LargeUp Interview: Marlon James on “A Brief History of Seven Killings”


LU: Why should people buy and read A Brief History of Seven Killings?

MJ: I never set out to write a novel with that in mind. A novel can tell you what a history book or a body of music can’t. A novel can tell you about the interior lives of people, What exactly was their motivations? What is the sort of ambiguities? What was going on? When you pick up a photograph, and you know what was going on with the star in the photograph, but you don’t know about the person in the background, what is their story? You know you pick up a mysterious picture and you go ‘Ok, who’s that over there?” A novel can tell you that. A novel can tell you the people who fade into the background, the people who change history who you don’t know about. Most of of the big movers and players in history don’t have any history books. A novel can bring those people out, so you learn the sort of secret history of something you think you already know.

LU: You have the duppy or spirit of Sir Arthur Jennings narrating a lot of this novel, and a lot of characters telling parts of their story after they have died. What is your obsession with dead people telling stories?

MJ: Duppies appear in pretty much every one of my books. A part of it is because I like magical realism. I think that having a storyteller who is above and beyond time is a great thing. I also kind of reject the whole Judeo-Christian idea about spirits; I mean duppies are closer to an African version of spirits than a Christian version. I came this close to ending the story with [Jamaican proverb] “Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose none” but no one would know what the hell I was talking about. The idea of this sort of older disembodied, maybe-a-ghost, maybe-a-spirit, storyteller—the once-upon-a-time guy, the person who’s gonna tell you about Anansi or even a big boy story—I like that. It’s something I have in all three of my books, even though none of them are alive, the idea of a chorus, or a person without a personality per se, as a storyteller in the story. I don’t set out to do it deliberately, but it is something that I think will appear in everything that I write.

LU: You have over 65 different characters in this book. How do you develop that many three-dimensional characters, how do you not shortchange any of the characters in your stories?

MJ: You spend four years or more at it. I had to sketch every one of them out. I actually write down each character on a chart, whether in a spreadsheet or on the wall. I have to write them down, and I have to write down the time of day, because even though this is a big book, each chapter takes place in just one day. So I have to know where Nina Burgess is at 10 o’clock. Where is Bam Bam at 3 o’clock? Where is “Singer” at 9PM? I do it that way to keep track of all of them, because if you don’t, you start playing favorites. You know how some characters you initially like a lot more than others? Just as how some people you meet, you like more than others. And sometimes when you get to know somebody you realize that they are deep, and you like them, or you get to know somebody and you say, this is an idiot! But you have to spend time. If I didn’t do that, I’d treat my novel the way I treat people at a party—you hear all the loud people, you talk up all the pretty people, and you ignore everyone else.