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Marlon James Becomes First Jamaican To Win Man Booker Prize


It will come to be seen as a classic of our times. That's what judges of the prestigious Man Booker Prize have said about this year's winner, "A Brief History Of Seven Killings." The novel is an epic reimagining of the assassination attempt on the singer Bob Marley in the Kingston of the 1970s. Marlon James is the author. He's the first Jamaican-born writer to win the prize announced yesterday in London. We reached him there earlier today, and right after I said hello and congratulations, I noticed his voice.

MARLON JAMES: Thank you. This is - it's amazing. It's still shocking and totally surreal.

CORNISH: Now, I'm going to assume that your voice is sounding a little rough 'cause maybe you've been doing a little celebrating or...

JAMES: More...

CORNISH: ...Maybe a couple more interviews?

JAMES: Just a little bit.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

JAMES: You know, from last night pretty much straight through today (laughter).

CORNISH: I read that you originally envisioned "A Brief History Of Seven Killings" as a short crime book.


CORNISH: Seven hundred pages later...


CORNISH: ...What happened?

JAMES: I don't know. I think I - when I was doing the novel, I really did think it was one story. What happens is, every time I did one story, I ran into a dead end, and I'd pick another story and run into a dead-end and pick another story. And I kept doing this until a friend of mine said to me, you know, why do you think it's one person's story? I think that's when it clicked that it was a multiple-person narrative. And maybe it was good or bad, but by then, I had written hundreds of pages. I just had to figure out how they worked together.

CORNISH: And I understand this is actually your third novel, right? I mean...


CORNISH: ...Your career had a bit of a bumpy start. What kind of rejection did you experience when you first tried to get published?

JAMES: Well, you know, my first novel, "John Crow's Devil," which was eventually published, was turned down by quite a few people - well, more than quite a few - around 78 publishers and agents and...

CORNISH: Wait. Wait a second. Seventy-eight's a very specific number. So you actually...

JAMES: Yeah.

CORNISH: Your first book, which was published in 2005, "John Crow's Devil," you're saying, was rejected 78 times.

JAMES: Yeah.

CORNISH: Did you sit down and count?

JAMES: I didn't count when I was doing it, or I probably would've stopped at 30.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

JAMES: You get so much into the rhythm of sending work out and getting rejections and then sending the next batch out and getting rejections and sending the next batch out. It's only in hindsight, I think - in fact, I think it's when somebody asked me years later, that was the first time I actually checked and counted.

CORNISH: What kind of response have you heard from Jamaica (laughter), from the island this morning?

JAMES: Well, I heard I made the front page of both newspapers. And people are beside themselves and excited and going crazy. I'm like - you know, I'm like, I didn't win World Cup.


CORNISH: You're not the world's fastest man.


CORNISH: But this is pretty good.

JAMES: It's pretty good.

CORNISH: Well, do you have any advice out there for the writers who may also be experiencing a little bit of rejection?

JAMES: Yeah, you know, "Catch-22" was rejected 48 times. I mean, there are lots of stories out there of books and novels and stories and poems that go through rounds and rounds of rejection. And you're going to come across that situation maybe once, maybe more than once where you have to believe in yourself because you're the only one who does. Listen to people. You may very well be doing good but sloppy work or good work that needs a lot of help or work that is too early, but don't lose sight that you are doing good work and you have something to say.

CORNISH: That's Marlon James. His novel "A Brief History Of Seven Killings" has won this year's Man Booker Prize. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

JAMES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.