FIVE: MARLON JAMES
NOVELIST/WRITING A NEW CHAPTER IN BOOK PUBLISHING BY COMBINING COMPLEX CHARACTERS AND SETTINGS WITH ADRENALINE-PUMPING ACTION
For author Marlon James, 45, crime pays. The Jamaican-born son of a cop and a judge, he used the attempted 1976 assassination of Bob Marley as the inspiration for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The 700-page tour de force, told through dozens of characters, from journalists to CIA agents to local gangsters, is a page-turning compilation of stories peppered with violence, musical shout-outs, and Jamaican patois. James was rewarded with the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the literary equivalent of an Oscar.
The honor was unexpected given the book’s uncompromising subject matter and approach. “I thought people would be thrown off by its stream of consciousness,” James says. “But I thought the subject—Bob Marley—would save the book. People would think, ‘Bob Marley! Let me read it!’”
Among the unconventional elements: There’s a six-page-long sentence in one chapter, and one of the 70 characters is a ghost. “The violence, the sex, the politics, the sometimes thinly veiled real people. I said, ‘I’ll just leave this all in until my editor takes this out.’ It was kind of scary, but being scared never stopped me before.”
While both his parents were in law enforcement, James brings his own take to the subject of violence. “When writing about things like crime, I’m always writing from the street level,” he says, “Not just how these things start from the channels of power.”
A Brief History is set in an era that brought a unique intersection of characters flocking to Jamaica. “The things about 1976, in good and in bad, is Kingston was the world’s playground,” James says. “Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger were in the same place. You have spies and counterspies taking over a territory, guns, drugs, corruption, music, military, and this playground of the real rich and famous and dangerous and obscure all at the same time.”