Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 with a sprawling, intricately plotted, multi-layered novel and decided, naturally, to follow his triumph with an even more ambitious work. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is set in a land of his own creation and peopled by menacing figures including a necromancer, a shape-shifter, a witch, an antiwitch, a very smart buffalo, a band of mercenaries and Asanbosam, a monstrous eater of flesh. At the centre of the tale is our troubled hero, Tracker, who has been chosen for a mission because of his unerring sense of smell.
As James explained to Five Dials, his fictional kingdoms were grounded in the African cities of the past.
When you are building a world, do the characters come first or does the landscape?
When I’m writing a novel, the characters come up first even if I have a vague idea where they’re going to be. I trust a lot to research. I will build a world based on the research I find. Even though it’s fantasy, I didn’t want something that veered too much from what was actually going around.
Greek mythology doesn’t veer very far from Greek geography despite there being Sirens and gods and goddesses.
There are lots of civilizations that were below the Sahara. The British Empire just happened to burn them all to the ground
I did the research on everything from soil patterns to wind patterns, to average heat and temperature, to records of storms, and so on. But also, a lot of history of Mali and Songhai and the Great African empires, Ethiopia and Kenya and so on – what exactly sub-Saharan Africa was like. I wasn’t very interested in anything above the Sahara Desert. Usually whenever people think of African civilization, we always trot out Egypt, as if Egypt is it.
There are lots of civilizations that were below the Sahara. The British Empire just happened to burn them all to the ground – and they took the treasures to the British Museum.
For me, it was a personal journey of discovery. Not even re-discovery, because some of those things I didn’t know. People would be surprised by what aspects of the book are factual and what are made up.
Which books were you looking at?
Most of my resources were African resources. Because the tricky thing about reading African history is first you have to read who wrote it. And depending on who told the story, know whether to listen to it or not. It’s actually kind of hilarious reading African history, even written up to the ’60s, where there are still these ridiculous European biases in them.
A novel like this is fantasy, and I have a lot of leeway to make stuff up, but I also run into lots of risk, including underselling Africa, or misrepresenting Africa, even though I’m writing an imagined story.
So if they actually saw the research, would readers would be surprised by how much of it was coming from these sources rather than just from your head?
Yeah. One of my cities has streetlights. Benin City had streetlights long before anybody in Europe even had gas lights. Mali at one point was the richest empire in the world. One of the Malian emperors, Mansa Musa, made a trip to Mecca, made the Hajj, and gave away so much gold that the value of gold dropped for nearly ten years. When I got deep into the research, the novel almost started writing itself.
I have very clear ideas about what I want in a book, but I would be an idiot if I stopped at them. All my novels have happened despite my very best intentions.
I learned this writing my second novel: I can’t impose my will on the story. You don’t create stories, you find them. And if you’re in the process of discovering, and you discover a story that will blow your mind or open your world right open, you have a choice. You can either go down that road and see where it takes you, or you can say, ‘No, this is not my idea. This is the idea I have for a novel or a story or a poem and nothing is going to change it.’
I have very clear ideas about what I want in a book, but I would be an idiot if I stopped at them. All my novels have happened despite my very best intentions
Sometimes what you have is just a trigger. It’s just the thing to lead you to the real idea.
Some authors turn to historical research but don’t find so much richness.
It depends on how you research though.
Too often we start with a conclusion and look for things to back it up. And if that’s the way you’re going to research, then of course you’ll always find answers. But you’ll never know. You’ll never fully explore the possibility of creativity. You have to go in open-ended and be open to any kind of answer instead of the answer you’re looking for.
What else did you find?
Mythical cities like Go. Cities of gold or cities that float mid-air, although I don’t think I used that in this book. I might have it in the next book.
I absorbed those stories so fully. I think I took aspects from all of them. Some of the African epics are historical and factual, some are a sort of magical realism, a good thousand years before their time.
I absorbed so much. I’d have to go back and re-read them and go, ‘Oh, that’s where I got that from.’
You mentioned how much you love Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Belcher.
I did draw on a lot of the stories in there. Some of the stories were only recently translated, and hopefully we’re getting more and more translations as time goes on.
I was reading epics from everywhere. It wasn’t just African epics. I re-read Beowulf, The Icelandic Sagas, and the Mabinogion – pretty much any country that had any ancient narratives.
One of the things I learned from going back to those originals is all of those narratives are written to be read aloud, so this book had to have an auditory quality. The book had to be driven by a voice. The book had to sound like somebody was talking to you.
With that in mind, did you think about the propulsion of the dialogue?
Dialogue is very important to me. Every good dialogue has rhythm. Watch an episode of Sopranos. It has fantastic rhythm.
I definitely wanted a kind of musicality to it. Because in Africa, in storytelling, most of the ancient stories are told to music. If you’re a griot, you have your kora guitar and so on.
I’m also very conscious of disabled readers, of blind readers, of readers who may come to, say, the audiobook. One of the things I learned from rewriting my last book is that there’s more to the world, there’s more to the senses, than just sight.
This novel is also about smell. Did you always know the lead character, Tracker, would have an amazing nose rather than, say, great hearing?
I think the nose came about because of an older version of the novel where Tracker wasn’t even the main character. He was somebody being treated like a hound.
That always happens for me. I’ll start writing a story and the person who ends up being the major character isn’t even major. Something about them sparks something in me and I pretty much abandon whoever I was going to use and go with them.
I remember you saying the same about Seven Killings.
At some point I realized I didn’t want to tell a typical fantasy story set in a royal house about royal people. I wanted to tell a fantasy story about ordinary people or ordinary looking people. He immediately jumped to the forefront for me.
When do you know to make that decision?
There are certain parts of writing process I just can’t explain.
There are aspects to writing and to creativity and art that are a mystery. Some of this I actually can’t explain.
Sometimes through trial and error and sometimes it’s when no other version works. I tried maybe four or five versions of the novel before I ended up on this one, and this is the one where pages just kept coming.
There are aspects to writing and to creativity and art that are a mystery. Some of this I actually can’t explain. Sometimes I don’t know how story happens. I’m just glad it does happen.
And because I don’t know how story happens, most of the time when I’m beginning a book I’m in sheer terror. This is not going to happen. I don’t know how this is going to work. I wish I had a formula. I wish I knew what the story is, and how it’s going to take shape, and who’s going to tell it. But when I’m starting out, I actually don’t know.
Why doesn’t that sheer terror translate to less ambitious books?
Maybe I’m also kind of foolish. I don’t know.
I approach every page with absolute terror. I approach every novel with nerve-wracking fear. Every story I think, ‘This is the one that’s going to destroy me. This is the one where I won’t get it done. This is where the jig is finally up.’
I start every book that way. Some of it is absolute panic. But then I respond to panic, I respond to fear by trying to break it down. Okay. What do I have? Maybe I have a character. What does a character want? I don’t know but maybe we should think about it. Or maybe we should try writing in all different ways and all different styles.
Most of the novels I write, there are three or four trials that lead to error. Whether it’s first person, second person, or third person: that’s a whole other mess for me because if I can’t figure out point of view, I can’t tell the story. And I usually don’t know what a point of view is until I try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail.
My sense of crushing fear and my sense of creativity – they have never interfered with each other. Part of it is me thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to do it until somebody smarter than me tells me I can’t.’ I remember some passages. ‘You know what? I’m just going to leave it in until my editor says, ‘Take it out.’’
And then they don’t.
So I go: ‘Okay, maybe it was all right then.’
Just because you’re scared of doing something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
The fact that I’m locked in a room and nobody can see what I’m doing yet is what emboldens me even when I’m afraid.
How are your own noticing skills? Do you consider yourself someone who picks up on the stuff of the world?
My friends are constantly annoyed by it. I’m the type of person who, if I meet someone, I’ll forget their name within 10 seconds.
But I’m the same person who will remind his boss that he said something different from what he’s saying now, and he said it seven years ago in his office, and he was smelling of his garlic pills. Which actually did happen.
Smell sometimes conjures a memory. Smell sometimes is what makes a memory three-dimensional.
I think it serves me well as a writer. It’s very weird how memory works and it’s very weird how my memory works. I’m going to forget that we had dinner plans, but I’ll remember that five years ago you had a tie pin on.
That attention to details is something I bring to fiction. That’s why smell is more than just a sense. Smell sometimes conjures a memory. Smell sometimes is what makes a memory three-dimensional. Smell is the first evidence of something is tactile, I think.
I remember when I was teaching a class on 9/11 novels. The first question I asked the students was, ‘What do you think 9/11 smelled like?’ And it’s something that always throws them off. That’s another thing that never occurred to them.
Smell evokes nostalgia but smell also evokes haunting.
I have friends who are haunted by the smell of a tragic event. They could never get past it. It’s the smell that was the hardest thing to get rid of even though they were nowhere near the scene of the tragedy anymore.
We all smell a certain way. And Tracker is just a heightened version of what everybody in a way has and does.
Do you write quickly?
I write pretty fast, but I still have to slow down. You have to inhabit a scene and let it play out, because you’re writing real people. As far as I’m concerned, they’re real people. I have to pull back and let the story emerge, whether it’s a romance or so on.
I also just love fight scenes. I grew up with sci-fi and fantasy and tons and tons and tons of comics. And I’m still influenced by comics and action films. I wish I was a more highbrow consumer of cinema. All my friends want to watch the latest art house thing. I’m like, “Can we watch the new Spider-Man? Come on.”
I’m not kidding when I tell people Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best film of 2018. I’m not even kidding when I say it.
Don’t spoil it. I haven’t seen it yet.
It’s amazing. And not just because I’m in it. There’s this imagined novel written by me that Spider-Man is reading.
So I consider that to be immortality. I can just go, ‘I was in Spider-man.’
You’re done now.
I’ve reached the pinnacle.
When you’re somebody like me, so influenced by fantastical versions, you run the risk of writing a comic book scene. You run the risk of writing a superhero scene where there’s lots of collateral damage and no cost.
Violence doesn’t work that way. Cruelty doesn’t work that way. People suffer. People recover.
One of the things I had to remember writing this book is my characters can’t just bounce back into the next scene after a fight. They have injuries. They have debilitations. They lose limbs or they lose body parts.
After that comes things like recovery and coping and some people don’t recover very well. I had to remember that. We’re not just talking violence, we’re talking trauma, and trauma takes time to get over.
That was something that was not in the first draft of this book because I was just like: let’s get to the next scene. Let’s do this, do this, do this. And I realized, no, people don’t just bounce back from things. Humans take a while.
And trauma seems to inform the other areas of Tracker’s life. It seems he has trouble with his intimacy because it needs to be portrayed in a violent way.
There are legacies of bloodshed. Some of that was taken again, from real life sources. A lot of the villages in the book, the Ku, Gangatom, and so on, are based on villages in the Omo Valley including one called the Nyangatom. So of course I wasn’t straying too far from the tree.
One of the things that the Omo village tribes are plagued by is blood feuds. When you go off to university and you get a call, ‘You need to come back to the village to avenge the death of so on.’ ‘No, I want to get my sociology degree. I do not want to be a part of a feud that kills our entire family.’ A lot of that was still going on.
Again, not to sensationalize violence, but to also have people realize that the kind of The Gods Must Be Crazy, kumbaya idea of African villages, is just as ridiculous and harmful as thinking that they’re bloodthirsty savages. It’s complicated. If we did a story about Vikings locked in a blood feud, nobody would think, ‘How backward. How savage.’ You would just think, ‘Oh, they’re just Vikings.’
But with this, we can attach whatever stigma we want. I had to be very careful in writing about things like that because I wanted to show how self-destructive that sort of culture is. Tracker thought he wanted it, and he realized that’s not what he wanted.
War is complicated. Revenge is complicated. These things carry costs. It was very important for me, even though I was writing a fantasy novel with blood and guts, and swords and sorcery, and witches and mermaids, to make it a very grown up book.
War is complicated. Revenge is complicated.
No matter how fantastical a world I want it to be in, I can’t escape being a novelist, and I can’t escape writing what is essentially still, for want of a better term, a grown up novel.
With a grown up outlook on evil, too. How do you create evil in a character? You’ve mentioned before the brilliance of Bill Sikes, your admiration of a character who embodies evil incarnate. How do you produce a character that menacing?
One of the things I learned from horror films, is that a great horror film is a seduction. That’s what people don’t realize. That’s what the people who do gore don’t understand.
You have to lure me to the house first. If I’m going to get into the house on the hill, I got there because you lured me. I’ve got to be seduced by a horror film.
The great villains are also great seducers. But there are two kinds. A Bill Sikes is just pure evil. Sometimes we worry that these characters are stereotypes. They’re not stereotypes. They may be types, but they’re not stereotypes.
The great villains are also great seducers. But there are two kinds.
People should have a complicated relationship to everybody, not just the heroes. Why only have complicated relationships to your heroes? You should have a complicated relationship to a villain too.
I want my readers to feel feelings they weren’t counting on. Nobody wants to have a complicated relationship with a monster. But we should.
That’s been a theme throughout your novels: adding complication. I’m thinking about the character Weeper in Seven Killings. The perception of what it is to be gay became complicated. Are you doing the same thing with the gay relationships in this book?
Funny thing about the gay relationships and the queer things – and this was so refreshing – is the research.
Because of the research I realized these are the old elements, the retro touches, in the book. Gayness, queerness, non-binaryness, gender plurality, plural pronouns – Africa got there two millennia ago.
And they knew it until a bunch of American TV preachers told them that they didn’t.
Again, this is not stuff I’m making up for the book. The stuff I have on shoga I took explicitly from research.
So there was a band of gay men who had a specific role in weddings. One, they were the only men trusted to be around the bride because everybody know they were not after the bride. The groom, maybe. Also, both bride and groom trusted these people to teach them about marriage intimacy, about sex. This is what was expected of you. Hell, sometimes they’d give them actual sex tips.
Not only were there varieties of sexual experience, but a lot of ancient African societies found ways to absorb, use, and compliment these things. So when it got to writing Tracker as queer, it didn’t even feel like I was making a statement. It felt like I was slipping back into an old way of things. And that was shocking for me. But again, that’s why I love research.
I mean, I’m a queer author. I wasn’t necessarily sitting down like, ‘I’m going to write a queer love story because let me score some points.’ Maybe it does score some points…
Especially given the reputation the African continent is developing about homophobia. A lot of people don’t realize this homophobia is an invented thing. This homophobia is something that has happened post-TV preachers, some of whom are still considered quite legit in America. Coming out of the evangelical church in Jamaica, I know the tactic. These preachers come to Jamaica. First they ask, ‘All right. Are we being filmed?’ And once you convince them that they’re not being taped, you think you’re at a Nuremberg Rally.
The things that come out of these guys’ mouths and the videos they have to show you. So this whole demonizing of queerness and otherness is recent. I mean, there’s some African tribes where there were like 15 genders.
So that was the mind-blowing moment for me, and that’s when I knew Tracker would be who he was. But it was, if anything the statement here is go back to your real roots and oppose the embrace the new.
Fantasy seems to be a durable receptacle for all of this. It offers space to all of these subjects, some new, some ancient.
It always has been, which is one of the great things about fantasy. Which is why I never understood snobbery against genre. Fantasy’s been doing this work for years. I’m not touching anything Samuel Delaney didn’t already do in 1960.
The problem with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is that it’s no longer science fiction, it’s now absolute science fact. Handmaid’s Tale, despite all the warnings, is still happening. In America, women are daily losing control over their own bodies. This stuff is happening. Sci-fi fantasy sometimes can serve as a warning. But maybe we’re too snobbish to read fantasy so we didn’t get it.
You noted that if someone says there are no politics in their book, that’s a statement.
I’m amazed when people say there is no politics in their work. I’m like, ‘You need to teach me how to do that.’ Because it’s not like I try to have politics in my work. I don’t. But I can’t escape it. Politics informs every aspect of my life right now, including literally the air we’re breathing.
I’m not a statement author and I’m trying not to make any, but I also think my characters are also in the world, and my characters observe the world just as much as I am observing mine. How can you have a character not talk about politics? Or not involve in it in any way. You are.
We talk about politics all the time. Good luck remembering the last day in your life you did not think of politics once before you went to bed. But characters never talk about it? Of course they talk about it. They talk about how horrible their king is. They’ll talk about how it filters down. Without being too heavy-handed about something, I think you can sensitize the reader to what’s going on.