“You have to believe in yourself…because you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does. And I failed that test.”

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Since I finished reading A Brief History of Seven Killings I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with people who have read it, are reading it or want to read it. Of those who’ve read it, many call it a great ‘gay novel’, ‘post-colonial novel’ or ‘novel of exile’. I’d just say it’s a bloody great novel, full stop. But having read up a bit on the author, Marlon James, I can see how his background has bled into discussions about the book even more than would normally be the case. He’s a fascinating character whose troubled upbringing in Jamaica and subsequent move to the US have driven his art to uniquely insightful places; his writing often oscillates between the heart-achingly beautiful and the grimly violent – sometimes within the same sentence.

Among tales of dealing with childhood bullying, dealing with his homosexuality and finally coming out (via an article in the New York Times), the most surprising thing I read about Marlon James is that he came within a gnat’s whisker of not being a writer. In 2003, aged 33, he’d received 78 rejections from US publishers, for his first novel, John Crow’s Devil. When that 78th rejection said “Not for us”, something in him snapped  – perhaps he thought the remark was aimed at him as much as his manuscript – and he deleted the entire novel from his laptop. He then went to the houses of the friends who had the novel and deleted it from their computers too. “I just thought if so many people thought this was not good, it couldn’t possibly be good. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer,” he said.

What happened after this is astonishing case of karmic justice combined with awesome serendipity. Marlon James had forgotten about the novel and started working as a copywriter, graphic designer and location scout. Then, an American author, Kaylie Jones, went to the Calabash Book Festival in Jamaica in 2003 and held a creative writing workshop. Marlon James went along and after he’d done some of the writing exercises, Jones immediately saw that he was talented and asked if he’d written anything longer. James, having resigned his book to the past, said he hadn’t – but his classmates told her that he’d written a novel. Jones asked him if she could read it and James began the difficult task of tracking down a copy. After many false starts he finally found a friend who’d disobeyed his order to delete the novel. He got it from them and gave it to Kaylie Jones; she read it in three days, loved it and called her publisher. They also loved it and in 2005, John Crow’s Road was published.

When Kaylie Jones heard that Marlon James had won the Booker Prize she cried with happiness and, talking about the many rejections he’d faced on his journey to literary acceptance, said, “I was stunned that nobody had said we should take this seriously, that nobody had recognised his talent. Everything he has now and is now – he was then.”

When I was reading about all of this, one thing struck me as strange. I found it hard to believe that when Marlon James had deleted his novel, he hadn’t kept a copy filed away somewhere all along. But, when he was asked about this, he said his loss of self-belief had been hardcore and resolute, he’d just wanted to move on. This is why I tell my students when they ask for advice – you have to believe in yourself. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does. And I failed that test.” Isn’t that sad? And isn’t it somehow equally amazing, inspiring and depressing that his career came so close to not happening? That, at the very point at which even he’d lost faith in his talent – the universe, coincidence, luck (or whatever you want to call it) found a way to spot that brilliance and shine a light on it.
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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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