“I wanted a picture of Jamaica that isn’t in books, and certainly not in novels.” Author Marlon James set out to depict a thoroughly vibrant portrait of the Jamaica he knew: one fissured by drug warfare and dirty politics, but a country plentiful in culture and history. The result was A Brief History of Seven Killings, an expansive and near-mythic survey of his homeland. It is, without question, one of 2014’s best books.
Based around the 1976 assassination attempt on singer Bob Marley, Seven Killings details how one event, and its aftereffects, can ricochet for decades. “Not all the consequences are directly a result of the shooting,” he says, “but everybody involved, and the people who weren’t involved, are still reeling from the effects ten years later, twenty years later.”
Gawker Review of Books talked to James about process, the book that freed him up to write, and what his next project will bring.
Gawker: How did you get into writing?
Marlon James: In a weird way, OutKast kind of did it. Just the idea that you could be an artist and have this body of work that’s outside of you. Regardless of what happens to you there’s this document. I wanted to make art that was outside of me. That, and also reading books that make me want to write books. Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about the book that gives permission to the writer. For him it was The Metamorphosis. For me, it was Salmon Rushdie’s Shame.
Why that one?
I read lots of great books, but that was the book when I said, “All right that’s it, I got to write.” I think, for me, there’s The Book I Should Write and The Book I Wanted to Write—and they weren’t the same book. The Book I Should Write should be realistic since I studied English Lit. It should be cultural. It should reflect where I am today. The Book I Wanted to Write would probably include flying women, magic, and all of that. I didn’t think that book was allowed. I remember reading Rushdie’s Shame and being appalled by it. The only way you can capture the craziness of a Pakistan-like country is to go into the fantastical and to the ridiculous, and break structure. That gave me permission to write whatever I wanted. Knowing that and then summoning the courage to write that. Even writing in dialect was big for me. For example, writing in Jamaican patois was a big deal because that’s not how I was raised. It’s not what you speak in school. It’s not what you speak in business. It’s just backward talking, and the idea of writing an entire novel, or most of a novel, in patois was almost unheard of. The whole idea of using the language that comes out of your mouth—
—the way you use it, the run-on sentences are such beautiful things.
Half of the stuff in that book I don’t allow my students to do. There’s a seven-page sentence in the book. Even when the book ends, it just stops.
When did you know you were there?
It took me a couple of weeks to accept it. I finally just told myself: All right, let’s write an ending now. Let’s write something big and cosmic.
So, you didn’t have the end in mind when you started?
Not with this book. This is the craziest book I’ve ever written. Didn’t have a clue. I had an idea of some of the characters—especially the ones who die. Things like Alex Pierce getting his ass kicked in his own apartment in Washington Heights; no way I knew that was coming.
The reading and quoting of books by Weeper—how’d that come into play?
Some of the craziest aspects about Weeper were the things I found out to be true. I mean, true of people. Actually, there are a lot of Jamaicans in prison who read Bertram Russell. Is that crazy? All the things you think would be made up are actually in the general penitentiary library, Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy is right beside The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I’m like, People are not going to believe that’s one of the truest things in the book. At some point, when I’m writing—and I don’t exactly know when—I sort of throw the story to the characters. It’s like they become real and go in whatever directions they want, and even more so than the last book. One thing I noticed—and I didn’t say this, and I don’t know who said it—each book you write frees you up to write the next book. My first novel, John Crow’s Devil, freed me up to write about the past andThe Book of Night Women freed me up to have a book totally based on voice and being very spontaneous.
So, what are you free to write next? Would you ever consider doing an Afrofuturist novel?
Yeah. There are lots of them out there, but I’m originally a fantasy novelist. I remember how it started; I got so sick about the argument about a black hobbit. Why must every story be politically correct? I’m tired of this argument. African mythology is as rich and as crazy as Norse and so on. So, I’m going to write a series based on African myths—an African Game of Thrones.
I find with every book you learn more about your process. What did you learn with Seven Killings?
More and more I am learning to trust my first instincts. I didn’t for some of this book. There are parts that I felt very afraid to write. So, yeah, trusting yourself. It’s surprising, certainly for me. I don’t know about other writers, but it took me years to trust my instincts as a writer. Largely because I’m doing stuff I haven’t read. I’m not saying I’m doing stuff that hasn’t been done before. And to trust myself to do it—with this book I learned to. I was more comfortable taking risks. Night Women is a lot of things. It’s a violent book but it’s not a risky book. With Seven Killings I was risking everything. I was risking explicitness. I was risking pornography. Risking messing with genre just because I felt like it. Writing something because I felt like it as opposed to having this idea of what is good literature or even an idea of what’s a good paragraph.
What one thing do most people get wrong about you?
They usually get my education wrong. They assume I was educated in America or in a first-world country, especially with this book. Some people think I have personal experience with violence. And when I tell them I don’t, they want to know by what authority am I writing it. It’s something that I think always happens, and not just with Jamaicans, but with writers of color—that we’re not capable of creativity, that we’re reporters. At the same time, I can understand why people ask me the violence question. I write about violence a lot. Trust me, nobody likes having experienced violence. But why do you think you should have a nice time reading it?
In a lot of ways, our grandparents and great-grandparents were badder badasses than we were. They could handle disturbing material and they looked at literature as the place to experience that vicariously. Literature was the place where you go to experience those things and sometimes even develop a kind of empathy. And the idea of being entertained or riveted by a book also meant being shocked, being educated, being horrified, being pulled in directions you didn’t want to go. Now we look at literature as the place to escape that. I’m not trying to turn violence into pornography, but, at the same time, I think you should be disturbed. If you’re touched by a story about slavery, if you’re touched by a story about domestic violence, you’re reading the wrong story. You’re not supposed to be touched. You’re supposed to be horrified, and maybe called to action.