Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, making James the first Jamaican author to take home the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. The novel also won the American Book award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Minnesota Book Award. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a New York Times Notable Book. Professor James is also the author of The Book of Night Women, which won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and John Crow’s Devil. His next novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf will be published in February 2019.
Professor James graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language and Literature and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Master’s Degree in creative writing. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, Harpers, The New York Times, Granta, GQ, and the Caribbean Review of Books. At Macalester College James focuses on Contemporary Fiction, Narrative Nonfiction, and introductory poetry.
2022-2023 Academic Year
Professor James is on research leave for Fall 2022 and will return Spring 2023.
Fellowships and Honors
Black Leopard, Red Wolf Riverhead 2018
A Brief History of Seven Killings Riverhead 2014
The Book Of Night Women Riverhead 2009
John Crow’s Devil Akashic Books 2005
Fiction (Short Story)
“How To Be A Man” Esquire Magazine 2013
“Immaculate” (Kingston Noir) Akashic Books 2012
“Look What Love Is Doing To Me,”(Bronx Noir) Akashic Books 2007
“The Last Jamaican Lion,” (Iron Balloons: Hit
Fiction From Jamaica’s Calabash Workshop) Akashic Books 2006
“Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity,” [Lit Hub, Fall 2016]
“Blacker the Berry —On Kendrick Lamar” [The New York Times Magazine
“From Jamaica, To Minnesota, to Myself” [The New York Times Magazine
“The Other Caribbean City” [New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost: 88 Stories And
Traditions From The Sacred City] Lee Sophia Barclay, ed. The University of
Louisiana at Lafayette Press, (Fall 2010)]
“Growing Up With The King Of Pop,” [Granta. John Freeman, ed. (June 2009)]
“Jean Rhys’ Worthless Women,” [The Caribbean Review Of Books. Nicholas
Laughlin, ed. MEP Publishers (2008)]
“When You’re Not White Enough To Write a Black Novel.” [The Caribbean Review Of Books. Nicholas Laughlin, ed. MEP Publishers (2006)]
The Island Beneath The Sea, by Isabelle Allende [Publisher’s Weekly. Jonathan Segura, ed. Reed Business (April 2010)]
Wonder Boy: Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao [The Caribbean
Review Of Books. Nicholas Laughlin, ed. MEP Publishers (2008)]
Words To Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, by Thomas Glave” [The
Caribbean Review Of Books. Nicholas Laughlin, ed. MEP Publishers (2006)]MACALESTER
|Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer
Photo by Mark Seliger
A Lesson From Marlon James, Epic Storyteller
By Mike Vangel
Update, October 8, 2019: Marlon James’ novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of five novels nominated for this year’s National Book Award in fiction.
Despite the eclectic paintings on the walls and the giant windows overlooking South Minneapolis and the Mississippi River beyond, Marlon James insists there’s nothing particularly inspiring about the place he calls home, even though it may seem like an artistic oasis from the outsider’s perspective. For one thing, he says, none of the creative magic happens here, anyway. For another, he’d probably object to applying the term “creative magic” to his work at all—having just published his fourth novel, he knows by now that good writing is the result of daily routine, not random acts of inspiration.
A dozen years ago, the idea of a fourth novel might have seemed fanciful. Overcoming now-legendary difficulty (to the tune of 70+ manuscript rejections), James published a promising debut, and joined Macalester’s English department in 2007 as a visiting professor. After that initial travail, his career trajectory has been nearly straight upward: he was promoted to a tenure-track professor before being named the college’s first writer in residence in 2016. He has taught and inspired hundreds of students through his courses, including Introduction to Creative Writing, American Literature, and advanced workshops that guide students through writing a novel in a semester. And, of course, he kept writing himself, publishing two more novels about his native Jamaica: The Book of Night Women, which won a Dayton Literary Peace Prize and a Minnesota Book Award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won (among other things) the Man Booker Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award in all of English literature.
His latest novel—Black Leopard, Red Wolf—was listed among the most anticipated works of 2019 in publications ranging from book blogs to the New York Times. We recently visited James at home to ask him about the book, his thoughts on writing and teaching, and why he still believes in fiction.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell us about Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
The book is the first part of a trilogy called Dark Star, the significance of which I’m going to reveal way in the future. It’s one story: a slave trader hires seven mercenaries to find his child and they completely botch it. The child is dead and there are only three witnesses, and each novel is a different witness telling the story. They’re telling versions of the same story that don’t add up at all.
The trilogy plays a lot with African history and mythology. As much as I’m hugely inspired by European mythology and history, I really wanted to write something that has nothing to do with those traditions. One thing that’s different, for example, is what we associate with night: the witching hour, midnight, darkness is scary. These mythologies lead into troubling perceptions in the West that have spilled over into everything from race to how we look at evil.
None of that exists in African mythology. In African mythology, it’s high noon that’s the scariest time of day. Vampires have no problem killing you in the daylight. It’s like a Western—it’s high noon that’s deserted, it’s high noon when people don’t go out. Midnight, on the contrary, is called the noon of the ancestors. It’s when your great-grandmother shows up, and who wouldn’t want the great-grandmother to show up? She’s way cooler than your mother.
Why was telling three versions of the story important to you?
The first thing I got rid of was the idea that there’s one version that’s authentic. In African storytelling, a lot of storytelling is done by the trickster. It’s a very European thing to think that because I’m telling you a story, the story is true. A lot of ancient storytelling didn’t look for truth in that way. Even when I was growing up, a lot of the stories my parents and grandparents told me every day were the same story—they just changed the ending. I don’t go back to ask, “Well, which one of these is true?” They’re all true and they’re all false. That’s a more realistic idea about storytelling.
In this book, the reader is going to have to decide: who are you going to believe? What do you think is justice? I’m not going to decide for them. I’m just going to put out these three people who are telling the same story. Who do you trust?
Is that what you set out to write, or did it change over time?
None of my books end up the way I intended. The one thing that they all have in common is that I’ll have a pretty solid idea, and then a character shows up and completely wrecks it. In my second novel, there was this character who was supposed to be a cleaning woman in a bar. I wondered: “Well, what’s her story?” And that rabbit hole went on for 600 pages, and it became her novel. A Brief History of Seven Killings started as a crime novel set in New York and Chicago in 1985. The main character was a hit man who was born in Chicago who is probably the sloppiest hit man ever, and he’s having romance troubles. And somehow that novel became a story about the Bob Marley assassination, which begins in 1976.
For this novel, I started out trying to write a fantasy novel, and standard fantasy novels tend to be about the fall of a royal house: it usually starts at the top and filters down. But this novel just wasn’t happening that way. Even though I had two years of research, and I knew all the characters, it couldn’t happen until I flipped it—
so instead of starting in the throne room and ending up on the street, it started in the street and ended up in the throne room. And that worked.
Carlos Fuentes says there is no greater tragedy than a book ending exactly the way you planned it. And I think if that happens, maybe the writer’s having too firm a grip on the story.
You’ve called this book an “African Game of Thrones.” How did you make that jump fully into the fantasy world?
In the realities I write about, the distinction between real and surreal isn’t there. Even my last novel is still anchored by a ghost who knows he’s dead. I guess people call it magical realism, but nobody who practiced magical realism called it that. Gabriel García Márquez wasn’t writing magical realism—he was writing reality. A world where there is real-life corruption and political intrigue, and a world where there are dragons and fairies, can be the same world without anything special about that.
I grew up reading fantasy. I learned more from comics than I did from any literary novel. It wasn’t as dramatic a turn for me as it might seem. What was more dramatic for me was letting go of the very same kind of Eurocentric beliefs because that’s what I was raised on. One of the running gags in the new novel is this ridiculous idea of the magical child, the child who shall rise up to lead armies against the tyrant. In my book, people make fun of it. They say, “What sort of stupid magical child are you?” And the magical child in the novel ended up doing a lot of things that magical children aren’t supposed to do.
How do you relate to your characters?
You do develop a relationship with characters, particularly the villains. It’s pretty easy to fall for the heroes, but you have to love everybody when you’re writing a story. You have to love that villain into existence. When I’m done with a book, I do end up missing my characters quite a bit. I spend a lot of time with these people, and I get to know them in ways that nobody else knows. It’s not different from getting super-involved in a relationship that ends.
A huge part of writing is knowing when to say goodbye to a character and to resist writing more than you should. It’s almost like knowing when to leave a party or when to leave somebody’s house. You can wear out your welcome with a novel. I like novels that leave me imagining what happened 10 days after the story ended. They continue another life in your head—or maybe your fanfiction account. I love the idea of fanfiction: people who have fallen for characters and don’t want to let them go. That’s when you know you’ve written a good character.
Do you ever get stuck while writing—and if so, how do you get unstuck?
All of my writer’s blocks happen before I start a book. Figuring out what story to tell: that’s its own crisis that can take me two years. Figuring out who’s going to tell it? That’s another year. I’ll do tons of trial and error to figure out just whose story it is. When I’m actually writing, then I write pretty fast. I wrote this novel in 16 months. I wrote my second novel in 18 months, but it took me two years to get there. It’s still a three-year process to write a book.
People ask me about my process. My process is: having a really cool bunch of friends who will say random stuff, and somehow I end up with a novel. That’s why I don’t believe in the myth of the reclusive author. There’s no good reclusive author. You need people. Writing is a very solitary profession that can only happen in a community of people.
What happens in two years of research?
Well, lots of depression and paranoia, that’s what happens. I start every novel pretty much a wreck. Most of the time I have a character and a situation, but it’s usually research that gives me a storyline. A lot of times, I’d be researching something and think, “This novel is writing itself.”
I tell my students you don’t create stories, you find them. I go through dozens if not hundreds of pages of fiction that won’t go anywhere because it’s me again trying to figure out what to write—and there’s no other way to figure out what to write other than to write. It’s trying on ideas for size and seeing if they work.
What’s your writing routine like?
When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything.
It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious.
Writing is something I still approach with fear. I’m terrified when I start anything. I reach every blank page thinking this is the story where it will all crash and burn. There’s a difference between fear and being afraid. Fear is super useful. There’s a part of your brain that springs to action when the stakes are high. You have to write like this is going to be your last book, that they’re coming to take your pencils if you don’t write. Even if you have to invent stakes, you have to believe it matters. You’d better bring your best game.
What do you like to read?
I approach reading two different ways. If I’m writing a book, I usually have a reading list, and that can be dozens of books: for style, for factual research, some I’m reading just because I want to be inspired or because they pave the way I want to go. If I’m writing, it’s very hard to read books for fun, so I have a huge stack now that I’m trying to get through before I start writing the next book.
When I’m not writing, then I can go back to reading books—I don’t want to say for pleasure, because all reading is a pleasure for me. I read pretty much everything: tons of crime fiction, loads of sci fi, comics, literary fiction (but not as much as the other genres). I’m always on a mission to recapture the feeling of the first time a book blew my mind.
As successful as you’ve been with writing lately, what keeps you teaching at Macalester?
It’s fun to teach. It’s even fun to watch students challenge stuff I’ve taught them, because I say, “Bear in mind that everything I’m telling you is still one person’s opinion.” I learn a lot from these students. It’s certainly helped me to become a better writer.
Outside of teaching, I’m surrounded by professional writers who already have a very narrow idea of what they’re here to do. At Macalester, I’m constantly surrounded by students who are still defining that, for whom the literary universe is wide open and almost every day is a day of discovering something. That’s really, really infectious. That’s really why I keep doing it. Seeing people unlock something that they probably never even knew they had, or seeing them become better writers in huge leaps is inspiring.
What do you want students to take away from your classes?
I hope they realize they can write their way out of anything, that they can confront issues and problems through writing, examine the complicated nature of the world through it. Hopefully I’m not just equipping them with tools for writing but some kind of tools for living, too.
I hope they learn that writing is a craft. It’s an art, yes, but it’s also a craft and a practice. I also really want them to learn that writing is fun. It should be like any art: it should be the most fun and the hardest work you’ve ever done. And if it’s not both of those things? Make it both of those things, or quit. (I’m not telling my students to be quitters, by the way.)
Why is fiction important?
We tell ourselves fantastical stories to process the world. It’s one of the things I think ancient and present-day African storytelling has known all along. That’s why we have dragons. That’s why we have monsters. Hell, that’s why we have Bigfoot. The myths are what tell us about ourselves. We always use these fantastical creatures and stories to talk about what’s right in front of us. Our minds want the leap, we want the fantasy. That brings us closer to reality than reality itself. That’s something that the ancient storytellers already knew, but we need reminding. Art is one way of seeing the world and dealing with the world—the only thing that can do both things at the same time. That’s why we need it. That’s why we need fiction.