Book Brahmin: Marlon James

photo: Jeffrey Skemp

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970 and is author of three novels. His most recent, A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead), won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the American Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize for fiction, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean fiction and the Minnesota Book Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, Granta and Harpers. He lives in Minnesota and teaches at Macalester College.

On your nightstand now:

Mary Beard's S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome. Beard is great company, and this is a necessary addition/corrective to the field of Roman history, especially since we have a habit of constantly referring to Rome as the first golden age of civilization. Turns out they couldn't even figure out what to do with their own poop.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember it being the first book with more words than pictures that I stuck with anyway. I really thought it was an anti-picture conspiracy, these books with only words. My five-year-old self just couldn't figure out why anybody would want a book without pictures. Ridiculous. But I stuck with it, despite that atrocious flaw, and realized at the end that I kinda liked it. After that, I couldn't stop reading. A few years ago I was on a panel with an Iranian and a Vietnamese writer, and when asked this question, we all said Little House in the Big Woods. There might have been many reasons, but the main one was really that Wilder was such a world-famous author that her books were just the most likely to be in a library.

Your top five authors:

Toni Morrison, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Gabriel García Márquez, Mikhail Bulgakov and Virginia Woolf.

Book you've faked reading:

The Great Gatsby. Worse, my students caught me in the middle of the lie, when I said once, "Gatsby has the tone of melodrama. Like when Gatsby got hit by a car." One shy student said, "I think he was shot." I said, "Well... not in the version... in Jamaica!" It was a sad day.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters. It's the greatest novel on contemporary Jamaica ever written, and it's set in the Philippines. There are a few countries in the world that have a screwed-up-ness that's instantly recognizable to any person who lives in those countries. If you live in Jamaica, you understand the Philippines. If you live in Jamaica, you understand South Africa. It's hard to describe what it is exactly, but in terms of capturing the craziness and the beauty of the Caribbean, this book probably came the closest.

Book you've bought for the cover:

As a former graphic designer, I buy tons of books for the cover. I told Charles Bock when I met him that I loved his debut novel, Beautiful Children, but bought the British version because I didn't like the American cover. Same thing with Michael Chabon's and Amitav Ghosh's books. Chip Kidd turned me into a Murakami fan with his design for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Right now I have pretty much every single book that Knopf puts out for Jo Nesbø. I haven't read a single one as yet, but whoever that graphic designer is, he's on a roll. [Editor: It's Peter Mendelsund.]

Book you hid from your parents:

Oh, I wouldn't call those things books. They had quite expressive pages though, packed with imagery and sensory detail.

Book that changed your life:

Toni Morrison's Sula. It's near the end of the book, and Sula is dying. Her best friend, Nel, still bitter at how Sula slept with her husband decades before, finally confronts her. Sula makes a point of showing how much better than everybody else she is, right up to the end, talking about how at least she lived life to the fullest, traveled here and there, and made a mark in the world. Nel, her anger changing into pity, says, "But what have you got to show for it?" I remember thinking, yeah Sula, what the hell do you have to show for it? Sula looks at Nel and says, "Show? To who?" I read that book at a particularly dark time in my life. So when Sula said those words, I shouted, screamed, cried, jumped off the chair. I recognized at that moment that I didn't have to shape myself for anybody's approval. I didn't have to validate myself to anybody. Honestly, those three words changed my life.

Favorite line from a book:

"It was a fine cry--loud and long--but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow." --from Sula by Toni Morrison.

Five books you'll never part with:

Song of Solomon and Sula by Toni Morrison, the Thor omnibus by Walter Simonson, A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul and American Tabloid by James Ellroy.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

Best book about writing:

Stephen King's On Writing. I like nuts and bolts approach to writing, and that's how I teach it. It's great that writing is a mystical communication with the spirits for some, but when I sit down to write, I sit down to work.

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