The author of A Brief History of Seven Killings on Bob Marley, writing terror explicitly, and why sloppiness serves good storytelling.
Image by Jeffrey Skemp
“The problem with a book is that you never know what it’s planning to do to you until you’re too far into it,” says Nina Burgess, a middle-class Jamaican woman and one-time Marley groupie in Marlon James’s new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. For readers of this vast, multitudinous book, Burgess’s words are likely to resonate. An exploration of the 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley and its decades-long aftermath, A Brief History of Seven Killings weaves together the narratives of numerous characters, including members of rival Kingston gangs, CIA agents, Rolling Stone writers, and self-styled American reggae experts. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times, the book is “epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex. It’s also raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting.”
The expanse of voices in A Brief History of Seven Killings cut across class, gender, nationality, race, and time, and create, often in dialect, a collective history of more than thirty years of violence in the neighborhoods of Kingston, Jamaica. The story begins with Marley’s plans for a peace concert in Kingston, the attempt on his life just days before the performance, and the various actions of politicians, gangsters, and CIA operatives caught in a convoluted web around that central event. Above all, the novel rests on the mapping of intimate relationships: between parents and children, gang leaders and enforcers, and politicians and criminals. James tracks the tiny shifts in power, as well as dramatic acts of violence, that constitute and fracture these relationships. When taken together, they reveal an interconnected Jamaica, one that cannot be described in a single voice or through a single experience. As James explains in the interview below, “There are hundreds of Jamaicas.”
In his previous novels, The Book of Night Women and Crow’s Devil, James also grappled with violence and its capacity to render a vivid and often terrifying Jamaica. Both earlier books were lauded by critics, and The Book of Night Women won the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
James grew up in Jamaica, though now resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches literature and creative writing at Macalester College. We spoke on an afternoon in early October at his hotel in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, where he was pausing between stops on his book tour. In previous interviews, James had mentioned his love of history and plot in novels, so we discussed how he explored both when constructing A Brief History of Seven Killings. “It was really important to me that the novel feel like life,” says James in what follows. “I had one rule when I was writing. Every day, at least once a day, I should say, ‘I didn’t see that coming.’”
—Kaitlyn Greenidge for Guernica
Guernica: Did you listen to Bob Marley growing up? What space did he inhabit in your imagination?
Marlon James: I didn’t listen to Marley. You never heard him on the radio, and when you’re a kid you listen to what the radio plays. What was on the radio was R&B songs about bad breakups and disco. That’s what I grew up listening to. We knew Marley almost as a concept. Okay, he’s got cancer, okay, he’s in Miami, okay, he’s getting help, okay, he’s in Germany, okay, he’s not in Germany anymore.
I actually came to Marley more as an adult. Most of those songs, you know the lyrics, and they become a part of your national identity, but it’s not till later that you start to regard them as music or as art. As an adult, I went back to cultivating my own appreciation, outside of the huge hype, outside of him being in every frat boy’s dorm room. To separate all of that mess and appreciate the music for what it is is something I did as an adult. I don’t think I could have done it at any other time.
Guernica: You’ve talked about how you had three false starts while writing A Brief History of Seven Killings. How did you work through that?
Marlon James: At some point you have to accept writing bad on the way to getting good. That you can write one hundred pages and only use twenty. I’m at the stage where that is no problem for me. I’m a very sloppy writer and I don’t rewrite, I don’t reread, until I’m done. I write everything straight to the end.
Polishing first drafts is sort of like putting a sheen on garbage. Kudos on having really polished garbage, but it is garbage.
Guernica: With this book, though, there are so many distinct, yet simultaneous, narratives. Did you write each voice to the end, and then bring them together?
Marlon James: Two I did straight to the end. The first person I wrote was John-John K, the hit man. The second person I wrote was [the gang member] Bam Bam. I thought it was two different novels to begin with. I didn’t think there were other people involved. It wasn’t until the end that a really good friend of mine, Rachel, who passed away very recently, made me realize that I had a novel. I kept thinking that John-John K and Bam Bam were just failed novels. And she said, no, they’re not failed novels, they’re part of a bigger novel.
And you know, reading multiple-narrator novels like As I Lay Dying, but also stuff like My Name Is Red, and The Savage Detectives. Stuff like Gay Talese’s essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” That’s when I started to get used to the whole multiple-person narrator. But I still wrote all the way to the end before I reviewed it. Largely because I don’t have very high expectations of a first draft. I think a first draft is just a guide on where to go next. So to me, to keep polishing first drafts is sort of like putting a sheen on garbage. Kudos on having really polished garbage, but it is garbage.
With such low pressure, I can do certain things. The more I second-guess, the more afraid I get. The more overcorrecting I do, the more I second-guess myself, the less risky I get. Half of the risks that are in this novel would not have happened if I stopped to think about it.
Guernica: What do you think was the biggest risk you took in this novel?
Marlon James: Risking excess. Meaning: two back-to-back explicit gay sex scenes near each other, or seven-page sentences, or a climactic moment in a novel written in free verse. Things like that. It just felt right. I didn’t think about it. I just went into it.
The hardest part was keeping a lot of that because I worried that you can’t do this or it’s too risky or it’s too out on a limb. But one of the reasons why it’s a big novel is almost for the same reason you have something like a double album. Because I think—I hope, and so far some critics seem to agree with me and some critics don’t—that a bigger novel is a wider canvas to experiment with. And even if the experiment fails, it’s such a big canvas that there’s enough to recommend it otherwise.
Guernica: Right. The writer Peter Carey has said, “A novel is just a big book with a lot of mistakes in it.”
Marlon James: I’m not sure why ambition is looked upon as a bad thing. I am pretty ambitious when it comes to fiction. I knew I was writing a big novel. So second drafts are very important to me. Because that’s when I try to turn all that mess into a book.
Guernica: When you are inside the big book, how do you map out structure?
Marlon James: I have note sheets. I use Moleskine notebooks. I’m analog like that. I have a plot chart. I have different columns for the character, rows with different times of day, because even though it’s a big book, each chapter takes place basically in a day. So I need to know where Nina Burgess is at nine o’clock, and where she’ll be at ten. It allows me to be spontaneous. It’s sort of like how knowing prosody really liberates a poet.
If you know you have a backbone, you can bend and contort. That’s what allowed a lot of the freedom in the book. Because half of that stuff in that chart I didn’t follow. Because characters become real and they don’t take crap from you. But also because I always knew where the return line was. You can always go so far out on a limb and know you have to come back to this point. Plot charts and diagramming also stopped me from playing favorites. Because everybody had to get equal time.
Guernica: Why was that important to you?
Marlon James: I realized almost the hard way that what you have to do with your characters is make them three-dimensional. You don’t have to make them likable. I told my students last week, sometimes three dimensions means they range from dark to darker. You don’t have to give them pop psychology. They don’t have to be abused as a child. But you can add dimension.
Josey Wales was a lot of fun to write. Because even though he’s a sociopath who murders two pregnant women, he has such a refreshing worldview. I really agree with how he sees the world. And Nina Burgess is not fooled by anybody but herself. She’s kidding herself all the time but she knows exactly what’s going on in the world. Weeper was interesting to write because there are people like that who think they can sex their way to being straight, who can fuck their way to being straight. You have to inhabit characters to get that.
Guernica: Since there are so many different characters, which barrier did you find most difficult to write across: gender, class, race, nationality? Are any of those more complicated than another?
Marlon James: Writing across age difference. Nationality wasn’t as hard because I’ve been here [in America] a good number of years. Every time two Americans are arguing, people run away from them. I run to them.
Marlon James: Because I want dialogue. But to come back to it—Josey Wales, for example, is slightly older than Weeper [both two gang enforcers in a ghetto of Kingston]. Josey Wales doesn’t like reggae, he doesn’t like dance hall, whereas Weeper is a street kid. He’s a nerd. He has nothing but bitterness and meanness. But they do not talk the same. In a novel that’s told by characters, your nightmare is that they end up sounding alike. Working out how different generations talk was really the challenge. Remembering things like values. It’s their value system that governs how they talk.
Guernica: In the novel, power dynamics are constantly shifting. But there’s never a sense that one character has complete or absolute power.
Marlon James: If anyone has the upper hand, then your novel loses tension. I hope I wrote a very tense novel. Tension happens because dynamics are always changing. Even if you don’t have the upper hand, you have the upper hand in an argument. You have the moral right. Especially these characters, since a lot of them are pushed into corners and make desperate decisions. I don’t buy into the all-knowing, all-smart character. Even characters who you think are minor still end up being overshadowed or beaten.
I think life is like that. It was really important to me that the novel feel like life. That’s a nebulous sentence. But feel like how people live lives in the very sloppy ways they do. I didn’t want a story that ended up feeling schematic. I had one rule when I was writing. Every day, at least once a day, I should say, “I didn’t see that coming.”
The first set of novels I really read seriously were Victorian novels. Lots and lots and lots of Dickens. And Dickens is, “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” And I still believe in that. I believe in cliffhangers. I like plot twists. I love plot. I don’t believe in this plotless novel. I think that’s bullshit.
I know people who have suffered from violence and there’s nothing tasteful or beautifully written or wonderfully wrought about it.
Guernica: You tend to be known for writing about violence. Some novels that attempt to portray violence do so implicitly. But that’s not what’s going on here. You are explicit. When do you decide to include explicit violence and what techniques do you use to get there?
Marlon James: I think there’s a lot of value to the offstage event. Violence that’s talked about, mentioned, remembered. But I also think sometimes it creates this value that the more offstage violence is, the better it is. And I have problems with that. Violence is not necessarily an artistic brushstroke. To me, it’s not an artistic choice. To say that violence is better off stage is like saying a Martin McDonagh play is irrelevant.
But why is [explicit violence] necessary? Because I think violence should be violent. I have a problem with understated violence. I have a problem with violence that is tasteful. Because I know people who have suffered from violence and there’s nothing tasteful or beautifully written or wonderfully wrought about it. It’s nasty, it’s bloody, it’s painful. There’s nothing touching about it. It was very important to me that when I write brutality, it be brutal. And when you say to me, “Well, we can’t stomach it, we can’t read it,” I’m like, “Well, consider the person who had to experience it.” You cannot get off easy.
I also worry—there used to be a time when people read literature to confront stuff. To experience things vicariously—whether it’s a forbidden scene or a forbidden idea. I think now we’re looking to literature for an escape from that. I’m not sure why that is. I’m not sure how that happened and I certainly don’t do it. I do actually believe in explicit violence. I believe in explicit sex. You know, someone said to me once, “You have gratuitous sex in your first book.” And I was like, “Dude, there are only two types of sex: gratuitous sex or duty sex. So if you’re not having gratuitous sex, you’re having duty sex.” Sex is gratuitous.
There’s something to be read in the explicit scene. There’s something to be read in being present in the uncomfortable moment. I’m not trying to bludgeon violence over someone’s head, saying, “You need to experience it.” I think if you’re writing well you can get readers to read anything. The concern a lot of people have with explicit violence, explicit sex, explicit anything, is that it turns into a kind of pornography. And I am like, “So what?” Risk pornography. Risk it. Just like you have to risk sentimentality to get to sentiment. Risk pornography.
It’s better to have it down and pull back and pull out than to have this kind of failure of nerve and kid yourself that you’re producing this sophisticated kind of art.
Guernica: Can you present your reader with the explicit while also encouraging them to look beyond the explicit, to some larger comment?
Marlon James: It’s not a situation for larger comment. When you’re in the middle of a shoot-out, you’re not thinking of the big, cosmic significance of it. You’re thinking, “Blood, blood, blood. Get away.” And if that’s all you can focus on when you read a scene, you’ve read it right. If you cannot focus on or think, “What’s the greater idea here? What’s the greater thrust here?” you’re reading it right. You’re supposed to be disoriented and not sure what’s going to happen next. That’s how someone in the middle of West Kingston, surrounded by bullets and the person they were spending the whole day with, falls flat on their face, their head exploded, that’s how it is. There’s no thought. You are supposed to be disoriented. You are supposed to be profoundly disturbed. You are supposed to lose your bearings. And if that’s what they [the critics] are complaining about, well, thanks. I think the visceral is important.
But I would also hope that the reader sticks around and that the writer remembers that violence has consequences. There is an aftermath. There is a time to sit down. There is a time to meditate on loss and grief. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t because you have to get ready for the next attack.
I didn’t want my reader to be at a further degree of remove from the characters. That was one thing that was very important to me. That you don’t get to have a wider view than they do. You don’t get to have a bigger sense of perspective than they do. Because they don’t get it, so why should you get it? The only character who thinks in three dimensions and in perspective is the ghost, Arthur Jennings. And he’s dead.
Guernica: Most of the things in your book are made up. But you’ve also said you are a real student of history. What are the distinctions for you between history, memory, and fiction?
Marlon James: That’s a good question, especially when you talk about memory versus imagination. I am a big student of history but I believe in following history in the bigger sense. A lot of the people I write about, and a lot of the people who are covered in fiction, you aren’t going to find in history books. Or you aren’t going to find in academic papers. Fiction has a unique gift in showing how people lived history, how people had to endure it, survive it, and come to terms with it. How does gang violence affect where I shop for groceries? It’s not going to appear in history books, but those things are important. It’s a big clue as to how we live in the world. And literature can do that. Art can do it sometimes better than reporting. Which is not to say reporting isn’t crucial. But news is about the most famous and infamous. People who are trying to live their lives still have to be under the burden of history. They don’t get reported. And imagination can come into that. Imagination still has certain duties to the truth.
One of the characters realizes that there are times when even in this ghetto, you wake up and you lie on the grass and you look up at the sky and it’s this most beautiful thing.
Guernica: What do you mean by that?
Marlon James: It was very important to me, for example, to show an even-handed view of ghettos. I could have very easily turned it into this tremendous poetry of horror. And there’s lots of horrific stuff in it. But one of the characters realizes that there are times when even in this ghetto, you wake up and you lie on the grass and you look up at the sky and it’s this most beautiful thing. I think that there is a balance to everything. And I think that literature should pay attention to that and respect that.
Because it is very easy to skew a worldview just to suit your plot. Hell, nonfiction does it all the time. Certainly all the writing about Jamaica, where it’s almost always half-ghetto, half-plantation. So people like me, according to most of the nonfiction books about Jamaica, don’t exist.
I think literature that does that [skews to one worldview] produces a warped and harmful view of the world. No one book should be expected to be able to capture everything. You know, I have ghetto in my book. But I also have a character who’s from a place called Havendale. And her reality is totally different. She’s not in the ghetto. She knows nothing about it. She resents having to even think about it. She even gets it wrong: “I’ve been to the ghetto, I know blah blah blah.” She doesn’t know shit about the ghetto. But why does she have to?
It’s funny, running into people so far on this tour, and sometimes the worst are the ones who have lived in Jamaica. I met somebody—she thought the reason I live in the States is because I couldn’t take the violence in Jamaica anymore. I’m like, “Um, actually, the first time I heard a gunshot was in a Martin McDonagh play in New York.” And her response was that I must be in denial.
Clearly, I’m either protecting the country or I’m in denial. I said to her, “The Jamaican middle class has been fairly stable for nearly sixty years.” And she’s like, “Right.” Just this patronizing, “You don’t even know your own country but I do.” And I’m like, “If you made a choice to be near criminals, you’re going to see crime. If you made a choice to be near poverty, you’re going to see poverty.” And I’m not knocking your choice. But don’t claim that’s the correct view of the country or the only view of the country. There are hundreds of Jamaicas and you’ve only seen two.
So many people can’t wrap their minds around the fact that I’m a middle-class kid who grew up in a very middle-class way, right down to the boredom of the middle class. I will probably one day write about my upbringing. It won’t be a story about Yardies. It will come across like Updike. Maybe it’s time we had a Jamaican Updike, I don’t know.
Guernica: Can you talk a bit more about where you grew up?
Marlon James: I grew up in one of the suburb experiments in Jamaica. When they were trying to create a Jamaican middle class, they needed a place for that middle class to live that wasn’t plantation or ghetto. It’s not that much different from the American Midwest in the ’50s or ’60s. This new professional class needed somewhere to live, which is where I grew up, in a place called Portmore, which was mostly prefab houses. It was very typical. The school was two blocks down the street. Most of my friends were nearby.
Guernica: Was writing seen as an exotic profession?
Marlon James: It was not something we talked about. Yeah, books appeared, and we only knew abstractly that somebody wrote them. I discovered books pretty early, but the idea that someone wrote them just never occurred to me. The first book I remember really getting into was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, but I don’t think I ever thought of her at all until the TV show Little House on the Prairie. The life of a writer really didn’t matter to me at all. It still doesn’t. I’m more interested in these worlds that they create.
I have very little patience for novels trying to capture the suburbs. I have very little patience for novels trying to capture regular life. I already lived that, why would I want to read it? I don’t get it. This sort of forensic attitude to the experience of the American middle class. I’m like, “Didn’t you already live this?”
Guernica: How do you see yourself in relation to Caribbean writers who came before you?
Marlon James: There’s an influence in a sense of you can write about where you are from. Because when you are raised reading almost totally British literature, your first books are set in Britain. I remember reading about white high-school kids, you know, and Enid Blyton. So the West Indian writers certainly gave me the sensibility to write about where I’m from. I write about the Caribbean. I write about black people. I write about the reality of where I’m from. They were an influence in that regard.
In terms of literary influence, not really. Writers like Olive Senior. Of course, V.S. Naipaul. And some of Earl Lovelace. But most of my literature is influenced by British and American fiction. I’m not like older generations, though. There are some immigrants to the UK who still believe in the superiority of English culture. “I should be proper”; “I should be a gentleman”; “Things were so much better when we were a colony.” We didn’t grow up with colony as a context. Nor did we want it. In the ’90s, when we listened to American music, it was Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. The dialogue was more over there.
But I think that’s a good thing. I think literature should evolve. It would be really depressing if in the year 2014 the Caribbean writer had to tell the same story as In the Castle of My Skin. It would be a sign that the reality that, I think, people are hoping no longer exists is still there. I think sometimes these books are written with the hope that there will no longer be a need for such books.
There are a lot of Caribbean writers who would disagree with me. They believe, “No, we still have these same fights.” They have a more militant idea about identity. And what we should and should not write. And I just don’t care. The whole idea of who should say what… I really don’t care. Who has a right to tell a story? Anybody can do anything. And if you do it badly, they come after you.
I think the older generation may be disappointed by our lack of militancy and our lack of a political center. But there is no center. There’s no Caribbean central. Not anymore. So, I think that is the difference. In some ways, we are dealing with a wider world and a less easily defined reality.
You’re in a good zone if you have a love-hate relationship with what you’re reading.
Guernica: You were going to say more about memory and imagination.
Marlon James: One of the reasons why a lot of this is so imaginative is because I had no choice. A lot of these guys are dead. Not a lot is known about them. So a lot of it is conjecture, a lot of it is educated guess. Also, no matter how removed you are, and I was pretty removed, Jamaica is still a small country. So even if I’m not in the middle of West Kingston in a shoot-out, I know what it’s like to be told you can’t go downtown because of your safety. You know, an offstage event in this case having profound power.
But the reason why I didn’t write nonfiction or something that stays so close to the truth, like Wolf Hall, is because I’m still a novelist, and I’m still kind of a fabulist, and I still want my imagination to get a workout. I’m still inspired by movies. I still want nice camera angles and pretty leading men and leading ladies and I want characters that are fascinating and I want shoot-outs that look cinematic. Why not?
Because I’m still entertaining. And a novel is to an extent still entertainment. I write the work I want to write and I stay true to my vision but I still want people to enjoy it. And I want people to realize “enjoy” doesn’t necessarily mean happy-go-lucky. It can be terrifying, it can be thrilling even, in the original sense of the word. It can be extremely sad, it can be extremely disturbing. You’re in a good zone if you have a love-hate relationship with what you’re reading. We need to get back to the point where we realize this is a good thing. You are supposed to have a complicated relationship to art.
Guernica: Is there a novel that you have an especially complicated relationship with?
Marlon James: Well, the most recent novel is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book My Struggle. I have a complicated relationship to it because I am so entranced by the novel. I’m so entranced by the story. I am so not [entranced] by the philosophy. Why do Europeans always have to show us they’re smart?
I had a complicated relationship to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Because “beloved” means you have to accept the disturbing fact that maybe murder can be an act of love. Nobody wants to have that in their heads. But it’s going to stay and you have to deal with it. Most people don’t want to sit with it. They don’t want to have to take that person’s side and they resent having to be on that person’s side. There’s a sort of readerly, not always writerly, but sort of readerly cowardice.
Guernica: Throughout the novel, Weeper, this brutal assassin, keeps a copy of a Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. Why include this detail?
Marlon James: That came from a true story. That came from hearing about people in Jamaican prisons reading Bertrand Russell. Talk about complicating the narrative. The things that people think are made up are actually true. And some of the things that are true are made up. I talked to someone, and he said, “Yeah, we had Alex Haley’s Roots and Bertrand Russell.” And I said, “What?”
You can be well read, well educated, a scholar, and still do terrible things. And I’m not knocking it, but it’s interesting, the idea that civilization will save us. That if we just read poetry, if the terrorists of 9/11 were just a little bit more civilized and had a cultural life and had exposure to art and music they would be redeemed. Western civilization will civilize us. I’m not so sure that it will civilize us as much as now we read poetry while we butcher people.
I really wanted the characters to contradict that idea. I really wanted to show that three-dimensionality can mean a lot of different things besides, “He’s partially good.” No, you don’t want to be in a room with Weeper, despite the fact that he admires Bertrand Russell. Sorry. No.
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