Meeting Jamaican novelist Marlon James — one of TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’

Meeting Jamaican novelist Marlon James — one of TIME magazine’s ‘100 most influential people’

(TRINIDAD GUARDIAN) — In 2015 when I start­ed read­ing Mar­lon James’ A Brief His­to­ry of Sev­en Killings, I im­me­di­ate­ly fell in love with it.

I was then put on to James’ ear­li­er nov­el John Crow’s Dev­il, and be­came a huge fan of his writ­ing.

So when I heard James would be in T&T to at­tend the NGC Bo­cas Lit Fest, I un­der­stand­ably was ex­cit­ed.

Then on Thurs­day, I was told that my col­league Ryan Ba­choo and I would be get­ting to do a sit-down in­ter­view with James on Fri­day at noon.

Be­fore that in­ter­view, how­ev­er, there was an ear­li­er ses­sion at the NCG Bo­cas Lit Fest that I had to at­tend.

The plan was to re­turn to the of­fice af­ter that ses­sion and pre­pare for the James in­ter­view af­ter­ward.

While walk­ing through the Na­tion­al Li­brary and In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem Au­thor­i­ty (NALIS) to get back to the Guardian Build­ing I saw James stand­ing near to a book ta­ble talk­ing to some­one.

My heart be­gan to race.

I knew we would be meet­ing lat­er in the day but I had not ex­pect­ed to run in­to him like this.

While I was pre­pared to be ful­ly pro­fes­sion­al as I per­formed my du­ty for Guardian Me­dia, now I was on the verge of go­ing full fan­boy.

I walked to the book ta­ble and bought a copy of A Brief His­to­ry of Sev­en Killings.

When James end­ed his con­ver­sa­tion I in­tro­duced my­self and asked him to au­to­graph the book.

I then went back to the of­fice to pre­pare for our in­ter­view.

My first in­ter­ac­tion with James is a far cry from what he ex­pe­ri­enced when he first met one of his he­roes, singer Pat­ti Smith.

James told of the ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing our in­ter­view.

“I used to have a very tor­ment­ed re­la­tion­ship with her (Smith’s) records be­cause I used to think her records were so bru­tal­ly hon­est and re­al, and I was not hon­est and re­al so I would throw away her records be­cause I could not deal with it,” James said.

Even­tu­al­ly, James said he learnt to ac­cept and love his own skin.

“So I met her and I want­ed to tell her all of this and I chased her down and the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘I threw away your stuff all the time’ and she was like ‘That’s in­ter­est­ing’ and then she walked away from me but walked back­wards so that she could make sure I was not fol­low­ing her, and I was like that is what hap­pens when I meet my he­roes so I don’t re­al­ly want to meet them but I will ad­mire them from afar,” James said.

Books that made him want to write

James has met some of the great­est lit­er­ary minds in this world, but to him, the “holy grail” would be meet­ing Toni Mor­ri­son.

But be­cause of his gaffe with Smith, he is not sure if he should meet Mor­ri­son.

“The holy grail will al­ways be Toni Mor­ri­son. I prob­a­bly should not meet her be­cause I will burst out laugh­ing, it will be so em­bar­rass­ing, it will be em­bar­rass­ing and awk­ward,” James said.

James said Mor­ri­son’s books Song of Solomon and Su­la changed his life.

“I’m not even say­ing that for dra­mat­ic ef­fect, it gen­uine­ly changed my life,” he said.

“The books that made me want to write”.

Apart from Mor­ri­son’s work, James said there are oth­er books that “made me want to write”.

One of them is Jes­si­ca Hage­dorn’s Do­geaters.

“What did that book do for me? I, be­lieve it or not, did not think I could write about my own world,” he said.

“It just did not and if I was go­ing to write about it, I would write about it in still this kind of Vic­to­ri­an gaze and here is a nov­el that had di­alect, it had gos­sip, it had trash cul­ture, it had po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions, it had gen­der flu­id­i­ty and queer­ness, and it just had mu­sic,” he said.

James said Olive Se­nior’s Sum­mer Light­ning al­so made him want to write and taught his word econ­o­my.

James said it feels “weird” to have made the TIME 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple list but he is glad for the recog­ni­tion.

De­spite all the awards and recog­ni­tion James has re­ceived, he said he want­ed to be at the NCG Bo­cas Lit Fest this year.

It is not his first time at the fes­ti­val.

James urged those hop­ing to be­come writ­ers and those cur­rent­ly writ­ing to stick to their craft.

“The first thing they have to re­alise is just be­cause it is hard doesn’t mean it’s not fun and I think that that’s some­thing peo­ple for­get. I write be­cause this is the most in­cred­i­ble fun I have been hav­ing, I get to do what I love and I have an im­mense amount of fun do­ing it and that some­thing can be the hard­est work you’ve ever done and the most fun you’ve ever had at the same time, they are not mu­tu­al­ly ex­clu­sive and I think that is the first thing we have to let go of,” James said.

“Rou­tine is won­der­ful, if you set a rou­tine the mus­es will show up, hard work is great. It is great that peo­ple are tal­ent­ed but I run in­to tal­ent all the time, I am not im­pressed with tal­ent, I am im­pressed with hard work. How bad­ly do you want it and how hard are you go­ing to work to do it?” James asked.

James said writ­ers should not just re­ly on in­spi­ra­tion.

Who is Mar­lon James?

Mar­lon James, born No­vem­ber 24, 1970, is a Ja­maican writer. He now lives in the US. He has pub­lished four nov­els: John Crow’s Dev­il (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009), A Brief His­to­ry of Sev­en Killings (2014), win­ner of the 2015 Man Book­er Prize, and Black Leop­ard, Red Wolf (2019). James won the 2015 Man Book­er Prize for Fic­tion for A Brief His­to­ry of Sev­en Killings, mak­ing him the first Ja­maican au­thor to take home the UK’s most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary award.


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