Marlon James: “I went for the flying women and upside-down cows”

Jamaican novelist Marlon James on inspiration, rejection, and success

Marlon James. Photograph by Simon Levy, courtesy Akashic Books

He’s the Sean Paul of the literary world, stirring up a firestorm in the international community from a base in Kingston, Jamaica. Marlon James’s first published novel, John Crow’s Devil, a magical tale of religion and redemption set in rural Jamaica, debuted to strong critical acclaim in September 2005. The New York Times called John Crow’s Devil “a powerful first novel”. Library Journal’s equally effusive praise helped the novel to sell out its second print run in less than four months after its release. And in February 2006, John Crow’s Devil was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel from Canada and the Caribbean.

Hunkered down at home in Kingston, 36-year-old James is taking the whirlwind reaction in stride. “There are so many people who didn’t believe in [this book],” he says. “I think I’m going to wake up any minute and realise it’s just a stupid dream.”

James graduated from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1992, with a degree in literature. After stints in advertising and writing music reviews for the Jamaica Observer, he founded his own graphic design firm, James Hill Design. Currently at work on both a second novel and a degree in creative writing through Wilkes Barre College in Philadelphia, James took a break to talk to Caribbean Beat about reading, writing, and rejection.

On early inspiration

“My earliest memory of wanting to write is watching really cheesy movies and going back and rewriting the endings. And reading lots of comics and wanting to rewrite them — Superman, Batman, you name it. I created my own stories for them. What I really wanted to do was draw. In high school, the subjects I did best in were literature and art. I always wanted to do both. [After high school] I had to choose between art school and UWI [the University of the West Indies]. I chose UWI.”

Growing up in Jamaica and the rural life depicted in John Crow’s Devil

“I grew up in the Jamaican version of That 70s Show. A lot of Starsky and Hutch and Michigan & Smiley. All very suburban. But my family is from the country. My grandfather would scare us with stories about Anansi, Rolling Calf, and duppies. He created a view of “country” that by day was very rural and vibrant, and by night was filled with spirits. That stayed with me. That, and the very religious upbringing.”

First steps

“Reading books is what made me want to write books. I’ve been inspired by writers like Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez. From 23 to 30, I wrote a long, huge novel about Jamaican politics and prostitution and society. I was ready to send it out, and then I read [Rushdie’s] Shame. I thought that [my book] is not writing, this is writing.

Márquez says that as a writer you have to be given permission to write. You read another author and something in his or her work frees you, changes the way you see things. For Márquez, that was Kafka. For me, that was Rushdie. After Rushdie, I went for the flying women and upside-down cows [featured in John Crow’s Devil]. Rushdie gave me licence to be as crazy as I want.”

On West Indian influences

“The first creative writing I did at UWI was with John Hearne. Voices Under the Window is a classic text. He was one of the great unsung Jamaican literary figures. Like Roger Mais [author of Brother Man]. Louis Simpson won a Pulitzer Prize, but most Jamaicans don’t know who he is.”

On rejection and reception

“The reviews have been surprising. There were so many people who didn’t believe in [John Crow’s Devil]. I have a list of them, 78 long. There were 40 agents who refused to represent it; 18 publishers who said it wasn’t right for them; six to seven publishers who didn’t want the paperback rights. Many more. There was an insane amount of rejection. Coming from the Caribbean, you’re not prepared for it. We don’t experience that kind of rejection.

“Now, [the reception] is surreal. I’ve been to 25 cities recently [on tour], 22 of which I’ve never been to before. I’m reading to foreign audiences from a book that’s one third [Jamaican] patois. I’m reading a story set in rural Jamaica to people who grew up on a ranch in Oregon. And they get it.

“The linguistic barrier isn’t as high as people think. [The international audience] has had 30 years of reggae to listen to. There’s enough Jamaican culture out there that people are familiar with it.

On his next project

“I’m working on two books at the same time. A book and a sequel. It’s about a secret society of slave women who plot a rebellion in Jamaica. The first book is told by a slave; the second by an Irish overseer. It’s two perspectives on the same story.

“I can’t explain how books come to me. I have a million ideas. The one that goes further than 40 pages is the one I go with. There are two issues that haunt me: slavery and the 70s. I don’t think we’ve come to terms with either. I like to write about subjects that I want to make sense of.”