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.
Five Dials: When you are building a world, do the characters come first or the landscape?
Marlon James: 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.
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.
5D: Which books were you looking at?
MJ: 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.
5D: 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?
MJ: 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.’
Sometimes what you have as an idea is just a trigger. It's just the thing to lead you to the real idea.
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.
5D: Some authors turn to historical research but don’t find that much richness.
MJ: 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.
5D: What else did you find?
MJ: 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.’
5D: You mentioned how much you love Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Belcher.
MJ: 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.
5D: With that in mind, did you think about the propulsion of the dialogue?
MJ: 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.
5D: This novel is also about smell. Did you always know the lead character, Tracker, would have an amazing nose rather than, say, great hearing?
MJ: 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.
5D: I remember you saying the same about Seven Killings.
MJ: 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.
5D: When do you know to make that decision?
MJ: There are certain parts of writing process I just 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.
5D: Why doesn't that sheer terror translate to less ambitious books?
MJ: Maybe I'm also kind of foolish. I don't know.