Only a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, novelist Marlon James, recipient of the 2015 Man Booker prize, took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne’s Belk Centrum and said that he was “very excited” about Bob Dylan’s win. James questioned whether the people who opposed the choice of Dylan had heard much of his music. Many ancient epics were written to be sung, James observed, and he challenged the audience to “listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’” and “tell me it’s not literature.”
Turning from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his own writing, James—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—said that the first sentence that he wrote of his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), was now on page 458 and joked that the 680-plus page novel was actually an 800-page book, but he reduced the font and narrowed the margins.
James said that he had begun by writing a novel about a really sloppy hit man who was also in love, but around page fifty he ran into a dead end. After creating additional characters and running into more dead ends, James concluded that he was writing a string of failed novellas. Then he had a Eureka moment: He reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrated by fifteen characters, and realized that he was writing about the failed dream of the Jamaican 1960s, and that one voice alone could not tell the story. James also credited James McEllroy’s novel American Tabloid (1995) as a major influence on the writing of A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Among the excerpts James read from the novel include ones featuring the ghost of the dead Jamaican politician Arthur Jennings and immigrant Dorcas Palmer—whose name isn’t really Dorcas Palmer—who works a series of no-questions-asked jobs as a care giver in New York. They are the branches of the novel, James said, noting the book began with them rather than the trunk—though it may seem like the opposite, that the book began with Marley at the center.
James noted that one of the difficulties of writing about Marley was that by the time of the 1976 assassination attempt, Marley was already a literary device of sorts. For me growing up, James noted, he was a series of news reports: Marley is on tour, Marley has been shot, Marley has cancer . . . .
To guide him as he wrote around the dying man at the center of his novel, Marlon James turned to the classic Esquire magazine story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966), a profile that Gay Talese had been assigned to write as an interview with Frank Sinatra, but the singer refused to talk to him. Talese’s solution to the problem was to talk to everyone around Sinatra. Similarly, instead of moving in close, James’s narrators circle Marley in his last days.
In response to an audience member’s questions about knowing when you’ve finished revising, James said that he knows early on in the process when he’s done, but that it takes him four or five months to admit it. James said that A Brief History of Seven Killings doesn’t end with a flourish or with a profound statement about the human condition; it doesn’t end as much as it stops. He kept working on the book until a voice in his head told him, you finished four months ago.
One of the problems with writing stories, James said, is that we start too early and end too late. James recounted that once while submitting copies of the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, that he was short on paper and money, so he sent out a copy without the first and the last twenty pages. The agent who read it, James said, didn’t say that it started too late or ended too early.
Reflecting on James’s observations about writing—beginning with his opening remarks about Bob Dylan—brings to mind the role of music in his own writing, starting with the lines from Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues,” lyrics that serve as the epigraph for his debut novel, John Crows’ Devil. Those song lyrics are some of the first words we see in the book, but it’s likely that neither those words nor the words of the chapter that they introduce are the first ones he put on the page, evidenced by the fact that the first sentence he wrote for A Brief History of Seven Killings appears on page 458.
Beginnings and endings are difficult, Marlon James reminds us, though in the case of these words about his Thursday-night presentation, I knew from the start that I would begin with his opening remarks on Bob Dylan. (How I would begin was another matter altogether, and so was where and how I would end.) Of A Brief History of Seven Killings, James said that the novel doesn’t end as much as it stops. Taking a cue from him, I will stop here, reflecting on the insight that his remarks shed on his first novel—one that my students and I studied earlier this semester—one that begins with the chapter “The End” and ends with the chapter “The Beginning.”
James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.