Marlon James: Interview

In 2007, before the release of the Man Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and the critically received The Book of Night Women, Marlon James sat with writer Felicia Pride to discuss John Crow’s Devil and literary success.

Marlon James by Felicia Pride

With the release of his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, Marlon James, thirty-five, has been compared to everyone from Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison to William Faulkner and Frantz Fanon. Pretty hefty comparisons for the Jamaican writer who once destroyed the manuscript (he subsequently found an electronic version in an old email account) because no one in the publishing industry wanted to touch it. In his words, “it’s not black enough for black people and it’s not white enough for white people.” Luckily, he found encouragement and eventually a publisher, Akashic Books, by attending the Calabash International Literary Festival. In an age when a book can be too well-written, Marlon James is a success story that can teach us a few things.

I had the opportunity to speak with Marlon during one of his trips to New York. I read John Crow’s Devil with incredible fascination and was eager to talk to the

first-time author who was bold enough to write an imaginative, different, and boundary-breaking novel. Ambitious? He is. Opinionated? Very. Literature needs more like him.

Felicia Pride: If you had to describe or box your writing style, how would you?

Marlon James: I like being poetic. I like the rhythm of poetry, so when I’m rewriting, it is important for me to speak the words aloud. I think I’m pretty lyrical. I am more interested in darker subjects than brighter ones because somewhere in that shadow is a story. Because I deal with darker subjects, I think you have to be lyrical to make it more palatable.

Marlon James’ previous books include The Book of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil.

FP: I think that’s what amazed me so much with John Crow’s Devil. You’re tackling pretty heavy subjects—religion, sex, death, pain—in such a lyrical way. How did you come up with the concept for the book?

MJ: I wrote a novel before John Crow’s Devil and it was very autobiographical. I was angry and pissed off. I was twenty-something, and everybody sucked. I was listening to a lot of Public Enemy and Sinéad O’Connor. And then I realized that I wasn’t pissed off anymore. So I started experimenting and wanted to pick something that was so far removed, that it would leave no trace of me in the book. The first draft was satire, I laughed at everybody, thought of them as dumb, religious people. Then I had to ask myself, did I really want people to spend 200 pages laughing? So I started to explore the characters. If he is a drunk preacher, why? The characters are redeemed in the end, but they go through a lot of hell and I don’t pull back. If you grow up in Jamaica, you have the experience of cults and John Crow’s Devil is about what happens when blind faith gets too blind.

FP: You have a degree in literature from the University of West Indies. Did that provide any formal writing training as well?

MJ: No. Training came from writing, writing and practicing. I did take an undergrad creative writing course. I used to write little essays, stories and plays. But you don’t take these too seriously because in Jamaica, you can’t really afford to. You are supposed to be a lawyer, doctor, or an accountant. There is no real writing community in Jamaica. I’m sure some will disagree with me. There are accountants who write on the weekend, and there are secretaries that write poetry and lawyers that want to publish a book because now they make enough money to do it. I had a day job. I was in graphic design to pay the bills. Writing wasn’t something I took seriously. It was something I did on the side.
Training also came from reading more than anything else. Because the teaching isn’t there, I think that one of the things that propel writers in the Caribbean is reading. So I was definitely consumed with books.

FP: What types of books?

MJ: Lots of Charles Dickens. When you grow up in a former British colony, under very few circumstances will you come across an Alice Walker. There was lots of V.S. Naipaul too.

FP: Was Naipaul one of the main Caribbean writers being taught?

MJ: Yeah, but the Caribbean has very mixed feelings about Naipaul because he has such terrible feelings towards the Caribbean. But I find myself dissing the Caribbean as much. It’s weird, he disses the Caribbean a lot, but in many ways he is the quintessential Caribbean writer. The Caribbean still comes across as this half-way spot. You don’t really live there. If you are going to be an artist, it’s fine that you were born there, but it is really a pit stop on the way to New York or London. Because there isn’t a system in the Caribbean to nurture a writer, I can understand the bitterness that Naipaul feels. If you follow the Caribbean plan, you are supposed to give up writing and become a doctor.

FP: What do you think building a writing community in Jamaica would require? An attitudinal shift?

MJ: Certainly a change in attitude, but I’m not sure how that’s going to happen because tertiary education is still a means towards an end in the Caribbean. It’s a means to getting a job. To pursue writing is considered a waste of time. It would take a lot of education and encouragement that should begin in high school. You’ll hear people say, “I was a very good writer in high school,” and you ask, “what happened?” and they’ll reply, “I had to get a job.”

If it’s something that you really want to do, you have to withstand pretty much universal opposition, you have to realize you might not get support from your parents and even if you withstand all of that, you may have to go abroad to do it. What I did and what many people do is get a job slightly related, like in advertising, or journalism and in your spare time you do your writing and hope for some sort of opportunity to come around. The raw talent is there but it’s not being nurtured.

FP: You’re still based in Jamaica. Do you see yourself remaining there?

MJ: Yes and no. According to Kwame Dawes, I’m one of the first Jamaican writers to live in Jamaica. I have a house there and I’m not giving that up, but the opportunities are elsewhere. If nothing else, you have to leave to build your career as a writer. On one hand I’m a Jamaican-based writer, but on the other hand I have to be in the United States about half the year. I think you do have to leave.

FP: I know that your quest to get it published was somewhat difficult. Can you go into more detail about it?

MJ: I started writing John Crow’s Devil in 2001. I finished it in early 2002 and it went through one or two drafts. When I finished, I thought now that I’ve written it, I’ll send it out and Random House will love it and Oprah is going to call and everything will be perfect. But nothing could be further from the truth. I started sending it out to agents and publishers, and I started getting the “not for us” response, or the “we’re not looking.” And, as I expected, some people didn’t even read it. Some said it was good, but not what they were looking for. I just got lots of no’s for whatever the reason. I must have sent forty letters out to different agents and all of them said no.

Because I was sending my work out in such intervals, the whole cumulative effect of being rejected wasn’t really hitting me. That is, until I sent it to Soho Press. I knew they published Edwidge Danticat and so I figured they were experienced with Caribbean fiction. They sent me the rudest reply of all. I don’t know if they read it or not. After that, I thought, if so many people in the industry think this book is so bad, maybe it is.

Houghton Mifflin was the only publisher that seemed to be interested. They asked me to make some changes and resubmit. By the time I was about to resubmit, the editor changed jobs, as is always the case. She went to work for Playboy, so that killed that. The new editor wasn’t interested.

There wasn’t interest from the U.K. either. Usually the U.K. opens the door for a writer like me, and then the U.S. pays attention. For me it’s the other way. It is weird, people assume because you are from Jamaica, Barbados, or Grenada, or some other former British colony, that you have a British sensibility. And I don’t. My generation is the first to have an American sensibility. I didn’t get it before, but now I understand why I’ve had a more receptive audience in the United States.

FP: What about the book’s launch in Jamaica? How was the book received there?
MJ: That was totally different. One thing that we didn’t do and that is because my publisher is learning and he didn’t really have to do it before, is target the Caribbean community in the U.S. That’s a mistake because they are extremely loyal. They will read it because a Jamaican wrote it. It’s not cynical. They like success, and things to be proud of. They like to see Caribbean people that do well. So the launch in Jamaica was really big. I was on every morning show and every newspaper. I felt like a rock star.

FP: So there is a literary hunger in Jamaica even if, as you say, the infrastructure to support writers isn’t?

MJ: Yes, that’s the point I was coming to. Some people will buy it because that’s the thing to do. But there is a hunger for something different. Usually, if there is book about Jamaica, it is a cookbook. So the idea that this is a novel, it’s a story, and things happen in it, and there are characters, and it is written by a Jamaican and set in Jamaica and it has Jamaican dialect in it. It is something that they can own. It is them.

FP: There is the recurring theme of displacement in Caribbean literature. Do you feel this is a theme you’ll eventually explore?

MJ: I guess because I’m still based in the Caribbean, that theme of displacement doesn’t interest me because I haven’t experienced it. The bulk of the stories I’ll write will probably be Jamaican stories. Naipaul is all about displacement. Most of the writers that discourage me from writing Jamaican stories tend to be immigrant writers. Because they believe it isn’t necessarily commercial and it lacks a hook. I wrote a blog about this that’s called “When you’re Not White Enough to Write a Black Novel.” I was very pissed off when I wrote it. When you are a non-white writer and you’re writing about non-whites you have to sit within very narrow parameters. You have to be one of two things: the immigrant novel, which sounds like it’s a foreign novel, but it’s the most American book because it’s about the immigrant experience. Or you have the “white guy trapped in the heart of darkness book.” It can be as Jamaican as you want, but the hero must be white. He can fall in love with a local girl if you want, but it must centrally be about the white, three-dimensional guy learning something about himself surrounded by the local savages. And there’s a third one, you can write about the foreigner, but it still must be a white writer, and everybody proclaims, “Oh he jumped into the mind of the foreigner,” the feat of cultural ventriloquism, which I have issues with.

FP: The characters in the book all seem to have these tragic back stories. From the Apostle’s childhood, to Lucinda’s relationship with her mother, and the Widow’s tragic lost.

MJ: Yeah it is pretty tragic. And pretty gothic. There is a lot of misery in Gibbeah, the parish, and a lot of it is self-inflicted. One of the things that a lot of Caribbean writers explore and I know I do is the effects of slavery. A lot of the remnants of slavery still exist.

Like the Apostle, he’s black with white features—long hair, mustache, beard, and light skin—and he knows this is why he is rated higher than all the other preachers. There is a part in the book, where the Apostle says he knows he is going to win the battle, because tonight when everybody, including the preacher, prays to Jesus, they were going to see the Apostle’s face.
The whole idea of letting loose of the colonial shackles plays itself in all sorts of ways.

There’s this attitude that these things shouldn’t be discussed, even if they are there.

FP: What were some of the responses to the homosexuality and child molestation in the book, since these subjects are considered “taboo”?

MJ: I’ve had both sides, from it being considered homosexual to it being considered homophobic. I don’t care about it being considered homosexual, but the homophobic isn’t right. One guy thought I was a kindred spirit and says “I like the way you stuck it to the homosexuals.” And I had to ask him, “Are you sure you read the same book?”

The main character, the Apostle is not homosexual at all. He is a sexual predator. He uses sex to manipulate both sexes. It’s more graphic with his right hand Church man, Clarence, but it is purely sexual tension that he uses with Lucinda. In a lot of religious cults, there’s always sex involved. The Branch Davidians didn’t become obsessive until David Koresh began sleeping with everybody. The Jim Jones cult was totally different until he added sex to it. He was sleeping with the women, the men, and the children. When you cross all these boundaries and break all these taboos and then you add religion to it as if it is some heightened religion that you’re sleeping with the preacher. You end up giving up your soul. Sex has power. It can easily become obsessive.

I think it is very dangerous, to homosexuals and to people who are not, to assume that molestation and homosexuality have a link, and they don’t. I think it is a good conversation when people say that, because I’ll ask, “what’s in your mind to equate homosexuality with pedophilia?” or “what does that say to you to think that I equated the two?” Again, it’s a lot of things that you aren’t supposed to discuss.

FP: I saw a political parallel in John Crow’s Devil to the United States because here we have large population of the country blindly following a crazy leader. Did you see similar parallels in Jamaica and did you intend to be political?

MJ: No, I didn’t. I think if you are in the African Diaspora, you can’t help but be political. If you write a story about a woman being independent, it is political. It might not be political here, but carry it to Nigeria and it is. If I write about all sorts of tolerance, it might not be political here, but if I carry it to Jamaica, it is. The personal is political. I didn’t have any of that in mind, but you can’t escape it.

I was set on writing the narrowest book that I could, but maybe that is the hallmark of fiction that your book expands with the world. I was interested in religion and cult psychology. I wasn’t thinking politically in how you mentioned, but I’m not turning down the comparison.

FP: Let’s talk about your female characters. I loved the subtle power of both Lucinda and the Widow. Did you have trouble writing such complex women?

MJ: When I was in the satirical mode, the only thing I cared about Lucinda was that she was a hypocrite. But when I started to explore the other characters, it was evident that she was an extremely mixed up woman and I left it there. Elizabeth Nunez, who was my first workshop leader at Calabash, said, “I don’t believe her, I don’t believe her motivations, I don’t believe her thought process, and you don’t know women.” Then I thought well maybe Lucinda shouldn’t do such extreme things and Elizabeth said, “Oh, now you really don’t know women. It’s not about what she did it is about why she did these things.” Then it became detective work and I became fascinated about why she was the way she was. How much of a women’s good or bad is taught to her by her mother? What role does society play? If sexual desire is such a malevolent force what does that do? Lucinda’s mom was the town harlot and then she becomes pious and religious. Lucinda is a woman that is trying so hard to be black and white and she makes so many wrong decisions. Instead of condemning or satirizing her, I showed some sort of empathy towards her.

FP: Interestingly enough, your next book is narrated by women. How did that come about?

MJ: I just finished the first draft on New Years Eve. The original idea of the book was about a bunch of women who work black magic and produce this evil spawn daughter. But now it is about this underground society of slave women who live on a plantation and how they plot to overthrow the country. It was a lot of fun to write. It is entirely in slave dialect, there’s lots of white characters in it, and it’s set in 1805. In the middle I got very consumed by it because I was reading all these slave diaries. Trust me; you wouldn’t have wanted to be a white friend of mine then. Even with all that you know about slavery, you are still not prepared for it. Some of the stuff I have in the novel is a lot more hardcore and closer to the diaries than what has been written before, and even then I had to pull back. I also had to remember to make well-rounded white characters or then it just becomes a white-hating, one-dimensional thing. There are some parts that are kind of funny, especially when the women are discussing sex. This book is a little bit more universal than John Crow’s Devil.

FP: I hope one day to attend the Calabash International Literary Festival. What has Calabash done for up-and-coming writers like you?

MJ: Well, what hasn’t it done? The first thing that Calabash does is provide opportunity. You can ask anyone in my position, Calabash is in May, the workshop is in March and it is pretty much a literary death for the rest of the year. People come to Calabash and they are stunned to see 6,000 people there to hear you read from a book. It provides opportunity that just doesn’t exist. It also provides international exposure and exposure to the international writing community. Chances are Russell Banks is not going to sit around and talk about your book here, but he’ll do it at Calabash.

I am a total Calabash product. My writing was shaped at the Calabash workshops. The first was with Elizabeth Nunez, the second was with
Kaylie Jones, who became my editor. So between the two, I had a book. My publisher was on a Calabash panel. So between the three, I had a published book.

When you’re writing in the Caribbean, you feel like you are on your own. You can really, really try like a Nunez, or a Colin Channer or a V.S. Naipaul, and push yourself, migrate, not take no for an answer. But not everybody can do that. Calabash provides these outlets. It’s becoming the thing that was always missing with Caribbean literature. I hope there are more products like me, I’m not a fluke.