Submitted by Leah on Tue, 2015-10-20 10:59
Marlon James has spent the past few days coming to terms with the fact that, as the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner, his life has changed irrevocably. He has kept a sense of priorities though. Asked what he would spend his £50,000 cheque on, the dapper James – a resplendent figure at the prize-giving dinner – answered: ‘I can go to Gieves & Hawkes, finally get my Ozwald Boateng suit. There are so many great rare book stores here and I can’t be allowed to be let loose there.’ Instead, once suited and booted, he thinks prudence might reassert itself and he ‘should do the sensible thing and put it in a bank account.’ What a shame.
The win for A Brief History of Seven Killings is also a win for his publishers, the small independent house Oneworld. Started on a whim 30 years ago by Novin Doostdar and Juliet Mabey the first work of fiction they published was . . . The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. His win this week meant they pressed the button to print an extra 80,000 copies of A Brief History and are in the process of wrangling to publish his next book, which they liken, intriguingly, to an ‘African Game Of Thrones’, set in Ethiopia during the Middle Ages.
Many people have assumed that James must have had first-hand knowledge of the drugs- and violence-fuelled Jamaican gangs that he writes about in the novel. In fact, he says, ‘I grew up pretty middle class. To me conflict was do you like Starsky or Hutch?’ However, ‘I had parents who were cops so the dark side was never far away.’ He also confesses to having listened to the music of the story's catalyst, Bob Marley, while writing (‘I listened to Exodus quite a bit’). Exodus seems appropriate because James left Jamaica for good in 2007 for the US. He went, he says, because ‘it is very frustrating for a writer in the Caribbean. No one grows up and says they want to be a novelist.’
In his acceptance speech James reflected on the Man Booker Prize: ‘I just met Ben Okri [winner in 1991] and it just reminded me of how much of my literary sensibilities were shaped by the Man Booker Prize . . .’ Ah yes, the power of the storytelling perhaps, or the ways novels open prospects into other worlds and different ways of thinking? Well, not quite: ‘It suddenly increases your library by 13 books.’
James's kept his early library partly in his head. As he dedicated his win to his father, he revealed to the guests at the Guildhall that the pair of them used to have Shakespeare matches in Jamaica's rum bars. This bizarre sport involved reciting the Bard's soliloquies at one another, each trying to trump the one before – Hamlet grappling with Henry IV, Lear with Macbeth. What James didn't vouchsafe was who won.
Michael Wood, chair of the judges, was questioned about the bad language and the bad behaviour in A Brief History. Would it put readers off? He countered that one reaction ‘to people who say they don’t want to read this kind of thing is “it is very good for them to read it”’. Does that mean, he was pressed, that he would have recommended the novel to his own mother? The question got short shrift: ‘My mother would not have got beyond the first few pages, because of the swearing,’ he said.