Marlon James Q&A: “I was an exorcist in another life”

The Booker Prize-winning author on Thomas Piketty, Buffy and why firemen are his heroes.

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Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970 and is the author of four novels. His first was rejected 78 times before publication in 2005; his third, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

What’s your earliest memory?

Going to school on a gloomy day. My teacher, a radical fringe educator, was convinced that three-year-olds could learn stuff meant for eight-year-olds. I ended up being the resident genius at my next school. 

Who are your heroes?

Firemen. I’m still strangely calmed whenever I see one. And Toni Morrison, for Sula, which gave me a reason for living by simply asking, “Show? To who?”

What book last changed your thinking?

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty, and The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Most of us would say we’re not practising Christians, but it’s alarming how many of us are practising Calvinists. Because of that I’m obsessed with the so-called normal life. Once, my pursuit of the “normal” life nearly resulted in me ending it. What if we took random to be normal, and normal to be random?

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I was an exorcist in another life. I’m not being metaphoric. 

Which political figures do you look up to?

The revolutionaries Tacky and Dutty Boukman, and Jimmy Carter.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The problem with most times and places is that people like me were usually in chains or taking your bags. So I wouldn’t want to live in the world of Mansfield Park and Emma, though I love both novels. Nor in the Madmen era, since I would still be in a white jacket asking everybody if they would like me to freshen up their drinks. But to live in the city of Timbuktu during the reign of Mansa Musa must have been spectacular – if you weren’t a slave.

What TV show could you not live without?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who would paint your portrait?

Caravaggio, of course. Or Adrian Tomine.

What’s your theme tune?

“Spanish Key” by Miles Davis.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Set a routine and the muses will show up. 

What’s currently bugging you?

That we’re about to see a two-term president.

What single thing would make your life better?

A newly published Green Book: European Edition. There was a time when black and brown people ran to Europe because of less racism. But now the rise of the far right in Europe scares me. I’ve experienced its tamer version in France, where a restaurant refused to serve me and my partner. 

When were you happiest?

In 2008, when I finally started living the life I’d always imagined for myself. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A navigator on a Viking ship, or a slave revolt leader.

Are we all doomed?

No, because as a teacher of the future generation I can tell you that they have this planet-saving thing all sketched out. But does that include saving us, the people who messed things up? Probably not. l

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James is published by Hamish Hamilton

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down

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