Marlon James may be a winner of the Man Booker Prize, thanks to his 2014 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, but he insists that he does not look down on any kind of literature.
“I’m pretty omnivorous or promiscuous when it comes to reading materials. I’ve always thought you could learn from anyone and everybody. That’s why I have no snobbery,” he said during an appearance at the UEA Literary Festival.
Indeed, when he was growing up, in Jamaica, he read “a lot of fantasy and tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of comics”, and the first book that he devoured in one sitting was Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives, when he was aged 14.
“Genre fiction is what I fell in love with at the expense of literary fiction. I had to learn to love literary fiction because literary fiction is taught in such terrible ways,” he said while being interviewed by the novelist, screenwriter and UEA lecturer in crime writing Tom Benn.
“I always had this alternative reading list when I was growing up and rejected this idea that, ‘Now we’re going to talk about serious literature.’”
Like most writers, James did not have it easy on his way to literary acclaim, with his first novel having been “rejected more times than we have to talk about” and, when it was eventually published, the initial print run was a modest 3,000 copies. He has been to readings, he said, “where nobody showed up”.
“I’ve experienced every kind of commercial fortune, so going back to selling one copy doesn’t scare me, or only a little bit,” said the 48-year-old author, who teaches literature in the United States.
His new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, has been well received by critics, but James said that he did not compromise what he wanted to write for the sake of commercial success. Once writers “start to think about” what they should be writing, they are, he declared, “in trouble”.
James’s new book is described by its publisher as “an African Game of Thrones” and is said by the British author Neil Gaiman to feature “a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made”.
Given that James has always read a lot of genre fiction as well as literary fiction, “it didn’t feel like a jump” for him to include many fantastical elements in the novel, which draws on African mythology and is the first in a planned trilogy.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is narrated by a character called Tracker, a mercenary who is asked to find a child who has gone missing.
James said that Tracker took over the novel even though he had not planned it that way, adding that there comes a point in writing a novel “where you have to relinquish the book to the characters”.
“One thing all my novels have in common is that they’re novels that get usurped by a particular character and become a different novel,” he said.
“The original form of this novel was in the third person. I really don’t like writing in the third person.”
James described the book as “an exploration of chauvinism” and said that Tracker was “quite sexist” but that his attitudes did not go unchallenged.
“The characters and the novel constantly call him out about it. That’s the difference between having a sexist character and a sexist novel,” said James.
“It’s not so much that it’s a masculine book, but its characters are really wrestling with what masculinity is.”
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