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

October 22, 2014


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

Marlon James: I used to be in advertising.ย 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 songsโ€ฆa 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.