“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.

“People who say they don’t have a choice just too coward to choose.”

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If you’re interested in politics, history, language and just great storytelling, I can’t recommend this highly enough. It reminded me of a handful of great writers including Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Hubert Selby Jr, James Ellroy and perhaps most of all, that Dostoevsky fella. It’s shot through with gnomic wisdom and existential philosophy (the title of this post is a quote from a doomed smalltime gangbanger by way of Sartre). But it’s also utterly unique.

Based on true history, it starts out among the terrifying turmoil of Jamaica’s ghettos in the late 70s – the political infighting, violent gang warfare and drug-related anarchy. It uses the return of Bob Marley for a peace concert and the subsequent assassination attempt on him as an anchor point. From there it fans out across continents and decades. The Jamaican gangs get involved with the Mexican Medelin drug cartel – cue Hart To Hart opening credits montage VO: “…and when they met, it was moi-dah” – and the story moves to New York in the 80s at the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic.

There’s plenty of brutal violence – and many more than ‘seven killings’ – but none of it could be described as ‘senseless’ and it doesn’t come cheap. Unlike the sometimes cartoonish violence of Tarantino movies, it’s very real and dark; but in common with Tarantino, the most shocking thing about it is how mundane it is.

It’s a little tricky to get into and, owing to the large cast of characters, a bit discombobulating at times, but ultimately ultra-addictive and very rewarding: it took me three months to read the first third and a week to read the last two thirds. The scope and ambition of the book are epic, the juggling of so many different voices while moving the story forward, sprinkling insights and dropping wisdom throughout.

And when I try to boil down what it’s really about, separately from the subjects it covers and events it dramastises, it makes me think of that infamous David Foster Wallace quote: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

 

 

 

 

 

Lazy

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 3.06.06 PMCopywriter: Oh shit, we don’t have a headline and we’re running out of time!

Art Director: Come on, we must have something?

Copywriter: I’m drawing a blank and the deadline’s almost here.

Art Director: Seriously? This is BMW. Such an iconic brand. Let’s think back to all those brilliant ads from the ’90s for some inspiration.

Copywriter: Nope…still nothing.

Art Director: Look, we’re stuck with this packshot and this pricing info but we must be able to come up with some wordplay that’ll at least raise half a smile?

Copywriter: Er…I think I’m losing it…or maybe I never had it. I’m such a hack! We should start looking for new jobs. How much do you think being an Uber driver actually pays?

Art Director: Pull yourself together man. Look, it’s a coupe. Give me some puns about speed, you must have some of those?

Copywriter: Seriously, my pun drawer is bare. I’m in a state of blind pun-ic. Actually, that’s pretty go-

Art Director: I’ve got it!

Copywriter: You have?

Art Director: We’ll just take a line from the brief and put it at the top of the ad.

Copywriter: Sounds good! The proposition?

Art Director: Too obvious. We’ll use this bit from ‘the task’ section.

Copywriter: But…it kind of doesn’t make sense…

Art Director: And your point is…?

Copywriter: My point is…you’re a genius!

Art Director: Compared to you that may actually be true. Hey, to jazz it up a bit, let’s chuck an aspirational cliche down by the price-point.

Copywriter: Brilliant! Pub?

Art Director: Pub.

Superhuman creative brilliance

I’m often slagging things off on here so it feels refreshing to be posting about something truly great. This feels like one of those bolts out of the creative blue. Utterly remarkable brilliance that is wonderful on every level. It inspires me as a creative, as a sports fan and, most of all, as a human being.

This book is wonderful

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Here’s a little taster:

“When I got divorced,” she said, I had to sell the house in Westchester. A couple in the business of importing Chinese furniture and art objects bought the house and began moving things in a week before I was to leave.

One night I went down into the basement and began looking through some of their crates. I found a pair of beautiful porcelain vases. On impulse, I took one. I thought, They’ve got everything, I’ve got nothing, why shouldn’t I? When I moved, I took the vase with me. A week later the husband called and said this funny thing had happened, one of this pair of vases had disappeared, did I know anything about it. No, I said, sounding as bemused as he, I didn’t know anything about it, I’d never seen the vases. I felt awful then. But I didn’t know what to do. I put the vase in a closet and never looked at it again.

Ten years passed. Then I began thinking about the vase. Soon the thought of the vase began to obsess me. Finally, this past year I couldn’t stand it anymore. I packed up the vase as carefully as I could, and sent it back to them. And I wrote a separate letter, saying I didn’t know what had possessed me, why I had taken this thing that belonged to them, and I wasn’t asking for forgiveness, but here it was back. A few weeks later the wife called me. She said she’d gotten this strange letter from me, she didn’t know what I was talking about, and then this package came, and inside this package was about a thousand shards of something or other. What on earth was it that I had taken and was now sending back?”

“I didn’t come here to try out. I came here to win.”

“You can decide your own fate. Are you going to let it all fall apart? Or are you going to own it?”

 

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I just read this great interview with Patti Smith. You should read it.

At Glastonbury last year she fell flat on her arse while she was performing on the main stage. Did she get up and look embarrassed? Did she try to pretend it hadn’t happened? Did she attempt to style it out? Did she fuck. She got up and screamed: “Yeah, I fell on my fucking ass at Glastonbury. But you know why? Because I’m a fucking animal, that’s why.”

“I thought to myself: ‘Well, there’s 100,000 people out there … I felt like a real asshole,’” she laughs. “And then I thought ‘What the fuck? It’s rock’n’roll! And what did I want to do more than anything in that moment?”

She bares her teeth: “I wanted to turn up my amp and just fucking rip the strings off my guitar … because I had so much energy. You can decide your own fate. Are you going to let it all fall apart? Or are you going to own it?”