Marlon James Blends Fantasy and Literary Fiction In Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Author Marlon James.
Author Marlon James. Mark Seliger
You’d be hard pressed to find a writer more up to the challenge and giddy with the nerdery that comes with writing a fantasy/historical fiction/epic trilogy than Marlon James. Born and raised in Jamaica, the former advertising man and self-proclaimed “'90s South Beach club goer” is writing what he calls the Dark Star trilogy. The first installment, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, debuted this week and already has a print run more than triple the amount for the first printing of his last book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which won the Man Booker prize in 2015.

Brief History revolved around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and was both exhilarating and dizzying, filled with dozens of story lines and characters, some of them alive, and quite a few dead. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a beast in itself, combining African history and mythology to create a reimagined, magical vision of the continent that is complex, layered, and fantastical. Before starting the actual work of writing the trilogy, James researched for two years, filling notebooks with information on African tales like The Epic of Son-Jara and The Epic of Askia Muhammad. He also learned stories about the Inkanyamba, a South African serpent with a horse’s head, and African languages, all to get the right mood and details.

“I knew I wanted to tell a story from different perspectives and to focus for a long time on each character,” said James. “I also wanted to read the original stories from the time period I was writing in [around the 11th century]. There are a lot of books that are written that have been inspired by these stories and myths, but I wanted to read the source of that inspiration.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s main character, Tracker, is known for his skills as a hunter and has a nose that can not only sniff out what you last ate, but deeper, darker secrets that lie below the surface, such as extramarital affairs and murder. The book opens with Tracker telling his story to a mercenary, a man who is looking for a boy (who people think was killed by Tracker) who has disappeared, an organizing principle that was quite intentional.

“A lot of the original stories were meant to be read out loud, to be told orally,” said James. “In the first book, Tracker is giving his testimony. He’s telling us his point of view about the events that transpired which, for him, are all true.”

Despite exhaustive comparisons to The Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones, James insists there is no set audience for the books.

“I think the books are for anyone who wants a good story, for anyone who wants to be transported,” he said. “There’s a lot of snobbery out there from all sides, especially folks who only read literary fiction, but I think everyone should read everything. Personally, I like work that challenges me.”

It makes sense, then, that James, who teaches creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, does his best to get his students to think outside the fiction box.

“I don’t believe in genres and I try to teach everything I can, from lines of dialogue in The Sopranos to Toni Morrison’s Jazz to comic books,” said James. “A lot of time there’s this pretension around genre, but to be honest, there are just as many shitty literary novels as there are good romance ones.”

No matter what your usual preference in literature is, there’s no denying that Black Leopard, Red Wolf feels exciting: There are hand-drawn maps created by James himself, long lists of characters, and Yoruba and other African languages sprinkled throughout. It’s the sort of book you can get lost in, one that rewards readers with odysseys, fight scenes, gratuitous sex, mystery, and more. It is as much about the quest as it is the art of the story, of spinning a good tale that—depending on who you talk to—shape shifts. As Tracker notes on the very first page: “Truth eats lies just as the crocodile eats the moon and yet my witness is the same today as it will be tomorrow.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf will be followed up by Moon Witch, Night Devil, and The Boy and the Dark Star, both still in the works. In fact, it just might be great timing for James to visit Miami February 9th.

“I love Coral Gables, wandering around Little Haiti, and of course, South Beach,” said James. “In fact, I finished two of my novels at a French café over there.”

Perhaps, then, the second and third installments of the Dark Star trilogy will find their final lines amongst croissants and café au lait, scribbled on the back of a serviette.

Marlon James. 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, February 9, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; Admission for two guests costs $34.76 and includes one copy of Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
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Dana De Greff