June 08, 2016

Marlon James at AWF 2016: Fascinating and free-flowing

Liz from Collections Insights went to hear the Jamaican-born novelist, now resident in the U.S., mostly from curiosity. She's now on not one but two wait lists for his book -- the print and the e-book version, a "whichever comes sooner attitude" which already tells us much about the session. Here's her full account:


When Noelle McCarthy introduced Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize last year with his A Brief History of Seven Killings, as the writer of a “bloody great book in every sense of the work” we knew were in for a treat – if for no other reason that we would be listening to two of the most attractive accents in the world – Irish and Jamaican.

As it turned out, the content as well as the delivery made the session fascinating. The rapport between McCarthy and James led to an hour of free-flowing conversation and covered a vast range of topics, from the music of Prince and space break sex to getting through writer’s block and the history of Jamaica.

The conversation started with a discussion of the recent death of Prince as James lives in Minneapolis and is a huge Prince fan. Purple Rain was the first record he bought and in his high school year book he was described as the person “most likely to work for Prince”. James’s regret was that he had never quite got round to seeing Prince live.

A Brief History of Seven Killings explores the abortive attempt to assassinate Bob Marley in 1976 and the impact that had both in Jamaica and in the US. The book is told by what McCarthy described as a “polyphony of characters”, each with their own distinct voice. James describes all his novels as being driven by voice, and finding the right voice as essential to telling the story. “The only voice I am not interested in is my own”. When he first started A Brief History he tried out different voices, searching for the “magic one” to tell the story. When a friend asked why he thought it was only one person’s story, he realised the number of voices he needed was actually 76.

The novel is notable for its graphic sex and violence – visceral was a word that came up a lot. James felt that in order to nail the character or “the voice” you sometimes had to risk going too far, to get to what was wanted. When it came up again later, he said “You’d be surprised how prudish and how squeamish I am”, but that his characters demanded more of him. What he described as “space break sex” was not enough. To explain he gave us an example:


     Tom said to Harry, “I have always loved you.”

     The next morning……


James said he found starting a novel terribly hard, with many false starts, but that he would read his way out of writer's block. Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover was especially praised for its sparse format – “stage director's notes rather than a novel”. He also said he had read the entire script of the TV series Breaking Bad, although he had yet to actually see an episode.

Talking more about the central theme of his novel, he described 1976, the year of the attack on Bob Marley, as a pivotal year in Jamaican history, when the hopes and dreams born of Jamaica's independence began to unravel. James was six at the time -- his mother a cop, his father a lawyer. While he was aware of their heightened fear, he didn’t understand why. Writing A Brief History was a way to find out what 1976 was like for adults who, like his parents, had lived through it.

It was one of those discussions you wished could just keep on going. James obviously thinks deeply about the process of writing, the role of the novel and how history is perceived, and you could see he enjoyed sharing his ideas in this sort of forum. I hope we will see him at the Auckland Writers’ Festival again.

-- Liz

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 14:27
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