An interview with Marlon James: Details on his new fantasy trilogy

Marlon James
Marlon James
David Turner | Courtesy of Macalaster College

At the moment, Marlon James is steeped in African myths, magical realism — and the comic book "Thor."

In his Minneapolis office, the author is at work on his next project, "The Dark Star" trilogy, about a band of mercenaries locked away in a dungeon after a mission gone wrong. James dubbed it the "African 'Game of Thrones'" in a 2015 interview — and the shorthand stuck.

James, Macalester College's writer-in-residence, is best known for his dazzling and brutal novel, "A Brief History of Seven Killings," which took home the Man Booker Prize two years ago. "A Brief History" is a fictional spin on the actual 1976 attempted assassination of Bob Marley.

The first book in the new trilogy, "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," will "hopefully" be out in the fall of 2018, James said. He shared his inspirations for the project in a phone interview. For clarity, the conversation has been edited and condensed.

Your last novel, "A Brief History of Seven Killings," was realist fiction. Why make the leap to fantasy?

Fantasy, in a lot of ways, is more of a Western European definition. It's shorthand, really: It saves me having to explain it in a greater detail. If I were to give "One Hundred Years of Solitude" to a Yoruba and say, "It's magical realism," they would read it and ask me, "Where's the magic?"

Meaning: In the worldview of the novel I'm writing, it's not fantasy at all. That's just how it is. Yes, your ancestors are nearby. Yes, ghosts are down that street. Yes, there are spirits that mean you good and there are spirits that mean you bad, and there are monsters and so on, but it's not looked upon as a sort of distant reality.

"I'm still interested in that kind of story: The people who would not be in history books but still manage to shape the course of events."

Me saying "fantasy" is just trying to find a genre that fits into the very limited ways we have to describe books.

That said, I'm originally a fantasy geek and a sci-fi geek. As somebody who also likes sci-fi and fantasy a lot, I was also kind of exhausted of them, because of how Euro-centric they are. That can't be helped: Most of the books are written by people with Euro-centric worldviews. But just look at some of the hallmarks of fantasy and see how much it reflects a Norse or Celtic or Saxon mythology.

Every culture has their mythologies. Every culture has their fantastic beasts and their creatures and so on. I really wanted, almost as an exploratory mission for myself, to look at the myths in African culture and African history and use that as a kind of springboard to make a leap of imagination.

I didn't want to make a historical novel. Most of the creatures I'm writing about in some ways don't really exist in African mythology, I just wanted to use that culture, that reservoir of resources, in the same way that "Lord of the Rings" uses Viking lore or Celtic lore, even though it's ultimately not a Viking book.

That's really what it is, me just pulling on this vast resource that was always available to me but I never really paid attention to.

Your book is being touted as "the African 'Game of Thrones.'" How does it parallel what George R. R. Martin has been doing?

I love "Game of Thrones." There are things about "Game of Thrones" that I've always loved. In "Game of Thrones," all bets are off with the characters. It doesn't matter how wonderful you are, you could die on the next page.

The "African 'Game of Thrones'" thing started almost a joke. Someone was asking me about the book years ago, and I answered them thinking that this is a pretty specific market this magazine reaches. Turns out, it seems everyone who reads it works in media.

There's lots of differences between the two. I don't have a problem with the comparison, especially if it makes people pay attention. Even then, that can leave the impression that it's just another sort of medieval epic, just with black people this time. Which it's not. I wasn't interested in that storytelling.

"Every culture has their mythologies. Every culture has their fantastic beasts and their creatures and so on."

In fact, I tried that sort of "sword and sandals" story of a king and the fall of his royal house. All of that is important, but I actually became more interested in: Who are the people in the street? Who are the beggars and the robbers and the thieves and the mercenaries?

In some ways, I was still being inspired by James Ellroy's "American Tabloid," which has nothing to do with fantasy but has everything to do with minor, marginal, forgotten — I was almost said "deplorable," but that word is kind of loaded these days — people who end up influencing the course of major events. I'm still interested in that kind of story: The people who would not be in history books but still manage to shape the course of events. That's what I'm doing.

It's set up to be a sprawling, three-book epic, but tell us a little about the story.

In a lot of ways, the book is a whodunit. It's ultimately a murder mystery; it adds up to that.

Some people were given charge to find somebody and rescue him, and instead the person ends up dead, and somebody has to explain why.

The whole book, in fact all of the books, go through trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. It's just that everybody's view is totally different and contradictory. If anything, it's more like an African "Rashomon" than anything else.

What's on your reading list as you're researching and preparing to write the trilogy?

Lots of ancient myths and sagas and epics from all cultures: African myths, African epics, a lot of the old European epics — "Kalevala" and "Beowulf" — and lots of narratives that were written in verse, like "The Iliad." But also tons of research.

I could have written a historical novel with all the history I have researched. A lot of original source material — lots of really, really academic, thick books with dust on them. But also, I've been going back to a lot of the people, including writers in speculative fiction and so on, that I've also gone back to: the "Gormenghast" trilogy, or reading back on magical realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Donoso.

It's been pretty, pretty wide. Lots of graphic novels. In fact, a huge influence on me is the comic version of "Thor." I'm always inspired by comics — they're never far away.

Lots and lots of Urusula K. Leguin, Patrick Rothfuss. I'm swapping notes with Benjamin Percy, because I'm wading into his territory. Amitav Ghosh — a lot of people who actually don't deal with the fantastical, but also stuff like "Arabian Nights."

My reading lists are always all over the board: Some books I read for style, some I read for historical content, some I read for research, and some I read just to see how the hell did they pull that off?

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