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Marlon James

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Burnin'

It’s one-o-clock in the afternoon at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and he’s already tired. Writer Marlon James’ badge says Speaker, and he has talked his way to weariness for the day. This is the last appointment and I get a request to advance it; the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner is waiting only for us to arrive before he can hide away and prepare for another day of speaking at the event. The exhaustion is evident as we begin our interview in a quiet corner away from the crowds, he calls for water and tea too, but gradually as we speak, his eyes light up. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected 70 times before it found a publisher. Tiredness has never got the better of him.

What is your first memory of writing?
Probably writing comics. Probably writing and drawing comics. And reading Jules Verne and adventures. We all read stories as children, but a lot of us want to go one step beyond that. Like, I want to do that. I want to do that to somebody—what just happened to me. And I can’t remember the age, maybe it was six or seven. In hindsight, I don’t know when I thought I would be a writer. In fact even after my first novel, I didn’t think I was a novelist. I didn’t know I was a writer until I’d done my second book and somebody asked me, what do you do other than writing, and I didn’t have an answer! I was like, I don’t know, there is no other thing. But it’s something that occurred to me.

At what point did you decide to write your Man Booker winning title, A Brief History of Seven Killings?
I started writing it way back when I was writing my second novel [The Book of Night Women, 2009]. It was a totally different book back then; it was supposed to be a short novel set in New York. And from there it grew to become A Brief History of Seven Killings. I didn’t set out to write that book. I was just following a story and choosing not to be narrow in it, but while exploring the characters, it went to the Bob Marley assassination in 1976 and that’s how it all actually started. 

Your book is more than a story about the assassination attempt on Bob Marley; it’s a story of the War of Drugs. How far do you think we’ve come from this history? How powerful is this war today, in the global context?
We haven’t come anywhere from this history! What was going on in the Caribbean and in Columbia in the 70s is going on in Mexico right now and the War of Drugs will stop only if we want it to be stopped. So we really haven’t gotten anywhere from it. In fact it’s worse now. I was reading Don Winslow’s novel, The Cartel, and he dedicates a page-and-a-half to a list of names and I was like, is this all of the names of people who helped you write the book, and he was like, “no these are all the people that have been assassinated and all the journalists that have been killed covering the drug beat.” They’ve murdered thousands upon thousands of people. It’s no better. It’s as bad as it has always been.

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