talk about this book as an L.A. book without talking about the sports teams that are in the book and the roles that they play and the way that you bring a lot of nuance to the way that they are. One of my favorite passages, I just have LAKERS in all caps on the side, is at the bottom of 228, for people who have the book handy with them, they can look on and look at it as I read.

"To ensure Hominy and I got in and out with our asses intact, I attached two small purple-and-gold Lakers pennants to the front fenders of my pickup truck and, for good measure, flew a giant Iwo Jima-sized, 1987 Championship Lakers flag from the roof. Everybody, and I mean everybody in Los Angeles, loves the Lakers, and driving down Centennial Avenue, even behind slow-moving lowriders that refused to go faster than 10 miles an hour, the Lakers flags billowed majestically in the night wind, giving the pickup truck an ambassadorial vibe that allowed us to cruise through with a temporary diplomatic immunity."

That phrase "diplomatic immunity" being attached to the Lakers, and by extension I would say the Dodgers too, I think has stayed with me just in my thinking about the book and getting ready for this conversation. The one thing I want to shout out first is just the year of the flag, which is 1987, which is in my mind the culmination of the L.A-Boston rivalry, Los Angeles emerging victorious, and all these other things happening in there. I guess it'd be great to hear you talk about what sports in the book means to you and maybe sports in general and in L.A. in terms of identity and place.

Paul Beatty: I guess I used to be a sports fan I guess. I don't really watch much. I do listen to people talk about sports a lot. Not a lot, but more than probably I should. I think we didn't have a television, so I'd listen to the radio a lot. I would listen to Vince Scully and Bob Berry, the Kings. Me and my friend Clovis were big Kings fans even though we'd never been to a hockey game. I remember going to a hockey game with the Boys Club or something. I knew hockey. I knew the rules. I knew the play. I had never been to a game. I always remember being so embarrassed, because somebody asked me what happens between periods. No idea about the Zamboni cleaning the ice. I was like, "Oh, no, a clown comes?" I had no idea. It was so obvious. L.A. always had really good radio broadcasters. The Kings announcer back then was amazing. Just I don't know.

Oscar Villalon: Chick Hearn?

Paul Beatty: They had Chick Hearn, yeah. A lot of that is just listening to the radio under my pillow. That did a thing. The bit that you're talking about, Michael, comes from two different bits. There's a filmmaker author [Jayfa] I don't know if people know, but I occasionally run into him in New York. Once he came in and was like, "I want to do White Boy Shuffle. I want to do these gangs like how Kurosawa does Ron with the flags." I remember him saying that really stuck with me. It's that, and it comes from just being in Little Tokyo one day with a friend of mine. We were eating. I am who I am, and she is who she is. The three of us were pulling into some valet parking at some restaurant. Her and the valet got into this huge Laker conversation. I was like, "Oh, this is what happens." Then there's that weird moment in L.A, I don't know when it started, but when people would put the flags on their cars. I just had never seen that before. It was just all that kind of stuff coming together about the Lakers as some kind of lingua franca. It just gives some people a little sort of a common ground I guess. It's not like I'm a huge Laker fan or anything. It is a weird thing.

You go to the Dodger game, and it's the one place where it still feels like L.A. to me when you go to the Dodger game. It's one of those places that still feels like L.A. somehow. It's not like I go to Dodger games very often. I don't know, for me it's about memory and those other weird things about who can stay in the lane and all these kind of things.

Oscar Villalon: All right, Paul, I'm going to ask you some questions from the folks in the Book Club. Let me start off with a question from Eric. He writes, "Mr. Beatty, I saw you give an incredible reading from your poetry collection Big Bank Take Little Bank at the Claremont Colleges in 1991 or so. I still think about how good it was. Can you talk about how you moved from poetry toward writing novels, including The Sellout, which is amazing? Thank you."

Paul Beatty: Thanks. I remember that reading actually.

Oscar Villalon: Was there a brawl?

Paul Beatty: No, there was no brawl. One of the things was I remember a guy coming up to me and go, "You're so approachable." [inaudible] so nervous. I remember that. I don't have a pat answer for this, but I need to come up with one. I don't know, just my poems were getting really long. I was writing these 35-page poems that were taking a long time to write. I got not bored with poetry, but I was really uncomfortable with how I was being perceived as a poet. That made me really uncomfortable.

Oscar Villalon: How do you mean?

Paul Beatty: I was bald-headed, Black, and hip-hop. It just really made me uncomfortable. The other thing though was the notion of the audience in poetry, because I don't like to read. You read a lot as a poet, or I read a lot, at least for me. I remember writing a poem. I had written a line. I was like, "Oh, they're going to really like that." It really stopped me in my tracks having that thought. I just had never cared or worried about how somebody else would perceive something. It was just a flag that I was used to the kind of instant feedback that you would get from poetry in a weird way, at least from [crosstalk].

Oscar Villalon: Right, as opposed to novels, which is delayed before they ever see the [crosstalk].

Paul Beatty: Yeah. I don't know, and it raised some other things that were making me uncomfortable. I just stopped. A couple people asked me to write some essays. A guy asked me to write. I wrote a couple essays for the Village Voice about language, and things that weren't very good. A guy asked me to write an essay for an anthology called Next, which was about Generation X. Wrote, started this long, meandering thing, but it was just based on me and my friends buying some St. Ides at a local liquor store. It was just a seminal moment for us. We came out of the liquor store, we all had the same kind of epiphany at the same time about something, about the local gang actually. I don't know. I remember writing that, and I had been thinking about White Boy Shuffle for a long time and keeping all these notes. In writing that essay, I just realized I didn't really have to force the voice in a weird way. I just started writing prose. For me it was freeing. I could be my normal, insular self in a different way. I don't know. That's my answer I guess.

Oscar Villalon: Another question too from Margaret. She says, "I love your book, really loved it. The Sellout was funny because of its juxtapositions of a farmer in the city, intellectuals in a dumb-dumb doughnut shop, a guy smoking weed in a courtroom. You blend the high class and the low class together in such a way that becomes interesting. My question is whether your post-modern take on the city is intentional or just the result of being post-modern being, writing on impulsive things that trigger your innate post-modern heart?"

Paul Beatty: I'm not sure I understand the last part of that. It's all intentional. I think I try to write with a lot of intention. I think there's some unintended consequences, of course, but I think it's all intensive. I don't think about it being post-modern, necessarily. I think L.A's not a place that I know very well. I know it through following my friends around and stuff. They all have their different experiences. Some like you were talking about earlier, because some of them have chosen lanes at certain time. It's fun to go see to go to those lanes. Then the high brow, low brow, Oscar, me and you have talked about this a lot, just I don't really make that distinction. It's just stuff that I'm interested in and that I want to render and I want to explore. I try to hopefully do all of it with some intellect and some novelty and some insight.

Oscar Villalon: Let me ask you this, because I think, maybe Michael too, tell me what you think. I think for me, I consume culture omnivorously, because I just didn't know what to consume. Both of my parents, my dad's a janitor, my mom worked an assembly line, high school diploma between them. It's not because of anything. It's just what was available. If something was available that looked interesting, I would just consume that. You think maybe that's part of that's why we may not differentiate too much in terms of the melding the high with the low, just because it was never going through some sort of filtering process to begin with?

Paul Beatty: Yeah, I think that's part of it. I don't know. One of the things, I don't know with bands, when I think of L.A. bands, I just tend to think of, maybe it's probably true with music in general, but I think about all my friends that were in bands, and it would just be so interesting about all the stuff that they would pull from. God, I'm so old. I remember my friends who were in different kind of bands, heavy metal bands, more R&B kind of bands, but they would all sit and we'd watch these old tapes of Miles Davis and Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Core, all this kind of stuff. I don't have a answer to this, Oscar. Their discourse was so smart and so blended. Even though that wasn't the kind of stuff that they were doing, but it was interesting to see their take on stuff. I can't really make any sense of it.

I was trying to make another point. It's partly experiencing these things. My mom took me everywhere. You're never out of the context. We're having high-brow conversations at the dinner table over TV dinners or whatever. It's always there. I remember somebody reading at Nuyorican Poetry Café, and they were using all these words, and they were talking about how they didn't know how to pronounce the words, because they were words that they had only dealt with textually. At the dinner table they weren't words that people said out loud. There's always that weird kind of-

Oscar Villalon: I'll give an example. For a very long time I pronounced it Waiting For Godot.

Paul Beatty: I think we all did.

Oscar Villalon: Yeah, because it's like, "Oh, this is great, Waiting For Godot. You guys read Waiting For Godot?" Yeah, because I'm just grabbing it as I can. I just liked it because I thought it was really cool, this weird little play. So many of many of us don't have that sort of reference. That's like at some point someone pulls you aside and goes, "It's Godot," like, "Oh, thank you," but so what? You're more consumed by the ideas than anything else. You're more consumed by the work itself. I think there's often an authenticity with it, a genuineness to that, to really approaching a work in such a way that it's not about its signifiers or its trappings, it's about how it speaks to you.

Paul Beatty: I was lucky that I had access to a lot of stuff, mostly through my mom had this library. She dragged us to this ... God, I can never remember the name of the theater. There used to be this theater in the Crenshaw District that used to show Japanese movies in the early '70s. God. Kokusai maybe. I can't remember the name of that theater. It was right on Crenshaw though. I grew up going to see these Ozu movies and Kurosawa. It all still comes with the blaxploitation movies we saw at the same time and all kind of stuff. My mom had a good library. My friends would listen to all kinds of music. There's all kind of stuff.

Even in Sellout there's this little bit about the Marx brothers. It comes from this kid Paul May who I went to junior high school with. I went to pretty much all Black, mostly Black. It had to be 80% Black junior high, Pasteur Junior High. There were a crew of white kids that lived in Castle Heights, straight up airdrome that had a special municipal bus that would take them in there. Paul was one of those guys, we would sit and talk Marx brothers, I don't know, just all this stuff. He was so fucking smart. I don't know. It's all for me just-

Oscar Villalon: What was in your mom's library? You were reading Phillip Roth.

Paul Beatty: I don't know if she had Phillip Roth. I don't think she-

Oscar Villalon: Updike or something like that, right?

Paul Beatty: It was all kind of shit.

Oscar Villalon: You were how old? You were 13 or something like that, even younger?

Paul Beatty: Even younger. She never really censored us. As I always say, we never had a television. Me and my sisters read. We all read the same books. I read Fear of Flying whenever that came out. That was the one book she had by a female author that me and my sister can remember. She never censored us. We read all kind of stuff.

Oscar Villalon: Were you going to the public library as well?

Paul Beatty: Yeah. I would go to the library, but I don't think I would check out books at the library necessarily. When I was in Santa Monica, that's where I grew up for a bit, they had that really good, you would order some books off a thing once a month or something. You would check these books that you want and you would get this box of books. Even in there I remember reading The Martian Chronicles. I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade reading that. I was just lucky that I was able to indulge myself in that way. I don't want to say I never checked out books. I went to the library all the time. I went to Robertson Library all the time. It was a long walk. Whenever I go back to Santa Monica, I go back to the little library on Ocean Park, because I spend a ton of time there. The library was really important, but I wasn't necessarily a huge ... Actually, I think I take that back, because I never would return the book.

Oscar Villalon: How about that?

Paul Beatty: I can remember the overdue fees now. I guess I must've checked out something.

Oscar Villalon: Paul, we have a few more questions too from folks. Let me ask you this. This is pretty relevant. "How has the Creative Capital Grant helped with your book? I'm planning to apply?"

Paul Beatty: It helped because it made me really think about it. I had this idea. I was just thinking, thinking, and not really doing anything. My wife, Althea, was like, "They're trying to give you $50,000," because the application was monstrous. I didn't really want to do it. She pushed me to it. It just made me fill up this little box with stuff that the book isn't about, but it just forced me to cobble things together.

One thing that did help me though is they would have these huge retreats, and as much as I hated those, I was lucky enough to hear two people talk about their work. One was Rebecca Solnit. She was working on that San Francisco book. The way she was talking about mapping in that, I was listening to her and I was like, "Oh, that's what I'm thinking about." It's just about crossing these borders and just how one crosses the street in L.A. and how much that can change your life. The other one was about an artist. His name is Sam Van Aken I think. He was grafting these trees. He was doing these trees that were half peach, quarter pear trees, making these beautiful, beautiful trees. I knew I wanted to do some farming things, but just that he was pushing these visual boundaries and these scientific boundaries really ... I don't know. Just meeting and listening to other people talk about what they were doing just helped me, helped trigger the ideas that were lurking in my mind that I didn't really know I had just yet.

Oscar Villalon: Another question, getting back towards the book, says the audience member, "Mental health is an obvious theme of The Sellout. We've got Bonbon and his late father working as whisperers, talking people back from the brink of suicide. We've got Bonbon regretting not having Hominy 5150'd and so on. My question is what's your larger message, that we as individuals are operating on our own levels of mental illness, that this nation is collectively afflicted, that this is just a mad, mad world, and we too are mad, mad?"

Paul Beatty: There's no message to that. I try not to write with a message. There's no message to it. For me it's observational. Some of it's just my own preoccupation with suicide. I majored in social psych. I was getting my doctorate in social psych at one point. A lot of it really shapes how I see the world, how I see characters. I was reading these quotes that they have from the book. There was a quote about who sits next to whom at the bus. A lot of that stuff is just from my psych background, from little research projects. I don't really have a message. I think people ask this. It's not like I don't think about historical trauma or community trauma and all those things, but I don't have a message about it other than trauma exists, I think, and to try to recognize it. I think a lot of my characters try to figure out what are they going to do with it and where does all that stuff go.

Oscar Villalon: Actually another reader also brought that up about suicide features in each of the three novels of yours that she's read, and she was wondering if it surprises you each time that the story unfolds that way or if you expect it?

Paul Beatty: I don't want to get too personal with it or anything, but it's something that I think about a lot. A lot of it is not based but comes from real life or secondhand things around suicide. I want to be careful about what I say here. It's one of those, I don't think necessarily last resort, but it's an interesting notion of ... Part of it comes with my fascination, fetishism with Japanese World War II culture. There's so much stuff. My mom and her [Brushida] lectures, all this kind of stuff about what taking one's life can mean, is it a statement, all these things. I wish I had a, "Suicide is this. This is why I do it." I don't have that [crosstalk].

(If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

Oscar Villalon: Is it more of an existential [inaudible]?

Paul Beatty: It's all that, but for me it's just one of those lenses. It's more behavioral than there's a message behind it. It is very intentional, and I try to be really considerate in talking about it, even though I'm sometimes cracking jokes around it or things, but it is something that I take seriously.

Oscar Villalon: A lot of people wanted to know were you living in New York City while writing The Sellout, and if so, what was it like writing about your hometown of L.A. from New York City?

Paul Beatty: I think I've written all my books ... I don't think I've ever written a word in L.A. really. I've lived in New York for a long time. That's a good question. I think for me it frees me up. The distance helps, I think. I'm not walking the streets getting new information, "Oh, that's good, that's good, that's good." I'd have to make some decisions. I get to use my imagination and rely on my own sense of my own screwed up memory. It helps me. I'm freed up from that. I've lived a long time in New York pretending that I'm not a New Yorker. I get to indulge in that. I held on to my California license for as long as I possibly could.

[crosstalk] try to get West Coast stuff. There's a magazine called Giant Robot that I don't know if people remember. It was such good fuel for me of like, "Yeah, I'm not like these idiots out here outside my door. I see the world through a different lens." I don't know, that magazine was one of those things that kept helping me indulge whatever my sense of being a Californian is.

Oscar Villalon: It reminds me of the Tom Waitts song, the "San Diego Serenade," the whole thing about basically you have to leave your hometown before you can see it.

Paul Beatty: I think there may be some truth to that. I guess there is, because I went to school in the East Coast. I remember coming back to L.A. and going, "Oh, L.A. is so fucking backwards," and then talking to other kids in California, because we were so displaced about ... Our education was different. It was interesting. I don't want to say L.A's backwards, but it helped me see it through another lens in a weird way. It just helped me see the Westernness of it, the Southernness of it, the Mexicanness of it. Sometimes I drive up Venice. I'm like, "This looks just like fucking Guadalajara." You realize all this stuff. These borders are there, but they don't really stop very much in a weird way.

Oscar Villalon: It ain't Boston is what you're saying.

Paul Beatty: Yeah, it's not Boston, but there's a lot of stuff that the waves crash and settle and move the sand. There's a lot going on I guess.

Oscar Villalon: There's a question from Marcus, "Do you think of yourself working in the tradition of satiric novels or Black satirical novels more specifically?"

Paul Beatty: Nah, not really. I just write. The satire stuff I don't really think about too often. I think about it now more because it's come up more. I don't see the books so different in that sense from each other. That word seems to be, I hear it more than I used to, but I really don't. Not to say that there's not overlap or anything, but I really don't. I didn't come to a lot of those books until I hadn't really started already writing. Not that I'm reinventing anything. Go ahead.

Oscar Villalon: How did you go from psych to an MFA?

Paul Beatty: Try to be quick. I was in psych. I ended up getting my doctorate where I got my undergrad degree, which was a mistake, because I felt stuck. I just was reading differently and going to poetry readings and spending more time in the used bookstores and doing the stuff I was supposed to be doing. I was very consumed with how constricted, it actually comes up in Sellout I think a little bit, how restricting the APA format was, like, "I can't say the shit I'm trying to say." I was trying to creatively go around that. I had a professor in my first year of grad school that it was an environmental psych class and we had to write some things about our room. I had written these two things. He noticed I was really leaning up in my seat. It's such a social psych thing. He noticed I was sitting like this. He was like, "Paul, do you want to read what you've written?" I was like, "I think I do actually. Just let me talk it out." I remember reading that thing, and the class, you guys have heard this before, but everybody responded really strongly to it. It just made me think how much I had always enjoyed writing but just wasn't aware of it. I just realized I had to quit and I wanted to write. That was basically it.

Oscar Villalon: I want to ask you something regarding L.A. and L.A. writing. Michael, I would love for you to weigh in on this too. Paul, I remember you taught a course in L.A. writing in Columbia, and among the books your students read were Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. You told me once how that book, as well as all these other L.A. books, including your book, The Sellout, they all share the same trait, about loneliness. Could you talk about that? Because I know exactly what you mean, but just as there's a certain quality of light in Los Angeles not found elsewhere, there seems to be a, for me at least, ineffable loneliness felt while living there.

Paul Beatty: I don't know if it's any different than anywhere else. Maybe all books are about loneliness or something. The L.A. loneliness, it's something I really feel I guess when I go home, even though I have a ton of friends there. I don't really know. You socialize differently in L.A., at least I do, than in the East Coast. God, Oscar, help me out. Nathaniel West talks about that. In Day of the Locust they socialize different than they do in Miss Lonely Hearts. It's partly geographical, about how you drink and do you drive, do you walk, and who do you meet. I don't know. It's a weird thing. So much to the degree or how you're ambulatory in L.A. I think is important and driving and all these things. When we do it in the class, the students really get caught up in the driving. The thing is to get the notion that the driving's not a thing on the side, it's actually part of the narrative. It's actually part of the story, because again, it's about lanes.

Oscar Villalon: Michael, you were talking about that.

Paul Beatty: Getting pulled over by the cops in Chester Himes or in Ash To Dust driving out to Palm Springs and what happens between L.A. and Palm Springs.

Oscar Villalon: Although in Ash To Dust, I thought the most lonely aspect of that is being on the beach.

Paul Beatty: Yeah. I think we can all point to different things. You read Wanda Coleman's short stories, and a lot of those are about not having a car or having to live in your car. It's like these other kind of things that I don't know, but the loneliness is the thing that always feels to me like really unites those books. So much about these books are about striving. They're these migratory, people come to L.A. with all these dreams and all these kind of stuff. It's the same kind of dreams that I always joke that me and my friends are still waiting for our big Hollywood moment to happen so we can all make it. It's that same kind of go North aspiration, but North is just to the fucking hills. It's that same kind of weird dreams of, "I'm going to be there one day." It's really for me really palpable in L.A. I don't know if that's about loneliness or not.

Oscar Villalon: What do you think, Michael?

Michael Jaime-Becerra: I think I'm looking in the chat, and a woman named Cathleen Gaines has, "L.A. loneliness is correlated to car culture." I think that for me, my version of that is definitely car-based. I remember I didn't get my driver's license until I was 17. That was just by force that I needed to get it for a job that I had. Without a car, without a driver's license, like you said, Paul, there's an ambulatory quality to it, where if your options are minimized, then life is somehow lessened in L.A. Then once you get that car, you're often in a bubble of glass and metal by yourself and yet you're beside all these people. It's this loneliness in a crowd experience that I think about, that I associate with what we're talking about here.

Paul Beatty: It's car culture, but also it can be a hard place to have a conversation. I always have this memory of there's some used bookstore. God, I can't remember where it is. It's on the West Side somewhere. I remember just going in there, I was looking for something. I remember being in that book, and there were all these nerdy guys in there trying to have this conversation about architecture with the book clerk, who was the only woman in the place. I was just like, "Man, everybody's so fucking lonely." It was like looking for where can I find these conversations. I don't know. I'm making all this up, of course.

Oscar Villalon: Was it Papa Bach's? Was that the bookstore? Someone's suggesting.

Paul Beatty: It could be. It could be. It just cracked me up. It's hard to delineate what about this is unique to L.A. or something. Even I've worked on a movie once, and the thing that struck me was how lonely everyone was, in a weird way. I don't know. I don't know. Cars are definitely a part of it, but there's something else at work too.

Oscar Villalon: I think you're right too. That's why I say it's ineffable. I can't quite put my finger on it. You always feel that life is elsewhere. I think that's the modern condition. Maybe in L.A. that's accentuated, because it's such a big place with so many things going on. You always wonder, "Am I where the action is, ever?"

Michael Jaime-Becerra: I was going to say or there's the impression that life is in Los Angeles or in a place like Los Angeles, and if you're not experiencing some version of that right away, then there's a sense of disappointment or potentially shame because you're not having that. Maybe we're talking more about that in a way too, rather than just loneliness by itself.

Oscar Villalon: Yeah. Maybe tristesse is the word, because there is a tinge of sweetness to that too. I don't know, maybe it's just the sunsets and then knowing that if you're fortunate enough to get a good parking spot on the way back home in front of your place. It's that feeling of together alone. It's not a depressive state. It's just knowing you really are on your own. That's accentuated more. I don't even think it's necessarily a bad thing. I think it's just an aspect. Paul, we're at 6:00. I think we're going to wrap up. Before I do, what's next for you?

Paul Beatty: I really don't know, Oscar. I've got some decisions to make. I have to figure out a way to carve some space to get some work done, I think. I'm trying to figure that out. I'm not very good at talking about myself. People are trying to make sellout into a movie. It's been difficult. It's a lot of stuff that I'm treading water about some shit that I half want to do and half don't want to do. The stuff I really want to do, I just need to make some decisions and do it. It's a long-winded way of saying I don't want to talk about all these embarrassing things.

Oscar Villalon: Let me just add, just let our audience know they can read excerpts from both Michael and Paul's books in the current issue of Alta. Paul, thank you so much. Michael, thank you. I hope I did not offend anyone by wearing my Warriors cap. Thank you to the audience. Thank you all very, very much. Good night.

Paul Beatty: Same for me. Thanks, everyone.

Michael Jaime-Becerra: Thank you.

David Ulin: Thank you. Thanks, Oscar. Thank you, Paul. Thank you, Michael. That was a great conversation. I really appreciate all of you being here. The interview will be up at if anyone wants to revisit it or catch up with things that you might've missed. Please don't miss next month's book, which is Nina Revoyr's novel Southland, March 18th, four weeks from tonight. A reminder that the sale on the Alta membership for CBC members is on at, I gave you the wrong URL at the beginning, so my apologies, it's Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe. Vaccines are here. See you next month. Take care, everybody.

Picador USA

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Picador USA
Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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