When Jamaican novelist Marlon James walks into a room, you know it. It’s not that he’s particularly dominating or otherwise physically intimidating — although he is more than six feet tall — it’s that he has the thing casting agents call “presence.” He’s there there. That translates to his books, too: his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was released in 2014 to rapturous reviews, and it won the prestigious Man Booker prize. His latest book Black Leopard, Red Wolf is out this month. It’s the first entry in James’ Dark Star trilogy, which he’s described as an “African Game of Thrones,” an epic populated with characters who aren’t usually seen in more European books.
“It was really very simple!” James says. “I was trying to write a fantasy epic based on African mythology. African mythology, African history, African religion, something that was just not European,” he continues. “I’ve read those books since I was a kid. And I’ve always wished somebody like me were in them. And it’s not like I’m trying to score points of representation or anything, but sometimes you just want to see somebody like yourself kick ass.”
According to James, there’s a lot of ass-kicking in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He says he took a lot of time to write the fight scenes, which he described in visceral, visual terms.
“The best thing to do with a fight scene is to imagine you’re a camera that won’t stay still. Because there are only so many ways you can say ‘he punched,’” James says. “But if you swing the camera underneath them, or you swing the camera above, or you jump back 50 feet and it’s just two masses lumbering at each other, and then you zoom in right as a knuckle hits a nose, and pull back, and then you jump into the crowd to see who’s watching, who’s screaming, and so on,” he continues. “And then sometimes you don’t even look at all. You just hear what people are saying.” You listen for the sounds. You write the feeling.
That gives James’ fights a heft that’s less cartoonish and more realistic. His characters aren’t just getting up and walking away after a fight is over. “In the movies, you can constantly get kicked in the face, and it doesn’t hurt. Or one person can kill 50 people, but 50 people can’t kill one person,” James says. He writes the other direction. “You still have to remember you’re writing real people. And there are real consequences to things like that. There’s a consequence to getting a punch. There’s a consequence to getting hit in the nuts,” he says. “People don’t just bounce back and walk normally. People got bruises, they got cuts, they got injuries. They need recovery.”
The book wasn’t easy to write. “One of the hardest things to write was to write about children who are destined for death,” he says. “It’s, sadly, something that’s actually still happening. Where kids who are undesirables in certain places, kids who are born with deformities, or kids who are born in a way that superstition says is wrong are still being sort of hunted and killed and so on.” James also had to bring them into a fantasy setting without trivializing their real human suffering. “I don’t want to turn it into some fantasy plot and people forget what’s really going on,” he says. “The thing I have always said about atrocity is: it’s all well and good to reel from atrocity in a story. It’s probably not as bad as going through it.”
For James, everything begins with a character that pops into his head and starts talking. It usually takes him four or five false starts, he says, before the book takes its full shape. “I’ve never believed in that whole thing about the whole isolated hermit writer,” James says. “You can’t be an introvert and write. I mean, you can be, but you have to know people.” Every book he’s written has a turning point: a conversation with somebody else.
For Black Leopard, Red Wolf, that moment was a conversation with the director Melina Matsoukas when they talked about the television show The Affair. “I’ve had all these notes, scribbles, false starts,” he says. “Plots that went nowhere.” By that point, he’d been working for nearly two years, and he was about to give up. Talking to Matsoukas was a revelation. “She is talking about The Affair and the structure behind it, about different narrators telling the same story. I remember she’s saying, ‘That sounds like a good idea for a TV show.’ And I was like, ‘Screw the TV show. That’s a good idea for a novel. That’s a good idea for a series of novels.’” The rest, as they say, is history.
James carries a lot on his back. Notepads, cough drops, mints, cables, headphones, a book light. “I carry lots of tea because Americans suck at tea,” he says. It’s also good for his throat, which gets irritated because, in James’ words, “I’m talking so much.” There are pages he’s working on and stuff he’s reading. Lots of pens. “I love Muji,” he says. “I gobble them up.” The purple pens are for marking student work because it freaks students out to see red ink. James teaches English at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he lives.
The pens are important because James takes notes and writes plots by hand anywhere an idea strikes him. “Sometimes in the middle of teaching a class,” he says. “I’ve had it happen in a TV interview” — Charlie Rose — “and then I’ll just kind of scribble on my hand.” In the shower, even. “You jump out and find something and write it down on whatever, hopefully,” he says. “I can’t risk getting to the end of that shower and forgetting! No, you got to jump out. Once, I jumped out and slipped.”
That tendency to handwrite things makes keeping track of everything a little difficult. He’s got a folder called “stuff,” which is for random things, and one named “stuff I drew,” which feels pretty self-explanatory. “The handwritten stuff can be harder because there are just so many notebooks,” he says. “I say I’m organized, but I’m not. It’s cacophonous. And it’s frustrating. And I know better, but I won’t do better.”
Writers usually rest after completing a long work. James, however, isn’t having it. Black Leopard, Red Wolf came out this month, and he says he’s already hard at work on the next one. He’s already figured out who’s telling the story. “The way this trilogy is working is not a part one, part two, part three. Part two does not pick up where part one left off,” he says. The next book is a reboot of the story.
Even so, he relishes the not-writing parts of the writing life: he reads, he bakes, he cycles, he sees friends. “You have to stop and observe the world you’re in,” James says. “You really do sometimes have to stop and look at a sunset because this world is moving so fast. And as I get older, it’s only moving faster. And I get very conscious that I missed out on something. I missed out on a great sunset or I missed out on talking to friends, or just things that make a day more full.” The things, in other words, that are worth writing about.
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