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

October 22, 2014

Words by Sherman Escoffery
Photos by Martei Korley

Marlon James (Photo: Martei Korley)

LargeUp recently spoke with the author Marlon James, whose third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, follows the lives and deaths of seven of the would-be killers in the failed 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Set within one of Jamaica’s most turbulent eras, the book also follows the lives of several other people who are players and pawns in the Cold War into the U.S.’ “War On Drugs,” of the 1980s. Spanning nearly three decades and far more than seven killings, James weaves fiction into facts with this brilliant work described as “monumental” by the New York Times, telling the story he wants to tell without fear or apologies to anyone.

Here, the Jamaican-born novelist (he currently resides in Minnesota, and was photographed during a recent visit to NYC) discusses writing in patois, the role of duppies in his work, how he created A Brief History‘s 60-plus characters, and why country singer Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads is the Genesis of the rude-boy and shotta archetype so prevalent in Jamaican culture.

LargeUp: What did you do before you were published as a writer?

Marlon James: I used to be in advertising. I guess I am one of those people like Salman Rushdie and Dom DeLillo. I [did] copywriting first, then I switched to graphic design.

LU: How has music inspired you and your new novel?

MJ: Music inspired all the novels I write. This one, through all the chapters, had songs…a lot of the language and the sense of rhythm is not just [channeling] reggae but hip-hop and punk rock, and all of that. My influences are more [from] music and films than other books. Even the way we can now use patois to tell a serious story. Colin Channer was the first person to point it out, and it’s true, that reggae singers were the first people really to use it. In the past, if you used patois, it was a sign that we were gonna get slapstick comedy or loads of nostalgia. You have exceptions of course. Louise Bennett was actually pretty sly and sarcastic, which is something I didn’t realize until recently.

This whole idea that the language coming out of your own mouth can tell serious stories is something that we’re still getting used to. But we’re using it because reggae musicians paved the way to do that. So I am indebted to music, I write to music. Some of the epiphanies that happen in the book are from people listening to songs. Nina Burgess’s epiphany comes from listening to Velvet Underground. She is a Jamaican living in [uptown Kingston community] Havendale, what does she know about Velvet Underground? But that line “I do believe if you don’t like things you leave” it’s a Velvet Underground song, and that becomes her mantra. Even in part three, there are five different characters hearing a Andy Gibb song. This is probably the most number of pages ever spent on Andy Gibb. [Laughs]

LU: If A Brief History of Seven Killings was an album, a great album, which album would it be?

MJ: If it was a Bob Marley album, it would probably be half Rastaman Vibration and half Exodus released as a double album. It could also maybe Prince’s Sign O’ the Times. It would definitely have to be a double album, that’s for sure. Some of the songs would have to be very angry and confrontational, and the other half would be about surveying the damage and trying to figure out what to do next. Or you’d probably need an album that’s more in tune with the streets. So probably something like The Mighty Diamonds Right Time, or Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message.

Marlon James (Photo: Martei Korley)

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.

Marlon James

LU: It’s a work of fiction but, for some people, this novel is a reality of the past and present. You have said that “If people read this book expecting a history lesson, they are bound to be disappointed and confounded.” But, for me, a lot of the stories touched closed to home, that stuff I heard and saw as a child, which I really never understood growing up, until I got into my 30s. The story of the characters Buntin-Banton and Dishrag is really the story of Burry Boy and Feathermop, Papa Lo and Shotta Sherriff are Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshal. I also realized that we are a really traumatized people. Talk a little about that.

MJ: We are shell shocked, we are still shell shocked. One of the reasons why I went fiction is because I didn’t want to tell a biography. Most of the people involved in this are dead, so they wouldn’t be able to talk to me. But I also wanted the freedom to sometimes merge characters, to sometimes take characters in a different direction. It’s still a novel, and there’s still a certain element of invention and an element of the fantastic to it. But at the same time, I think a novel is like the lie that tells the truth. By taking away any obligation to real people, I can really go into what’s going on. I don’t even call [the Kingston communities] Tivoli Gardens and Mathews Lane, it is Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes. It’s hard to describe, but as writer that frees you to really go deep.

I already have people telling me that [the character] Peter Nasser is [former Jamaica PM] Edward Seaga, right, but Eddie Seaga is in the book. Is Peter Nasser an actual politician? Yeah! He is a composite of a specific politician type, there wasn’t one Peter Nasser in the JLP, there were about ten. The Peter Nasser character doesn’t have Eddie Seaga’s ambition or his ear for culture. Whatever you want to say about Edward Seaga, no one can knock his ear for culture.

LU: Maybe you can explain what is the Jamaican obsession with Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads such as “Big Iron” and “El Paso”? And corny, sentimental groups like Air Supply?

MJ: Well, essentially it is storytelling. For the same reason Ray Charles loved it, we like the stories. But also it gave a lot of people the ultimate badman archetype. Nobody [is] badder than a cowboy with the two guns. It’s like when Alexander Bustamante used to walk around with his two guns in the holsters—it’s a very masculine, macho, bad man archetype. At the time, at least until the early 70s when Clint Eastwood took over, and it was still half a cowboy—Dirty Harry was just another cowboy— it provided a template. These are boys with no fathers. These are boys with no sort of masculine role model, so they take it from Hollywood movies, they take it from the Gunfighters Ballads music. We love ballads, that is why a badman will listen to Celine Dion. Violent people love sentimentality because violence is a kind of sentimentality, too.

Marlon James (Photo: Martei Korley)

LU: With both your parents being police, I’m sure they were exposed to all of the stuff that was going on in the 70s and early 80s. Did you hear a lot of these stories from your parents?

MJ: You overhear it and you don’t really understand it. I remember the poisoned counter flour that killed many people. I remember when Bob Marley was shot. My parents, and lot of middle-class parents, really did a good job of keeping our lives stable. This is something a lot of non-Jamaican journalists just can’t seem to understand. Even yesterday, I was at a book conference with an older woman, an aging hippie who use to live in Negril until… and you know where this story is going. “Oh you know it’s such a beautiful country, so beautiful but so dark and so violent,” and after a while I just couldn’t take it. [She asked] “You must have ran away too, right?” I was like “Nooo, I grew up in a Jamaican middle class home, our lives were boring, my mother worked not two, but one job, my father had one job, we had two cars, we lived in the suburbs and we’d come home and watch Sesame Street.” She couldn’t accept it, she just couldn’t understand it. But she kept pushing it: “But you must have felt some kind of violence hovering, right?” No! Not really. Conflict was which Charlie’s Angel you liked most.

Things have never been great in Jamaica, but our middle-class has been pretty stable for the past 60 years. Nuff people who ran plantations can tell you about who they knew that got murdered. Everyone in the ghetto can tell you who got murdered, but there are actually one or two people who grew up in Havendale, who have never seen a dead body.

LU: Your early exposure came through The Calabash Literary Festival creative writing workshops. How do you feel about future creative writers coming out of Jamaica? Do you think that your success has opened up a wider path for others?

MJ: Whether they like it or not, people are gonna start paying a lot more attention now. The prize that Kei Miller just won cannot be underestimated; it’s a major major deal, and now with the interest in me, people are gonna start going, “Ok, what else is going there?” Are Jamaicans ready for it? I don’t know. People like me and Kei Miller really had to struggle. If it wasn’t for Calabash, I don’t think we could have been here; and not just the Calabash Literary Festival and the workshop, but the networking and the people who spoke for us, who opened up doors—Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell. Now we need more people from Jamaica going back to Jamaica and recognizing the talent and nurturing it, because the Calabash workshop made a lot of difference– and it wasn’t just me and Kei, there are people like lshion Hutchinson and Millicent Graham to name a few. That was because that workshop, where people came down for a weekend, changed a lot of people’s lives.

Marlon James (Photo: Martei Korley)