BABEL: In Conversation with Marlon James

by / Oct. 12, 2016 3am EST

Marlon James has a really big notebook.

In order to keep the dozens of voices who share space narrating his Man Booker prize-winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, James depended on a notebook where his dramatis personae lived, with their connections and influences on each other mapped out. The voices include murderers, politicians, CIA agents, drug dealers; many of whom narrate in an expressive Jamaican patois. The result is something the New York Times Book Review called an “epic of postcolonial fallout in Jamaica and elsewhere.”

The book revolves around the December 1976 attempt on Bob Marley’s life, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert aimed at bringing together warring political factions during a turbulent period in the island nation’s history.

In advance of his appearance in Buffalo on October 19 to kick off the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s new season in its BABEL series, James spent some time with The Public to talk through a sinus cold about the voices in his head, reggae music, and television-driven fiction.

Brief History contains a multitude of characters. I’ve read elsewhere you were carrying these voices around in your head for some time. How did you keep them straight, and how did you organize them?

I had all these voices—most of them—but I didn’t think they were connected, and I started writing the book as these separate novellas and short novels. I was even writing them simultaneously. I’d write one, then reach a sort of dead end with that one and then just try writing another. After a year-and-a-half, two years, I just had a series novellas and short stories. And it wasn’t until a friend said to me if I think what I am writing is one person’s story, and I realized it was all adding up to something. Even the Bob Marley thing was a thread in one or two other stories, it never occurred to me it was a thread in all of them until I sort of put it together. Sometimes I tell my students they have to trust their subconscious is a better writer than you are.

In terms of keeping it all together, I had to have charts up. I couldn’t keep it all in my head. I actually wrote out charts with characters in rows and columns and where they are at certain points of the plot. It was a pretty large cast and it was the only way I was going to keep track, especially when these characters do things that impact another character or if two people are in the same space. I kinda had to just see the structure of the thing so I know where it’s going. It’s something that I think screenwriters do more, especially when they’re dealing with an ensemble cast. You kinda just have to put it up on a wall or in a notebook somewhere so you can keep track of who’s doing what.

Did you have a chart on the wall?

No, but I had a really big notebook, but the principle is the same.

So you were keeping track of how much time you were spending on each character?

Well, for most of the book—except for maybe the fourth or third section, I can’t remember, I think it was the third section—for most of the book I did one character a day. I would spend one day on each character, and that’s the only character I thought about. For lots of reasons, one of them being I didn’t want to become too dependent on plot. While plot is very important to me, I didn’t want to rush through this book and rush through the characters to reach the next plot point. So by spending a day with a character I could also sort of sit down with a character. Most of the characters, when we get to them, are in either static or passive states where they can essentially just talk to the reader.

To my eye and ear, the novel is democratically sourced. You include characters from all levels of economic and political status and it throbs with such chaos and violence. We’re seeing warning signs with the democracy in America, England, and most recently Colombia. Is there something to be gleaned from the book about the health of democracy?

Not really. Living in Jamaica in the seventies, especially in the seventies I grew up in, I was a kid. The secret battles, the price we paid and the things we sacrificed for one party to win over the other would have never occurred to me. One of the things writing this book reminded me of was how much international politics, particularly the United States’ participation in domestic affairs of foreign countries, how much that filtered all the way down to the street level. There’s a scene in Brief History where Jozey Wales gets a propaganda coloring book from the CIA attaché. I remember that coloring book, they distributed it to our schools. Even on a very very very basic level, propaganda, the Cold War, stretched all the way to classroom. That classroom I would have been either seven or eight [years old]. It’s a testimony to how far Cold War, anti-Soviet fear and propaganda extended. That’s something that novel sort of ends up reckoning with.

To think about Marley and to think about him getting shot is to think about, well, where did the guns come from? To think about where guns come from, most people couldn’t afford guns, so you end up in politics. If you end up in politics, you end up in diplomacy, and before you know it you’re talking about the CIA and an attempted murder. In that sense, how international interests undermine a sovereign nation’s own democratic process, wasn’t something that the book started off—[though] it turned to in an organic way—but that’s not how it started out. If I’m going to write a book, I’m going to have my eyes open and when your eyes are open you start to see things that you never saw before.                     

You were born in 1970, what did Bob Marley mean to you and your peers growing up in Jamaica?

I mean for me growing up Bob Marley didn’t actually mean much. To the extent that Bob Marley in the late seventies was already kind of a star, barely here than there. And I looked at him that way, as this international star, but it turns out that music being played on the streets and in the clubs, it wasn’t Marley. For the most part, it was Negro roots reggae. By the mid-1970s, reggae  as the world viewed it was more international pop music. People on the street were listening to Big Youth and Dillinger, and Michigan and Smiley and Mighty Diamonds. The music that we know as dancehall was already taking over, not just the streets, but young people. It was more likely for me to be listening to Michigan and Smiley than a Bob Marley song. Which isn’t to say we weren’t proud of what he was achieving, but he was already an international star by 1976, 1977, 78.

In a way that maybe didn’t feel like he belonged to them any more, that other music spoke more to the day-to-day experience of being Jamaican?

I don’t think they were mutually exclusive. I think he was still—it’s like how Jamaicans respond to Usain Bolt. Yes he’s one of us but he’s also of the world as well. Outside of Jamaica, I think there’s this impression that Bob Marley was the only person making music. So when people are like “What did Bob Marley mean to you,” I’m like, well you mean, “What did reggae mean to me?” Because in Jamaica, yeah Bob Marley is major, but he was one of many reggae artists and there were quite a few people in the seventies as big and as brilliant and as important as Marley, like Dennis Brown. In Jamaica, it’s not that we sort of diminish his importance, but it’s also important to realize that in Jamaica Bob Marley was part of a really really rich and fertile universe of all sorts of people making brilliant stuff. I don’t think we separated him from the rest of reggae like the rest of the world did.

What did reggae mean to me? Reggae meant self-determination. Reggae meant that voices coming out of my mouth could be the voice of protest, can be the voice of art, can be the voice of talking about what’s going in the world. It was one of the first aspects of creativity that had nothing to do with colonialism. It had nothing to do with imitating British people. Because even in the old days our poets used Jamaican patois, but if you listen to it long enough you can still hear “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Yes, you’re talking the patois but you’re still doing Coleridge! Whereas reggae broke from all of that and sort of took this language that some people call broken English and made it the voice of poetry, the voice of art, the voice of struggle.

That whole Bob Marley is a superstar thing, that’s an American thing. That’s a Europe and whatever thing.

I’ve read that Charles Dickens was an early influence on you, what about Dickens’ industrial London resonated with you in post-colonialist Jamaica?

Charles Dickens really didn’t influence me that way, especially because I read him at such a young age. He really influenced me more on a technical level, his whole thing about making them laugh, making them cry, and making them wait. In terms of how to structure a novel, I took a lot of that from Dickens. But I also think he was very good at writing about marginalized people in the UK, and a lot of that I took from him.

The thing about being a fan of Charles Dickens’ work is that you have to come to terms with Charles Dickens the man, and Charles Dickens the man is not particularly admirable. Jamaicans in particular have a specific reason for not liking Dickens because he supported the suppression of the Morant Bay rebellion, which is possibly still the most violent attack of government against its own population in our history. Four hundred people were killed, and he supported it.

You’ve developed Brief History as a screenplay for a television series with HBO showing interest. Could you comment on the evolution of television as an enhanced storytelling medium and blurred lines between literature and screen?

We’re no longer working with HBO, HBO passed on it after a couple years of development. We’re still shopping it around to other people.

In terms of TV storytelling, for one, it’s not the first time. People watched Breaking Bad and said it was the golden age for serials, but Hill Street Blues was in the 1980s. There’s always been TV shows. Oz existed back in the 1990s. But I also think that TV, especially cable, allows for the kind of storytelling that sometimes even network TV doesn’t allow for. It certainly allows for a different kind of actor in these roles. James Gandolfini is a total television concept. He could have never, that type of career he had before he died could not have existed in film. In film he would have been the goofy best friend.

Also particularly, binge-watching allows for a more novelistic kind of storytelling. Because now you’re not hinging on the idea that you must hook this person enough that they come back seven days later to watch the next episode. So even that, is changing a lot of how stories are being told. A lot TV shows are taking risks and it’s paying off.

Speaking about television storytelling, a lot of the reaction to the book deals with violence. People are used to seeing violence on TV and not reacting maybe as strongly. Do you think there’s been a different reaction to your depiction of violence?

I think there is. But I also think people misread what they’re reacting to. I don’t think the book is all that violent, actually. I don’t think it’s more violent than anything else that’s on TV or film. The difference is that the violence in my story, in the novel, has consequences. And those consequences have consequences, and that violence should be violent. When the average person on TV shoots 50 people, you never care about any of the 50 people who are shot. They have no resonance. It’s like a video game shooting. I would say that’s not the type of violence I care about at all. It’s not the book is necessarily more violent, it’s that every episode of violence has an impact, it’s devastating. The consequences are lasting and people reel from it, people suffer from it, and people have to deal with it afterwards. I think that’s why it resonates as being a violent book.

There’s a difference between a story where there’s one murder and the murder has all these reverberations and shock effects as opposed to a person who is an Arnold Schwarzenegger or whoever kills 50 people and nobody cares at all that every one of those people probably had a wife, or a kid. It resonates more.

There are many pockets of the world where violence and struggle define survival that the readers of your book are probably mostly not exposed to. Is there a responsibility as an artist, to stick up for those parts of the world and remind people of that struggle?

Ehh… I don’t know. I get very antsy when people start to tell writers what they should do. If an artist has his eyes wide open on the world, I think that’s fantastic and it could lead to some really interesting things that could become an impetus for change. But if an artist wants to stare at his belly button all week, that’s fine too.

I’m very suspicious of art on a mission. For one, it’s usually terrible art. I think that art that’s wide open on the world is important. Take Picasso’s painting Guernica, it’s something that’s wide open on the world. But if Picasso entered that painting with a sense of, “This is what I want to communicate and this is a mission that I am on,” it would have been a terrible painting, it probably wouldn’t have been a painting.

I’m always very suspicious about that. As an artist I think you can choose to be as engaged with the world as much as you want, but I don’t think there’s an obligation to do it.

That answer reminds me of what you said earlier in the interview, that you tell students that sometimes your subconscious is a better writer than you are. Is there something you can do, in your process, to enter that state, to let you subconscious through to get out of your own way?

God, if I knew that I would find a way to replicate it every day.

Well for Brief History, it sounds like you did do that in writing one character per day, no?

Well the thing with that book, that was very important to me, that I didn’t focus on more than one person per day. It’s almost as if I’m visiting somebody. If you visit one person for the whole day, are you trying to knock off five visits in one day? There’s a different quality of conversation that you’re going to get, and that to me is very important.

But each book decides it’s own process. That’s why I’m wary of process questions, because they way I wrote this book has absolutely nothing to do with the way I wrote the last book. In fact, one of the things that was killing Brief History was that I was trying to apply the process of the last novel to this one. And the process of the last novel was find the voice that can take me through the entire story, and you have a novel. That’s what I tried with Brief History, and it didn’t work. Each book demands its own process and as a writer you have to be aware and sensitive of that fact.

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