Marlon James: How Rebel Novelist Escaped Jamaica to Win Top Literary Prize

Jamaica's rebel son moved to the Midwest and won the Man Booker Prize. Now the hard part: fame

HBO is making a series based on Marlon James' 'A Brief History of Seven Killings' Credit: Ackerman + Gruber for Rolling Stone

You cannot fuck with Marlon James. Those days are over. They ended quietly, gradually, without much fanfare, sometime between the moment he left Jamaica behind — coming to America with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position — and this moment, driving around Minneapolis in a rented Volkswagen sedan, going to a record store he frequents or an Indian buffet he likes or the coffee shop where he sat at a table by the front window and wrote large chunks of A Brief History of Seven Killings — the 700-page-plus epic that in October won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, one of the world's most important literary awards. In fact, the current version of Marlon James can be on the road seven weeks — giving talks, doing readings, returning his tray table to its full upright and locked position — all while suffering a nagging cold and bearing up under the weight of international acclaim and scrutiny, and he will still go to the trouble to take someone, "usually a white man," to task when he inevitably asks James' least-favorite question: the one about the book's (inexorable) violence.

"There's an assumption that the writer of color must have experienced violence firsthand," says James. "And when I say, 'No, my background was very suburban and very stable,' they ask by what authority do I know about these things to write about them? And I say, 'It's called using your fucking imagination. You know, like a white novelist, like any other novelist.' "

There are 76 characters listed at the beginning of A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is neither brief nor has seven killings (there are quite a few more). Each of these characters, in James' wicked imagining, has some connection to the real-life 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, the inciting event of a sweeping history of Jamaica that spans decades and takes the reader from the gang wars of Kingston to the streets of the American crack epidemic, drawing in CIA operatives, hit men, prostitutes, politicians, a Rolling Stone reporter (named Alex, as luck would have it) and a chorus of other lost souls. That James gives the bulk of them a voice and psychology all their own (often in Jamaican patois), and that these psychologies tapestry together to make up a world as brutal and real as anything that might actually have existed, has launched James into the world of literary stardom, drawing comparisons to William Faulkner by way of Tarantino ("with maybe a little creative boost from some primo ganja," according to The New York Times).

In fact, in 1976, when Marley — who appears in passing in the book and is referred to only as "The Singer" — was shot two times in his Kingston home, James was just six years old, growing up in a well-heeled suburb of the city, the son of a lawyer dad who loved Shakespeare and a detective mom who introduced him to O. Henry. Despite Jamaica's endless political upheavals, the main violence James experienced was internal – by the time he was eight, he knew he was attracted to other boys. "I was the class sissy, the nerd," he says, "even before I knew what that was." 

Thus began years of shape-shifting, as James slid into various roles he hoped would hide his sexuality in a country that still criminalizes homosexual behavior. "When I was a teenager, I was convinced that every time I would open my mouth, someone would say, 'Look at that faggot,'" he says. "So I just stopped talking." College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned. He tried out having a girlfriend. He tried out going to church. He never once intimated to anyone that he was gay until, in his mid-thirties, he decided that he needed to be delivered from demons and thus found himself in a room one morning with two preachers and two garbage bags, hoping to pray the gay away. "There was the laying of hands and speaking in tongues to drag out the demons," James says. "At some point, I started vomiting — hence the bags." When James left the exorcism, he was still as gay as ever, but he had summoned up permission to finish his first novel, 2005's John Crow's Devil, about a religious cult that destroys a village. "I just realized that I wanted to get rid of the guilt," he says. "So I'm like, 'What if I get rid of the church?' And that worked fine."

The release James found in writing was palpable — "Every time I wrote, I had another life that I could imagine, anyway" — and, after getting rejected by 78 publishers, he finally got published. By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was "full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself." When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted. "I remember flying in and seeing prairie and thinking, 'Shit, there is no city. All I am seeing is grass.' "

In the end, the move paid off: America provided him with the distance and freedom he needed to tackle his deepest personal taboos head-on — in both his writing and his personal life. "Either I saved myself in Minnesota or Minnesota saved me," he says. He finally came out (most publicly in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, written at age 44), had his first sexual relationship with another man and began writing A Brief History, a book that had been "haunting" him. "The first page I wrote was 458, John-John K. It's about him on this mission to kill this Jamaican guy but going through boyfriend trouble." Then other voices began coming alive. Four years and more than 1,000 pages of a first draft later (which James drastically edited down), he had created an epic work, and written himself not only out of Jamaica but also into an authentic version of himself. "My really good memories are all abstract, like sitting down in my apartment and going, 'Oh, my God, this is mine. This is my space. I'm having an actual day as Marlon James. I don't think I've ever had one of those.' "

My last night in Minnesota, James takes me to a party given in his honor. The host wears a leopard-print coat, there are drinks named after characters from the book, and a bonfire blazes in the yard of the craftsman-style house where Macalester faculty and friends mill about. In September, James had woken up to a congratulatory e-mail: He'd made the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, which comes with an award of $75,000. He was not viewed as the favorite, but over dinner with "lords and ladies and earls and all that stuff," he'd jotted down a list of people to thank, just in case. When he won, he became the first Jamaican writer to do so. The next morning, he posted a picture of the award on Facebook, captioned "Holy shit." Tonight, behind a cheese tray, someone has tacked up a picture of James in a tux chatting with Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, at the prize ceremony in London. "She said she was reading the book. I kind of believed her," he says, laughing. "I asked her how she was handling the Jamaican patois, and she said, 'I knew Bob Marley.'" 

James' relationship to his success — in addition to everything else, HBO is making a series based on A Brief History — is complicated. He has not been to his home country since the novel was published, and is hesitant to do a scheduled reading there this spring. "The book paints a pretty damning portrait of the country and of the time," he says. "I could have easily written a story that made sure the right people don't get offended, but I'd rather not tackle the topic at all than do it half-assed."

Nor is James of a mind to rein in his powerful mind now that it has a platform. He recently declined to mince his words in a Facebook post gone viral, saying he'd have been published far more often if only his writing pandered to older white women. Of his next book, a fantasy novel set in Africa in the 1100s, he says he's going to "geek the fuck out. Am I going to write 200 pages about some obscure village that has nothing to do with the story? Yes. Talk about giant serpents and have an encyclopedia at the back? Fuck, yes. Invent a language, probably based on Yoruba or Swahili or Fang? Totally." So if Jamaica isn't in the mood to celebrate its native son, James is happy to settle tonight for Minneapolis. ("Minnesota niceness is real," he told me earlier, when I'd accidentally cut a car off and the driver had waved cheerily.)

Around midnight, the party dies down. James wanders out to a chair by the bonfire, where the group is still lively. S'mores are being made and beers tipped back. James is mostly silent now, immovable, his powerful frame folded in on itself in his chair as he takes in the crowd of his own making. "I have no problem walking away from something," he'd told me earlier. Tonight, though, he is lingering.