The acclaimed author on how he lets his characters take the lead.
Interview by Richard Thayer / Portrait by Mark Seliger
Marlon James believes in routine. Though the complex worlds the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist creates often exist in the realm of fantasy, it's the simple act of sitting down to work at the same time every day that yields magical results. To coincide with the release of his latest book, Moon Witch, Spider King, James spoke with Platform about the trouble with best-laid plans, the tearjerker YouTube spirals he goes down and why he prefers Marvel to DC.
You’ve spoken in other interviews about what inspired you to write the Dark Star trilogy. I’m curious if there were moments like that with your other novels when you knew what you wanted to write and had a plan for what the books would be.
Almost every book I’ve written, I’ve had a very, very clear idea of what I wanted to do, and then I sit down to write, and none of that shit happens.
They take you in their own direction?
Yeah. One of the reasons I think pretty much all but one of my novels have been in the first person is that I really do take inhabiting the space of the character seriously. And if you’re gonna inhabit the space of the character, then you as a writer really do become secondary. And these characters do become people, going in a direction that I wasn’t thinking of or even approve of. It might not even be the character I really wanted to follow!
[The Book of] Night Women was like that. I still have the first 50 pages of that book, which have nothing to do with what came out. This character Lilith showed up and she took over the book and trust me, I fought her every step of the way until I gave in and said, “OK, it’s your story.”
I have all the best-laid plans, but creativity has never worked that way for me. I like to think I’m pretty creative, but the stuff that I create never goes that far. With every book I’ve written, there are anywhere between 50 to 500 pages of what didn’t make it because I’m like, “This is not it. This is me forcing my will on a story.” It’s me doing what I see people doing sometimes, which is, instead of inhabiting a character, they project their fears and desires onto them and then react to that. And some people build a whole novel off of that – that’s Heart of Darkness. That’s the woman in nearly every novel of the “Latin boom” . . . which is not a diss, Jose Donoso said that [laughs].
Where do you think that comes from? That inspiration or whatever it is?
Journalism and reportage, I think. Funny enough, it’s from nonfiction. One thing that people forget about Gabriel Garcia Marquez is that he was first and foremost a reporter. Some of his most enduring books are his journalism. Marquez says I’m here to get the story, to get the truth, and get all of it, not just the parts that I like or the parts I want to tell. And that’s the thing that inspires me. Treat your character as a subject that has something to tell you, and stick around to get all of it.
Most of my novels have tons of characters, and it’s very easy for me to fall for a character and just run off with one of them. That’s what happened with Night Women. I’m trying not to do that with every damn book I write. And that means being fair to everybody. Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote an article in The New York Times where she said something like, “You have to love your villains into being.” That’s not her exact phrase, but I get what she was saying: good or bad, you have to love your characters into being, and the books and stories that inspire me the most are the ones that do that.
I’d like to ask a little bit about your process because your novels seem incredibly time- and labor-intensive. And I often ask this of the artists we work with on Platform because I love to hear about people’s routines. What’s your average workday like?
I’m a big believer in routine. I go to work at the very desk I’m talking to you from, from around 10 am and I work till around 6 pm. Unless I have a deadline, I rarely work past that. I do put in the 9-to-5. One of my teachers once said, if you set a routine, the muses will show up.
People say to me they only write when they’re inspired, and I’m like “Wow, I haven’t been inspired since the Reagan administration [laughs].” I sit at my desk and I do the work!
The thing I got from Ernest Hemingway always walking around with his typewriter is that, once he puts down that typewriter — wherever he is, usually a bar — he goes to work. Whether you believe in inspiration or the muses or whatever you call it, I think the creative spirit in you knows when you’re joking, when you’re fooling around, and when you’re serious, and I think a routine is one of the best ways to do that.
I think of you as a creator of worlds, so I’m curious how, as a storyteller, you’d describe the world we’re living in now. What stands out?
It’s very easy, and too many writers are saying it, to say that the world right now is so crazy you can’t describe it, or it’s beyond satire. I’m like, “Oh no, it’s not.”
I have been wondering, what do we do with this moment, how do we define it? And one thing I find myself unable to prevent is jumping back 100 years. Like, OK, what was 1922 like? Or 1918, when we were reeling from another pandemic? And a lot of the things—like vaccine deniers and people fighting against healthcare measures because they feel their grand individuality supersedes concerns about somebody else—aren’t new.
I guess the point that I’m getting at is, in trying to define this moment, I find myself jumping back in history, thinking if it provides any answers. It provides some. Human nature hasn’t changed, but that’s not really helping us.
As an educator, I’m around people who are under 20 all the time. I spend most of my non-writing time around people who were born in this century. Were you born in this century?
[laughs] No, no, in 1985!
[laughs] I spend my days around them, and I actually do think, if we don’t screw it up too much, that they may actually fix a lot of what’s going on.
They make you optimistic?
They do make me optimistic. There’s a lot in them that I find hopeful.
They seem much nicer.
They are, but I also think they’re less tolerant of bullshit. Which, of course, we who think bullshit should be tolerated call “canceling.” No, it’s not. You really don’t have to put up with bullshit. I have this sort of mix of optimism, but as a writer and a creative person and just a person living in this world, I still keep trying to figure it out, which is a very long way of saying, I don’t know how to answer your question.
I’m gonna switch gears a little bit. Is there anything you collect?
God, what don’t I collect? I collect superhero figures, I collect African art, I collect rare books, I collect really weird things that this Swedish design firm called Front makes. One of their most famous stunts is a living room lamp that’s a lifesize horse. So I have this massive, 12ft x 12ft horse in my living room with a lamp on top of it.
What superheroes are you into?
Here’s the thing, I have a lot of DC superheroes because the action figures are nicer, but I’m actually a Marvel guy.
Me too! I actually bought my niece and nephew vintage X-Men toys from eBay for Christmas.
OMG, you should’ve bought me vintage X-Men toys [laughs]! I used to tell people, when you’re an X-Men fan, reading the X-Men is a lot like being in the X-Men, cuz when I was growing up, none of the cool kids read X-Men, they read the Avengers.
If you could collect any one artist, who would it be?
Oh my God. I absolutely love Kerry James Marshall. I’ve always been hugely obsessed with Kerry’s work. Kerry didn’t do it, but right now possibly my favorite painting at the Whitney—and it made the cover of William Gardner Smith’s book—is American Totem by Norman Lewis. And I was looking at a lot of Kara Walker when I wrote Book of Night Women. Funny enough, when I was writing Black Leopard, the artist I was looking at a lot was Wangechi Mutu.
That’s a great segue to my next question, which is if there’s any relationship between art and your work?
Oh, absolutely. A lot of Wangechi Mutu’s stuff was adorning my walls during Black Leopard. I took a lot of inspiration from her work Water Woman for a character.
When I’m writing, I’ve always been inspired by all the forms of creativity. It’s not that I don’t read when I’m writing, but honestly, sometimes I’m more inspired by how another artist enters the world, how another artist solves a problem. There’s a sense of possibility I get from, say, listening to the second half of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, or looking at Wangechi Mutu’s work and remembering that a novel shouldn’t just be words. You should be able to smell a novel, to taste it, feel texture, and so on.
These artists are a reminder that you should surprise yourself, and you should push beyond what you think your boundaries are. One of the things I really really love about Velvet Underground is this idea that you can go through this sort of noise and grotesque to get to beauty. It’s sort of a “the only way forward is through” kind of thing. It’s how other people achieve things in different art forms that inspire me to try to do what I do.
On that note, is there another talent you wish you had?
I wish I could sing.
I would love to be able to sing or perform in any way. Not a talent that I have! And one that I actually really wish I had is the ability to learn languages easily, which seems to be a talent of yours.
Well, I’m blown away by the different dialects you write in with such ease, and I’m curious, what is that like? Does it come naturally? Do you think in these dialects when you’re writing in them?
I think it stems from simply being very curious about dialects. I almost switched to linguistics at one point in college. And I’m still very much fascinated by dialects, even more so than different languages.
Take Jamaica, for example. If I take you to, say, Northwestern Jamaica, somewhere like St. Elizabeth, you won’t understand what they’re saying, and I can’t help you because I won’t understand it either. There, it’s this mix between 18th-century English, contemporary patois, and also German. Put all of that together and you get a version of patois that even I don’t understand. I’m very interested in how different influences shape a language and what’s underneath all of it. One of the things that writing Black Leopard and Moon Witch did for me is unpack some of the nuances of my own patois.
Before I started researching African languages—and not a lot of African languages appear in the books, but a lot of the ways in which Africans conjugated languages appear in them—one of the things I didn’t realize was that in a language like Wolof, verbs remain present tense no matter what the tense. Action is always a present thing. I never thought about it, but in Jamaican patois, there’s no such word as “went.” It’s: “he soon go,” “he did go,” “he will go.” The verb always remains present tense, and I always thought that was some sort of backward English because that’s what I was taught. But it turns out, no, it’s just one of many examples of our original tongues still finding their way through after all these years of oppression. There are parts of our language that remain triumphant, and that never occurred to me until I started doing research for these books.
Can you remember an early experience with art, of any kind, that really impacted you?
There was one. This would be 1982 or ‘83, Bob Marley died 2 years earlier and they commissioned a statue in his memory. They hired one of our prominent artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Christopher González. And González did this sculpture of Marley pretty much sprouting from a tree, and I remember seeing all that.
There’s this moment when you’re a kid digging art—and art could be a book—when it’s complicated, but you’re getting it. You don’t have it all together, but you’re getting it. And it’s the most exciting thing, cuz you’re, like, 13 [laughs]. And it was so reviled by the Jamaican public. There are probably still videos of people pretty much dragging it off its base. The day it was unveiled, it almost caused a riot. They thought it was weird! They were like, “Why Bob Marley don’t have any feet? Why he’s coming out of a tree trunk?” And they despised it. You know something, maybe they should’ve... because nobody asked for a piece of art, they asked for a piece of pop. I don’t blame them at all. But I remember being transfixed by that piece of art. I actually didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That was the first time I remember having a complicated relationship with art. And realizing that having a complicated relationship is better than just liking it.
We only have 10 minutes left, so I’m gonna ask you a few more fun questions. What’s a typical internet rabbit hole for you?
YouTube, oh my God! So here’s one of my really really terrible secrets. I watch tearjerker videos all the time, and I’ll sit on YouTube and bawl along with them. Soldier home from 10 years of duty, you know. Coming back from leave and their dog hasn’t seen them. I’ll spend a good afternoon and a good cry because of Youtube videos. I’m like, “I can’t believe I just did this. I have two deadlines.”
I like a good cry. Dream dinner guests, dead or alive?
I was gonna say Toni Morrison, but I’d spend the whole time bursting into tears, and that wouldn’t be fun for anybody. I think Oscar Wilde would be a lot of fun. I would say, Chinua Achebe, Dorothy Parker. I’m actually not interested in Pollock but I’m very interested in Lee Krasner. I’d be very interested in what she would have to say. And probably people going way way way back, like 3-Finger Jack, who was this outlaw who terrorized Jamaica in the 1700s. I think he’d be a lot of fun. And also, Blackbeard.
You’ve got a good crew there. What songs do you have on repeat lately?
I’ve been obsessed with L’Rain. I thought it was the best record of 2021. I’ve been obsessed with her. She has a song, I think it’s Two-Face, which I’m like, “This is the wildest thing I’ve heard, but it’s irresistible.” She’s just a straight-up artist.
What’s your greatest extravagance?
You mean other than horse lamps [laughs]? I would say my greatest extravagances are these objects of art that cost a lot of money but I really have to have them. Other than that, rare editions of books I already have, Japanese clothes.
Who are your favorite designers?
I love [Yohji] Yamamoto and wear a ton of his stuff. There’s this guy, he’s not Japanese, actually, he’s from Thailand, called The Only Son. He used to have designs in America and then he vanished, and I’m obsessed with him. I can’t find his clothes anywhere.
Okay, this is a question I was thinking about asking earlier, and then you brought up Toni Morrison, so I do want to ask it because I love her. There’s a great scene, a conversation between Toni Morrison and Fran Leibovitz, in the documentary Public Speaking. In it, Fran Leibovitz calls racism “a fantasy of superiority.” I thought that was an interesting categorization, and since you’re a fantasy writer, I’m curious what you think about that description.
Well, it is true that racism is a fantasy of superiority, and it’s tied into our mythmaking. The British sense of superiority is pretty remarkable to behold, and part of it stems from their mythmaking, King Arthur and Camelot and all of that. I mean, go back to the times of ancient Rome, and Britain was the dump of Europe. Literally the butt crack of the continent. It was no jewel in no Roman emperor’s crown. Claudia Rankine said it’s going to take some policing of our own imaginations to end some of that racism, things like police brutality. Because it’s an absolute fantasy that the Black man coming toward you means you harm.
Before a knee ended up on George Floyd’s neck, a phone call was made. And we talk a lot about the knee, but we don’t talk about the phone call. So somebody’s imagination set this thing in place. So she is right, it is fantasy.
But it’s also about realizing that fantasy plays a bigger role than we think. Of course, all the fantasy writers already know this. A huge part of our “reality'' is shaped by our fantastical imagination – that’s where our prejudices come from. It’s also where some of our desires come from. It’s because we’re imaginative people, and because we don’t realize how easily that imagination can run afoul of other people that we don’t realize these are the kinds of cycles that cause harm. We need to be more vigilant about our imaginations.
Well, thank you so much. I’m gonna let you go. What are you doing right after this?
I have to do a lot of boring stuff. I have a couple thousand more front pages of a book to sign. Hopefully, people buy them, cuz the last thing I wanna do is look in a remainder pile and see a signed book [laughs].
I will buy a signed one!
Thank you! Writers are more fragile than people think.