Marlon James is no longer a promising writer. He’s no longer a writer of enormous potential. That’s because his third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings places him securely among our most vital contemporary voices. An author’s third novel often seems to make or break a writer’s career. Think The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Corrections. Think Gravity’s Rainbow and A Flag for Sunrise, two of my absolute favorite novels, both of which came to mind as I read A Brief History of Seven Killings.
The book, which follows John Crowe’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, is set primarily in Jamaica and demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of international politics, colonial history, and of course reggae. The less I tell you about the plot the better, other than to say that the book features a large cast of characters that make up a Kingston-based diaspora and they take turns having their voices heard loud and proud over several decades. “Jamaica never gets worse or better,” one character tells us, “it just finds new ways to stay the same.” It’s a novel of big ideas and the social conditions that can both empower and undermine those very same ideas. It may very well be the best American novel published this year. It’s hard to believe that another work of fiction will do as much to so clearly expose our flaws and triumphs and evils and all-too-brief moments of mutual understanding.
I met James a few years ago at a reception the night before the Brooklyn Book Festival then saw him the next day, dressed up in a suit, wandering the streets in the rain in desperate search for a hotdog. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch in the usual social-media ways and bumped into each other at the occasional conference (don’t ask him how he feels about the city of Boston).
Marlon James was nice enough to answer a few questions via email at the end of July and beginning of August.
Andrew Ervin: The structure of A Brief History hits a balance between the traditional linear novel and the story or novella collection. How did it find this particular shape?
Marlon James: I started out trying for a linear novel. In fact I had three false starts writing it that way. The first problem was that I was writing about a contentious event with very few actual facts, so an A to Z narrative had too many holes in it. The second was that linear narratives, when I write them at least, turn into one person’s story and that’s not what I was going for at all. Or rather, that’s what I tried to do but failed three times. It wasn’t until I had dinner with my friend Rachel, and confessed that I have no idea whose story it is, that she asked, “Why is it one person’s story? When last did you read As I Lay Dying?” That was the Eureka moment. It was not and could never be one person’s story. Nor could it be where one voice dominates at any time. The overall story was too big for that. I started to read and re-read novels that play with multiple narrators, particularly in first person, such as As I lay Dying, The Savage Detectives, and My Name Is Red. Novels that tell several stories at once, such as Libra and American Tabloid. Novels that play with narrative extremes, such Wide Sargasso Sea and Mrs. Dalloway. And novels in first and third person, driven by voice. Ensemble cast movies as well, such as Nashville and Amores Perros. It turned out that my three false tries weren’t failures at all, but text in the wrong place and structured in the wrong way—as sustained narratives instead of a sort of William Burroughs cut and paste. Well maybe not a crazy as Burroughs, but as contradictory as Pamuk’s characters set against each other.
MJ: I simply hate them. Maybe it’s just a visual standpoint but it just draws lines away from the beauty of text stacked together. This is why poets never do it. Ever since I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, I never went back.
AE: The multitude of voices is what excites me the most here, the ability to get fully entrenched in the minds of these fascinating—and flawed, damaged—people. Do you love all of your children equally or do you have a favorite character among this ensemble cast? Who was hardest to write?
MJ: I fell in love with all of them, some far more easily than others. Falling in love as writer to character, of course, because some of them I loved and some I despised. What I won’t write is someone I’m indifferent to. I don’t know if I put myself into my work but I do sometimes like to give a character my worldview. But writing my last novel taught me how to wallow in complication and contradiction, which to me, more than anything else makes a character interesting and hard to give up on. One of my best friends is so self-centered that he’s literally useless in a conversation that’s not about him. But if I’m drunk and alone on a deserted highway at 2 a.m. he’ll be there before I even get off the phone. And if I get a bad review he’s in total attack dog mode. That complicates things. But still, characters just started appearing at random, with no chronology or sequence whatsoever. Some, like the hit man John-John K arrived fully formed, but had no story. His chapters are the first that I wrote. Others like Nina Burgess started almost as a space filler— I really had no idea where she would go or how she would end up. But literature is a series of discoveries and decisions and in the case of several of my characters, the wrong ones. Then those decisions would have consequences and those consequences would have consequences. But you have to get to know your characters to love them and in the end I started loving even people I wouldn’t be caught dead with. I think when you’re writing a large novel and a huge cast, readers can pick up quickly which characters you have contempt for, and not in a good way.
This was my first time writing American characters and that carried its own set of challenges, including trying to get the accents right. But in many ways the flat characters like politician Peter Nasser were harder because I had to make him compelling though he never really evolves. But then again never evolving is also one of the terrible flaws of his character.
AE: How did you decide when to stick to the historic record and when to invent freely?
MJ: The problem with this story (or maybe the advantage depending on how you look at it) was that there were so many holes in it. This despite doing tons of research myself and hiring, over the course of four years, four other researchers. Most of the events in the book did happen, and as in Doctorow’s Ragtime, all the people and events capturing national and international attention are real. But this story haunted me precisely because there was very little story. Not much is known about the men who tried to kill Marley, other than what is whispered in ghettos. Much of that survives in oral history, and oral history changes depending on the teller and the circumstances. Some of the novels events came from guesswork. Also most of the characters are living lives on a far smaller scale than musicians and politicians so we have no record of their histories.
But in the end I wasn’t writing nonfiction, and for the most part it was me using a true event to branch off into a fictional idea, which means to huge extent my novel is more of a what if? than a This is how it happened.
Here’s the thing about Jamaica, which Gabriel Garcia Marquez understood: You’re closer to the truth trusting the what ifs than by following the facts. Several of my characters are based on real people, so much so that it’s a weird relief that quite a few are dead. A few are different only in name change, for all sorts of reasons. Some, like Alex Pierce, are totally fictitious characters that sprung the book’s need for such characters. I’m a big student of history, but I also believe in the novelists right to subvert it.
AE: Why does the Singer go (mostly) unnamed? It’s a spectacular technique.
MJ: The problem with the singer is that he dominates any space he enters. Rock bands eventually stopped booking him to open since he would always steal the show. In the book, taking away his name was all I could do to not let him run away with it. But more than that, he is not so much a character as a symbol. A catalyst that sets the book and the characters in motion, including men like Barry Diflorio who never actually meet him. The bulk of the book takes place after his death, and while the attempt on his life had repercussions for him and his family, it also affected people with very little link to him. That’s the story I was really interested in.
AE: What are the five reggae albums every American should own?
MJ: Here’s a totally impure list.
- Grace Jones – Nightclubbing
- Congos – Heart Of The Congos
- Black Uhuru – Red
- Steel Pulse – True Democracy
- Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown
- Capleton – More Fire
You know reggae has reached meta-status when we now have experts to tell us what is not reggae.
Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in literature. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. James lives in Kingston.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. His debut novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House will be published next year. He lives in Philadelphia.