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What I learned from meeting Marlon James

21 May 2016

When second year Arts and Law student Tom St John volunteered at our Sydney Writers' Festival Media Hub he soon found himself meeting Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James.

Tom St John and Marlon James at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Tom St John and Marlon James at the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Pier One hotel guests recline on cushioned cane benches, cruise ships move through the harbour blotting out the setting sun, and two Dark and Stormy cocktails are on their way.

At the Sydney Writers' Festival, Marlon James is shaking himself out of the inevitable jetlag that comes with acclimatising to the Australian time zone.

"A novelist is an identity. I don’t think Marlon James the writer is Marlon James the person. They both came from this same body…[but] I don’t recognise that person," says James.

In a way the overwhelming impression from speaking with James about his 2015 Man Booker Fiction Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is that this disassociation is not an accident, but necessary to the novel’s very construction.

A Brief History's accolades are a long way from early rejections when James and friends considered re-submitting his first book, John Crow's Devil, under a pseudonym and with a photo of a white person — he imagined he'd have been then lauded for his "cultural ventriloquism".

A book is yours when you’re writing it – a painting is yours when you’re painting it. Once the painting is done, it’s not your painting.
Marlon James

A Brief History is based peripherally around the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley, imagining a swirling array of adjacent characters pulled into a world of global subterfuge and emotional trauma. The novel totals over 700 pages and features the looming spectre of death as a constant threat.

"A book is yours when you're writing it – a painting is yours when you're painting it. Once the painting is done, it's not your painting," he says with a fleeting smile. "I'm a deadbeat dad when it comes to these 'children'. I've got nothing else to say or do with it anymore."

With A Brief History steeped in the cultural influence of Marley and his homeland, it will come as no surprise that music plays a big role in James writing. "Usually, even in my manuscript, I will type out at the top what I was listening to while I was writing that part." If you were wondering what that music is, it's as eclectic as the characters he has created – from Bjork to Black Sabbath to "tonnes of jazz".

For his next project, he wants to embrace his "geek" identity. With a fantasy novel.

"I've always been interested in surrealism,” he says, before launching into a soliloquy on his Lord of the Rings.  "[I'm] so sick and tired of European mythology!" He remembers a friend arguing that Lord of the Rings is absent of any ethnic variety because it is a "European story", to which he responded with the core thesis of fantasy – "it's not real! So keep your flipping hobbit".

How do you follow a book based in truth, with one that is fantasy? He explains the meaning of the Jamaican proverb "if it no go so, it go near so", a refrain of many characters in A Brief History, and the novel’s opening quote."[It means] if the story is not the true story, it's something close to it."

James hears the truth "through gossip, through rumour, through innuendo, through half-truths, through people who actually didn't intend to tell you that much". Fantasy, he says, is the one genre where you could argue that even if it doesn’t go so, it goes near so. There are, in fact, some aspects of the human condition where you "can only use the surreal." 

What truth can he tell young writers?

"You have to read everything. Read more than you write. I can tell when a writer isn’t reading. Art is as much creativity as it is influence. When you have one without the other, you have a very…almost kind of unintelligent art."

And with that Marlon James the person, the near-truth, the rumour, left an empty Dark and Stormy behind and headed off down the pier.