Behind the Books with Marlon James

The year is 1976 and Jamaica is in political shambles. Tribal warfare plagues the streets, and rival political parties are hell-bent on besting the other at the polls using any means necessary. Smartly, both sides have taken to aggressively courting the support of Bob Marley, by now a music celebrity, international icon, and social bellwether. Marley, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to stay as far away from the political arena as possible.

The claws of politics, however, are hard to reason with: Bursting into his house under the cover of night, three intruders armed to the teeth with automatic weapons unleashed a torrent of bullets. Marley was struck in his upper arm, a misfired bullet intended for his heart. He nearly died that night.

If you're wondering why this dramatic event has yet to find an artful home for a creative retelling, hold that thought. Marlon James, author of The Book of Night Women (a finalist for the NBCC Award in Fiction) and John Crowe's Devil, has let his vivid imagination take root in these troubled times, and has since written a new, wonderfully-conceived novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Profiling a rogues gallery of real and imagined players, spanning several decades, and trailing them across oceans, James's Seven Killings is an epic work of historical fiction.

Joining us for a new installment of Behind the Books, we learn from Marlon the importance of empathy over experience, how he reads books to confront life ("Books are not supposed to be easy, not even at their most seductive"), the many influential tomes behind his own works, and some honest writing advice: "Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about."

Signature: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

Marlon James: I wrote my second novel on the road touring for my first. At some point, I realized that indecipherable crowd noise was just as neutral a background as total quiet. After that I could write pretty much anywhere; Barnes and Noble cafes, Starbucks, departure lounges, boring live concerts, waiting for the car rental. Maybe that’s why despite two desks at home I never write at either. I usually whip out my laptop and make a mess at the dining table. That said I do believe in strict routines. It’s a sign to the muses that you’re serious. I usually write from 6AM to about 1PM. Never before and never after.

SIG: What writers have influenced you most?

MJ: I’m more influenced by specific books than writers, and it depends on the book I’m writing. For The Book Of Night Women, it was Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Olive Senior’s Summer Lightning, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which more than all the others persuaded me to trust the character’s not the author’s voice to tell a story. For A Brief History Of Seven Killings: James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, Jessica Hagerdorn’s Dogeaters, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

SIG: It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

MJ: I read to confront. In a vicarious way, of course. I’m trying to track down when exactly readers starting reading books for the opposite of what they are here for. Nobody wants to confront the unknown, experience the other, or think the unthinkable anymore, and will often reject books that demand any of those experiences from them. Books are not supposed to be easy, not even at their most seductive.

SIG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?

MJ: A pretty minimal extent. I love to give characters far removed from me my own worldview. It’s the closest I get to that kind of thing. I just don’t think any aspect of my life is so interesting that I would want to spend considerable time writing about it. But Karl Ove Knaussgard is doing that stuff so brilliantly that he has me thinking about it.

SIG: Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

MJ: I don’t think I've read a memoir since The Sexual Life Of Catherine M. But I do love biographies. And histories. Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution starts out as this basic behind-the-scenes story of the five films nominated for the 1968 Best Picture Oscar, and ends up as this stunning depiction of when the counter culture won the culture war.

SIG: Your novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is rooted in actual events -- what kind of research did you undertake, if any, to aid your fiction?

MJ: I, or rather me and my four researchers, undertook tons of research. The Cold War. The history of the CIA. Third World politics. Back issues of High Times, Ramparts, Playboy, and Rolling Stone. Bob Marley books. Rolling Stones tour books. Artillery specs. '70s slang. '80s Police blotters. '90s crack house investigations. Manuals on how to disappear and build a new identity. And yet I use facts more fictitiously than Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall is astonishing. I still reserve the right to mess with even established truths.

SIG: What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?

MJ: If I waited for all the time in the world I’d never read a thing. That also applies to people who tell me that they wished they had time to write. But I’m excited that I’m finally about to read Dumas.

SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

MJ: Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about.

SIG: Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?

MJ: Observation and imagination are essential. It’s a codependent relationship. Observation really just means paying attention, especially at the point where everybody else looks away. Imagination gets under the skin of what only seems to be surface level. The only one of little use to me is experience, which is ridiculously overrated. For such a virtue, experience doesn't stop us from making the same unwise choices and foolish mistakes over and over again. Emily Bronte didn't need experience to write Wuthering Heights, still the darkest (and kinkiest) psychosexual drama to ever come out of England. I’ve certainly never experienced slavery. Make no mistake; there is something to be said for experience, especially if there’s growth. I can tell, for example, if a writer has ever experienced love or heartbreak, but give me empathy any day. Despite his considerable experience, Conrad’s lack of empathy makes Heart of Darkness a brilliant failure.

SIG: What’s next on your reading list?

MJ: Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country.