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Uhh, hmm, it's Paul Beatty

Uhh, hmm, it's Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty continues to fascinate as much for himself as for his Man Booker winning The Sellout. Although he is spending much of his time at the moment talking – interviews, in-conversation-withs etc (although he is also working on an anthology of white writers who have written about black lives) – his reticence takes people back. A recent piece gives a flavour of the Beatty manner: ‘Ask Paul Beatty a serious question and his answer is likely to begin with a head shake and a thigh shake. Or a monosyllable that means nothing in any culture. Or, if you’re very lucky, ‘Yea, that’s a very good question’ followed by several moments of silence. Followed by, ‘Yea, I dunno.’’ This particular interviewer found this ‘symphony of uhhs and hmms’ more than a little disconcerting before realising why Beatty speaks that way: it's ‘because he remembers what few others do. That words can be potent. That adjectives, casually attributed, can become labels that undermine themselves.’ Beatty himself puts it another way: ‘I’m wary of those with absolute conviction in their views.’ Given the current global fad for demagoguery he has every reason to be.

Peter Ho Davies, Man Booker longlisted in 2007 for The Welsh Girl, is another author who likes to think before he speaks – or indeed writes. It has taken him a decade to produce his second novel, The Fortunes, and he clearly picked up on the darkening mood of American society quicker than most. Davies, Coventry-born of Welsh-Chinese ancestry, has been living and teaching in America since 1992 and his new novel examines the Chinese-American experience over the past century and a half through four linked stories, some of which are based on real lives. One, Tell It Slant, is based on the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese-American man beaten to death by a pair of autoworkers who thought he was Japanese. ‘One of the things we think about with Vincent’s killing,’ says Davies, ‘is it comes out of a space of economic anxiety and the rhetoric associated with that . . . it came out of our local politicians, blaming Japanese imports for the decline of the American auto industry in the 1980s.’ Sound familiar? ‘That rhetoric and that environment and that atmosphere of economic anxiety led to violence in this case. It led to a hate crime, essentially. Hopefully, I’d like to think revisiting a story like that, revivifying it through fiction is a way of reminding us of some of the dangers we faced then and that I think to some degree we still face now, 35 years later.’

There is nothing new about library cutbacks. It has been a grim tale for some time: £25 million has been lopped off library budgets in the past year, 8,000 librarians have been made redundant across England and Wales since 2010, and the number of libraries has fallen by 340 since 2008.  What this means on the shelves though has just been revealed: a manual count of books in Suffolk's libraries showed that 10,000 more books were missing than were recorded on the county's database, a figure likely to be replicated around the country. Since 25 million books are officially recorded as missing (meaning that the number of library books available has fallen by more than 50 per cent since 1996) the true figure of books going AWOL through damage, loss and theft – innumerable Man Booker winners among them – is likely to be infinitely more dispiriting.

John Burnside, the prolific poet, novelist and memoirist who was also a judge on the 2015 Man Booker, has been describing his ‘writing day’. Not for him ‘Hour after hour of glorious solitude. Birdsong in the trees, light rain, perhaps the occasional, very distant sound of traffic as the city flows on around the garden studio, or the high attic room, where all this alchemy unfolds.’ Life isn't like that so ‘Nowadays, I take anything I can get: an hour here, an afternoon there: every day is an improvisation. If I am awake, I am usually working, whether alone at home, or in a crowded station, or (weather permitting) a high meadow in the Swiss Alps. Often, the bewildered victim of a gamut of sleep disorders that, so far, have defied medical science, I can be found in our kitchen at three in the morning, pen in one hand, a cup of valerian tea in the other’ (nice touch, that tea). In short, he confesses, ‘writing is what I steal from the usual flow of things’: seems a pretty good definition.