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Marlon James: “Reclaiming the Fantasy Novel”

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Image credit to Megan Potter, ASU Now


Marlon James has made waves in the Fantasy world for a while now. He won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings in 2015, and if you’ve read his work, you know why. Jame’s prose, especially in his most recent publication, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, reads like the most moving kind of song—something you’d listen to on repeat with the windows down on a sunny day—which acts as a well-hinged doorway into the rich worlds he creates.

Recently, James sat down for an evening discussion called “Reclaiming the Fantasy Novel” with Michael Bennett of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

Under Old Main’s Carson Ballroom chandeliers, all two hundred or so seats were taken to hear James talk about his books, his craft, and his life—everything from writing beneath runaway slave posters pasted above his computer, to his need to always have music, or sound, present.

“I hate writing in silence,” James said.

Music has always been a large part of James’ life. Reggae had a huge influence on his life, which is evident in A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book, in part, about the attempted killing of Bob Marley.

Besides Reggae, James listens to a wide variety of other music, including Black Metal when writing action scenes. In perhaps the most entertaining anecdote of the evening, he described how, when living in Minneapolis, he and a few other English professors decided to visit Prince’s complex and scale his fence, in the dead of night, to speak to him. Needless to say, it ended as you’d expect: alarm bells, flashing lights, and a visit from Prince’s security guards.

When security came rolling in, he and his friends threw up their arms and said, “Don’t worry, we’re just English professors who like Prince!” The guards were more amused than anything, and told them stories about the various wacky people that have attempted the same feat over the years.

Beyond music, James spoke of what it means to be Black—and a Black author—in the contemporary world, stating that a portion of why he writes is to tell the tales that only he can, that need to be told, and that others don’t want him to tell.

He said it was disheartening to realize that Guns and Roses, despite being a hugely influential artist on him, was, for the most part, singing against him.

James spoke, too, of the surreality of going on a plantation tour and a tourist saying they wanted to have their wedding on the old plantation site.

Aptly, he replied: “Oh yeah, and I think you should have your honeymoon at Auschwitz!”

On the subject of violence, James said outrage, like in his response to the tourist’s cultural insensitivity, is what we, as writers, should seek to elicit when depicting violence in our works.

“Violence comes with suffering, consequences. You can’t kill forty people (like in movies) and just have a beer after. Violence should resonate. Too much and it becomes pornography, and the audience becomes numb to it. Outrage, as a response, is what we should feel, what you should try to do.”

Have you read Marlon James’ new book? You can pick up a copy of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, at most major retailers now. 


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