A Conversation with Marlon James

by RaeNosa Hudnell

Marlon James has been on the literary scene for only a brief time, but his work has already been pronounced nothing short of epic. His debut novel, John Crow’s Devil (2005), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice recommendation. James’s second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and an NAACP Image Award. In 2015 his most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a New York Times Notable Book. While visiting Butler in spring 2017 as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, James sat down with Booth for a conversation about Bob Marley, Jamaican storytelling, and his latest project.

 
RaeNosa Hudnell: A Brief History of Seven Killings has had an extraordinary run. It’s about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, but it’s also about Jamaica, about poverty, about other countries, and it’s about an era that declared a war on drugs. What made you want or need to tell this story?

Marlon James: Realizing I had a story to tell stemmed from my strong sense of nostalgia about the ’70s. In 1976, I was six. The ’70s was a world of wonder for me, and I still think of the ’70s in really positive ways. It was Sesame Street and Super Friends. It was Hostess Twinkies, which I’m surprised didn’t kill me. It was all of these things. The adults in my life went through a totally different experience in that decade. My mom was a cop. My dad was a cop and became a lawyer. So I became interested in what it must have been like to go through all of that crime and upheaval. There were so many things up for grabs: the Cold War just dropping its big fat ass on a small island. It was a time of uncertainty, but also an explosion of creativity that we have never seen since. I am relieved that I didn’t have to go through it, but I also envied my parents. So I wanted to go back and revisit that decade.

Outside of that, I have always been attracted to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 because nobody talks about it. Even in the most recent Bob Marley documentary, the actual attack is barely a two-minute segment. We just don’t talk about it. If there is anything I love to talk about, it’s the stuff people don’t talk about. So that drew me to that story. The first time I thought about the idea for this novel was years ago, before I even thought of writing novels. In 1991, when I read Timothy Wright’s addendum to Marley’s autobiography, he went into not just the assassination attempt but also some of the people who were involved and what happened to them. That piqued my interest. I like marginal characters and people. I will gladly take the supporting characters in your book and make them the lead in mine. One of my favorite writers is James Ellroy, which is funny because I hate the Great American Novel. But if you hold a gun to my head, I’ll say that American Tabloid is a Great American Novel. One of the things I like about American Tabloid that I tried to do with Brief History is tell a major story through minor characters, which is why Marley himself isn’t important. The woman who wants money from him is, and so is the kid watching the house. And I don’t question only “Why is he watching the house?” but also “What is the backstory of this kid?” So you end up with a character like Bam-Bam. The Bob Marley story was one of the later elements to come to the book. I questioned, “Who are all these people surrounding?” And then I said, “Oh crap, it’s Marley.” Well, the singer, because I didn’t think that his name was that important.

RH: I’m glad you mentioned that. In the story, Marley is only mentioned as the singer. He is a distant figure, almost as if he’s untouchable. What was your intent in keeping us removed from him? Are there ethics for writing about historical figures?

MJ: Not really. Marlon even at that time was an icon. If you Google Jamaica and singer, Marley is going to come up first. He was already an icon, and even though this is no one in particular’s fault, he was already pigeonholed. This is the context in which we all know him: the singer. We don’t really know him as a father, or as a human rights activist. So that was one thing. He was already an iconic person. I also used the singer as a kind of thematic pivot in the book, not really a character, which is important because ultimately the story isn’t about him. But it couldn’t have happened without him. I’ve always been interested in the people in the background of the photo. There’s an essay by Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” that had a big influence on me. Talese went to interview him, and Sinatra just wouldn’t talk to him. Every time, the excuse was, “Mr. Sinatra has a cold.” He’s running out of time, so he gets an idea that revolutionizes everything. He decides he’s just going to interview everyone around him and see what comes up. It’s arguably one of the greatest stories of its kind ever written. Talese’s idea came out of desperation; mine came out of curiosity. I just wanted to know about all the people surrounding Marley and what they wanted, which allows you to ultimately know more about him.

RH: The character perspectives and points of view blew me away. You also enable dead characters to educate readers just as much as the living ones do. Has your childhood influenced this style of storytelling? How much of this is storytelling tradition in Jamaica?

MJ: This is a storytelling tradition, but I think it’s more African than anywhere else in the diaspora. It’s a very African way of telling a story. Even when García Márquez used this style, he very much acknowledged that it’s African, which is why I agree that he was a Caribbean novelist. It’s the idea that voices continue, that the living and the dead both have stories to tell. There is no division, really. Your ancestors, your predecessors, the ones who have recently gone are as active as you want them to be in your life. That kind of humanity is always continuous. Physical state means nothing and spills over. The book that I’m now writing deals so much in African myth and culture, and that element is all over it. In a lot of ways the storytelling comes from that. To speak specifically about Brief History, I wanted a character to speak to the dream of a kind of Jamaica that was possible. The Jamaica of the early- to mid-’60s gave no indication of what the ’70s would be like. My character that is a ghost is based on a real-life Jamaican, and that character represents a kind of Jamaica—a failed Jamaica that could’ve happened but was literally snuffed out.

RH: Stories are obviously an important part of childhood. What was the most important story someone in your family ever told you?

MJ: I don’t know if I can narrow it down. Probably the most important stories I was told were the Anansi stories. Every adult I knew told me those stories. Those stories have so many elements of the fantastical, the idea of magic, the unreliable narrator, mischief, and the possibility of the trickster being the hero. The same characters the next day would tell a different story. I remember my grandfather telling me Anansi stories. I could tell he was making them up, but that oral tradition was really important. It affects how I write. How my books sound is very important. I got a citation from the Royal Society for the Blind a couple of years ago, and it meant a lot to me. They listened to the audiobook (of Brief History), and they really appreciated how much the descriptions weren’t dependent on sight. When you are blind, “Her face turned a deep red” means nothing to you. They appreciated that I tried to incorporate all the senses so they could have a fully experiential reading of a novel. It’s not that I’m so interested in the senses; I’m interested in the sound, and that started with the stories I heard growing up.

RH: As a writer, do you feel an obligation to teach or enrich your readers through your stories?

MJ: Neither. I am very suspicious of writers who try to teach. I think didacticism has no place in art, because then you just have didacticism and not art. I’m very weary of writers on missions. There is a lot going on there: You’re dealing with the idea that you are qualified to teach a mission. At the same time, a writer is living in the world, and a writer should respond to the world with intelligence and fearlessness. I think that writers should speak truth to power. It’s not a matter of you becoming an activist; it’s a matter of you being honest. That is important. I do try to put that in a story through characters, but not at the expense of narrative. Not at the expense of characters being a mouthpiece for me. If that’s the case, I’d rather just write a speech and deliver it.

RH: Were you ever concerned about using so much patois and how your readers might respond?

MJ: Of course. In The Book of Night Women it was an ongoing fight between the characters and me. I wish that I still had some of the old emails, the back and forth between my MFA director and me about that book. See, you would think that I’m arguing about a family member. And one of the biggest fights was language. The Book of Night Women started out written in this sort of Jane Austen voice, and I only got to page forty-five because it was a story that had to be told through the mouths of the characters. I fought against it for all sorts of reasons. I was raised to think that dialect, that patois, is broken English that needs to be fixed. There’s a sense of inferiority that I felt, writing in this voice, and it took me a long time to accept that this is the voice of the story. I remember a British publisher turning down the book, saying she would reconsider it if I wrote it in standard English. There was this internal struggle that I had to get over, especially since The Book of Night Women is not a short novel. Most times when writers use patois, they use it as a local spice. You drop a little here and there as a kind of exotic flavor in the stew, just enough so you don’t lose people. I thought about it, but I came to a hard realization that I had to stay true to the slave women and how they sound.

RH: This story brings police brutality to the forefront. The setting is the 1970s, but it’s amazing how the public display of brutality is still present today. Can you talk more about your decision to hold this institution accountable in your story?

MJ: Well, I come from a cop family. And if we’re going to talk about power and authority in the ’70s anywhere, at some point you have to talk about the people who have been commissioned to exercise authority and reset power, and that includes the police force. Jamaica’s police force had very dubious beginnings. They came from a history of suppressing slaves and newly freed black people, and that continued all the way into the 1930s. There were weeks of riots in Jamaica in 1938, and the police took it upon themselves to treat everyone with extreme prejudice. So the police have always been the arm of the colonial enforcer. Even when the colonial government left, a lot of that tradition remained. I wanted to talk about that, and we should talk about that. A lot of the disregard police have for certain communities is part of a long, ignoble tradition. I really wanted to talk about the brutality and the corruption. No, the police don’t come out very well in the book, but I’m not necessarily worried about that. So now we’re on the topic of the states where this is happening. Actually, I am on the Professor Watchlist, which I think is hilarious. In the list of radicals on my campus I would score a two. But I did say in the Guardian that America has Third World police, in the sense that those of us who migrate from the quote-unquote Third World are quite surprised to run into the same type of cops that we thought we had left behind. So, yeah, I didn’t set out to make it relevant. I think the police make themselves relevant for all the wrong reasons.

RH: It seems like you even do this with your characters. You hold them accountable. In another interview, you explained that it was important to balance the narrative so that the white characters–the journalist and CIA operatives–weren’t the authoritative voices that verified or legitimized the black characters. Can you talk more about why this is so important to you?

MJ: It’s important because it happens too much. It happens in film and books, mostly film. The white character, usually male, sometimes female, goes into non-white territory and teaches something. The experience of that person in that area is always transformative to the people, which is not my experience at all. My experience is that expats who come to Jamaica come to exploit and leave. Not everyone. I’m not trying to generalize. But I really wanted to resist that kind of narrative because I didn’t want to be guilty of writing the same thing found in some films and books. At the same time, I didn’t want them to become caricatures, either. That is the tricky thing about writing. How do you complicate caricatures and write about them without redeeming them? The Rolling Stone journalist in Brief History is a selfish person. He is superficial; you can’t add all of his details together. He thinks that he’s better than all of the other tourists who come, but he is doing the same thing. And even with that, I still had to make him real flesh and blood, with real desires and real heartaches. I still had to make him an actual person. And I found with this novel that the secret to writing characters is not to make them likeable or positive, but to make them human and three-dimensional. This was particularly important for me when creating these white characters. I didn’t want to write the usual ignorant white guy in over his head. Except, some of them were ignorant white guys in over their heads, but you bring depth to that. I’m far more forgiving of a three-dimensional black character with the wrong voice then when the accent is nailed but they’re made a caricature.

RH: You do a remarkable job illustrating a setting that seems reflective of the time period and events in both Jamaica and around the world. What was your research process?

MJ: I am an extremely exhaustive researcher. The book I’m writing now, I’ve been researching since spring 2014. That is two years of research before I have even sat down to write. Even the stuff I know, I like to know more about it. The interesting parts in a novel often come from the stuff you pick up in research. The stuff that makes a character feel natural. The organic way in which people live their lives, the almost trivial stuff, is important to know when you start writing. For me, this is when the book starts to take off, when I can have my character contemplate multiple outcomes because they can’t and wouldn’t be able to afford gas that week. It’s all good to know who was in power, but how much was a tube of toothpaste and could the characters afford it? If they couldn’t, what would they do? Would they run to Mom’s house and steal toothpaste? Could that lead to an argument where Mom is telling them to grow up? That is when the characters become real. But I research everything from society and politics to the price of food and clothing at that time. When I start writing, I commit and go full speed ahead. I don’t stop. I need to know as much as I can to do that. I do some more research after I finish a draft or a chapter, so I can look back and ask if this could really happen. What’s a better way to write this? Would this type of character even exist? Was the record I referenced the number one record? Would that be playing on the radio? Would the character like that song or just shut it off? That is where research helps me the most. It’s not the big things. You can Google that. It’s the details.

RH: How did writing your first book, John Crow’s Devil, affect the way you wrote this one?

MJ: I do think that everything I write helps inform the subsequent book. I don’t know if John Crow impacted Brief History, but it did impact the second novel. John Crow’s Devil was my first experimentation with writing in patois, and that helped me gain confidence with writing in patois full-on for The Book of Night Women, which ultimately influenced Brief History. What I learned from the previous books was to trust that the book inside my head could be the book that comes out on the page, and that stories about Jamaica and Jamaican lives can have an international appeal. Brief History influences the book I am writing now, because I am not overthinking prose or trying too hard to write literature. I now can write with a certain kind of ease and confidence.

RH: When I first read this book, I thought about how different it is from the Master Narrative—the ideological script that is imposed by the people in authority on everybody else. How does it feel to write about history from a perspective that wasn’t mandated to you?

MJ: Well, I think writers like me—Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, and Colson Whitehead—are writing against erasure. We are writing stories that to a certain extent shouldn’t have to be written in the first place. We write stories that are under-told, untold, or just plain wrong. So we write in a present that is haunted by history that wasn’t or isn’t being told. We are responding to present erasure. I don’t think that any of us are on a mission, but we do realize that half of the stuff that we’re writing is stuff that is already behind us.

RH: Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?

MJ: Well, hopefully my next novel comes out next year. Hopefully. It’s hugely based on African folklore, myths, and legends. I hate to call it a fantasy novel, because a Yoruba person may read it and say, “Where is the fantasy?” However, it is very much based on that time and set a good eight hundred years ago. Right now I am trying to finish it and have some fun with it. It is part of a trilogy, and hopefully they will come in quick succession. It’s sort of an African fantasy trilogy; we’ll call it that.

RaeNosa Hudnell lives in Indianapolis. Her latest essay was released by Midwestern Gothic in August.