I never liked the idea of genres.
The author of Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and African myth inspired Black Leopard, Red Wolf talks to Marcin Zwierzchowski about his views on fantasy literature and why he had troubles getting his new book published in the UK.
I’m trying to get to the mindset of a stereotypical publisher. You have this book that has won a Booker Prize and is a success. And the writer goes to them and says: “My next book is going to be a fantasy”. How did they react? Wouldn’t they react like: “More Jamaica history, please”, because that was a success?
Some publishers would, my publisher wouldn’t. Riverhead is a very sort of unconventional publishing house. I also made things slightly easier by having them read some of it. I wrote the first 100 pages and sent it to them and they absolutely loved it. I think whatever concerns they had were immediately put to rest, because I guess for fantasy readers it’s a really deep fantasy novel, and for literary fiction readers it’s still a very literary book. So if the book hits both and appeals to both audiences, it is all the American publishers look for.
That said, a lot of British publishers didn’t see it that way. For example my publisher who published “A Brief History” in the UK is not publishing this book.
That’s a bit astonishing.
Yeah, for me too. And a lot of publishers in the UK didn’t want it. Because of the exact same reasons why the Americans loved it, a lot of British publishers went: “This is too Sci-Fi for the literary crowd and to literary for the Sci-Fi crowd and neither is going to read it”. But in that case, who’s reading Margaret Atwood, who’s reading Ursula Le Guin?
But it doesn’t surprise anybody in the UK, though. Because they’re still very big on their genres and their margins. It’s the same thing with crime. They’re not going to put a crime book in their best books of the year, they’d put it in their best crime books of the year.
So what kind of a book is “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”?
Most of the fantasy I read starts at the top and it filters down to the urchin in the street. I started with urchin in the street and then worked my way back up. So that’s one thing.
The second thing is that even though it’s a trilogy, it’s not a part one, part two, part three. So it’s a trilogy, but part two doesn’t pick up when part one leaves off. So part one finishes off the whole story.
It wouldn’t be in the blurb, but the basic gist is there are three survivors of what happened. They’re trying to find this kid, but the kid is dead, and there are three survivors. And each survivor’s testimony is a different book. So basically it’s three characters telling the same story.
I did it because I wasn’t interested in part one, part two, part three. I’d get bored. Also while doing research for African legends and African story to an African myths I found that there is no such thing as an authentic story. There’s no director’s cut. It’s five different versions of the same story. In Africa they understand that stories can change and meanings can change and it doesn’t mean your story is more true than my story. And that’s a big part of African storytelling.
And that was one reason why I also wrote it – because I was also very interested in how three people looking at the same thing can tell three different things.
You said you were a nerd and a geek, and you would read fantasy, and in your other books like “John Crow’s Devil” there was a bit of stuff like that. But now it’s a big leap from “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, and for some people it could be a bit shocking. You said you had to reinvent how you wrote. Maybe you can elaborate a bit on that?
It didn’t feel like a shocking turn for me, because I’ve always loved sci-fi and I’ve always loved crime. You know, I read sci-fi to the point where of all the movies I thought I’ve seen, I haven’t seen them, I’ve read the novelisation. It wasn’t until I watched “Empire Strikes Back” that I realised I have never seen “Empire Strikes Back”, I’ve read the tie-in. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”: I have never seen this. I read the book. So even that even my film language of sci-fi is from the books. So to me it’s almost like a homecoming. I knew it was going to be this adventure. And even in a really realistic book like “A Brief History” one of the characters was still a ghost. So I never let go of the surreal.
You never set boundaries of genres.
I never liked the idea of genres.
Both Hemingway and Faulkner ripped off Dashiell Hammett. Both of them ripped off Chandler, and they weren’t shy about it either. Both of them learned a huge lesson in narrative economy from Chandler.
So to me it wasn’t as big a leap.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that if you come from the Caribbean then you understand why you write stories about it raining frogs. It’s because the Caribbean reality is wilder than the craziest picture.
One of my problems sometimes when people write Sci-fi is you get a sense that they don’t believe in the world they’re writing. It’s interesting reading how magic works in a lot of books. It’s fantasy, but they’re writing from such a Christian point of view. The idea that this magic is kind of weak anyway, it’s not really effective, yet I believe it, but it might be a psychosis. The sword is going to beat the witch. If you believe that version of it, if you walk into it with a sort of Calvinist Judeo-Christian bullshit, what if you’re from that world and you don’t believe it at all? There is this TV show, I think it’s called “Britannia”, great show. What I like about the show is the world view that their world is real.
I want to write a world where these things were real to people… You know Valhalla didn’t become real because some Viking plucked it out of his ass. Valhalla became real because it is real. And you walk through the world as if Valhalla counts. You don’t walk through the world as though deep down this is kind of bullshit. So for me it’s fantasy in a way that we define it. It’s not fantasy in a way anybody in the book would define it. It’s the thing that Ursula Le Guinn got so right. You don’t read “Earthsea” removing yourself, thinking: “none of this would happen”. Of course it happens! And I think that’s important. So the book I wrote to me is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a historical novel, because if somebody from that world would be telling a story, there would be giant fish, and mermaids, and shapeshifting hyenas and all the other crazy stuff.
I left writing my book totally believing in a lot of stuff I wrote. I mean why not.
Europe is never mentioned in the book. And Europeans are never mentioned. The only time it’s mentioned is one character said I just came from a place where everybody plays hide and seek with the sun. And every 7 days they eat their own god.
It was very important to me to write the book from the perspective of the characters as opposed to mine… So I had to let go of that, and to let go of even Westerner ideas that if you work hard there’ll be reward, and good is this, and evil is that. I had to let go of it, or I’d end up writing “Lord of the Rings” with brown people in it or “Game of Thrones” with black people in it. Somebody asked me that: “Is it Game of Thrones with black people?”.
Yes, I saw the tagline for the book, and it was like “the African Game of Thrones”. So how much truth is in it?
There isn’t a lot of truth in it. It is in sense I also like writing about the fall of kings. So ultimately yes, there is a king in it. And the other two things I got from “Game of Thrones” are, one: a sense of uncertainty; you never know who’s gonna die. I think that’s one of the best things in “Game of Thrones”. I also wanted to write a fantasy novel that is very adult. Somebody asked me can a child read my book? This is the best way I can put it: there are some books when you’re growing up that were written for you and there’re some books that you steal. And to me the book that I wrote is a book as a kid you steal.
This is pretty violent, all my books are violent. It touches on things like rape, murder, assassination, etc.
But yeah I remember the first time I read “Shogun” you know I remember when I read “Lord of the Flies”. Books that even though they have children in it, they weren’t meant as children’s books, like “Catcher In The Rye”. That’s, I guess, kind of what I wrote. I wrote the book I would sneak off and steal.
Can you talk about the African background and the myths in the book?
Some of it is what I knew. And being the descendants of slaves and being raised to be a member of the British colony, I was surprised how much of Africa is still in Jamaica and in the Diaspora. Some of it was a surprise. I know some of the ancient stories and so on. But even the way in which we speak which we like to think is a very inferior English, it’s actually not. It’s because of the African languages in the voice. Like one thing about some African languages for example the verb always remain present tense. So Jamaican English I don’t say “he went” I say “he did go”. I don’t say something like “I’ll be there soon” I say “I soon go”.
A lot of people would think that’s just some backward English. It’s not, it’s the African surviving in your mouth, it’s the African surviving in your tongue. So some of that I knew. A lot of that I didn’t know. For a lot of that I had to do research, I spent two years researching it.
Is there one specific book of African folk tales, because I can find those with German or Nord stuff…
But there are no books of African folk tales. Such that, because people thought nobody would be interested, none of them are popular. So many of those folk tales are historical documents and research documents. I’m sure some people, usually racist, would ask “why is there no African Iliad?”. But there are tonnes of African “Iliads”, we just hadn’t had our Homer yet. A lot of those epics, we’re waiting for a point to translate them. Right now it’s historians, and thank God! This means the documents are there, but you know. “The Iliad” wasn’t “The Iliad” until Homer got to it.
So a lot of these things that I read are historical documents, are research documents, are first hand documents, but also a lot of people have been transcribing the epics. You know, take what these guys have been singing with choral guitar and put it in what’s in it in prose. It’s what people don’t know. It’s is hilarious that people said to me “The Lion King” was based on “Hamlet”. I was like: “well a few things. One, you purely have never seen Hamlet”.
I’m trying to see the resemblance.
Americans see it all the time. I think it’s because Scar kills his brother. That’s the only connection. And as far as I know, the lion king doesn’t get everyone he knows and loves killed.
Lion King is based on Sundyata or the Lion of Mali. I mean, the movie didn’t even change the family name. The family’s name is Simba. But so what, take a story, who cares? But I think lot of people don’t realise that so many stories are already with us. People think Pete Seeger wrote “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. No he didn’t. An African man wrote that.
But I set out to do tons of research and not just the stories, but also the world view behind the stories, and the morals behind it.
This must have been absolutely fun for you.
Loads of fun. I’m always amazed when people say how hard writing is. I’m like: “so?”.
It’s hard to find time for writing. But the research is absolutely fascinating.
People say that to me. The number of times I hear people say: “I wish I had time to write.” And I was like: “Why do you think writing has time for you? If you can’t make time to write, then you’re not a writer. If you wish you had time to write, you’re not a writer.” That’s fine, go write. There are lots of people who write who are not writers. But then you wrote a book, you’re not a writer. Art doesn’t work like that. I don’t know a single painter, a single dancer who says: “well, you know, I can’t find time to dance”. Or I don’t know a single dancer who says “when the inspiration hits me, I go out to dance”. No, you go do the damn work and you rehearse and you practice. Writers are the only people who come up with that bullshit. I had somebody say to me: “I write when I’m inspired”. I’m like: “wow, I haven’t been inspired since 1986”.
I can’t tell the last time I was inspired. I sit at my desk and I do my work. And then I do the revisions. But I also believe, whether you believe in inspiration, the muses, genius, or brilliance, whatever you call it, if you set a routine, the muses will show up. You get to dictate inspiration, so that inspiration isn’t dictating to you. And every other artist knows this. A dancer can’t say “I don’t feel like it today”. I don’t know any good musician who does that.
Sometimes my students would say “I didn’t write, because I was having a bad weekend”. And I’m like “I’m sure you think you had a bad weekend, but I’m sure you didn’t have as bad a weekend as Virginia Woolf”. And she still wrote dozens of essays and over a dozen books. Yes she eventually killed herself but that’s beside the point. The writing, the dancing, the painting, the art doesn’t give a damn how you feel. And thank God or I would never produce anything!
Someone asked Neil Gaiman: “How do you do it? How to start writing?” and he said: “Just do it”. And then do revisions, because if you didn’t do anything, you can’t do the revisions.
Revision is rewriting the book. With every book I write, I like to think I’m a better writer and this book I’ll only revise twice. And this new one, which I thought I’ll just write and be done. I revised it like five times. You never get good at it, which is great, because you’ get bored. What’s there to discover? Where’s the fear? People say: “You must be brave”. I’m like: “Are you crazy? I’m scared all the time!” Every book I’ve written starts with the “how the hell is this going to get written?”. Every book I write comes from a point of impossibility, there’s no way I can write I have no idea what to do. I should just quit right now nobody will know, because I wouldn’t have told them. And whether it’s inspiration whether it’s dumb luck, so many of the stuff I write happen because I overhear somebody and I go “oh my God, it’s such a great way!”. This book, the sci-fi book happened because of “The Affair”. And I haven’t seen that show, somebody was telling me the basic premise. I said: “Oh my God, that’s a novel!”.
Everything I’ve written starts from the point of view of I don’t know how to pull this off.
Even after the Booker, after all those great reviews?
Every book! The only thing that was reassuring writing this new book is when I realised “oh I’ve been through here before”. Because I have. And every book I’m like: “this is what’s going to kill me. I might as well just pack up and be done. I can’t. I don’t know what to do”.
But you still write, so it’s not a bad feeling, this fear, because if it were so bad, you wouldn’t go back.
Maybe it’s just glutton for punishment, because it’s easy. This is also what I always forget. I always remember the end of writing a book. So I can sit here, having a great mood about it, but I was absolutely nerve-wrecked back then. Why did I stick with it? Because I don’t know any better. I also think I write because one: that’s what I’m here to do. And I really don’t think I could do anything else. Which is funny, because I have done everything else. I’ve done nearly every career there is. But you get to the point that despite knowing how to do things, you get to the point when people ask you if you weren’t writing what would you be doing, you can’t answer the question. And I can’t answer the question. I don’t know what I’d be doing even though I’ve done nearly everything.
Do you have one story that stuck with you, you were surprised and you found lovely and weird?
I don’t know if it’s lovely, but it’s definitely weird. So most of the African epics tend to be about men. Even when there are women, there aren’t a lot of them. Only one has been translated so far. It’s from a point of view of a woman and she’s a cannibal witch. The great thing about this story is that the only person who could win with her was her own daughter. And her own daughter out-witched her. But the cannibal witch doesn’t die, she doesn’t die from a comeuppance like you’d expect. She just dies from old age. She’s like: “Alright, my own daughter beat me, I’m gonna lie down and die now” and that’s the end. But it’s such a thoroughly feminist story almost by accident. Because all the men in the story are stupid and they get eaten, the only person wise enough to outsmart her is her own daughter. It’s a fantastic story, I couldn’t believe it when I was reading it.