A Brief History of Seven Killings is one of the most discussed novels of 2014 and 2015. Its author has recently received his share of acclaim for the work, but says that there was a time, some years ago, where he almost gave up on becoming an established writer.
Most writers will face more than their share of rejection at the start of their career. Jamaican-born novelist Marlon James is no exception to that rule. His 2005 novel John Crow’s Devil was rejected 78 times before publication. Where many writers have said they didn’t give up on their future, James says he went the opposite way.
“I got through that period by not going through it,” he says. “I actually did give up. This narrative that we have of, ‘Well, I persevered.’ I actually didn’t. After 78 rejections, I would love to say that I was superhuman and developed a sort of Zen attitude. But the truth is I actually gave up. I said, ‘I’m never gonna be a writer.’ I destroyed that manuscript. I deleted it from my computer. I destroyed all evidence of even trying to be a writer.”
When novelist Kaylie Jones read some of James’ other work, she encouraged him to resurrect that first novel. It was well-received upon its publication, but it didn’t make James an international sensation. His second novel, The Book of Night Women, also earned positive reviews but entered the world as a small and somewhat overlooked book.
“My second novel was picked up by [publisher] Riverhead. They saw something in the book and loved it,” he says. “But they were also the only people interested. So, it’s not like it changed that much. I write about dark subject matter. I tend to balance it with humor and with humanity, I think. But I’m still in the more shadowy corners of fiction.”
Those shadowy corners take center stage in James’ 2014 novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. The novel opens in the politically and socially unsettled Jamaica of the 1970s and closes decades later with a world that is forever scarred by drugs, addiction, and death. It is a story that James said he carried with him for two decades before he began writing it.
“I’ve been carrying this one around the longest,” he says. “I’ve been carrying it around from before I even wrote or published my first novel. It was from an article I read in an issue of Spin that was [from the summer of] 1991. It had Jane’s Addiction on the cover and they were talking about Lollapalooza before it became Lollapalooza.”
Also featured in that issue was a story from Bob Marley biographer Timothy White. White’s article was an examination of the mysterious 1976 attempt on Marley’s life, which occurred against a backdrop of political unrest in the country.
“I remember being really fascinated by that,” James says, “almost more fascinated by what he couldn’t uncover—concrete information about what happened to them. There were rumors and all that, but he couldn’t get concrete information. Certainly, as a novelist, it’s those blank spaces that inspire me as a writer, the stuff where there is no document, the stuff where there is a mystery.”
Jamaica’s civil unrest in the 1970s remains a fascinating subject of world history for many people, and James points out that the country became a kind of unwilling participant in Cold War ideologies.
“Well, a reason that Jamaica and all of the Caribbean was tumultuous was because of American and Soviet foreign policy. We basically just became the battleground for the cold war,” he says. “Cuba was lost and there was no way they were going to lose Jamaica. It was a decade of a lot of radicalism and a lot of experimentation. But it was also a decade of a lot of espionage and intrigue, and in Jamaica, that played itself out in very violent and tribalistic ways.
“We had a left wing or left-wing leaning government and a right-wing opposition. We had tons of political violence. These two sides fighting for the future of the country I guess, but I don’t think it was anything as noble as that. We have Jamaica’s poor underclass on one hand providing a lot of these gunmen who fought these battles but, on the other hand, becoming this almost sole progenitor of this really brilliant and wonderful and explosive new music called reggae coming out.”
In the end, the country was not entirely embroiled in violence.
“There was all this creativity,” James says, “that was getting international attention as well. The '70s is a decade where you can’t really separate one of those from the other. I think that’s why it still carries this resonance.”
James is currently touring in support of the paperback publication of A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book which recently won the Man Booker Prize for 2015. It is, aside from the Nobel Prize for Literature, perhaps the most notable award bestowed upon a person of letters. But James suggests that his evening reminded him of a different award show.
“It’s kind of like the Golden Globes, but there’s only film,” he says. “It’s funny because right before the announcement I really had to go to the bathroom. I was about to leave the room and, like, three people went after me, like, ‘Where are you going?’”
Marlon James appears at Watermark Books on Monday evening.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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