For novelist-podcaster Marlon James, it’s Dead Writer Summer
Jake Morrissey can talk for a long time, I tell novelist Marlon James, referring to his longtime editor at Riverhead Books.
“Well, I give him really, really long books to edit, so it might be my fault!” James says, laughing down the telephone line from his home in Brooklyn.
James is connecting to introduce Season 2 of “Marlon & Jake Read Dead People,” the deeply literary, deeply fun podcast about books by writers of the past. In this second season, they’ll turn to books new to at least one of them, along with some quirkier choices — while sticking to their theme of speaking candidly of the dead. Here’s a trailer to the new season.
Their debates — about Trollope versus Dickens, or the pros and cons of “Moby-Dick” — can be pretty contentious, and I wonder if the podcast imitates life.
“In the sense that our conversations have almost nothing to do with the books right in front of us, yes” says James, who is currently working on the second book in his Dark Star trilogy. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” the first in the series, was a finalist for a 2019 National Book Award and won The Times’ inaugural Ray Bradbury Prize. His previous novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” won the Booker Prize in 2015.
Born and raised in Jamaica, James received what he calls a “very posh” education at boys’ schools, whose curricula remained colonial even after the country gained independence from Britain in 1962. “There was this insistence that you have to learn bedrock stuff, Chaucer and Spenser and Christopher Marlowe.”
He absorbed more than he knew at the time; after all, “even Shakespeare got some good barbs in about absolute power.” And postcolonial literature was heavily influenced by its oppressors. “I mean, Marquez has magical realism because he was never too far from Cervantes.”
Marlon James, whose novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” pioneered queer fantasy, thanks Mary Shelley and “Moby Dick” for predicting our current crisis.
What makes their show work is this interplay of cultures and educations: James knows about books Morrissey may not, and vice versa. Season 1 cut a vast swath across genres and topics — myths, memoirs, epics, movie adaptations, “trashy novels.”
“We have a pretty wide library of books to draw on between us, which is another way to say we both read too much,” says James. “Our conversations are always very discursive. Jake would drop an allusion, and I would say, ‘That writer’s a jackass!’”
These lively exchanges gestated for years. After a while, colleagues started hovering in the hallway whenever James would stop by Riverhead headquarters for a chat. Before long, a colleague came up with the idea of producing an in-house podcast.
“What drew people to these arguments is the idea that literature is worth fighting for — but it’s also worth fighting over,” says James. “If you have an argument about ‘Hamlet,’ that’s another way of saying ‘Hamlet’ is important.”
Morrissey agrees. “We are talking about books the way other people talk about sports,” says the editor. “Or about ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Friends’ episodes or what have you. We’re talking about works of literature as fans, [which] means we’re not reverential. We don’t kneel at the altar of any author, and since our primary relationship is as author and editor, we’re both very interested in the mechanics of books. How do authors get the reactions readers have to them?”
Each man has pointed the other to books they haven’t read before, and listeners will hear a lot more about that this season. “In Season 1 we mainly discussed books we both knew well,” says Morissey, “but this time around, there’s more of, ‘Dude, have you read this?’”
Enthusiasm aside, they’re not above a bit of leg-pulling. “I’m a huge fan of Anthony Trollope, and Marlon hates the Barchester Chronicles. So for one Christmas I gave him a complete set of the Palliser novels, carefully wrapped, with a card that said, ‘There will be a test,’” Morrissey says. “On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Dickens, but he’s a bigger fan. He even loves ‘Great Expectations.’” You can practically hear Morrissey’s eyes rolling.
But James has a good reason for loving “Great Expectations.” He believes books are meant to take us on adventures — physical or internal. “I want to see a character develop and change, and that can happen in an afternoon set in a drawing room or across continents, you know?”
He goes back to his student days: “I’d been reading so much stuffy British exile lit, and I finally went to the exams office and asked if there were other books on the syllabus. That’s where I came across ‘Tom Jones’! Man, did I have the time of my life reading that novel.” Ever since, he has read with little regard for high-low conventions. “It’s this sort of ridiculous thing that we have in literature, where he who’s prettiest — by which I mean most acceptable — makes the rules.”
He pauses. “Harold Bloom would have issues with this, but I think we need to broaden the idea of what is considered classical lit. Not just Toni Morrison, but also Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen, just to give one example.”
Just don’t get him started (as Morrissey did) on “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “A lot of people must find us exhausting when we have that kind of argument,” says James. “I was yelling, ‘Stanley’s not no damn rebel! Stanley’s a deluded, dangerous rapist! His take on reality is as shaky as Blanche’s!’”
James says the fact that he and Morrissey can build a podcast around “dead people” is a testament to the idea that the books themselves are anything but. “Talking about literature is a way to remind people that literature is something you can participate in. Don’t keep people out! Nobody’s coming for ‘your’ books! ... Arguing about a book does way more for its legacy than if you try to save its preciousness intact.”
In Season 2, James and Morrissey will talk about everything from the last books published by major figures (e.g., Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) to favorite short books and mutual new-reading assignments. For that last exercise, James assigned Morrissey an early 20th century novel about the Great Migration. Morrissey reciprocated with “the world’s shortest memoir, at 88 pages.” Let the debates begin — and may the odds be forever in Charles Dickens’ favor.
Marlon James, who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings” on Tuesday night in London, is the first Jamaican novelist to receive the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary award.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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