This year’s Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James has visited Birmingham to discuss the inspiration behind his book A Brief History of Seven Killings.
Almost 100 fans attended the event on November 23 in the newly-refurbished Waterstones, High Street, to hear James speak about the characters in his book, the history it derives from and the power of reggae music and Patois language on Jamaican politics.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is loosely based on the days leading up to and the days following the assassination attempt of Bob Marley from the point of view of several people, including the killers.
James said: “The book doesn’t follow Marley at all, he died in 1981 and the book ends in 1991 so there are a lot of things that go on before and after.
“It follows a character who finds herself at the wrong place at the wrong time and the consequences for her, and for quite a few of the characters, spill over two decades.”
At the event, James recounted his childhood memory as a frightened six-year-old hearing the news of the assassination attempt in 1976 and the shift in Jamaican social politics ever since. He used his life experiences to write his story.
He said: “My mother was a police officer, my father was a lawyer. She put people in jail, he took them out. I was very big on snooping on my parents.
“There’s a part in the book where the character Nina Burgess talks about how she hates politics and she hates what she’s supposed to know and that’s kind of like me. I don’t hate politics, but if you grow up in Jamaica you know it; I don’t feel like I’m revealing a lot in my book to anybody who grew up in Jamaica.”
A unique aspect of James’ book is its use of Jamaican Patois and reggae music. James believes Bob Marley’s song Ambush in the Night broke down the socio-political situation so perfectly that his own shooting became inevitable.
On exploring the different ranges of the language and music, James said: “When I realised how explosive and turbulent the 70’s was in Jamaica, I realised how much an exclamation point 1976 was in the 70’s. It saw an explosion of culture, the type of culture that made writers like me possible, because if it wasn’t for reggae music the idea that I would write a novel in Patois was unthinkable, that was not how I was raised.
“After years of British colonial rule, Jamaicans were taught to speak ‘proper’ English, and I even taught English. It’s still being taught like it’s a language we’re not worthy of. It’s very archaic.
“Reggae music undid a lot of that in the 70’s. For this reason there were always artists, poets and dramatists using Patois. For a lot of them it was for slapstick humour, and there’s nothing wrong with that because we need to laugh.”
But using Patois to talk about complicated issues of which there are no easy answers was difficult, James claimed. The idea of using the native, slang language to talk about literature was a brand new concept born from the 70’s .
He said: “The turbulence was artistic; the disruptions were creative.”
In the book, language is a big indicator to distinguish between the seven killers who have a lot in common. They are from the same background and have the same values but what makes them different is they all want different things.
James said: “How I distinguish between characters is by knowing what each of them wants and how they go about getting it.
“I had to keep notes on how they speak. Even friends who come from the same background, have the same taste, have the same politics, in love with the same woman, don’t talk the same way.”
The discussion was heard by an audience of many backgrounds and ages, they were given the opportunity to chat with the writer at the end of the evening and get their book signed.
Waterstone’s manager, Stuart Bartholomew, described the event as a success. He was pleased to invite the best-selling author to Birmingham as he anticipated customers would love to meet and hear from him.
He said: “I’m really pleased with the turn out. Marlon was excellent and those who attended were very happy with the experience.”
On the author, he said: “What struck me most was how happy, confident and relaxed he seemed. He was alive with his love for writing and he seemed thrilled to meet some of his readers. I think it was clear he writes for the love of it. He has ideas to communicate as well as stories to tell.”
Marlon James took inspiration from many other authors in writing his novel, some of which were Victor Headley’s Yardie, Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeater.
The award-winning book took four years to write which, James said, came about from writing his first draft continuously non-stop after spending a year on research. He believes a lot of writers think they have a process in which they write but in actuality they have a habit.
He said: “I learnt that different books determine different processes. My last novel was one voice telling the whole story and my first mistake was taking that same process for this novel.”
The Man Booker Prize is the top literary prize for fiction published in the UK. Marlon James’ previous novels include John Crow’s Devil and the Book of Night Women.