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Paul Beatty, a worried man

Paul Beatty, a worried man

There is a slight air of apprehension about Paul Beatty, the new Man Booker winner. As well there might be because it doesn't necessarily bode well for the progress of his next novel. ‘I’ve got no idea how winning the Man Booker prize is going to affect my writing life, but I’m about to find out,’ he said this week. ‘I’m told that I might be invited to new places, that I might have to figure out how to write while I travel. I usually need to be somewhere for a long time before I get acclimatised. I’ve done a couple of little residencies, but I just sit there looking around me for a while.’ So, essentially, just as he gets ready to write it will be time to move on. His fifth novel is going to be a long time coming.

For aspiring writers who want to use tips proffered by the best of the best, Beatty is a frustrating figure. The key to writing, he says, is ‘You've just got to put your butt in the seat.’ He has no rituals; he works in a small, cluttered room without much of a view; sometimes he writes for five minutes and at others for five hours; sometimes he writes in the morning and sometimes at night; and when he gets stuck he goes for a walk. Not much of a method or pattern to discern there. ‘It’s like rolling dice: you just keep going and keep going and then one of those times it will just come.’ If you want to hear Beatty in his own words he was recently in conversation with the New Statesman's Tom Gatti, which can be found here, and on a Man Booker podcast here.

Zadie Smith, a Man Booker shortlistee in 2005 with On Beauty, is doing the rounds at the moment. Her new novel, Swing Time, is just about to be published while the television adaptation of an earlier book, NW, is due for its first airing at 9.00pm (GMT) on BBC2 on 14 November. In a recent piece Smith described her love of dance, not just for its own sake but as an aid for writers: ‘What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect.’ She takes, for example, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly: the former “floating”, the latter ‘grounded’ and compares them to writers such as Nabokov (Astaire) and Beckett (Kelly). Keats she likens to Prince and Michael Jackson to Lord Byron; Muriel Spark (a 2005 Man Booker International nominee) and Jane Austen to Beyoncé; and Mikhail Baryshnikov to Tolstoy. Her choices are all about people who could really dance or write – a comparison between writers and dad dancers would be an interesting follow-up.

There was a stirring defence of the Man Booker's open-borders policy recently in the Financial Times. The English language, said Janan Ganesh, is ‘a mutant thing’ and the rest of the world has the potential subtly to change it. ‘Traditionalists object that none of the American prizes allow foreign authors. So? Leave them to their insularity,’ continued Ganesh. ‘The English language is not policed by a bureaucratic central committee, unlike French, but the prize can be something better: a pulse-check, a reflection of the state of the language on any given year. For that, it has to keep letting the whole world in.’ The language or politics and literature are, at this moment, very different things.