Photo by Cameron Wittig
When I finally caught Marlon James on the phone, he was on his way from Boston down to New Haven, slowly making his way down the coast to promote a book that would need little help asserting its significance. A Brief History of Seven Killings was declared "required reading" by the well-regarded Publisher's Weekly, while The New York Times was not far behind in calling it "epic in every sense of that word."
The novel, rooted in historical fact but taking liberty with fictional embellishment of characters in its retelling, traces Jamaican history after 1976, the year a handful of gang members attempted to assassinate Bob Marley days before he gave a free concert promoting peace in the nation at a time of civil unrest. It's just the beginning of a deeply mired political turmoil, an inextricable tangle of cloudy uncertainties and half-truths. “I was just trying to solve a mystery,” James says, “Trying to track down people who have disappeared from the stories that we hear.”
There are a cacophony of these people in Seven Killings, and its fiction breathes life into the “small lives” swirling around the large one, Marley, whose name is replaced by a mere epitaph so as not to obscure the usually marginalized characters.
Small wonder, as the specter of Marley looms large in Western readers’ imaginations. Whether he intended to or not, by eliminating “The Singer” from much of the narrative, James successfully drew attention to the multitude of alternative Jamaican experiences.
He’s a long way from home, living in his Midtown Minneapolis apartment, but he’s satisfied with a life that keeps him teaching students at Macalester—so long as he finds time to share his own works.
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Erin Kincheloe: From what you’ve said about your childhood in Jamaica, it’s not necessarily representative of what the nation was going through as a whole. What was it like writing about a time you were barely alive to witness?
Marlon James: I was trying to solve a mystery. It wasn’t necessarily a curiosity about the country, because no two people have the same experience of the country they’re living in. I was more interested exactly in what happened to these men, these boys, that tried to kill Marley. Largely because nobody talks about them. The book was really trying to do some detective work. What was surprising was I didn’t expect that it would explode into such a big story, because it’s such a small group of boys leading very short lives. Most of them weren’t educated. Most of them never went on to become what they could have become, for better or worse. So it was really more trying to track down these small lives, but it was surprising that they had such big consequences that ended up all the way in New York and the UK and Colombia.
EK: You give them a lot of space.
MJ: To me, at least, that’s one of the whole purposes of fiction. That you can give lives that you don’t necessarily hear about space. You’re never gonna read about them in history books, and I think that’s the great thing about fiction. That fiction can illuminate lives and show just how the history we know, or the stories we know, affect real people who may or may not make these stories. You can talk about marginalized people, forgotten people, people who would vanish. It would illustrate that these people have three-dimensional lives, some good, some horrible, some a mix of the two. That’s the great thing. There are things that Huckleberry Finn can tell us about the South that Shelby Foote can’t tell us. About how real people lived those real lives.
EK: You talk sometimes about the impetus for the novel, about the lack of “sense of possibility” in Jamaica. What do you hope this book does for your country?
MJ: Man, I don’t think I hope anything. I really hate artists who have messages. I usually think they make bad art. Certainly Marley himself wasn’t trying to push messages in his music; he was stating things as they were and how it affected his art. Marley has as many love songs as he has war songs. I don’t really have any expectations. If anything, sometimes novels can open up discussions that we don’t really want to have, and if it does that, then I think that’s great. But other than that, I don’t know if a writer has an ambition other than just: people read the book. Read it, instead of being driven by what they’ve heard about this.
Especially in Jamaica, where we are very sensitive about the past. We’re very sensitive about who gets to talk about the past. It’s not just the story, but who’s telling it. Because you know, if you’re living in Jamaica, you’ve been saturated with people who tell the wrong or the warped story. Based on the stories people usually tell about Jamaica, people like me don’t exist. I’m middle class—I’m proudly middle class. I grew up like every other middle class kid everywhere else in the world. You have working parents, raised by TV, hell, we even had TV dinners, which is common all over the world. It’s remarkable in that it’s so unremarkable.
To come back to it, I’m not sure. I don’t necessarily have something other than hopefully that books sometimes create dialogue, and I hope that it’s interesting dialogue, pro and con; people should be in support of it, people should be against it. As long as there is, I think, a sort of discussion about it. Or maybe people read it because it’s a great story and they’re excited by what happens. That’s enough, too.
EK: One of the lines I liked, when you’re describing Bob Marley is that he’s “always where he’s from no matter where he’s at.” Is that something people said about him in particular, or something you think Jamaicans are more in touch with?
MJ: I think it’s something you always feel. It’s just another way of saying, ‘No matter how far you go, you’re always a product of where you came from.’ I am definitely a product of where I came from. Growing up with parents who were cops made me interested in stories, made me investigative, even if I’m not a journalist. Growing up in a reasonably stable background gave me the freedom to become a writer, to become an artist and explorer without pressure to be something else. But also, growing up knowing all these stories, even when crime was something you heard about, the fact is you heard about it. All of these horrible events we hear happened off stage, but just because anything happened off stage doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the play. Just because most of these events were offstage for me doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by them, and doesn’t mean you don’t live life in a certain way because of them. Whether it’s knowing certain areas are off-limits or having to be aware of the international perception that—some people seem to think I barely made it out of Jamaica alive. The first time I heard an actual gunshot was when I went to see a play. In Bob Marley’s case, he came out of Trenchtown and rural Jamaica before, and that was the world—as violent and unstable as it was—it was the world and the people he most trusted. For most of his life, he surrounded himself with people of the same background. People need a community; people need people they identify with.
EK: At this point, you could live anywhere. What keeps you in Minnesota? A community of your own?
MJ: Lots of practical things, like all those bike lanes. That it’s such a progressive city. I like living in a city where they take the surplus money to build bike lanes. That’s the kind of city I want to live in. It’s a huge town. It’s a great art city, and it’s a huge respectful and supportive culture. So as a creative person, you feel very welcome in the city.
It’s also where I work—I work at Macalester, which is a great institution. They leave me alone to do a lot of things. I love the country I’m from; I love Jamaica, but usually I could define Jamaica mostly by what I couldn’t do. Whereas in Minneapolis and St. Paul—because I’ve lived in both cities—I can define myself by possibility. And that’s a pretty great thing.
Minnesota’s pleasures don’t necessarily jump out at you; it doesn’t scream like New York. Sometimes you have to search for them. But they are fantastic and they are world-class. Everybody says Minneapolis is a driving city, but I’ve been here seven years and I don’t have a car. And I really don’t need one. Again, because the resources are there, the bike lanes are there, the light rail is there, the buses are there. It’s a city that really takes care of its people and I really, really appreciate that.
EK: I was thinking about that while I was reading your book, how epic it is, and that you were teaching students at the same time. How did you fit it in?
MJ: This novel took four years. You just have to steal time. You get up early and write. Once I’ve started, I’m a pretty disciplined writer, and I write pretty fast. Even this book taking four years, some other people have taken around 10 or 15. One thing that really helps me is that I can write anywhere. I don’t need a desk, I don’t even need peace and quiet. In fact, I’ll write on the train, I’ll write in the parking lot, I’ll write in the Barnes & Noble café. Most of this book was written at Café News; it was written at Wilde Roast. It was written at Common Roots. Everywhere. The downtown Barnes & Noble, Shish. I could do a Minnesota map of the cafes where this book was written. A huge chunk was written at Café Espresso. The entire part three was written in Café Espresso. I would show up at like 11 o’clock and I’d leave at five. You get used to writing anywhere. That book was pretty much written in cafes all over Minneapolis and St. Paul—Nina’s. It was a café written book.
EK: I hear you’re a big fan of metal music.
MJ: Oh my god, I adore metal.
EK: Do you follow anyone in particular?
MJ: I really follow Bloodnstuff. I really like them quite a bit. Who else do I follow? I like some of the rappers, like Astronautalis. It’s also a great town for out-of-town acts. People I never thought I’d see, I see in Minnesota. I love Break Signs. Most of the metal bands I like are like Horseback, a lot of Doom. Lots of Yob and Electric Wizard and all of that. I listen to a lot of doom. My absolute favorite record of 2014 is Pallbearer’s second album [The Ghost I Used to Be]. It’s my pick of 2014.