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Marlon James author photo
Credit: Jeffrey Skemp

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

The next project for Marlon James — the Man Booker Prize-winning author of 2014’s A Brief History of Seven Killingsis an epic fantasy trilogy to be published by Riverhead Books, EW can announce exclusively.

Titled The Dark Star Trilogy, the three novels (Black Leopard, Red Wolf; Moon Witch, Night Devil; The Boy and the Dark Star) follow three characters — the Tracker, the Moon Witch, and the Boy. According to the official summary, they are “locked in a dungeon in the castle of a dying king, awaiting torture and trial for the death of a child. They were three of eight mercenaries who had been hired to find the child; the search, expected to take two months, took nine years. In the end, five of the eight mercenaries, as well as the child, were dead.” The three novels will unravel each character’s tale of what happened over those nine years — one perspective per book — as James builds a rich world brimming with African myths and legends, fantastical creatures, and other accouterments of his own imagination.

James spoke to EW by phone from his home in Minnesota about the ways Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and tales of ancient African mythology inspired this series. He hopes the first book will be finished in time for a possible Fall 2018 publication.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you have a concise summary of the plot of the trilogy — or at least the first book?

MARLON JAMES: The very, very basic plot is this slave trader hires a bunch of mercenaries to track down a kid who may have been kidnapped. But finding him takes nine years, and at the end of it, the kid is dead. And the whole novel is trying to figure out, “How did this happen?” So [Black Leopard, Red Wolf] itself is basically a witness testimony. The thing is, the next novel is somebody else’s eyewitness testimony, and their first remark is, “Everything you read before is not true.”

Where did the idea for the trilogy come from?

Originally it came from a fight that I had with somebody. I think it was when they announced the casting for The Hobbit. I remember saying, “You know, if an Asian or a black hobbit came out of the Shire, nobody would have cared. We would have just moved on.” And my friend said, “Well, Lord of the Rings is all this British and Celtic mythology.” And I said, “Well, you know… Lord of the Rings isn’t real.” It just turned into one of these arguments we have about diversity and inclusion.

It made me realize that there was this huge universe of African history and mythology and crazy stories, these fantastic beasts and so on, that was just waiting there. And I’m a big sci-fi geek — I love my Lord of the Rings, I love my Angela Carter and my Dragonslayer. I think the argument ended with me saying, “You know what? Keep your d— Hobbit.”

And it made me start to think about the fantastic African epic traditions — some of the stories I grew up with, like Anansi the Spider. I just realized that there’s this huge pool of fantastic stories to draw from. It’s sort of like my being a scholar of African history and mythology, and my being a total sci-fi/fantasy geek who rereads things like The Mists of Avalon, they just sort of came together.

So it’s partly your invention, and partly bringing these old myths and stories to life?

Yeah. And I mean, there are lots of people doing that — you know, recounting the myths and the religions and so on. But I just became really fascinated with real, old, epic storytelling. There are African epics that we still talk about — some of which are as old as Beowulf. Others, like The Epic of Son-Jara and The Epic of Askia Mohammed, I’ve been researching for years. When I started to really dig into it, the book almost started writing itself.

[The setting] is still a made-up place. It’s more Middle Earth than say, Mogadishu. It’s all these imagined spaces, and all these imagined worlds, but still playing on a lot of African culture. But also, sort of recapturing some of the glories of empires — a lot of which the British just kind of burnt to the ground, which is why we don’t talk about them now. Going way back, the touch point for this story would probably be just after the dawn of the Iron Age.

Ooh — roughly what year?

I don’t know if I could put it in a year. I think it would be like if Luke Cage was suddenly Conan the Barbarian. It’s a little bit Dark Ages in Europe, wouldn’t have had Charlemagne yet… sort of after the fall of Rome, but before the rise of Florence, if you want to call it that. But in Africa, we had some of these really glorious empires, like Ghana and Ethiopia and Songhai and Kush.

But I didn’t want to write a historical novel. I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek! I don’t know who I told this, but I said, “I just want to geek the hell out of something.” I want monsters and magical beings! Just in the first 50 pages of this book, this guy’s already gone underwater to the Underworld. He’s running into these mer-creatures who cause huge sickness.

In that same interview, you said you were going to invent a new language. Did you end up doing that?

No, not yet! But I’m sure I will. To get it right, I’m trying to learn a lot of African languages. I love that Tolkien just created Elvish. I also like that he didn’t bother to translate it! [Laughs] I just wanted to build this whole thing. Like each of the novels, each part of it does have huge appendices: These languages and maps and countries and all of that. I even drew a few already!

Did you start the world building and designing before you started writing?

Yeah. The world building took me a year and a half, actually. Just a lot of research. Part of it is just the way I write. It would take me two years, sometimes, before I can start a book because I’m just doing all this research. I mean, once I start, I write and I write pretty fast. I write like 6,000 words a week. But to get to that point, I have to know everything. I have to move through a manuscript with some sort of authority, and that comes with just writing and researching.

Were you starting this research post-Man Booker win?

No, I started it post-handing in the manuscript for [A Brief History of Seven Killings]. So we’re talking around mid-2014, I was already researching it. Usually when I have a book out, I already start thinking of the next one, because I just like my focus being on something else, rather than the craziness of trying to sell a book.

How does it feel to write after winning the Booker?

Well, because I was already deep in this book before the Booker thing even happened, it hasn’t really affected me in any way, I think. I think, had I allowed it to, I’d probably start to think, “Okay, I need to write a respectable, politically aware, deep in the Jamaican consciousness kind of novel.” Instead, I’m like, “Man, I hope 12-year-olds read this book.” Okay, maybe not. [Laughs]

12-year-olds like blood and gore! They’ll like it.

I know! I’ve always believed in writing the book that’s in my head, as opposed to the book I think I should write.

This is your first series. How has that been? What made you want to expand this over multiple books?

I had that idea from the beginning. A lot of the books I read, whether it’s fantasy or not, tend to be multiple. Like Game of Thrones, which is still going, Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin, which is a huge, huge influence on me. But also Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies — Hillary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. Even Nuruddin Farah, who almost writes exclusively in trilogies. When you write novels, sometimes you really care about the afterlife of these characters, and sometimes you really want to spend some time in a space. Especially when I realize there are so many different points of view that I want told. Re-watching a film like Rashomon certainly has a lot to do with that. Two people can view an event in profoundly different ways. And that became really, really interesting to me.

In another interview, you mentioned Salvador Dalí becoming an influence as your writing got more and more surreal. Is this series the result of that?

I guess reading Dalí, but also the comic series Fables, and going back and reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, going back and reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Granted, a lot of those guys are also big fans of Dalí. I still wanted a world that, in some ways, doesn’t make any sense, or is just really not quite our plane of existence. Because in a lot of real African storytelling, there is no separation between reality and dream, or reality and fantasy, or the dead and the living. They don’t make those distinctions. It’s one of the reasons why, sometimes, Africans going through things like schizophrenia end up being curious, because their voices are all affirmative. Like, do you really want to cure somebody who has their own private cheerleading squad?

Wow. When can we read this? Have you finished writing the first one?

Oh god, no. [Laughs] I have a very strict deadline of the end of the year, so that we can have it out Fall 2018.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf
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