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“I’ve always been obsessed with how people talk. I’ve always been an eavesdropper. To be a good writer, you must enjoy prying, probing and listening to gossip.” ~ Marlon James.

Marlon James, Acclaimed Author

Oct 18, 2019 5:50 AM

THE MOST FEARED book critic in the world, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, is famous for tearing authors’ reputations to shreds. So when she described a little-known Jamaican writer as possessing “vaulting ambition and prodigious talent” in a review of his novel in 2015, the literary world noticed. 

A month later, the writer won the Man Booker Prize for that very novel. This time, the whole world noticed, rapidly turning A Brief History Of Seven Killings (2015) into a huge bestseller and Marlon James into a literary superstar. Amazon optioned the novel, with Melina Matsoukas attached to direct the TV series.

Fast forward four years later, James is set to deliver the opening lecture at the Singapore Writers Festival 2019. The 48-year-old has recently published what’s touted as the ‘African Game Of Thrones’ - a monumental three-part fantasy epic populated by hunters, demons, vampires, witches, shape-shifters and more. The first book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, has received rave reviews and also been optioned for a screen adaptation.

James, who teaches creative writing at Macalester College in Minnesota, traded his Jamaican passport for an American one earlier this year. During this phone interview, he received a text message to say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf had just been nominated for the National Book Awards, a literary prize for US writers. 

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Congratulations on getting the nomination just one minute ago.

Thank you. I guess it’s America’s way of welcoming me to the country.

Have you been to Singapore?

No, but I’m very excited. I’ve watched Crazy Rich Asians. And while romantic comedy isn’t really my thing, sometimes the most radical thing to see is the girl getting the boy. That’s real social progress – especially when you consider that this is exactly the kind of movie many people would watch, instead of the artistically groundbreaking ones. 

But your novels have been described as “groundbreaking”. And one thing that stands out is the rich Jamaican patois spoken by your huge universe of characters. You have quite an ear for dialogue – even though you’ve said in past interviews that you were a shy kid and stayed away from people.

Yes, I've always been obsessed with how people talk, especially the people who are very comfortable talking – as opposed to me who was a very shy kid. I’ve always been an eavesdropper. To be a good writer, you must enjoy prying, probing and listening to gossip. You must enjoy reading between the lines too. For instance, a person could say: “I like oranges.” But what she really wants to say is: “I fought with someone today.” So you must enjoy people. In fact, reclusive authors can be quite bad at dialogue. HP Lovecraft, for one, wrote atrocious dialogue because he hated people, particularly brown and black people. Good dialogue comes from loving people, even the bad ones. You have to love the bad people too.

You’ve talked before about being bullied when you were young because of your queer identity. When you say “you have to love the bad people too”, does that mean you’ve forgiven your tormentors? 

God, no, not quite… But that happened years ago and I'm an old man now. If I didn’t get past it, the only person I'm harming is myself. But it’s funny that you should ask that because some of those people are my friends now. We eventually ended up in the same college and as young adults we got along. Of course there are some who remain ultra-conservative and bigoted. I don’t befriend those. Still, even with people I don’t like, I pay attention to how they talk, because their language is important and composites of these people might appear in my novels. 

You were an outcast as a child in Jamaica, and now you’re a literary star whose books are read all over the world. At the same time, you understand the stigma of being black and queer in the US where you now live. How has the combination of being “out” and “in” affected you as a writer?

As a writer, you need to know how to be “in” and “out” at the same time, because that helps you write. For instance, you need to know how to get into the mind of your characters, so you know how they respond to the world. But you also need to step out of the character and objectively see how the world responds to the character. So being “in” and “ out” turned out to be a huge blessing for me as a writer because I need empathy to write, but I also need distance. If you’re writing about trauma, for instance, you have to be “in” and “out” – “in” so that you can really see a person’s emotions in their entirety; “out” so you can stay sane while writing about the horrible things that happened to them.

Speaking of “horrible things”, could we touch on the violence depicted in your novels? Certain reviewers have complained about the many scenes of brutality involving men, women and children. What’s your response?

I actually don’t agree with the reviewers when they talk about the violence in my novels. More people are killed in an average Hollywood action film than in my books. My total body count is still under 400. But I can guarantee that if you put three action films together, that might tally up to 400 or more. I think the difference between me and Hollywood filmmakers is that I follow the suffering these characters experience as a consequence of the violence. In a Hollywood film, the hero gets hurt but recovers because he needs to get the girl. In my books, someone gets badly hurt and you follow him for pages and pages after that. You see his terrible suffering and how it affects the people around him. In my books, violence has an aftermath. It resonates, and in some ways, that’s harder to stomach. 

Speaking of movies, your last two books have been optioned for screen adaptations. When you write, do you think about how your books can compete for attention against the plethora of entertainment options in the digital age?

I’m not worried about the future of books. Books have always competed against emergent technology, whether it’s radio, television or now the Internet. The new pretenders to the throne keep coming to usurp the position of books, and they’ve always backed away in disgrace. Books offer a unique and personal experience of consuming stories that can never be replaced. And as humans, we can never get enough stories – whether we’re reading, watching or listening to them.

Marlon James is delivering the Festival Prologue of the Singapore Writers Festival 2019 on Nov 3. He’s also meeting fans the day before that. More stories on the festival on Page 20 – 21. Visit singaporewritersfestival.com