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Tuff by Paul Beatty
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Tuff by Paul Beatty
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Aug 21, 2001 | ISBN 9780385721110

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  • Aug 21, 2001 | ISBN 9780385721110

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  • Nov 07, 2012 | ISBN 9780307828996

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“[M]asterfully conceived and highly entertaining…. Richly textured and unforgettable.”–The Boston Globe

“[A]n extravagant, satirical cri de coeur from the inner city…. Tuff is a funny book, and Mr. Beatty’s blunt, impious, streetwise eloquence has a…transfixing power.”–The New York Times

“When Beatty writes, it’s not hard to pay attention.”–USA Today

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Paul Beatty, author of TUFF

Q: You have published two volumes of poetry. What made you decide to write novels?

A: My poems were getting longer and longer. The idea for my first novel had been ricocheting in my head for six years. In ’95 I received grant from the Jasper Johns foundation that allowed me the luxury of doing nothing for six months but gather up the courage to write prose. Many prose writers have started with poetry. I’m no different. Just fortunate to have some poetic success at a time when poetry received more academic, public, and media attention than usual. For me poetry is the skeleton framework of my prose, through the narrative writing process is not much different. Most of my prose is indirectly about the writing process, and consequences of writing poetry.

Q: How would you describe your book, TUFF?

A: I would describe TUFF as a funny, biting, vulgar and honest look at the gated barriersdivisions in American culture. Sometimes the gates are open, sometimes they are locked, but the ‘other’ is always just on the other side of the fence. TUFF is about a young man, a misfit with no skills other his fists and quick wit unwittingly empowering himself through the only vocation that requires no certificates, prior history of employment, references–local politics. It also shows how the media and political activists use big bad black men like Tuffy to achieve their own ends, be the intentions bad or good. Though modeled on real people, most of the characters in the book are misfits — a black rabbi, cripple, white inner-city kid, Japanese-American communist black activist, criminals, bullied police officers, runaway mother, a passé ex-black panther father, massive Japanese sumo wrestlers. But these misfits, excluding Tuffy aren’t trying to fit in. It’s only Tuffy looking for a place in a mainstream society that tries to claims want to want him but really has no place for him.

Q: How would you describe the character Tuffy?

A: He is a brute, father, cineaste, and frustrated astronomer. Like a masterless samurai he has a loyal streak, but other than his family and friends he has no institutions or belief systems to be loyal to.

Q: Tuffy who you describe above, decides to run for city council in Harlem. Is this your answer to black rhetoric politics?

A: Tuffy’s "campaign" is no answer. It’s a sardonic consequence. If all politics is "rhetoric politics", then African-American politics is especially so.

Q: You grew up outside Los Angeles. Why did you chose to set your novel in East Harlem?

A: Growing up in Los Angeles has no bearing on anything I write unless it’s about Los Angeles. And even then Los Angeles is simply a setting unique only for its climate, language, and my having gone to high school there. My creative process is not tied to it. I lived in a studio East Harlem apartment for about five years. It was in this neighborhood that I formed my impressions of New York City, worked, and learned my craft.

Q: When your first novel, WHITE BOY SHUFFLE was published, critics said you were the literary parodic counterpart to hip-hop and stand-up comedy as practiced by Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy. What do you think about this comparison?

A: All literature is framed by the societal zeitgeist in which it is written. In some ways saying my work is the "literary parodic counterpart to hip-hop and stand-up comedy" is an insult The general knee-jerk critical reaction that all African-American art is linked to pop culture in ways that white American art rarely is. I think that the races and artistic forms (pop or not) are all linked, especially in this, the information age. So I don’t deny the links to music and comedy, but decry the short-sightedness that these are the only, or most important links, they are not. Richard Pryor is a genius. Who I admire for his vulnerability, fearlessness and insight. Eddie Murphy is not funny. Hip-hop is a genre and like any genre is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It does not influence in anyway how or why I write. If it is part of an character’s world or an appropriate metaphor, then it’s there. For instance Tuffy listens to rap, occasionally recites rap lyrics but claims he doesn’t like it, and hates being mistaken for anyone of the slew of overweight rap artists. Spencer Throckmorton the black rabbi is fan of easy listening music. And his music, Harry Chapin, Bread America, Simon and Garfunkel sets the tone for the book at least as much as hip hop, if not more so. Of course most people don’t care because that’s not "black."

Q: It’s also been said that you use the Beat influence to amplify the voice of the "hip-hop" generation. What’s that all about?

A: I have no idea. I hate most Beat literature other than Ray Bremser, a few poems and two short films, but I admire it’s aesthetics and earnestness. I guess maybe some folks see similarities between the Beat generation and the hip hop generation. But as Tuffy says, "What is the hip-hop generation? How come there’s no opera generation?"

Q: Who are some of your literary and musical influences?

A: Volaire, Vonnegut, Pryor, Eiji Yoshikawa, Kawabata, Issa, Basho. (literary influences)

Though Vonnegut and Pryor are the only ones who’ve influenced how I think about writing in terms of what to say, not so much how to say it. The character of TUFF is directly influenced by Yoshikawa’s portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi, a famous samurai in feudal Japan.

James Taylor, Lonnie Johnson, Coltrane, Biggie Smalls. (musical influences)

Q: What is next on the horizon for you?

A: I wish I knew, then I could go in the opposite direction.

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