Author of four novels, notably the Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” Marlon James has made an art of “finding what would rather stay lost,” as he writes in his new work, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.”
James, 48, has unearthed monsters everywhere — from a colonial era plantation to the house of Bob Marley. His latest work is a fantastical vision of ancient Africa that’s been likened to “Game of Thrones” and is the first of a planned “Dark Star” trilogy.
“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” (Riverhead Books, $30) features a hunter for hire named Tracker, whose pursuit of a missing boy spreads out over 600 pages of war, sex, shape-shifting and plotting in a landscape of monsters and witches and ever-taller tales.
The novel’s digressive path mirrors the writing of it. A James novel is a work in progress to the very end. He might write hundreds of pages before one character’s voice so compels him that he starts over.
For “A Brief History,” he says, the first words he wrote ended up on page 458. For “Black Leopard,” he had planned a story of the fall of a royal house and its mad queen. But once he “stumbled” upon the character he came to call “Tracker,” a new narrative was born.
“Not every story appears to you ‘A to Z,’ ” he says. “Sometimes, Q shows up first.”
James debuted with “John Crow’s Devil,” a 200-page parable about rival ministers in a 1950s Jamaican village. His second was the 400-page slave story “The Book of Night Women,” followed by “A Brief History,” his 700-page panorama of the attempted 1976 assassination of Marley.
James, a Kingston native who now divides his time between Brooklyn and Minneapolis, had tried to complete other novels before “John Crow’s Devil,” which was rejected by dozens of publishers before being published by Akashic Books. He remembers starting “Book of Night Women” in the third person(“Queen’s English,” he says) but found it “too stilted.” The novel’s eventual narrator, the child of a conflicted Jamaican slave named Lilith, had been “hiding out” in a previous chapter.
Growing up, James happily absorbed the Shakespeare plays and other classics his teachers required, but no one could talk him out of his love for the novels of Jackie Collins. Even today, he might spend his spare time reading Thomas Aquinas or comic books.
“I resisted growing for a very long time,” he says. “I don’t think writers should grow up. You should grow up in terms of understanding people, especially women. But I think, in terms of imagination, you should never grow up. I always resented that it was a sign of maturity that I had to let go of fairies and fairy tales.”