Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014
So i first posted this interview with Marlon on September 30 only to get a call from him the next day asking if I would mind taking it down for a few days because the Wall Street Journal had complained that my interview was breaking the national embargo on information on Brief History and its author. They threatened to publish their piece immediately which would have affected the NYT’s preferred position at the head of the national pipeline. I wasn’t amused but agreed to do so for Marlon’s sake though of course an interview by a Jamaican blog could hardly be viewed as national in the US sense of the word. But that’s the thing with online fora, they know no borders. So here once again is my interview with a Part 2 to follow whenever Marlon finds the time to answer the next set of questions I’ve sent him.
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s new novel which will be released on October 2, 2014, has already attracted a series of rave reviews from all the top print media, not least from Michiko Kakutani, the redoubtable New York Times book reviewer. She called it a monumental novel “sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex” in scope.
Others have referred to it as epic, and that it certainly is with its theme of war and peace in the tropics. A multitudinous cast of phantasmagoric characters populates Brief History and through them we descend into the chaotic craziness that was Jamaica in the 1970s. Marlon exposes the multiple duplicities that underlie the constant chatter about ‘peace’, an elusive concept that haunts the saga like a fetish and continues to remain beyond reach today, almost 50 years later.
James was a Kingston-based graphic designer and wannabe writer when he encountered Kaylie Jones, the American writer and daughter of best-selling author James Jones, at a writing workshop put on by the acclaimed Calabash Literary Festival. She persuaded him to resurrect a manuscript he had discarded after being rejected dozens of times and introduced him to her publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. Thus was born Marlon’s first novel, the critically acclaimed John Crow’s Devil (2005). The award-winning Night of Book Women followed in 2009 and now a mere five years later what looks set to be a blockbuster, the apocalyptic Brief History of Seven Killings.
I sent Marlon a list of questions, handicapped by the fact that I haven’t yet finished reading his novel (he had presented me a copy of the uncorrected proofs some months ago), and he sent back his replies by email.
Marlon your new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a latter-day epic in my opinion. Did you set out to write the Great Jamaican Novel or did you just happen to write it? It illuminates the postcolonial nightmare many of us still inhabit in the 21st century by getting us inside the heads of a vast cast of characters, all of whom we get to know with some intimacy by the end of the book. Gul Panag (@gulpanag), an Indian celebrity I follow on Twitter recently said: “The trouble with reading Tolstoy (apart from keeping a glossary of royal titles handy) is keeping track of the myriad characters!! #War&Peace
Of course this immediately reminded me of your Brief History and ITS myriad characters. I once asked you how you kept track of all of these distinct voices when writing and you said you kept a timetable chart with a column for each character. Didn’t it make you feel schizoid or partitioned into all these characters I asked but you said not really, that it more made you feel like a teacher of an unruly class…or maybe a prefect. Could you tell us some more about this process, how you achieved what seems to me to be quite a feat?
I actually do use plot charts. Columns filled with characters and rows with time periods, whether years, days, or in the case of this book, hours. I think the fear people have is that this kills spontaneity; it kills story flowing in an organic way, or it just results in novels that are schematic. And yet this was my most free flowing and spontaneous novel ever. There is a nine page chapter in free verse, a six page sentence, and from pages 277 to 395 stream of consciousness monologue.
Pages from Marlon’s notebook showing the elaborate chart he used to plot the novel.
I believe the reverse actually: that by not having a clue where you might want to go, you pick the route that’s safest, most familiar and most predictable — you just don’t realize that you’re doing it. It’s like the dog left wandering who ends up home anyway; or the poet who will never realize that it’s a lack of understanding of prosody that makes him formulaic. This is not to say that I follow the charts religiously—far from it but I need the base, just to keep track of what each character is doing at all times, and also to resist the urge to play favourites, which is a very easy thing to do. Especially when you have characters who clearly announce themselves, and characters who take a little more digging. Knowing that I had a plot point to come back to allowed me to fly all over the place with characters. And just because a plot is written down, doesn’t mean it’s not wild and crazy, resulting in an awful lot of trouble for the character. My writing day wasn’t done until I could say ‘well I didn’t see THAT coming.’
The novel pivots on events and personalities surrounding the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, the Smile Jamaica concert that followed two days later and the even more famous One Love Peace Concert of 1978 noted for that moment when Marley joins the hands of the 2 opposed political leaders, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. This is passed off nowadays as a stroke of genius on Marley’s part without much awareness of the political machinations behind the concert, the alliances between the politicians and the dons or gang leaders who ran the impoverished, inner city vote bases for the two political parties. Also behind the scenes lurked the CIA and the realpolitik of the Cold War. When did it occur to you that all this was prime material to plumb for literary gold?
That took some time. At first I wasn’t aware that it was a bigger story. In fact, the first character I created was the Chicago Hitman, John-John K, for what was supposed to be a noir novella. That he was killing a Jamaican who was involved in an assassination attempt was a small but still important detail. The second character I created was Bam-Bam, who was a ghetto youth raised in such hopelessness and violence that it was inevitable that he became violent. But even then I thought it was a small novel without much scope, even as his story started to involve ‘the singer.’ It wasn’t until I kept running into dead ends writing these ‘novellas’ that a friend of mine pointed out that this was a bigger novel—she saw it first, not me. It also helps that I was reading James Ellroy’s American Tabloid at the time, a novel that more than any other taught me how to recognize the bigger story and then tell it on a big scale without becoming pompous or writerly. In many ways what I wrote was essentially crime fiction. I just got out of the way and let the characters do whatever they wanted. Even my plot charts are what they —not what I wanted to do. But paradoxically, the more these voices became individual the larger this novel stretched in scope. I actually cut 10,000 words from the final draft.
How to represent Jamaican language in a way that outsiders can grasp has always been a challenge you’ve enthusiastically embraced. In Night Women you experimented with reproducing 18th century enslaved speech, in Brief History you recreate the street patois of the 1970s which must have been much easier since it would have been something you grew up speaking right? Did you also research the way Americans spoke in the 70s? For example the kind of language diFlorio uses–Holy fucking horseshit etc–cuss words and street lingo are so time bound. How did you research this? by watching films? by reading fiction from the period?
Everything, from watching films, the grittier ones such as Scorcese’s, (since even film has invented language), to documentaries (more authentic), song lyrics, slang dictionaries, websites and youtube videos. And getting an American accent wasn’t enough—Diflorio is older and far more conservative than Alex Pierce, who works for Rolling Stone. And black American speech is different from white, especially after hip-hop, so then you have a character like Romeo who sounds like nobody else. But bear in mind that my generation was the first not to be in any dialogue with the UK whatsoever. We don’t even understand it. We were in dialogue with the US. Our cross pollination came from RUN DMC, The Cosby show and Eddie Murphy, from American commercials and Miami Vice, LL Cool J, breakdancing, Prince, Michael Jackson and the occasional trip to Miami. The Samuel Selvon narrative is foreign to us.
One of the characters in BH is Nasser, a white Syrian politician based on former Prime Minister Edward Seaga. At one point Josey Wales I think says “Peter Nasser is just another ignorant as shit naigger…” which is interesting because a ‘naigger’ is not quite the same thing as a ‘nigger’ is it? Another Jamaican writer, Anthony Winkler, who happens to be white describes the confusion that ensues in the mind of his American companion when a fellow Jamaican greets him heartily saying “Wha’appen ole negar?” Can you articulate the difference between the two? What exactly is this concept of the ‘ole negar’ whose origins you make very clear by spelling it the way you do–‘naigger’? It’s nuances like this that you wonder if outsiders to Jamaican culture will get. How can a Syrian White in Jamaican terms be considered a ‘naigger’?
Well firstly Peter Nasser isn’t really based on Seaga, in fact Seaga appears in the novel. I resisted this easy character appropriation for several reasons, one being that it would be too easy for the novel to become nothing more than a spot-the-real-person exercise. Nasser is rather, a composite of several politicians, largely because I was looking for an archetype. He’s far more cynical, far less patient, and unlike Seaga has no ear for culture. As for naigger, the first issue was spelling and I always try to make my words very clear to the non-Jamaican, at the risk of so called authenticity. I wanted the reader to see the link between naigger and nigger so that he knows that the term can be equally loaded. And yet that tension comes from the American reader, not the character as Jamaicans rarely use it in any racial context. But on the other hand, Americans get the concept of one drop very well, so in a certain way it’s a joke they understand that Jamaicans won’t. That these Jamaican men, who are convinced that they are white, are really “niggers.”
By the way a couple of random questions. Is it Stony Hill you refer to as White Man Hill in BH? What does ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ mean? There’s more than one reference to Superman and Batman. And why does the song Ma Baker make Josey Wales laugh?
I can’t even remember. It could be Stony Hill, but I have a feeling it’s Jack’s Hill or Coopers, which used to be even whiter. As for ‘Me take the S off Superman chest and the B off Batman Belly’ both Barrington Levy and Junior Tucker have used the lyric in songs, but it goes back even further as a children’s rhyme establishing playground badness. As for Ma Baker, a certain lady of the night does a certain routine that ends with a highly improbably split, all to that song.
I really wanted to interview you after finishing the book but I’m still only on page 399 with another 300 or so to go with no desire to race through it, i’m savouring it so much. I just decided i needed to send you these questions sooner rather than later because once your book comes out on October 2 you’re going to be virtually lynched by major media. I wonder if you’ll end up on Oprah’s show or has she stopped doing books? It must be fun reading all the rave reviews you’ve been getting. I see you posted the one from Rolling Stonel today. One of the things people may not realize is what an audiophile you are and what an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock music you have. Brief History didn’t really give you a chance to expose that expertise or did it?
There’s still a lot of music in it, and not all just Marley. Or rather more about musicians, from Mick Jagger’s brief championing of Peter Tosh, to the rise of hip-hop and new wave, dance hall in the 80’s and 90’s and some insider info, from the very brief and quickly aborted plan to kidnap Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton’s infamous racist rant onstage. I like to think it’s rock and roll in attitude, if not always content.
You know I’m going to enjoy watching your Twitter account blow up after October 2 when the TV appearances begin. On Sept 22 you 327 followers on the 26th 355; do you use social media much? You seem to use Facebook more than Twitter right?
I was just now trying to get with Twitter, only to hear that it’s all about Instagram now
Finally, do you think you might write a kind of sequel centred around the events of the 90s and noughties leading up to the extradition of Dudus, the Don of Tivoli Gardens, glossed as Copenhagen City in BH? A kind of ‘Brief History of 73 Killings’ perhaps in reference to the official number of civilians killed by the state in the process of capturing Dudus. I mean who else could tackle that saga? And wasn’t Jim Brown’s older son, Dudus’s brother Jah T, who was briefly the don before Dudus, actually a classmate of yours?
I was thinking a sequel actually. In fact a trilogy, each taking 5 time periods and a totally different cast of characters—some of them being minor ones in this book (maybe Peter Nasser and Kim-Marie Burgess). But this book took 4 years to write and I need a break. My next book is going back in the past, way before even the middle ages, actually.