Applause erupted around London’s Guildhall when Paul Beatty was announced as this year’s Man Booker Prize winner for The Sellout. Watching the first US author pick up the £50,000 award, from a hotel near Milan, I couldn’t be more conscious of the global reach of one of the most prestigious literary prizes. A writer can become known around the world overnight.
What followed this year’s announcement was an exhausting schedule of interviews, conferences and events. Yet, when I saw Beatty at a gathering at Twitter’s London HQ a couple of days later, he was surprisingly relaxed as he was interviewed by Joe Haddow, BBC producer and podcast host, as well as 2016 judge, Jon Day.
The judging panel has a huge responsibility each year. They have the opportunity to unearth something extraordinary and bring it to wider attention, something Day says is ‘exhilarating and tiring in equal measure.’ Each judge had to read through 155 submissions, selecting 13 for the longlist and six for the shortlist before agreeing on the winner.
For Beatty, the process appears to have been a much more relaxed affair. He tried not to load too much pressure on himself or have any expectations as he wanted to enjoy the whole event. He admitted to looking around the room during the awards event for cues and clues, though. Who wouldn’t?
Triumphing over rejection
Beatty nearly wasn’t eligible for The Booker Prize. Although the prize has been opened up to international authors, they must be published in English in the UK. Despite The Sellout being named as one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the US, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in the same year, Beatty’s fourth novel was turned down by 18 UK publishers.
Fortunately, it was taken on by a small independent called Oneworld which had also published Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning A History of Seven Killings. Given the challenges Beatty had to be published in the UK, it’s unsurprising he was overwhelmed by emotion and shock, grappling for words as he gave his Booker Prize acceptance speech.
But, The Sellout is extraordinary. The novel follows a protagonist, known only as ‘Me’, who lives in a fictional town called Dickens in California. The town had been essentially removed from map to save the state from embarrassment and ‘Me’ sets about righting this in a controversial way.
Although the novel has structure, a clever plot and resolution, they are given less importance than Me’s digressions between events. His observations, reflections and thoughts are sharp. I came to welcome the insight they gave, feeling wiser as I read on.
Writing without agendas, labels or goals
The Sellout’s heavy premise is lifted by moments of humour but Beatty doesn’t like his novel labelled as ‘satire’ as many reviewers have done. He believes there is a blindness in satire as the truth is hidden from readers until the punch. The Sellout doesn’t do this, he says. It opens eyes.
Beatty would prefer there be no labels at all, calling himself a ‘writer’, The Sellout ‘a novel’ and that’s it. He feels embracing any labels would limit what he could write. I have to admire him for standing so passionately by what he believes when so many authors feel forced into genre boxes.
Beatty doesn’t have agendas or goals, aside from wanting to write a ‘good book’. Although he wants a positive reaction from readers, it’s not why he writes, and he puts this out of his mind when he works on his novels. This could be why he was able to write something as bold as The Sellout.
Beatty doesn’t allow himself to be comfortable either. He’s a perfectionist who describes his writing process as ‘slow’. He works section by section and can’t move on until he’s satisfied. Even then, he’ll revisit passages several times and will go back for multiple edits.
Writing requires no magic tricks
Beatty will continue to be in demand in the aftermath of winning The Booker Prize but, eventually, he will have to write again.
When asked how he will feel writing after winning, he seemed relaxed, simply saying he’ll see how he feels. If anyone can put the pressure out of his mind and focus on writing, I’m sure it’s Beatty. Though stories take him a long time to write — The Sellout took well over five years — he believes the process of getting a novel down is simple:
‘Put your butt in a seat and write often enough’.
Beatty needs no rituals, symbols or mascots. There are no magic tricks, he says. Sometimes something happens during a writing session and sometimes not. But, he knows when he’s finished.
His advice is to ‘write to share’. Think about who you will share it with and how you will share it. Then, keep this in your mind as you write.