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Marlon James talks new novel 'Moon Witch, Spider King'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Bestselling author Marlon James is known for creating vast, intricate worlds with compelling characters. That skill has earned him much acclaim. In 2015, he won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for "A Brief History Of Seven Killings." And in 2019, he was a National Book Award finalist for "Black Leopard, Red Wolf." Now he's showing us his powers once again with a new novel, "Moon Witch, Spider King." The book is epic, spanning decades and involving many characters, and it is also part origin story, focusing on Sogolon, a persistent woman who sets out to find a missing child.

We've met Sogolon before in "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," but that novel is told from the perspective of a man named Tracker. In this book, we follow the same story, but this time from the perspective of Sogolon. We learn all about her and what made her who and what she is. And because of those overlapping narratives, we are also invited to question just what it is we're finding out. So what is the truth? Is there such a thing as the truth? Who can we trust to tell it?

We had a chance to talk about all this recently with Marlon James. He told us he started writing "Moon Witch, Spider King" in March 2020, just as the COVID pandemic was shutting down much of the world. He calls it his pandemic book.

MARLON JAMES: If there's ever a year where I could say I found the time to write - there was a lot of time. For half of 2020, I was in Connecticut with my partner at his sister's house. And, I mean, there really wasn't much to do other than stare at trees with no leaves, because it's winter, or hear bad news about the pandemic. And I just sort of sat at their dining table and started writing this book and pretty much didn't get up. I started - every day I started around 9 and - till around 6 or 6:30 or whenever I needed the dining table to actually eat.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

JAMES: And then sort of - yeah, I kind of not necessarily plowed through it, but certainly applied myself to it, you know, pretty hard. I haven't written a novel with this intensity since probably my second novel.

MARTIN: Wow. That's amazing. I want to make it very clear that you do not have to have read the previous book in order to read this one. And you could read them out of order. You could read them in different order. So I just want to make that very clear because I don't want people to be discouraged thinking that, you know, if I - I have to - you know, it's like a class, you know, and I have to follow the syllabus.

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I am fascinated by how you keep track of all of the details. It really is its own country, you know?

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, how did you keep track of all that?

JAMES: Well, my very exhaustive notes and Post-its stuck all over another person's dining room. You know, and - well, one thing, though - it reinforces the point that this series can be read in any order - is that to write Sogolon, I had to trick myself into forgetting the previous book. I had to forget "Black Leopard" in a way. I mean, the novels end in the same place, but I had to forget it because what I didn't want happening was that this novel is nothing more than a rebuttal of the previous novel, which realistically wouldn't have made sense, anyway, because Sogolon hasn't heard Tracker's testimony. She wouldn't have known what he said. She wouldn't have known what was important to him or where he may have been exaggerating or fudging the truth or telling the actual truth and not writing it (unintelligible) as well so that it doesn't come across as a bit-by-bit response to the previous book.

MARTIN: OK. So let's talk a little bit about her. You know, she's resourceful. She's clever. She's got a lot of persistence and drive. We also learn that the world has not always been kind to her. And I'm just wondering how you - what did you draw upon for her story to create her?

JAMES: What did I draw upon? Well, one, I drew upon the novels I was rereading at the time. Throughout the whole writing and pandemic, two novels are on my desk the whole time - "Beloved" and "Wolf Hall." And the thing about "Beloved," it's - you know, it's woman with very, very, very high and dangerous stakes dealing with both love and trouble, which is sort of what Sogolon is dealing with. So some of it was me sort of rereading these novels. But also, it was almost sort of becoming a journalist for an imagined person, where I sort of just sit back and let her tell the story. And usually when I do that with my characters, they have a lot to say.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yes. That's another thing that was fascinating to me, is that there's a lot of dialogue in this novel. And I'm just wondering how that - how do you arrive at that? Does it come to you? I'm just so fascinated by how you create a language for someone who is not you and who is not us. If I open - literally, if I open the book and picked a page, I would know who was speaking. It just fascinates me how you can do that.

JAMES: In this case, it ties in with the oral tradition. This is a - you know, I was reading a lot of folktales and so on, and those are stories that are told aloud or read to be told aloud. So volume and control, volume control, was very important for me, that the novel whispers and shouts and cries and screams and do all these things that we associate with voice. But there is also the question of, how do I write an English that's not in league with British English or American English or even contemporary Jamaican English? And that meant breaking the rules of English. And I think that was one thing. It's not even so much breaking the rules of English so much as ignoring some of the rules of English.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what's next for you? Do you have a sense of when the - as I mentioned that this is part of a trilogy, but, again, you don't have to - it's not a syllabus. You don't have to read them in order. But do you have a sense of when the final installment will come out?

JAMES: Well, my publisher thinks 2024. So (laughter) let's go with them. You know, it's funny. There's part of me just want to go on Reddit to see the reactions of people who read this book first instead of "Black Leopard," because that would be very - it would be very interesting to see if they read it in the reverse order if "Black Leopard" redeems, you know, Tracker or they have to look at him in a different way, you know, because it's - one of the things that I drew on and one of the reasons why the novels are non-linear is a whole aspect of African folklore. Two things - one, that a lot of times the trickster is telling you the story, or the stories are about the trickster, and two - and this is one area in which we really have to rethink this idea that the literary - or, rather, the literate society - was more advanced than the oral, is that the listener of stories had to be listening to see if he's being tricked and had to, you know, listen if there's a double story being told or if the characters shifted it. The listener, you know, sitting around the fire or so on, had to do some detective work while listening to the story, which, I think, we take for granted now, you know?

And one of the reasons why I said it's meant to be read aloud is that I think there are things your ears will catch that your eyes will skip, including rhythm, which was very important to me with this prose. But, yeah, that's just - again, tying into the notion of what is truth exactly, because by the end of the third book, I'm not going to be explaining which one of these three is telling the truth - maybe in, like, 10 years, if they pay me. And I'll donate it to charity. I'll whisper it into the ear of one person.

MARTIN: That is the bestselling Booker Prize-winning author, Marlon James. His latest book, "Moon Witch, Spider King," is out Tuesday. Marlon James, thank you so much for talking with us today. Obviously, I could talk to you all day. And I do hope we'll talk again.

JAMES: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.