Eavesdropping

Marlon James Lets his Inner Diva Strut

The author remembers a time when he dared to turn the tables on school bullies and chats with our hosts about Hollywood and Jamaican geek subcultures.

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Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Jamaican-born, Twin Cities-based writer Marlon James is the author of two celebrated novels: “The Book of Night Women,” and his latest, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” The latter was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, and one of The New York Times’ top books of 2014. (James read an excerpt on our show back in September.)

The author joined us onstage at the Fitzgerald Theater to share a non-fiction story from his own life called “Strut Pout Put It Out,” about the day in high school he dared to dress in drag for a high school play, in defiance of his classmates who’d always called him a sissy… and worse.  The piece was featured in the St. Paul literary journal Revolver. [Ed. Note, the story includes homophobic slurs and sexual themes.]

After his reading, James told Brendan and Rico what happened after the story’s cliffhanger… and about Jamaican goths.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: [While Sheena Easton’s “Strut” is playing] Marlon James, ladies and gentlemen! You like it? A little Sheena Easton for you.

Marlon James: Oh God, but you’re in Minneapolis! It should’ve been “Sugar Walls.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh, wow. We should’ve consulted you beforehand.

Marlon James: You should’ve consulted Prince.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, what happened after [the end of the story]? There’s a cliffhanger. You went out on stage in drag, and…

Marlon James: And all the boys who hated me respected me, because it was such a badass thing to do. It was like, they always thought this was what I was. And then I came out, and I was like, “What. What!

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Author Marlon James smirks a little at his story during The Dinner Party Download Live at the Fitzgerald Theater. Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Brendan Francis Newnam: You owned it.

Marlon James: Yeah! And I had really big breasts.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I was going to say, did anyone hit on you after that?

Marlon James: No, but they were really amazed I could walk in high heels that well.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Had you practiced?

Marlon James: I am not going to answer that question [laughs].

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re in a safe space here, Marlon.

Marlon James: Yeah, I know.

Rico Gagliano: So let’s talk about your book. For those who don’t know, “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a fictionalized account of the attempted murder of Bob Marley in the 1970s, told from a million points of view. I understand that it was a novella to start with? It’s like 600 pages long.

Marlon James: Yeah, the real page one of that novel is now page 458.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How did that happen?

Marlon James: It just kind of exploded on me. I kept trying to write these novellas, and kept failing — until I realized it was just one whole big book with a whole bunch of characters. But I really… this was the shortest novel I tried to write. Characters just sort of showed up and wouldn’t leave, and I was like, “What the hell, it’s a party.”

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Marlon James talks about the party of characters in his book “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right. We believe in that spirit. And HBO just picked it up to do a TV series.

Marlon James: HBO just picked it up to do a TV series. Fingers crossed.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re a literature professor at Macalester College… What is it like being this kind of literary fellow in meetings with people in Los Angeles?

Marlon James: I think they’re just so relieved to come across somebody who reads, and somebody who writes a book, and not somebody who has 15 screenplays that are all in development. That means they’ll never get done.

And I was shocked as well. They knew the story, they wanted it to be, actually, even more Jamaican than I wanted it to be. And yeah, so hopefully it will happen.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, we look forward to seeing it.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, you mentioned Jamaica… this leads us to our last question. You are a self-proclaimed geek. You have said that you are somebody who can name the exact issue number in which Magneto first appears in “X-Men.” Is there something in Jamaican culture that people geek out on, that we don’t know about? That has never gotten out of Jamaica?

Marlon James: I don’t know. What I think is, geeks are almost the same everywhere in the world.  And I think what might surprise you is that there are Jamaican goths.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Goths! Like The Cure, Robert Smith, Joy Division…

Marlon James: Yeah, and they wear corpse paint, and they wear long, black clothes. Which is kind of hard in 96 degrees. So, you start out the day as a goth; you end it as a skunk.

Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter
Marlon James successfully cracks up Brendan and Rico while discussing Jamaican goths. Photo Credit: Jayme Halbritter

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow. I think we have your next HBO series.

Marlon James: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: And your next album.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Marlon James, everyone! Check out his book, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.”