Miami Book Fair

Interview: Marlon James, author of ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’

Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for his third novel, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings,’ set in Jamaica and New York.
Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize for his third novel, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings,’ set in Jamaica and New York.

Winning a literary award as prestigious as the Man Booker Prize has been a unique experience for novelist Marlon James. There is the good (“a pretty astronomical change in sales, which is wonderful”) and the not-so-good (having to answer such inane questions as “How does it feel to win?” and “Are you from the ghetto, and if not, how are you able to write this book?” — which indicates that perhaps the person asking isn’t on speaking terms with the intricacies and mysteries of the imagination).

Either way, his life has changed a bit since October, when he became the first Jamaican writer to win the award.

“The media attention is different,” says James. He appears Wednesday at the Miami Book Fair, where he’ll talk about his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, $17 in paper). “What I find is the nonliterary media person will come sniffing around for dirt, but there’s no real dirt. It’s quite hilarious. The Daily Mail interviewed my friends in Jamaica to find out if I was ever the victim of a vicious homophobic attack, because to them I’m a gay refugee. But nothing like that happened. So no surprise, that story didn’t appear. I’m really pretty boring.”

That description does not seem to apply to James (who did write earlier this year of his unease with his sexuality as a young man in Kingston for The New York Times Magazine: “At 28 years old, seven years out of college, I was so convinced that my voice outed me as a fag that I had stopped speaking to people I didn’t know.”)

Nor does “boring” apply to his work. Sprawling in its scope and merciless in its detail, A Brief History of Seven Killings uses a 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley as a jumping-off point for James’ unsparing, brutal portrait of gang warfare, political intrigue and racial strife in Jamaica — and eventually New York.

Told from myriad points of view — enforcers, hired guns, CIA agents, music reporters, ghosts, people desperate to escape violence and poverty — Seven Killings is a crime novel echoing Roberto Bolaños’ epic 2666 and William Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying, a remarkable examination of Cold War intrigue and the personal and global cost of nation building.

James’ appearance comes as the book fair, which opens Sunday and runs through Nov. 22, aims to “pump up” its Caribbean programming, according to Lissette Mendez, program director for the Center for Writing and Literature at Miami Dade College and the fair. Among the offerings this year are panels on Caribbean history and ethnic studies, poetry, the literature of Trinidad and Tobago and the cuisine in Barbados as well as a slew of events focusing on Haiti, its literature and its connection to Havana.

“We’ve always done a certain amount of Caribbean programming, but we always want to do more to include people from different parts of the Caribbean,” Mendez says. “It’s not monolithic.”

As the second Man Booker Prize winner from the Caribbean — the first was Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad, who won in 1971 for In a Free State — James is a late-breaking but welcome addition to the fair’s lineup. The author, who lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, wrote two earlier novels, John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, but A Brief History of Seven Killings is his most ambitious work. The story began as a single narrative — then blossomed.

“If you read page 458, you read the first page I wrote,” says James, who will be 45 later this month. “It was going to be a book about the adventures of a hitman whose final job is to kill this Jamaican drug lord who may have been connected to the shooting. He’s a gay hitman having boyfriend trouble who can’t focus. I thought it had only one voice, and I kept running into dead ends trying to have one character tell what I didn’t know was going to be a big story. I couldn’t get anywhere.”

When a friend asked, “Why do you think it’s one person’s story?” James had what he calls “a Eureka! moment,” realizing the attempt on Marley’s life was the key. He decided early on that Marley would remain elusive, referring to him as “The Singer” simply because Marley loomed so large in Jamaican life that there was no need to call him anything else.

“My experience of Bob Marley is at arm’s length. Most people’s experience of him is at arm’s length,” James says. “The last few years of his life were 15-second news spots to me. ‘Marley admitted to such-and-such hospital.’ ‘He’s been taken to Germany.’ ‘Bob Marley pronounced dead.’ I wanted the Marley from the news reports, the songs we hear in a dance hall, a report of the shooting. He’s an icon, a symbol, a sound bite.”

A dream resurrected

Talking about fiction was not always so easy for James. He told The Guardian after his Booker Prize win that after getting more than 70 rejections for his first novel, he gave up writing and returned to advertising, deleting the draft of John Crow’s Devil from every device.

“I let go of writing for a good year,” he says grimly. “We shouldn’t romanticize rejection. There’s nothing romantic about rejection. It’s horrible.” He credits Brooklyn-based Akashic Books — which published John Crow’s Devil after James managed to retrieve it from an email — with resurrecting his dream and his career: “If not for Akashic, I wouldn’t be here.”

Johnny Temple, publisher and editor in chief of Akashic, which publishes urban literary fiction including the popular city noir series, had met James in Kingston when he was despondent about his work. He says that publishing John Crow’s Devil is one of his proudest accomplishments and that he hopes James’ subsequent success means positive news for Caribbean fiction in general.

“What’s happening with him is wonderful for Caribbean literature,” Temple says. “Sometimes it feels that there’s room for only one writer to get attention, and there’s such a diversity of voices and styles coming out of the Caribbean. It’s been frustrating more Caribbean writers haven’t been embraced by the mainstream. Hopefully Marlon will further wedge open that door that Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat have helped to open. There’s such an incredible pool of talent in Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Haiti — so many writers deserve more attention.”

Caribbean literature

Writer Colin Channer, who worked with James at Jamaica’s Calabash Writer’s Workshop, says James is following a strong Caribbean literary tradition.

“I think Marlon’s winning a Man Booker says a lot about Caribbean literature, which is that it has been producing work at a high level for decades and continues to do so,” says the novelist, who will also appear at Miami Book Fair Nov. 21 to discuss his debut poetry collection Providential. “We’re talking about Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, Kwame Dawes. . . . The Man Booker in particular at this time is very important for Jamaica in that Jamaica is a small country that has a lot of cultural influence around the world. A lot of this is from music, but Jamaica has been producing writers of note for a long time. Claudia Rankine is from Jamaica; Citizen is a master work of poetry.”

Channer also believes there’s more attention for international writers in the United States now.

“For the last 30 or so years there has been in America a lot of the infrastructure of literary support for literature from around the world. A book like The Kite Runner has resonance in America now. As more people have migrated here, their music, their cuisine and their literature have become part of the American landscape.”

James, too, has hopes for the up-and-coming writers from the Caribbean, including Naomi Jackson (The Star Side of Bird Hill), Dimitry Elias Léger (God Loves Haiti) and Tiphanie Yanique (Land of Love and Drowning).

“There has always been rich literature in the diaspora,” he says. “Now that it has been open to people who are naturalized Americans, you’ll see a lot more Caribbean writers nominated for the Booker. There are game-changing novelists out there. Caribbean literature only has to be true to itself. It doesn’t need colonialism or imperialism. It’s always been vibrant.”

Meet The Author

Who: Marlon James

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave.

Tickets: $15;