Plotting a Brief History of Seven Killings: An Exclusive Interview with Marlon James

An exclusive interview with new literary sensation Marlon James, in which he describes how he plots his novels, his influences and his plans for the future.

Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014
Marlon James at Calabash Literary Festival, June 2014

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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 Book of Night 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.

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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.’

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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.”

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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?

Marlon James

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 had 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.

 

*By January 20, 2016 Marlon James’s followership had risen to 6,690.

Nobodyism and Ezekel Alan: Are some of us ‘Missing’ as a noun?

An interview with Ezekel Alan, author of Disposable People…

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I’ve been sitting on this astonishing interview I did with the mysterious new Jamaican writer, Ezekel Alan, for about two months now (for more information on Alan read Susumba.com‘s interview with him). I had hoped to continue it but time won’t permit so I’m just posting it and stating my intention to follow up with a Part 2 soon. Alan is the author of Disposable People, a novel that first came to attention when it won the Caribbean region award for best first novel in the Commonwealth Book Awards this year. Disposable People was self-published. It’s a book that animates poverty for those of us accustomed to averting our gaze from it, and does so in an imaginative, engaging yet hardcore way. His concept of ‘Nobodyism’ strikes me as the opposite of Rex Nettleford’s ‘Smaddyism’ (Somebodyism).

It would be cool if my readers could suggest questions they’d like me to ask him for Part 2….

AP: Disposable People is a narrative about the soul-wrenching economies of ‘Bare life’ and contemporary poverty isn’t it? As told by someone who has escaped its bony embrace into a life of privilege and policy-making. Did the little boy locked out of his home every time a primal urge took his parents haunt you into writing this book? Is the story as autobiographical as it seems?

Indeed there is some catharsis and exorcism at play – as we have seen with many other writers {Ayn Rand comes to mind}, there is an often an urge to tell a bit of your own story with your first book; this is perhaps because there is such a reservoir of information right there to draw on. In my case, this was both the outcome of that effort to wrestle with demons, and my love for writing. The past was, in a sense, fodder for writing rather than the object of it.

That said, I wanted to make this story noteworthy. Tales of poverty and abuse are as common as teenage sex in our ghettoes; I wanted to find a way to make this story feel new and real.  This is partly the reason for the bluntness and the seemingly absurd elements of the story.

But let me also say that I remember going into Riverton City once back in the days and standing there watching some kids who were playing in a body of water that was stagnant and stink. You could see both hogs and plastic bags of faeces floating in it. But these kids were playing and laughing.  That is life. The life of the poor is wretched, but it also has its joys. As a poor child you don’t stand around all day contemplating the short, nasty, brutish nature of your life, you live it, with all its pains and joys. This is what I tried to capture – both the suffering and the joys – in almost the same way we lived it.

AP: In many ways this book reminds one of a new genre of no-holds-barred novel writing by former NGO personnel, activists, policy-makers and diplomats. I’m thinking of books like Khalid Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Q and A by Vikas Swarup from which the movie Slumdog Millionaire was made, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and so on, There’s also a zaniness which has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut. Who were some of your literary influences?

I’ve read and loved all of those books/writers . (I would love to one day join their ranks – they have such incredible skill with the pen.) I particularly like Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is another inspiring masterpiece. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also another inspiration, I love his surrealism. Junot Diaz is now one of my favourite contemporary Caribbean writers. I grew up on a diet of Roger Mais, Naipaul, and such, but now I find I am completely enthralled by the richness of Diaz’s prose; he’s brilliant (and I suspect rich).

AP: There is a preoccupation with the scatological or excremental imagery in DP. Eg references to shit are plentiful, to people too poor even to produce shit as in “When I lived in Jamaica my ass was often tight and constipated.” Is this because you feel that the acute discomfort of poverty is something you have to force your readers to face in the same way that confronting them with unpleasant images of worms, faeces, cow dung, diarrhoea and so on would make them squeamish? Is this the best allegory for the ‘short, nasty lives’ you’re trying to depict?

Maybe it’s all because the pit toilet was too close to my house – the stench of it was there, every day, for almost twenty years of my life. Indeed, the story was meant to be as blunt and raw as the real experiences were – flies swarming your food; giant mosquitoes biting you like dogs; the daily gambling and dominoes; the sounds of a cousin screwing and accidentally kicking down a part of her flimsy wooden wall (which generated an awful lot of excitement for the rest of us who rushed to watch and laugh.) That was the reality of it, but it is a reality far removed from the lives of many people. I wanted readers to see that life the way it was, and to want to laugh and cry at all its extremities.

By the way, I am still constipated. Some friends of mine back home have said I should try eating muesli every morning, others have recommended some of the “good Jamaican stuff” to loosen me up. I hope to report back on what works.

AP: I like your attempts to pin down the kind of racism that exists in societies such as Jamaica…there’s a tendency to overlook or elide brown identity with everyone claiming ‘blackness’ but you differentiate between the abjectness of being black and the privilege of being brown, with money being the crucial factor in determining brownness, the size of one’s bank account, one’s accent. Could you elaborate on the hypocrisies of race relations in Jamaica and perhaps the Caribbean as you know it?

I grew up with Michael Manley being white and always right, in the eyes of many of the older folks in our village. “Black man cyan run dis country!” was a frequent expression during election and domino arguments. I think much of this has changed since the 70s and early 80s, and I would say Jamaica is now a very different place. Maybe some racism is still there, but it isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, and cash now buys colour. The novel, in some sense, is therefore less about racism than it is about ‘nobodyism’. Kenny’s mama dies (this isn’t giving away too much) because she was nobody and they couldn’t afford proper medical care. The story about the old woman coming up to Kenny to ask for directions when Kenny thought she was coming to beg money is also apropos – this wasn’t about race, but identity; some people in our society are identified as nobody worthy of our time, worthy of our attention, worthy of marrying our daughters, worthy of a second thought. One of my favourite bits of the book is when Kenny writes the poem about Georgie and asks if his old friend Georgie is ‘missing’ not as verb (his mother’s love and tenderness) but as a noun – a person unseen and unheard. I felt that was how we lived our lives there on the outskirts of society; missing as a noun.

Of Adichie, Coco Yams, the Caine Prize and Literary Tiffs…

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Nigerian writers had their feathers ruffled by what the acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a July 14 interview with Aaron Bady whose twitter handle is @zunguzungu. The literary kas kas has produced a series of archly comical tweets, blogposts and ripostes that inspire awe in latent Nigerian literary talent. Here’s the offending snippet from the IV.

AB: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize. I find it interesting that so many Nigerians are on the short list this year—that it’s four Nigerians out of five . . .

CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.

AB: Well, none of them are you!

CA: Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop. But what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

AB: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.

And in case you don’t know, Aaron Bady is a very influential blogger, tweeter and scholar of African literature. Here’s a bit about him from an Atlantic Monthly article some time back:

“When historians look back at WikiLeaks and how the world’s pundits tried to make sense of what was happening, they’ll see a familiar list of sources: Foreign Policy’s Evgeny Morozov, The Guardian’s John Noughton, The New York Times’ David Carr, several people from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, and various long-time digital leaders like Geert Lovink and Larry Sanger.

“But among that list you’d also find Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu.wordpress.com. His probing analysis of Julian Assange’s personal philosophy and possible motivations became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean. Before Bady’s November 29 post, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”, only a few hundred people a day found their way Bady’s blog. In the days afterward, tens of thousands of people swarmed to the site — and Bady ended up linked by some of the most influential media outlets on the planet.”

The first response came from Elnathan John, shortlisted for the Caine Prize, and referred to by Adichie as “…one of my boys…” In a tongue-in-cheek yet hard-hitting blogpost called THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVING NGOZI he gently takes her on.

It is the Americans you blame as you struggle to craft a response to Ngozi that sounds neither bitter nor desperate; ‘something funny’ your friend said, so people would be left with no doubt about your maturity and sense of humour. You blame the Americans for organizing that workshop and putting you on the guest list where you first met Ngozi. This is what the Americans have often been guilty of: causing wars through third parties and standing back, claiming ignorance of roots and beginnings. They made you meet Ngozi. They made you love Ngozi.

His blog bio gives a more elaborate sense of the budding writer:

You wan know who I be?

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Abuja, Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria
Elnathan is a writer who trained as a lawyer. Although he is routinely called a journalist, he rejects this title, preferring instead to be called a writer. His works have appeared in ZAM Magazine International, Otis Nebula, Per Contra, and Evergreen Review in addition to numerous Nigerian publications and newspapers. He writes a column for Sunday Trust. He has not won anything. The South African government recently truncated his plans to attend the prestigious Caine Prize Writing workshop to which he was invited. He holds no grudges. In 2008 he hastily self-published an embarrassing collection of short stories which has since gone out of print. He hopes to never repeat that mistake. He has just completed work on a new collection of short stories and is working on a novel. Nobody seems to want to publish his new collection of short stories. This puzzles him. He really loves those stories. Elnathan is touchy about his skin and man boobs and isn’t bold enough to grow hair. One of his new goals is getting to a weight below his current 100kg that will not warrant totally changing his wardrobe. He hopes to start a family comprising a partner, no kids and two hairy pets

For more go to my Storify

Roland Watson-Grant and his debut novel, Sketcher

An interview with Jamaican writer, Roland Watson-Grant, about his debut as a novelist.

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Before April this year I didn’t know who Roland Watson-Grant was. But we were on a panel together during the Kingston Book Festival and that’s when I found out that he was only Jamaica’s latest novelist, whose book, Sketcher, was about to be launched in England. Subsequently he sent me an advance copy which I was foolish enough to leave in Grenada with a friend, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, except for the excellent first chapter which the publisher, Alma Books, has made available online (see excerpt below).

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I was intrigued by Roland’s unusual trajectory (where had he suddenly appeared from? and how did he snag a UK publisher with his first book?). Yes, yes, I know Peepal Tree is also a UK publisher but Alma Books is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike Peepal Tree Alma isn’t dedicated to publishing Caribbean authors, on the contrary, according to their website:

Alma Books publishes from fifteen to twenty titles a year, mostly contemporary literary fiction, taking around sixty per cent of its titles from English-language originals, while the rest are translations from other languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese. Alma Books also publishes two or three non-fiction titles each year.

They’ve also just won the Independent Publisher of the Year award in the UK. So dive into the excerpt from Sketcher immediately below and then my interview with Roland Watson-Grant.

Simple answers. I was only eight, but when my turn came to ask, she had to make it complicated. She said: “Skid, I’m so tired a y’all asking me where he is. Why don’t you all get on that CB radio and holler out your dad’s name and tell him to get himself home.”

So we did. Now, we had a CB radio, and in the Eighties that was a big deal. You had to have a CB nickname and all that fancy stuff. And we called our dad “T-Rex” on the radio. And my pops, he was one of the biggest godfathers of Citizen Band radio technology in the South. People knew him, cos he fixed CB radios and boosted their frequencies, and he invented all these sky-scrapin’ antennae things that could prob’ly pick up as far as China. So when we all got on the radio and switched to Channel 19 and started pressing the hell out of the key on the microphone and jumpin’ up and chantin’ “Breaker, Breaker, T-Rex, you copy? Come on home, T-Rex”, all the truckers and all the cops and the hunters and the shrimp fishermen and people as far as frickin’ California and prob’ly Mexico could hear us. And man, they all started in on the joke, whether they knew T-Rex or not, cos that’s one of the things that CB radio people do.

Well, within fifteen minutes we could hear the Ford Transit engine revvin’ into the swamp and the tires grindin’ and the door slammin’, and the great big ol’ T-Rex came crashin’ into the house with his claws all out and his teeth sharp. He looked across the room and growled at me, cos he said my voice was the loudest on Channel 19. Me? And he made me get back on the CB radio and announce that “T-Rex made it home tonight”, and then I had to speak like I was an AM radio announcer, with a big, dumb radio voice and everything. I had to tell ’em what time it was, and do the weather report and tell ’em to “stay tuned for more news”.

To read more click here.

Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico
Photo of Roland Watson-Grant, by his brother, Salfrico

The Interview:

Roland where did a writer like you pop out from, fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus? Have you deliberately secreted yourself away from the literary world of Jamaica, small as it is? You know with most other recent writers there’s a loose arc they tend to follow; first publication in Wayne Brown’s writing supplement in the Observer, then appearances at various festivals, participation in Calabash-sponsored events, by the time their first book is published they’re practically household names. You escaped this arc. Tell us about your coming into being as a writer.

It’s the stuff of dreams really. You could say I’ve been “writing in the wings” as an advertising creative director/copywriter since I was 21 years old. Literature was my first love though. When I got into advertising through a voicetape I recorded in a bathroom, I went to UWI the following year. My mother wanted me to become a Professor of English but I didn’t stay that course and decided to stick with Advertising instead (a classmate has called me a sell-out ever since.) My overseas advertising training came from being hired by McCann-Erickson in 2002, which led to more creative discipline and an interest in writing for wider appeal. In 2011 I entered a UK short story competition. When one of my stories won an international prize, I was invited to read at the prize giving ceremony in England that same Fall. A London-based publisher was in the audience and the reading led to a book deal.

Stuff of dreams. As for Greek gods, I feel more like Prometheus, dedicated to progress but bound to be burned by the same fire I want to share. But that’s another story.

I remember a conversation with you in which we were discussing the place you grew up in, in Jamaica, and how it was the inspiration for the Louisiana swampland where Sketcher is set. Did I imagine this? If not, how did it go again?

I grew up in New Haven, Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s. You won’t see the name appear on Google Earth. It was a swamp when we got there. Wilderness: fish swimming by the side of the ‘roads’, mosquitoes and crocs in the Duhaney River. Reading helped us escape. Olive Senior, William Golding, Salinger, Claude McKay, Hardy Boys. When I read Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” I started enjoying living in a swamp. We raised chickens, others raised goats and dug wells. We had a “Home Sweet Home” lamp– a real rural existence in the city. A whole different life was happening among the zinc roofs you still see when you fly over from Ferry. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.

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The house that haunts the pages of Sketcher is the house Watson-Grant grew up in. “I grew up in New Haven, Kingston Jamaica in the 1980s. It was a swamp when we got there. Somehow that whole life, fused with what I’d read in books and became the atmosphere of Sketcher.”

Did you do a course in creative writing somewhere or are you that rare being–a natural writer–who’s able to produce the most lyrically poignant first novel without painful contractions or cramps? Did this novel go through many iterations? Did you work with an editor?

Apart from writing everyday in advertising, I kept journals for a number of years in New Haven, just to practice atmospherics and observe emotions. My mother encouraged it and that was very beneficial. Then I got incredible insights from my tutors, teachers and Professors from Kingston College to University. I always wanted to but never attempted a novel until my publisher/editor Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books said I should consider expanding the story. He’s a genius, really. Erudite. Working with him was a great opportunity. We got through the novel in a year. His feedback was and continues to be priceless.

Tell us about your experience with Alma Books. Were you represented by an agent? Did you try to be published in Jamaica or did you always know you wanted a publisher outside the region, a semi-mainstream publisher as it were?

Simon Kerr from the University of Hull in England was responsible for putting all the winning entries into an anthology. He invited industry people to the ceremony hear us read. As I mentioned, Alma Books was in the audience and I got handed a business card and a task to do a draft in a month and submit it for review. Published in Jamaica? I used to write letters to the Gleaner editor in fourth form. So I guess I was ‘published’ in a sense. (I was proud of those letters!) But literary-fiction wise, I entered the Commonwealth Prizes. I went with similar themes about growing up in New Haven, but it wasn’t my time yet, I guess. I wasn’t deterred because I really wanted to see my work (which has the Caribbean at its core) judged in a wide context, win or lose. I’ve always been the David vs. Goliath type of guy. 

I’ve gotten incredible support locally though since appearing “out of nowhere”. I wait for the opportunity to name all those people.

I’d like you to expand on Prometheus and your dedication to progress but fear of being burned?

Well, fear is a strong word. But I accept that Sketcher is not your everyday Caribbean novel. It’s about a second generation Caribbean kid growing up in a Louisiana swamp slowly finding out about his heritage by observing seemingly magical occurrences. This is a new approach to talking about cultural identity. And I accept with every new endeavour that takes a different route, there will be controversy. Jamaicans can be very insular. People all over the world imitate our culture but we ourselves are not comfortable behaving like citizens of a wider world. We ignore the fact that Jamaican culture is also made of many others apart from West African: Chinese, Indian, Middle-Eastern, Jewish, English et cetera. In turn, many in positions of influence expect artistes to create art and literature with a kind of Jamaica tourist-brochure agenda. This is the message we send to our literary and visual artistes and also to our children. The ironic result is that out of boredom future generations will ignore Maas Joe, bankra baskets, shet pans, burlap bags, brown paper and bandana (which we should know we got from India). We should declare these things as PART of the amalgam that is our heritage, but who dares suggest to the next generation that sentimental, nostalgic, or even our contemporary local culture is ALL the Jamaican culture is or ever will be? Every culture is in flux. When you don’t allow different expressions of it you end up with cookie cutter artistes who follow a formula like slaves, wondering why they can’t be the next Bob Marley. Screw the formula. Let’s do something new. That’s what Bob did. Big up Bob.

Are you a social media fiend?

Not really. I spend hours on the internet though. Alma Books got me into social media and rightly so. I recognize the communication power of social media and I try to use it as a tool. I respect it as I would fire. A novel like Sketcher with multi-cultural layers might not have been possible without that power or the overall abilities of the internet.

Boy I think you have single-handedly upped the profile of advertising agencies as creative incubators. Am I correct you not only ‘did voices’ or voiced ads for businesses but you also became a copywriter and got into advertising because you sent a voice recording to an ad agency?

Yes. While I was a teacher at my alma Mater, Kingston College, I made a voice tape after my students dared me to do so. I hated the recording. But the Creative Director at Dunlop Corbin at the time saw the writing potential in the scripts I sent in with the tape and they hired me almost immediately. So she opened up the opportunity for a 21 year old to write commercials for big clients even before I did a single voiceover.

How did this preoccupation with ‘doing voices’ come about? Did you listen to ads as a child and think ‘Oh, I can do that better?’

Haha. We used to listen to the news and imitate Charles Lewin and Dennis Hall and recite commercials. My family listened to a radio series on RJR called Mortimer Simmonds and soon we made up and recorded our own stories. We didn’t have a TV. Years later when my brother Seymour, and friends Kevin Day and Horatio Grant wrote and created the Mother’s Patty TV commercial with singing and dancing patties, we could trace it back to those days. It was the natural trajectory.

You also referred to joining McCann-Erickson and getting the chance to go abroad into a more creative atmosphere, this released your creative juices you said. What is the problem with the local advertising industry? What was the crucial difference that enabled you to write fiction abroad?

Well, I don’t want to pontificate and make prescriptions for local advertising, but I will say what I learnt at McCann. 1.Deadlines are crucial. 2. You’re a creative being and a salesman. And most importantly: The IDEA is key. Get your IDEA straight and you can execute it in a thousand ways. But the IDEA must always be singular and original. We have lovely graphics and software and agendas, but what’s your IDEA? Any society that encourages NEW IDEAS will prosper. I recently did an interview where I suggested we call for a Ministry of Imagination in Jamaica. I remember a Creative Director in New York once told us to stand in Times Square and try to recall all the ads we saw on the screens. We couldn’t keep up. He said: “Good, now go do something that people will remember”.  You can’t do anything ordinary after that.

SWAMP CHARACTERS (circa 1974): Watson-Grant’s three elder brothers and the blueprints for a trio of personalities from the novel. The tiniest one in the jumpsuit is the template for the Sketcher himself.

How autobiographical is Sketcher? Do you come from a family of several siblings? Did CB Radio play a key role in your life? Can you also draw? And although your Mom is disappointed that you decided not to be a literary professor she must be pleased at your debut as a fiction writer?

My mother is thrilled. My biggest fan. She can recite the short story version by now I’m sure. I would say the feelings, the atmosphere and some familial occurrences are autobiographical. But Skid Beaumont the main character is a completely different animal from me. Bookseller Magazine says he’s “part Scout Finch, part Bart Simpson”. I couldn’t top that when I was nine going on sixteen. 

My father was a CB expert in real life. That was the internet those days. He would make antennas and study the weather so he could use atmospheric conditions to talk to people in the Southern United States who couldn’t believe he was in Jamaica.

Did you locate your novel in Louisiana from the get go or was that a suggestion that came from Alessandro Gallenzi, your publisher and editor? In the short story that won the competition what was the location of the story?

Yes, from the short story version Sketcher was always in Louisiana. But in my mind the characters had a Caribbean background and sensibility. This would heighten the plight of them trying to fit into another society. In Sketcher the novel they are still trying. Alessandro never got involved in things like that. He would pull me back and tell me to rewrite chapters only if I started influencing the characters too much with my own politics and thoughts. And he once told me to literally draw a map so I wouldn’t get lost in the swamps when I was writing. I’ve always loved the “bizarre” beauty of New Orleans and how much the magic feels like our own folk belief systems of obeah and the like. There are conversations happening between cultures that we fail to eavesdrop on. For example, hoodoo and folk beliefs in Jamaica are family. So is New Orleans food and Caribbean dishes. In a documentary Cyril Neville, a New Orleans musician calls New Orleans, “the northernmost city in the Caribbean”. He plays lots of reggae and soca. My point is: people borrow from us yet we remain largely insular and frankly, a bit ignorant of how the constantly evolving Jamaican culture really fits into the wider world.

Finally have you read Erna Brodber’s novel Louisiana which is also about these connections? What about Garfield Ellis? Ellis was also inspired as a writer by Mark Twain. Have you read his novel For Nothing At All?

Wow. I have great respect for Erma Brodber but I must admit I haven’t read that. I have shared the stage with Ellis but I haven’t read his either and didn’t know he was inspired by Twain. Olive Senior and William Golding are my biggest influences though. I will look for Brodber’s book right now. That’s refreshing to know. Here’s what Chris Blackwell said in Louisiana one time at Loyola University Chris Blackwell on the Connection between New Orleans Music and Reggae – YouTube

Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

This is the time of year I like best. One week before Calabash Literary Festival and about 10 days before the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) conference, which is in San Andres, Colombia, this year. The lineup at this Calabash, though stellar, could have been more exciting as far as I’m concerned; after all living in these parts who hasn’t heard Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, live and in living colour, over and over again? Last year’s was a more lustrous list of literary stars, Caryl Phillips, Michael Ondaatje and Maryse Conde amongst them.

But then again I don’t go to Calabash to listen to authors and poets reading aloud so much as for the sheer delight of lingering in the vibe-rant environment created by Colin, Justine and Kwame. I happen to know that singer and poet Dingo has been sharpening his latest poem and who knows if we’re lucky he might perform it there. The open mic segment is bound to have its share of great performances bursting through the thicket of paltry, mediocre rhymesters who will insist on abusing the audience with purported poetry.

Speculation is rife as to whether Walcott will behave himself or be spectacularly rude on stage; whether he will outcuss that indomitable cusser Bounty Killa and be carted off to bad wud jail; or if the balmy St. Bess air will temporarily render him tame and pleasant (incidentally Dingo has a poem, Jamaica Land We Love, that starts like this:

I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love

An if dem neva start charge artiste fe it….
I woulda cuss some claat if it coulda draw attention
to Jamaica land we love.

Jamaica land we love hobbling along on three flats and de-spair).

Walcott’s main rival in the race for Curmudgeon of the Year is of course, V.S. Naipaul, about whom the New York Times wrote only today.

A book-lover’s paradise, Calabash is a boutique festival if there ever was one. Hordes of would-be writers rub shoulders with would-be readers and actual writers at different stages of their careers. The main venue was succinctly described in a recent article: “At the far end is a small stage with a podium. The backdrop is the long curve of Calabash Bay. The village mongrels often have the best seat in the house, downstage. In Treasure Beach, even the strays enjoy a good poetry reading.”

Although Dominicano Junot Diaz, the celebrated author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, couldn’t make it this year, touring the Far East as he is after winning the Pulitzer and a clutch of other awards, Calabash die-hards will remember him as one of the up and coming authors featured at an earlier Calabash—2003? 2004? See? So you never know, someone you consider a no-name author this year could well turn out to be tomorrow’s literary lion. Incidentally a recent issue of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) carried a great interview with Diaz by Marlon James, author of John Crow’s Devil.

Another big draw will be Beverley Manley, whose hot memoirs, briefly serialized in the Gleaner, have set the country on fire. Naturally i have an advance copy, a review copy, which i shall devour over the weekend. Hey being a critic does have its occasional advantages.

But more on Calabash after the event. I will be ensconced at a seafront villa with a small cartel of Caribbean writers and publishing mates for the duration of the festival. A description of this delightful spot is to be found in the current issue of Caribbean Beat where Nicholas Laughlin, editor of CRB, recalls an evening spent there the year before during Calabash:

“…If you are in possession of a villa, you might consider throwing your own private party. The kind that starts when someone shows up with a bottle of wine and ends, well, whenever. Perhaps your housekeeper has cooked lobsters for dinner. Perhaps two up-and-coming Jamaican novelists will start a raucous discussion of the supernatural coolie duppy, egged on by an art critic, to the scandal of a young American poet. A couple of literary journalists huddle by the pool, exchanging hot gossip. Someone slips down to the beach for a midnight skinny-dip A hotshot online media producer captures it all on a hidden mike…”

See you in Treasure Beach!