‘I Spent Two Years Researching Before I Wrote a Single Line’: Geeking Out With Marlon James

Man Booker winner Marlon James immersed himself in African myths and history, so he could use that world as a springboard for a new fantasy series.

Adam Morgan| Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (1,962 words)

I understand why Marlon James calls his new trilogy “an African Game of Thrones” — it builds the right expectations for an epic fantasy with dozens of characters spread across warring kingdoms. However, judging by the first book in the series, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, another apt comparison, especially when it comes to style and structure, might be “an African Gormenghast.”

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series (1946-1959), if you’ve never read it, is a dense literary labyrinth that makes A Game of Thrones and its sequels look downright old-fashioned. The story of a wealthy heir who lives in a vast, crumbling castle, Gormenghast has never been wildly popular thanks to its challenging style, but it does hold cult status among scholars and writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Sofia Samatar, even Harold Bloom. “Reading it at the age of 13,” Samatar has written, “I understood that fantasy, the place I was looking for, is not to be found in dragons, ghosts, or magic wands. It resides in language.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Kingston, Jamaica, Marlon James didn’t have access to many fantasy novels, but he did stumble upon Gormenghast as an adult. “It was like a blueprint for how the fantastical grows up,” he says, echoing Samatar, adding that it’s the one book that “continues to rule his life.”

Perhaps that’s why Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes so many narrative risks. It’s a sprawling series of stories within stories that fold back on themselves, a hypnotic spoken-word fable full of sex, violence, and magic. It’s not quite what you’re expecting — and it’s all the better for it.

Our narrator is a man called Tracker, known for his supernatural sense of smell, which makes it possible for him to locate anyone, no matter how distant, so long as he knows their scent. Accompanied by a shapeshifting man-leopard, he joins a quest to find a missing child. The world they traverse resembles sub-Saharan Africa, but is populated with giants, witches, anti-witches, and creatures that are difficult to describe because they aren’t based on any pre-existing mythology.

I spoke with Marlon James over the phone in early December, on the last day of the semester at Macalester College, the liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.

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Adam Morgan: After winning the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, you said you wanted to “geek the fuck out” for your next book. Growing up in Jamaica, how did you first become a geek?

Marlon James: I grew up having no snobbery about literature, because I read whatever was available, whatever was in the dime store, whatever was dumped into third world countries. It could be Little House in the Big Woods. It could be The Railway Children. Sometimes it was Leon Uris or James Clavell. Other times it was The Secret Garden.

But the stuff that made me really feel electrified was comics. First it was Superman and Batman — but more Batman, because Superman was absolutely awful. Later on, X-Men and Spider-man. Marvel comics more than DC, because the Marvel characters were nerds and geeks as well. I wasn’t going to get bitten by a radioactive spider, but Lord knows I wanted to.

Terry Tempest Williams says she writes so that she can have more than one life, and I think we read for that too. For me, reading was an escape. I grew up in the suburbs [of Kingston] and one thing I’ve realized is everywhere in the world is cursed with the same suburbs. I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgård’s and I’m like “Oh my God, this is my life,” and I sure as hell didn’t grow up in Scandinavia.

I spent two years researching before I wrote a single line. I read whatever was written about Africa, in Africa, by Africans.

You’ve said the original idea for the Dark Star trilogy came after you got into an argument about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, which starred an all-white cast. In addition to Tolkien, what other fantasy novels and franchises were you writing in conversation with or in response to?

A lot of the fantasy I was thinking about wasn’t even novels, it was films like Excalibur and The Mists of Avalon. But also Arthurian legend, lots of Greek mythology, Norse mythology, Indian mythology, stuff like Beowulf and Grendel. And then I read more graphic novels than anything else. There’s this great one from the ‘80s called The Towers of Bois-Maury. That was a major one for me.

Growing up I never read much fantasy because it wasn’t available, but I saw a lot of fantasy. I never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I was always fascinated by the ads that would be in the back of comic books, so I starting creating these stories in my head. As an adult I read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, but the fantasy novel that continues to rule my life is Gormenghast. It was a blueprint for how the fantastical grows up.

There are some references in Black Leopard, Red Wolf to real-life mythology, such as Anansi the Spider. What kind of historical research did you do?

I spent two years researching before I wrote a single line. I read whatever was written about Africa, in Africa, by Africans. Because the problem with doing research on Africa is that a lot of it is written by Europeans, and even the ones who mean well can’t get past their biases.

I haven’t been to the continent since 2013, so a lot of it was archaeological stuff and contemporary research on religions and languages. Even though the book is written primarily in English, a lot of the ways in which the language is structured is based on African languages. I read all the history I could get on Eastern and Western Africa, the great kingdoms of Mali and Songhai and Ghana, Timbuktu and Zimbabwe.


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How did you balance drawing from Africa with inventing your own world?

I researched everywhere in Africa with beliefs in pre-Christian, pre-Muslim religions, but I wasn’t trying to be anywhere explicit. That’s like trying to find the Norse roots of The Two Towers. I wasn’t trying to capture a specific kind of Africa. There are already writers doing that, and it’s not really what I wanted to do. I wanted to use African history and myths and legends as a springboard, as a reservoir, and pull from it to write a totally fabulous story. I think that’s something we allow for in European and American fantasy novels, but sometimes when we’re drawing from Africa, we still feel like there are certain things we have to pay allegiance to.

And I have huge respect for all the history that I uncovered, but at the same time, when we make things up, when we try to do the fantastical, most of the time we’re drawing from hundreds of years of European storytelling, even when we’re trying to write something like The Matrix. But ultimately, despite drawing heavily from African folklore, pretty much all the monsters and divine creatures in the book don’t exist in mythology. I left a lot of it to invention, and to having fun.

We don’t often hear about the children who occupy fantastic worlds like Middle Earth. Why make children such a major focus of Black Leopard, Red Wolf?

Well, you don’t hear from them a lot, but at the same time they do take these central roles in a way that I find very annoying: the magic child or the little one who shall lead them. So even though fantasy claims a lot from the pagan world, a lot of these books are still quite Christian. The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were written by devout Christians. This idea of the humble, meek, and mild who winds up changing the fortunes of the world . . . that’s still pretty Calvinist. So yeah, even though the child in Black Leopard, Red Wolf has a very important role, the child doesn’t become what people — even people in the book — thought he would be. For me that was important.

I wanted to use African history and myths and legends as a springboard, as a reservoir…. When we make things up, when we try to do the fantastical, most of the time we’re drawing from hundreds of years of European storytelling.

Sex and gender also play a larger role here than in “traditional” epic fantasies.

One of the things my research uncovered for me was that gender fluidity and non-binary-ness, which are topical words now because of diversity and inclusion and intersectionality, there’s a certain sort of arrogance in thinking that we came up with these things. Even though that might seem like the “new turn” in the book, it’s actually the oldest trope in the book. A lot of ancient societies, including African societies, had way more than two genders. Even the idea of addressing someone by what they identify as, somebody from that time would come here and say, “Congrats on finally catching up with us.”

I imagine detractors will say this is another sign of sci-fi books “giving in to PC concerns,” not realizing that none of this is new.

Why Tracker’s nose? Why a supernatural sense of smell, of all things?

I think it may have been a holdover from talking to somebody from the Royal Society for the Blind in London. We were talking about audiobooks, because my last book got a commendation from them. One of the things he said, which really struck me and made me even more cognizant of it, is that he really appreciated that I didn’t always depend on sight to render something. Because if you had been born blind, all the significance that you put into [visuals] goes over your head unless somebody explains it to you. We can’t help it, writers as a rule default to sight to describe everything. And the thing he appreciated was, because I didn’t rely on sight all the time, it didn’t stop visually impaired people from absorbing the world. And that really struck me. I didn’t set out to do it deliberately, but I became conscious of it after that. I think that had something to do with [Tracker], but also the whole idea of the bloodhound, and that people would use him. That this guy, with all his breadth of personality and contradiction, is still essentially a bloodhound.

Where are you in your writing process right now with the trilogy?

I’m just trying to hunker down on part two. Each book will come out two years after the last, hopefully to the day. We finally put [Black Leopard, Red Wolf] to bed, so I’m doing my professor thing, meeting with students, wrapping up the semester, and clearing my desk so I can move full speed ahead on the next one.

What did you think of the cover art when you first saw it?

I absolutely adored it. It usually takes me a while to like a cover, but that one I liked instantly. It’s an artist from Venezuela named Pedro Camacho, and he’s going to do the other two as well.

Can you tell us anything about the second book, Moon Witch, Night Devil?

All I can tell you is the witch Sogolon tells the second story. She tells some stories in the first book, but she is totally in charge of telling the second one, so that’s going to be really interesting. And characters who people think they know are going to come up in a totally different light they may not like.

What about book three, The Boy and the Dark Star?

Oh no, that one’s a total secret. I’m not even telling you who’s telling that story. You’ve got a good two or three years to wait for that.

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Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris ReviewLos Angeles TimesChicago TribuneChicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.

Editor: Dana Snitzky