Getting to listen to Marlon James talk about himself and his book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2015, made for a very good reason to rise early this Saturday morning. A very intelligent and thoughtful conversation flowed naturally from the stage, punctuated by funny remarks, insightful comments, and thought-provoking discussions. As though this great novel wasn’t riveting enough, hard enough to put down, James himself was a joy to listen to, a voice I could happily hear in conversation for many hours.
Half a year on from his winning of the Man Booker Prize, James was asked to reflect on his experience, and interestingly enough he turned to the other authors on the shortlist, saying that the dust won’t settle until the next recipient of the award is announced. Instead he says that he thinks of the other works nominated and how reading them is an important part of the experience.
The conversation between James and Noelle McCarthy moved from the novel, to his personal life and experiences, and to Jamaica and its culture and history. A Brief History of Seven Killings is brought together by the shooting of Bob Marley in 1976, an event that James, despite talking in great detail about it, says wasn’t introduced into the novel until he realized it was a common point between the characters. Instead this novel is driven by voice, and unlike his previous novel, The Book of Night Women, it uses many different voices. This change in style reflects many different elements in the story and form, and the ideas James engages with. He says that “the only voice I was not interested in was mine,” and so he used different voices and characters to express different desires and a changing point of view about a single point of history.
James also says that this novel was a new experience for him, and not only because of the change in narrative voice. One of his most famous quotes is “you have to risk pornography,” something he got from when he was told he had to “risk sentimentality” in response to his unwillingness to write about love. This risk is what fiction is all about, a place where we can explore the interesting and visceral, a place of escapism. When asked whether he though of this book as a screenplay, he noted that there is a certain something that he says only the novel form can do, in that it can have a conversation with the reader with the immediacy of the present, haunted by the past, with a fear of the future. “The novel already comes with the fourth wall down.”
As the session finished, James read a short extract from the novel, bringing moments of laughter and moments of silence from the audience. Overall, this feels like a good representation of James, a mix of all the things that we look for in a great piece of fiction.
Event attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler
A Brief History of Seven Killings, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780746357
John Crow’s Devil, published by Oneworld Publications, ISBN 9781780748498 The Book of Night Women, published by Oneworld Publication, ISBN 9781780746524