By Sara Johnson Allen
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s conversation with novelist Marlon James, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Award among many others, began with what he was reading. Jelly-Schapiro noted that James arrived to the San Carlos Institute auditorium with three “new” used books.
James quoted Cormac McCarthy saying, “books come out of books,” noting that reading is the way to write well, but is routinely undervalued. He prescribes to his own students suffering from writers’ block to “read their way out.”
James shared some of his formative books, Pride and Prejudice (his first experience with both a great book and a great literature teacher), Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (a story set in the Philippines, that James joked could have been his Kingston, Jamaica), and Salman Rushdie’s Shame, which so “shocked and electrified” James’ “Victorian tradition,” he cited it as the cause of throwing away his first novel.
Jelly-Schapiro noted there is something about “being given permission as a writer, learning, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
James recounted growing up a “nerd” in Kingston, Jamaica. He said he wasn’t thinking about being gay then, although, “Don’t get me started on Dallas.” Like other children of the 1980s, he said, he was defined by three key traits: being raised by television, having two working parents, and musical influences including Sonic Youth. He said alternative rock and film have inspired him in some ways more than books.
Jelly-Schapiro suggested that much of music’s power comes from its ability to give access to another world. The conversation inevitably led to Bob Marley, Jamaica’s most famous musician at the center of James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. James said he was a “rock kid” listening more to The Cure than reggae, although he recognizes now what a “sly and clever” lyricist Marley was.
Beyond the music, James was haunted by the story of “the boys who tried to kill Bob Marley.” When he began writing what would become A Brief History of Seven Killings, he started with one character, but then hit a wall after 30 to 40 pages, picked up another character, but hit another spot on a similar wall. Soon, he had “seven or eight. . . or 800 characters.”
During this process, James lamented to a friend, “I don’t know whose book this is.” She responded, “Why do you think it is one person’s story?” That was a “eureka moment” for James as he realized one person alone could not tell the story of Jamaica.
Jelly-Schapiro asked if the book’s format was intentional to which James replied, “Nothing that happens in my books is ever my intention.”
A Brief History of Seven Killings is being adapted into a series for Amazon. James likes the collaborative writing process for the screen more than he anticipated, adding it involves a release of ego.
The conversation turned to another current project, James’ fantasy trilogy, which will draw on African stories and epics. “I have always been drawn to monsters and witches,” he said. Then he illustrated differences between African and European mythology with the example, “African vampires have no problem killing you in broad daylight.”
He said the process of writing the new book is difficult because it is “speculative,” and one can get lost in a world he or she has created. Jelly-Schapiro suggested that the Caribbean itself is a kind of fantasy world. James agreed saying the history and culture of the place challenge the very idea of “social realism.”
During the Q&A, an audience member asked James to speak about being a gay writer. “There is absolutely a queer sensibility in my work” and a sense of “being outcast.” James admitted to initially resisting merging the personal with his writing, but as he became more at ease with his life, his “prose too became freer.”
Another audience member asked how in his second book, The Book of Night Women, James was able to inhabit his female characters so convincingly. The answer: he turned to books. James shared that a mentor, Elizabeth Nunez, said, “You are a good writer, but you don’t know anything about women.” She “prescribed” a reading list of books by women.
The conversation came full circle with the answer on to how to write well ending where the question began: what books influence you? Always turn back to the books.
Sara Johnson Allen is a writer and professor who lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. When she is not grading papers or chasing after her three kids, she likes to write about ‘place’ and how it shapes us.