Transcript: Truth and Fantasy in Literature | Aug 08, 2019

Nam sits in the studio. She's in her early forties, with shoulder length curly brown hair. She's wearing glasses and a red blazer over a black blouse.

A caption on screen reads "Truth and fantasy in literature. Nam Kiwanuka, @namshine, @theagenda."

Nam says THE LIFE OF A WRITER CAN BE
SOLITARY AND GRUELLING,
UNTIL IT'S NOT AND IT'S REPLACED
BY LEGIONS OF READERS,
AWARDS AND ADAPTATIONS FOR BIG
AND SMALL SCREENS.
HERE TO TELL US ABOUT
BOTH SIDES, TWO WRITERS OF
BREATHTAKING ABILITY: COLSON
WHITEHEAD, WHO WON A
PULITZER PRIZE FOR HIS LAST Novel.
HE'S GOT A NEW BOOK,
IT'S CALLED...

A picture of the book appears briefly on screen. The cover is white, with a bright red rectangle drawn on the cover, on which two human figures stand. The title reads "The nickel boys."
Colson is in his forties, with long black hair in dreadlocks and a goatee. He's wearing glasses and a black shirt.

Nam continues AND MARLON JAMES IS HERE.

Marlon is in his forties, with long black dreadlocks in a ponytail and a trimmed beard. He's wearing a black suit and a blue t-shirt with a Keith Haring print.

Nam continues HIS NOVEL,
A BRIEF HISTORY OF
SEVEN KILLINGS,
WON THE MAN BOOKER
PRIZE IN 2015.
HIS LATEST IS...

A picture of the book appears briefly on screen. The cover features a drawing of two intertwined animal faces in dark tones of green, blue and red. The title reads "Black leopard, red wolf."

Nam continues AND IT'S AMAZING TO WELCOME
THEM BOTH BACK TO OUR STUDIO
TONIGHT... HELLO.

Colson says HELLO.

Marlon says HOW ARE YOU DOING.

NAM SAYS NICE TO SEE YOU BOTH.

COLSON SAYS YEAH, THANKS
FOR HAVING ME BACK.

Nam says SO, MARLON... BOTH OF YOU
ANYWAY... YOUR TWO PREVIOUS
BOOKS... COMMERCIAL SUCCESS,
AWARDS... AND NOW YOU HAVE THESE
TWO BOOKS THAT ARE VERY
DIFFERENT AND THEY'RE FOLLOWING
UP THESE HUGE MASSIVE HITS, DO
FEEL PRESSURED TO FOLLOW THAT UP
WITH SOMETHING BIGGER?
MARLON FIRST.

Marlon says NO ACTUALLY.

[LAUGHTER]

NAM laughs and says HECK NO!

The caption changes to "Marlon James. Author, 'Black leopard, red wolf.'"
Then, it changes again to "Finding literary success."

Marlon says WE'VE BEEN IN WRITING FOR A
WHILE, AND I'VE BEEN THROUGH THE
READING WHERE NOBODY SHOWS UP,
OR THE BOOK THAT'S OFF THE BOOK
STANDS IN TWO WEEKS, SO
HAVING SEEN AS BAD AS IT CAN GET
NOTHING REALLY SCARES
ME OR PRESSURES ME.
BUT IT'S EASY TO SAY THAT,
THE BETTER ANSWER IS THAT I WAS
WRITING THIS BOOK FROM BEFORE IT
EVEN GOT NOMINATED... PREVIOUS I
GOT NOMINATED FOR THE BOOKER... SO
I WAS ALREADY SO, YOU KNOW,
SO ALREADY DEEP INTO IT
THAT I DIDN'T EVEN REALLY
CARE... [LAUGHS].

Nam says BUT THEN NOW, BECAUSE YOU'VE
HAD... YOU KNOW... I DON'T KNOW, THE
TASTE OF WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS
LIKE, I GUESS... AND THAT'S A
COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE
THING, I'M ASSUMING.
DON'T YOU... I GUESS YOUR
PUBLISHER IS DIFFERENT, BUT FOR
YOUR OWN-SELVES TO TELL ANOTHER
STORY IN A DIFFERENT WAY AND FOR
PEOPLE TO MAYBE RECEIVE IT
THE WAY THAT YOU INTENDED THEM
RECEIVE IT ALSO.

The caption changes to "Colson Whitehead. Author, 'The nickel boys.'"

Colson says WELL, I'VE ALWAYS LIKE SWITCHED
GENRES AND SO I'M ALWAYS
DISAPPOINTING
READERS...

Nam laughs.

Colson says FOR PEOPLE WHO CAME THE LAST
ONE, LIKE, "OH,
SAG HARBOR,
A SENSITIVE STORY
OF GROWING UP,"
FOLLOWED BY A ZOMBIE
APOCALYPSE STORY, LIKE,
"I HATE ZOMBIES,
I'M NOT GONNA READ THAT,"
SO I'M ALWAYS DISAPPOINTING
PEOPLE WHO CAME ALONG
LAST TIME.
AND THEN, PEOPLE DO ASK, LIKE,
IF IT'S HARD TO FOLLOW IT UP,
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD,
AND I'M LIKE IT'S ALWAYS HARD,
I MEAN, I SUPPOSE LIKE THE EASY
BOOKS I WROTE... [CHUCKLING]... YOU
KNOW, IT'S ALWAYS VERY DIFFICULT
AND YOU'RE ALWAYS STARTING
FROM SCRATCH, AND SO THAT'S PART
OF... YOU KNOW,
IT'S MY NINTH BOOK,
I'M SORT OF USED TO THAT.

Nam says BUT I THINK YOU'RE BOTH GIVING
ME REALLY HUMBLE ANSWERS,
BUT YOU'VE BOTH WANT EXTREMELY
LIKE HUGE PRIZES, THE PULITZER
AND THE MAN BOOKER AWARD,
I MEAN, THAT'S A BIG DEAL,
ISN'T IT?

COLSON shrugs and SAYS I GUESS SO.

[LAUGHTER]

Marlon says IT'S LIKE, ALL RIGHT.

[CHUCKLING]

The caption changes to "Colson Whitehead, @colsonwhitehead."

Colson says WELL, I MEAN, IT PUT ME
IN A GOOD MOOD FOR A YEAR.
[LAUGHTER]
YOU KNOW, USUALLY I
GET UP, YOU KNOW, HOW TO PAY MY
MORTGAGE, HOW I'M A FAILURE
AS A FATHER... [CHUCKLING]... AND
DEFINITELY I WAS IN A GOOD MOOD
AFTER THE PULITZER, AND THEN,
YOU KNOW, NORMAL
LIFE RESUMES, SO.

Marlon says WELL, I GUESS, BECAUSE WHAT I
NOTICE IS IN THE PAST NOBODY
CARED ABOUT MY FACEBOOK POSTS,
AND NOW IT'S LIKE EVERY WEEK I'M
IN ANOTHER FIGHT...

[LAUGHTER]

COLSON SAYS SURE, YEAH.

[LAUGHTER]

The caption changes to "Marlon James, @MarlonJames5."

Marlon says THERE'S ALSO THE SIMPLE FACT
THAT A LOT MORE PEOPLE READ THE
BOOK BECAUSE OF THE PRIZE,
AND THAT WAS GREAT, IT WAS
TRANSLATED INTO ALL THESE
LANGUAGES, WHICH IS ALSO GREAT.
SO YEAH, IT HAS CHANGED THINGS
FOR, YOU KNOW, FOR THE BETTER,
AND I'M CERTAINLY REALLY
GLAD THAT I WON IT... [CHUCKLES].

The caption changes to "Connect with us: Twitter: @theagenda; Facebook, agendaconnect@tvo.org, Instagram."

Nam says COMMERCIAL SUCCESS IS GREAT, BUT
I'M THINKING, YOU KNOW, WHEN YOU
ARE WRITING LIKE THIS NEW BOOK
THAT YOU'VE WRITTEN, COLSON,
IT'S ABOUT IS A REFORM
SCHOOL IN FLORIDA WHERE KIDS ARE
BRUTALIZED... AND A FANTASY NOVEL
SET IN AFRICA, FOR YOU,
DURING THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELLING
THOSE BOOKS AFTER YOU'VE HAD
COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
WITH ONE TYPE OF BOOK?

The caption changes to "A tough sell."

Colson says WELL, FOR ME I'VE BEEN VERY
LUCKY BECAUSE MY FIRST BOOK WAS
ABOUT AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN
ELEVATOR INSPECTOR, AND SO IF I
CAN CONVINCE MY PUBLISHER TO
PUBLISH THAT THEY'RE ALONG FOR
THE REST OF THE STUFF.
AND I MENTIONED MY ZOMBIE BOOK,
AND I SHOWED MY EDITOR BEFORE I
STARTED WRITING IT, I WAS LIKE
"THIS IS SORT OF LIKE
NIGHT OF
LIVING DEAD
MEETS
BLACK HAWK
DOWN,
I DON'T KNOW," AND HE
SAID, "I DON'T NEED HORROR
NOVELS, I DON'T LIKE HORROR
MOVIES, BUT YOU KNOW YOU WRITE
IT AND WE'LL FIGURE OUT HOW TO
GET IT OUT THERE."
AND SO I'VE BEEN LUCKY TO BE
WITH THE SAME PUBLISHER AND NO
MATTER WHAT KOOKY IDEA THEY'VE
ALWAYS BEEN BEHIND IT, AND...

Nam says YOU'VE WRITTEN ABOUT VERY
DIFFERENT THINGS IN YOUR BOOKS,
IS IT THE SAME PEOPLE THAT READ
YOUR BOOKS BECAUSE OF YOU, OR DO
YOU FIND THAT YOU GET NEW
READERS BECAUSE OF THE SUBJECT?

Colson says THERE ARE FEW ODDBALLS WHO'VE
STUCK WITH ME... [CHUCKLING]... BUT,
YOU KNOW, I DID GET A NEW
AUDIENCE WITH
SAG HARBOR
AND HORROR FANS CAME TO
ZONE ONE,
AND OBVIOUSLY
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
BROUGHT
ME A MUCH BIGGER READERSHIP.
WITH THE NEW BOOK,
THE NICKEL BOYS,
YOU KNOW IT'S REALISTIC,
THERE'S NO SORT OF FANTASY
STRUCTURE AS IN
UNDERGROUND;
IT'S SMALLER, COMPACT,
IT HAS TWO PROTAGONISTS.
SO FOR ME IT SEEMS VERY
DIFFERENT, BUT THERE IS... YOU
KNOW... THERE ARE OVERLAPPING
THEMES ABOUT RACE,
AMERICAN HISTORY... BUT
IT'S A ZONE THING.

The caption changes to "Watch us anytime: tvo.org, Twitter: @theagenda, Facebook Live, YouTube."

NAM SAYS AND YOU MARLON?

Marlon says SO WHEN I WAS SELLING... YOU KNOW,
PUSHING THE IDEA OF THIS BOOK,
AND JUST IN CASE ANYBODY SAID
THINGS LIKE, YOU KNOW, "WE DON'T
SEE A MAINSTREAM CHARACTER,"
WHICH IS ONE OF THE OTHER WAYS
WE SAY WHITE.
AND I'LL SAY, "YEAH, THERE ARE
NO MAINSTREAM CHARACTERS,
BUT YOU KNOW... WAKANDA."

COLSON SAYS YES, YES...

[LAUGHTER].

Marlon says SO, I WAS LIKE...

NAM SAYS FROM BLACK PANTHER...

Marlon says BLACK PANTHER, OF COURSE.

NAM SAYS WHICH SOLD LOTS OF
TICKETS IN HERE...

[LAUGHTER].

The caption changes to "Watch us anytime: tvo.org, Twitter: @theagenda, Facebook Live, YouTube."

Marlon says BUT, AGAIN, I ALSO... YOU
KNOW... HAVE A VERY OPEN-MINDED
AND CONSISTENT EDITOR, 'CAUSE
NONE OF MY BOOKS HAVE ANYTHING
IN COMMON EITHER.
IN FACT, THE ONE THING THEY USED
TO HAVE IN COMMON IS THAT YOU'RE
ALL SET IN JAMAICA,
BUT OTHER THAN THAT...
I'M PRETTY RESTLESS IN MY
IMAGINATION AS WELL,
I GET BORED PRETTY QUICKLY.
AND...

NAM SAYS THAT EXPLAINS ALL THE
DIFFERENT CHARACTERS THAT YOU INCLUDE.

Marlon says YEAH.
I'M ALSO A NARRATIVELY
PROMISCUOUS... [LAUGHTER]... SO,
IT'S LIKE... I LIKE
SPENDING TIME WITH EVERYBODY.

Nam says AND WELL, COLSON... YOU'VE BOTH
BEEN ON THE SHOW... BUT COLSON,
WHEN YOU WERE HERE LAST, STEVE
PAIKIN SPOKE TO YOU AND THIS IS
WHAT YOU HAD TO SAY ABOUT
WHO YOUR BOOKS ARE FOR.

Colson says OK, UH-OH,
YEAH...
[LAUGHTER]
SURE, YEAH,
YEAH.

Nam says CAN WE ROLL THE CLIP, PLEASE?

COLSON SAYS OH WHOA, THERE'S A CLIP.

A clip plays on screen with the caption "December 8, 2016. Colson Whitehead."

In the clip, Colson talks in The Agenda studio.

He says SOME PEOPLE SEE THE BOOK AS
HOPEFULLY, SOME PEOPLE NOT SO
HOPEFUL, AND PEOPLE HAVE ASKED,
LIKE... I MEAN, IT'S CRAZY... BUT,
"WHAT'S YOUR SOLUTION
TO THE RACE PROBLEM?"
AND I'M NOT IN THE SOLUTIONS
BUSINESS, I WRITE NOVELS, SO I
DON'T KNOW."
YOU KNOW, I WRITE BOOKS TO
FIGURE OUT THINGS ABOUT MYSELF,
OTHER BOOKS ABOUT THE WORLD,
AND I THINK IF YOU DO IT RIGHT,
IF YOU PICK THE RIGHT CHARACTERS
AND SITUATIONS AND SENTENCES,
OTHER PEOPLE CAN COME
ALONG FOR THE RIDE.

The clip ends.

Nam says DO EITHER OF YOU FEEL PRESSURED
TO HAVE THE ANSWERS TO SOME
OF THE BIG QUESTIONS THAT
YOU RAISE IN YOUR BOOKS?
COLSON.

Colson says UH, NO.
I'M JUST SOME WEIRDO GUY
THINKING UP MY STORIES AND I
HAVE NO SOLUTIONS.
I THINK IF YOU'RE ON THE ROAD, A
LOT OF THE TIME THE CONVERSATION
CAN MIGRATE TO, "I'M GONNA
ASK A BLACK PERSON
A RANDOM QUESTION."
SO, LIKE, MARLON, WHAT
DO YOU THINK ABOUT TRUMP?
AND, YOU KNOW, WE WRITE ABOUT
POLITICS SOMETIMES
AND THERE'S OVERLAP.
BUT, YOU CAN BE THRUST INTO
THE ROLE OF SPOKESPERSON AND
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE SOMETHING
TO SAY AND SOMETIMES YOU DON'T.

NAM SAYS DOSE THAT MAKE YOU UPSET
OR A BIT... I DON'T KNOW... ANNOYED?

Colson says WHEN IT GETS REALLY, REALLY
RANDOM, YOU KNOW, I THINK
DEFINITELY THE WHITER THE
COUNTRY, THE WEIRDER THE
QUESTIONS SOMETIMES...
[LAUGHTER].
SO IT'S, LIKE, "I LIKE THE BOOK,
AND ALSO WHY IS BARACK OBAMA
CONSIDERED BLACK WHEN
HE HAS A WHITE MOTHER?"
AND I WAS LIKE, "I'M NOT SURE
HOW YOU GOT FROM
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
TO THAT?" [LAUGHTER].
OR "HAVE YOU BEEN SAVING THIS
QUESTION FOR ME?," YOU KNOW.

Nam says I WATCHED A TALK THAT YOU DID
IN A BOOKSTORE IN THE US,
AND SOMEBODY SAID TO YOU,
"I CAN READ
BELOVED
OR I CAN
READ
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD,
TELL ME WHY I SHOULD READ
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD?"
AND I FEEL LIKE THERE WAS A BIT
OF PUSHBACK BECAUSE THE SUBJECT
MATTER MADE HIM A BIT
UNCOMFORTABLE,
I DON'T KNOW IF THAT WAS YOUR
READ ON IT, BUT DO YOU FIND
THAT YOU THOSE EXPECTATIONS ARE
PLACED ON YOU BECAUSE
YOU'VE WRITTEN ABOUT THIS?

Colson says WELL, I THINK, YOU KNOW,
"I'VE READ A BOOK ABOUT SLAVERY,
BELOVED,
WHY DO I HAVE
TO READ ANOTHER ONE?"
SLAVERY IN AMERICA LASTED
HUNDREDS OF YEARS, WORLD WAR II,
LIKE, SIX OR SEVEN.
BUT THERE ARE... NO ONE EVER SAYS,
"ANOTHER WORLD WAR II BOOK,"
YOU KNOW,
"WHY ANOTHER BOOK ABOUT
SLAVERY?"
AND I GUESS I COULD HAVE WRITTEN
ABOUT UPPER MIDDLE CLASS WHITE
PEOPLE WHO FEEL SAD SOMETIMES,
BUT THERE'S A LOT OF COMPETITION
THERE, AND I...

NAM SAYS WHY DID YOU WRITE IT?
OBVIOUSLY, THERE MUST BE
SOMETHING BEHIND WHY YOU WOULD
WRITE THE STORY?

Colson says IN TERMS OF
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD,
IT WAS REALLY JUST
SORT OF A WHAT IF.
YOU KNOW, WHEN I WAS A CHILD
I FIRST HEARD THOSE WORDS AND
THOUGHT IT WAS A LITERAL TRAIN
BENEATH THE EARTH,
AND OBVIOUSLY IT WAS
A HUMAN NETWORK.
AND SO SOMETIMES I GET AN
IDEA FROM AN ARTICLE, A DREAM.
IN THIS CASE, JUST LIKE WHAT
KIND OF STORY COULD I GENERATE
OUT OF THIS ABSURD PREMISE,
A LITERAL TRAIN THAT GOES
THOUSANDS OF MILES
BENEATH THE EARTH.
AND SO BEFORE IT'S ABOUT
AMERICAN HISTORY, BEFORE IT'S
ABOUT SLAVERY, BEFORE IT'S ABOUT
RACE, BEFORE THERE'S CORA... THE
MAIN CHARACTER... IT'S JUST SORT
OF, WHAT KIND OF STORY
CAN I GENERATE.
AND IF THE IDEA STAYS WITH
ME... IN THE CASE OF THAT BOOK,
14 YEARS... I'LL DECIDE TO PURSUE
IT, YOU KNOW,
IT IS SOMEHOW HAS A HOLD OF
MY IMAGINATION AND I WANT TO
FIGURE OUT WHAT KIND OF
STORY I CAN GENERATE OUT OF
IT, I WANT TO FIGURE OUT WHAT IN
2014 I HAVE TO SAY
ABOUT 1850S AMERICA.

Nam says WELL, IN THAT CLIP WITH
STEVE PAIKIN YOU SAID ONE OF THE
REASONS YOU WRITE IS TO
FIGURE THINGS OUT FOR YOURSELF.
BY WRITING THAT BOOK WHAT DID
YOU FIGURE OUT FOR YOURSELF?

Colson says THERE ARE MANY THINGS.
I THINK MY... THERE'S THE CERTAIN
KIND OF EXISTENTIAL QUESTION OF
WHY AM I HERE.
IT'S AN ACCIDENT THAT THIS OR
THAT ANCESTOR WASN'T KILLED ON
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, KILLED ON
THE PLANTATION, SOMEHOW RAISED A
CHILD AND I'M HERE, AND I'M THE
RESULT OF ALL THESE SORT OF GOOD
LUCK IN THE FACE OF DEVASTATING
MISFORTUNE, SO WHY AM I HERE?
AND PART OF THAT IS IN THE BOOK.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE AN
IDEA OF FREEDOM, AND THE MAIN
CHARACTER IN THE BOOK HAS
ONE IDEA WHEN SHE'S ON THE
PLANTATION, ANOTHER IDEA WHEN
SHE'S IN THE SEEMINGLY SAFE
SPACE OF SOUTH
CAROLINA, THEN NORTH CAROLINA.
WHAT DO I WANT OUT OF THE
WORLD, WHAT DOES CORA WANT?
AND SHE MOVES FROM BEING AN
OBJECT INTO A PERSON
WITH AGENCY.
AND HOPEFULLY, IF I'VE DONE THE
BOOK RIGHT, ON THE LAST PAGE I
SORT OF KNOW MORE ABOUT MYSELF,
WHAT I CAN DO AS A WRITER, AS A
PERSON... AND HOW I FEEL ABOUT
THESE VERY ABSTRACT THINGS LIKE
SLAVERY OR AMERICAN HISTORY,
WHICH ARE ABSTRACT UNTIL I SORT
OF FIGURE OUT HOW TO
GET A STORY OUT OF THEM.

Nam says AND MARLON, DO YOU FEEL
THAT SAME THING... THAT SAME WAY?
IN THE SENSE THAT, YOU KNOW,
PEOPLE ARE ASKING YOU TO HAVE
ANSWERS FOR SOME OF THE BIG
QUESTIONS THAT YOU'VE RAISED IN
YOUR BOOKS?

Marlon says THEY DO BUT I... I MEAN, I
DON'T TRY TO ANSWER THEM.
I THINK I'M SOMETIMES MORE
CONCERNED WITH JUST RENDERING A
BETTER QUESTION.
I ALSO LIKE... AS A READER, I
ACTUALLY LIKED BOOKS THAT LEFT
THE QUESTION ANSWERING TO ME,
NOT THAT I HAD ANSWERS EITHER,
BUT IT LEFT ME WITH A BETTER
FORMED QUESTION THAT I HAD TO GO
HOME AND THINK ABOUT.
AND I MEAN, WHEN WE TALK
ABOUT NOVELS THAT MAKE US THINK,
THAT'S WHAT WE MEAN, NOVELS THAT
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS AND ASK
BETTER QUESTIONS, THAT LEAVE US
PONDERING THINGS EVEN AFTER THE
NOVEL... AFTER WE'VE
CLOSED THE BOOK.
YOU KNOW, READING
BELOVED,
ONE OF THE QUESTIONS IT ASKS IS
CAN MURDER BE AN ACT OF LOVE?
IT DOESN'T ANSWER IT, BUT THEN
THAT HAUNTS ME FOR
THE REST OF MY LIFE.
AND I THINK THAT'S WHAT A
BOOK SHOULD DO, REALLY.

Nam says AND IN
BELOVED
IT WAS,
"DO YOU KILL YOUR CHILD TO
SPARE THEM FROM SLAVERY?"

MARLON SAYS MM HMM.

Nam says DO YOU THINK THAT CRITICS PAY
TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO SOME OF
THE THEMES THAT YOU'VE
WRITTEN ABOUT IN YOUR BOOK?
FOR YOU, WITH
BRIEF KILLINGS,
THERE WAS A LOT OF ATTENTION,
IT SEEMED, PAID ON THE
VIOLENCE IN THE BOOK.

The caption changes to "Marlon James, @MarlonJames5."

Marlon says YEAH, I THINK THEY DO OVERPLAY
VIOLENCE AT THE EXPENSE
OF IGNORING OTHER THINGS IN
THE BOOK, LIKE HUMOUR.
I DO THINK THERE IS
SOMETHING... YOU KNOW, CERTAINLY
IN AMERICA WHERE PEOPLE DO GET
SORT OF ELECTRIFIED OF ATTACHING
BLACK MEN TO VIOLENCE, EVEN IF
IT THEY'RE JUST WRITING ABOUT
IT, I THINK THERE'S SOMETHING
THAT ELECTRIFIES A CERTAIN KIND
OF UN-POLICED WHITE IMAGINATION
THAT REALLY GETS OFF ON THAT.

The caption changes to "Writing violence."

NAM SAYS DO YOU EVER FEEL
CONSTRICTED BY THAT?
LIKE WHEN YOU'RE WRITING DO YOU
THINK THAT YOU HAVE TO KIND OF
EDIT YOURSELF SO YOU'RE
NOT PUTTING YOURSELF IN A...

MARLON SAYS I'M NOT... I DON'T
LISTEN TO CRITICS WHILE I'M
WRITING...
[CHUCKLES].
BUT I THINK THEY SOMETIMES
CONFUSE PREPONDERANCE
WITH RESONANCE.
THE AVERAGE ACTION FILM, THE
MOVIE STAR IS KILLING 100, 200,
300 MEN AND NOBODY GO, "OH MY
GOD THAT PG-13 FILM IS LACED
WITH VIOLENCE," BECAUSE THE
VIOLENCE HAS NO SUFFERING.
AND I THINK THAT'S A DIFFERENCE,
I CAN HAVE FOUR VIOLENT SCENES
IN MY BOOK BUT BECAUSE THEY ALL
HAVE CONSEQUENCES AND ALL HAVE
SUFFERING PEOPLE GONNA GO,
"OH, IT'S SO... IT'S LOADED
WITH VIOLENCE."

NAM SAYS I WILL ALSO ADD, AS A MOM
TO TWO YOUNG KIDS,
THERE'S A LOT OF VIOLENCE IN
CHILDREN'S CARTOONS...
A LOT OF.

MARLON SAYS YEAH, BUT I THINK IT'S
NOT THE VIOLENCE THAT UNNERVES
US, OR LIKE THEY SAY, UNNERVING
VIOLENCE... IT'S NOT THE VIOLENCE
IT'S THE SUFFERING THAT
UNNERVES, BECAUSE THAT IS NOT
WHAT WE BARGAINED FOR.
IF THE LATEST BRUCE WILLIS
FLICK, SOMEBODY GETS SHOT IN THE
STOMACH... IT TAKES A WHILE FOR
THAT PERSON TO DIE,
THAT IS PAINFUL, BUT YOU DON'T
WANT TO SEE THAT FOR
THE REST OF THE MOVIE.

NAM SAYS RIGHT.

Marlon says WHEREAS, IN LITERATURE... AT LEAST
FOR ME... I DON'T THINK THAT'S THE
POINT I'M GONNA TURN AWAY, AND I
THINK FOR THAT I THINK PEOPLE DO
FIXATE ON, YOU KNOW, ON THAT.

NAM SAYS BECAUSE IT MAKES
THEM UNCOMFORTABLE.

Marlon says YEAH.

Nam says MARLON, WHEN YOU WERE
INTERVIEWED BY STEVE FOR
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN
KILLINGS,
YOU HAD THIS TO SAY
ABOUT LANGUAGE IN YOUR BOOK.

A clip plays on screen with the caption "March 17, 2016."
In the clip, Marlon talks in The Agenda studio.

He says NO MATTER HOW OFTEN YOU
READ, THE BEST WAY WE LEARN NEW
LANGUAGES IT STILL TO HEAR IT.
SO I THINK... AND I'M ALSO VERY
CONCERNED ABOUT THE AUDITORY
QUALITY OF PROSE, IT SHOULD
SOUND LIKE IT SHOULD BE
READ ALOUD.
AND I THINK EVENTUALLY,
HOPEFULLY SOONER THAN LATER,
THE READER GETS IT.
I RESISTED THINGS LIKE A
GLOSSARY, 'CAUSE I THINK THE
PROBLEM WITH GLOSSARIES IS THAT
YOU OVEREMPHASIZE THE "EXOTIC."
NATURE OF WHAT IS NOT
NECESSARILY EXOTIC.
I ALSO THINK SOME
MISCOMMUNICATION CAN BE COOL.
I LOVE THAT JUNOT DIAZ DOES
NOT TRANSLATE THE SPANISH
IN HIS BOOKS.
YOU CAN GOOGLE IT OR YOU CAN
JUST LET THAT
MISCOMMUNICATION PASS.

The clip ends.

NAM SAYS IN IN
BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF,
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT
CRAFTING THE LANGUAGE
YOUR CHARACTERS SPEAK IN?

The caption changes to "Approaches to writing."

Marlon says I BEGIN BY EXAMINING A LOT OF
THE AFRICAN LANGUAGES THAT I
KNOW I KNOW OF.
I KNEW I WASN'T GOING TO TURN MY
WOLOF INTO ELVISH, FOR ALL SORTS
OF REASONS, BUT I KNEW I WANTED
LANGUAGE SYSTEMS THAT WAS NOT
WESTERN ENGLISH.
SO THE ONLY WAY OUT FOR ME WAS
TO SORT OF TRICK THE LANGUAGE
INTO DOING THINGS IT
WASN'T PLANNING ON DOING.
LIKE KEEPING VERBS IN THE
PRESENT TENSE NO MATTER WHAT,
WHETHER IT'S PAST,
PRESENT OR FUTURE.
MESSING AROUND WITH
THE COUNTING SYSTEM.
REALIZING THAT A LOT OF LANGUAGE
SYSTEMS ARE NOT LANGUAGE
SYSTEMS, THEY'RE CULTURE
SYSTEMS AND RELIGION SYSTEMS.
WHEN YOU HAVE A SORT OF A
CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW THAT AFFECTS
EVEN HOW YOU DESCRIBE A NEW
MORNING, 'CAUSE YOU THOUGHT
GOD BLESSED YOU WITH ONE.
SO EVEN "GOOD MORNING" IS
SOMETHING THAT I'D HAVE TO GET
RID OF AS SOON AS I GET INTO
THAT KIND OF FRAME OF MIND
WITH LANGUAGE.
SO IT IS A KIND OF BUILDING
LANGUAGE FROM THE GROUND UP
BY KIND OF, AS I SAID, TRICKING
ENGLISH INTO DOING THINGS IT
WASN'T PLANNING ON DOING.
YOU KNOW, ENGLISH HAS ITS
FLAWS BUT IT IS ALSO A PRETTY
MALLEABLE LANGUAGE, AND
IT'S... BUT THAT'S HOW, YOU KNOW,
I FOUND MY WAY OF DOING IT.
BUT ALSO, AS I SAID IN THAT
INTERVIEW... WHERE I NOTICE I AM
ALSO WEARING KEITH HARING...

[LAUGHTER].

NAM chuckles and says YOU'RE A FAN.

Marlon says I KNOW.
THAT IT'S ALSO BOOKS HAVE
VOLUME... BOOKS SHOULD HAVE
VOLUME... THERE'S CERTAIN
PARTS OF BOOKS THAT ARE SHOUTED,
SCREAMED, WHISPERED, TOLD AS AN
AFTERTHOUGHT, AND THAT, SORT OF,
IT SHOULD SOUND AS IF IT SHOULD
BE READ ALOUD THING IS STILL
VERY, VERY IMPORTANT,
PARTICULARLY WHEN YOU'RE DEALING
WITH STORIES THAT ARE
USUALLY TOLD IN ORAL TRADITION.

Nam says AND COLSON, THE SAME QUESTION
FOR YOU, HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT
CRAFTED THE LANGUAGE
YOUR CHARACTER'S SPEAK IN?

Colson says WELL, I THINK EACH BOOK
IS GOING TO HAVE ITS OWN
NARRATOR... FIRST-PERSON,
THIRD-PERSON.
IS A NARRATOR TERSE, DO THEY
LIKE FIVE CLAUSE PILE-UPS, ARE
THEY POSTMODERN, ARE THEY MORE
DIRECT, IS IT GOING TO BE IN THE
PAST, IN THE PRESENT?
AND I ALWAYS THINK ABOUT THAT
A LOT BEFORE I START WRITING.
AND THERE'S ADVANTAGES TO HAVING
A SLANGY FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR,
THERE'S ADVANTAGES TO HAVING A
REMOTE POSTMODERN NARRATOR,
AND I THINK I'M ALWAYS JUST
TRYING TO FIGURE OUT THE RIGHT
TOOL FOR THE JOB.

NAM SAYS HOW DO YOU WORK WITH
AUTHENTICITY, IS THAT IMPORTANT TO GET RIGHT?

Colson says YOU WANT TO GET IT RIGHT, AND
ALSO YOU WANT FREEDOM TO FUDGE.
YOU KNOW, IN TERMS OF
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD,
I WASN'T READING SO MANY
HISTORY BOOKS ABOUT THE
RAILROAD BUT FIRST-PERSON
ACCOUNTS... MEMOIRS,
SLAVE NARRATIVES... AND
I WAS SUCKING UP ALL THESE NOUNS
AND ADJECTIVES AND VERBS THAT
HOPEFULLY MAKE THE BOOK
SOUND REALISTIC TO A MODERN
READER.
I THINK BECAUSE THE CADENCES OF
ENGLISH HAVE CHANGED IN THE LAST
150 YEARS THE SENTENCES WOULDN'T
NECESSARILY MAKE SENSE TO
SOMEONE READING IT IN 1850,
BUT FOR NOW... HOPEFULLY,
IF I'VE MARSHALLED ALL THIS
VOCABULARY, IT SOUNDS AUTHENTIC
TO US EVEN IF IT WOULDN'T TO
SOMEBODY FROM THAT TIME.

Nam says WELL, HOW DO YOU DETERMINE WHEN
TO PUT ASIDE FACTS AND LET YOUR
IMAGINATION TAKE OVER?

Colson says WELL THE IMAGINATION IS
ALWAYS... IS THE FUN PART.
AND DEFINITELY WITH
UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD
IT STARTS OFF IN
REALISTIC PLANTATION GEORGIA
AND THEN SETS OFF INTO THESE
ALTERNATE AMERICAS.
AND I HAD THE BOOK IN THE BACK
OF MY HEAD FOR MANY YEARS,
AND ONCE I GOT TO THE POINT
WHERE I'VE LEFT REALITY I WAS
LIKE REALLY PSYCHED, LIKE
FINALLY, YOU KNOW,
CORA IS ON THIS FANTASTIC TRAIN
BENEATH THE EARTH
AND I CAN REALLY LET IT RIP.
AND SO, FOR ME GETTING TO THE
POINT WHERE I DO HAVE THAT
FREEDOM TO DEPART FROM
THE ACTUAL HISTORICAL
RECORD, OR THE WORLD WE KNOW,
IS OFTEN SOME OF THE MORE
FUN PARTS I REMEMBER
FROM WRITING.

NAM SAYS AND MARLON, THE SAME
QUESTION FOR YOU... HOW DO YOU
DETERMINE WHEN TO PUT ASIDE
FACTS AND LET YOUR IMAGINATION TAKE OVER?

The caption changes to "Facts and imagination."

Marlon says PRETTY MUCH FROM
THE VERY BEGINNING.
I DON'T REMEMBER WHO SAID IT,
THAT SAID FICTION IS THE LIE
THAT TELLS THE TRUTH... IT'S ONE
OF THE DUMBEST THINGS
I'VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE.

COLSON SAYS SURE, SURE.

[LAUGHTER]

NAM SAYS TELL ME HOW YOU
REALLY FEEL...

[LAUGHTER].

The caption changes to "Subscribe to The Agenda Podcast: tvo.org/theagenda."




s says NO, FICTION ISN'T
LIES... FICTION IS FICTION.
FICTION IS
ULTIMATELY A CREATION.
AND EVEN WHEN... I TRY NOT TO
MISREPRESENT FACTS, AND I'M... YOU
KNOW, ESPECIALLY WHEN I'M
WRITING A NOVEL ABOUT BOB MARLEY
OR WHOEVER, I'M NOT
MISREPRESENTING FACTS
BUT I ALSO RESERVE A WRITER'S
RIGHT TO INVENT,
AND ULTIMATELY THAT'S
WHAT I'M DOING.
AND IT'S... I'M NOT, AND YEAH,
THAT'S WHAT I SAY, I'M NOT GOING
TO BETRAY HISTORY.
BUT AT THE SAME TIME I'M NOT
WRITING HISTORY EITHER,
YOU KNOW, I'M WRITING
IMAGINED HISTORIES,
I'M WRITING UNDER-TOLD
STORIES OR PERSPECTIVES
THAT WON'T APPEAR
IN A HISTORY BOOK.
AND ACTUALLY I THINK THERE ARE
THINGS THAT A FICTION WRITER
INVENTING CAN GET TO THAT THE
BIOGRAPHER OR WHOEVER'S TELLING
THE NON-FICTION
STORY CAN'T GET TO.

Nam says WELL, YOU'RE BOTH FANS OF
MARVEL COMICS AND FANTASY...

Marlon says AND DC TOO...

[LAUGHTER].

NAM SAYS AND DC... BOO,
BOO...
[LAUGHTER].
BUT, DO YOU THINK THAT
LIKE FANTASY BOOKS OR FANTASY
NARRATIVES ARE RESPECTED IN THE
SAME WAY AS OTHER NARRATIVES IN
THE LITERARY WORLD?

Colson says WELL, I THINK, YOU KNOW, IT'S
2019 SO TO DISCUSS WHETHER... TO
DISCUSS THE DIVIDE BETWEEN GENRE
AND LITERARY SEEMS
SUCH A FALSE QUESTION.
I DEALT WITH IT A LOT WHEN
ZONE
ONE
CAME OUT, MY ZOMBIE NOVEL,
THAT WAS EIGHT YEARS AGO.
AND I WOULD SAY... WELL, YOU KNOW,
BELOVED
HAS A GHOST,
NEVER LET YOU GO
HAS
SCIENCE FICTION...

MARLON SAYS IT'S DYSTOPIAN, LIKE.

Colson says THE ROAD
WON THE PULITZER
AS A POST-APOCALYPTIC NOVEL.
AND SO I THINK IF YOU KEEP
WRITING YOU FIGURE OUT DIFFERENT
WAYS OF TELLING STORIES
AND SOMETIMES A GHOST IS
APPROPRIATE, SOMETIMES A
FANTASTIC SETTING LIKE AS IN
THE ROAD
IS APPROPRIATE, AND
THAT'S PART OF THE FUN OF
WRITING ALL THESE DIFFERENT
KINDS OF BOOKS
ON DIFFERENT SUBJECTS,
IS FINDING DIFFERENT WAYS
OF TELLING A HUMAN STORY.

NAM SAYS DID YOU WANT TO
ADD ON TO THAT, OR?

Marlon says WELL, I THINK ALL OF THAT IS
ABSOLUTELY TRUE, AND SOME OF THE
BEST WRITERS HAVE ALWAYS
BLURRED AND MESSED WITH GENRES.
I THINK THERE MAY BE STILL A
SORT OF GENRE SNOBBERY IN HOW
THE ESTABLISHMENT
VIEWS CERTAIN BOOKS.
YOU KNOW, WHEN WE TALK ABOUT
THINGS LIKE REPRESENTATION
AND WHO WRITES WHAT... WHITE
WRITING BLACK MEN,
WRITING WOMEN... WHOEVER
WRITING WHOEVER.
THE QUESTION I ALWAYS SHOOT OUT
IS: HOW COME WE DON'T HAVE THIS
PROBLEM WITH THE CRIME BOOKS?
YOU KNOW, WE DON'T HAVE THIS
PROBLEM WITH RICHARD PRICE
OR WHOEVER.
WHAT ARE THE CRIME WRITERS
DOING THAT OTHER PEOPLE AREN'T?
AND I THINK, WELL,
ONE... THEY'RE DOING THE WORK.
I THINK I CAN'T IMAGINE ANYTHING
GOOD COMING OUT ONLY READING ONE
GENRE, OR ONLY... YEAH, WELL
ONLY WRITING ONE EITHER.
I THINK THEY'RE JUST, IT'S... I
DON'T THINK LITERATURE WAS EVER
MEANT TO BE THAT WAY.

NAM SAYS I MEAN EVEN NOW WITH
GETTING LIKE MOVIE DEALS
OR TV DEALS...
I MEAN, I THINK THERE'S SUCH
A HUGE AUDIENCE FOR DIFFERENT
STORIES, AND YOU BOTH HAVE DEALS
IN THE WORKS FOR WORKS THAT
YOU'VE DONE.
WHAT ARE THE CONVERSATIONS LIKE
BETWEEN YOU AND A FILMMAKER OR
STUDIO EXECUTIVE ABOUT THE
VISION FOR THE ON-SCREEN
ADAPTATION OF YOUR WORK?
COLSON.

The caption changes to "Hollywood calling."

Colson says WELL, I MEAN, YOU KNOW, IN
THE CASE OF
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD,
WHICH
IS MY FIRST SORT OF ADAPTATION,
NO ONE WAS EVER THAT INTERESTED
BEFORE...
[LAUGHTER].
SO WE WERE APPROACHED BY BARRY
JENKINS WHO DIRECTED
MOONLIGHT
BEFORE
MOONLIGHT
CAME OUT, AND
SO HE WAS SORT OF AN UNKNOWN
QUANTITY TO ME, BUT HE'S REALLY
SMART, YOU KNOW, HE SOLVED
PROBLEMS IN TRANSLATING
THE BOOK TO THE SCREEN.
YOU KNOW, IN
UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD,
CORA IS IN A ROOM FOR
60 PAGES, WHICH YOU CAN DO IN A
BOOK BUT ON A SCREEN IT'S VERY
STATIC, AND HOW TO MAKE THAT
LIVE ON THE SCREEN, AND HE HAD A
VERY GOOD SOLUTION FOR THAT.
AND SO I TRUSTED HIS VISION,
AND IT'S NOT MY BOOK ANYMORE.
I SORT OF TRUST THAT HE'LL...

NAM SAYS IS IT EASY TO JUST
KIND OF STEP BACK AND SAY...

COLSON SAYS IT IS, I MEAN, I DON'T
WANT TO WRITE THE BOOK AGAIN.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT.
YOU KNOW, PERIODICALLY I'M LIKE,
"I'LL WRITE A SCREENPLAY SO
I DON'T HAVE TO TEACH."

[LAUGHTER]

Colson says BUT IT'S ALWAYS BEEN WRITING
FOR TV OR SCREEN HAS ALWAYS BEEN
LIKE A MONEY THING, AND THERE
ARE OTHER BOOKS I WANT TO WRITE
AND SO I WOULDN'T WORK ON
THE ADAPTATIONS,
BECAUSE I'VE WRITTEN IT ONCE.

NAM SAYS OK... AND MARLON?

Marlon says SAME THING WITH ME AS WELL.
I'M ALWAYS ASKED WOULD I WANT
TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY,
AND IT'S LIKE, IT FEELS LIKE I'M
WRITING THE BOOK TWICE.
AND I FEEL VERY WEIRD IF I CAN
WRITE THE SCREENPLAY AND IT'S
LIKE A THIRD THE LENGTH OF
THE BOOK, THEN I GO... I'D HAVE A
WHOLE CRISIS ABOUT WHY
DID I WRITE THE BOOK THEN?

[LAUGHTER]

COLSON chuckles and says SURE, YEAH.

Marlon says IF I COULD GET IT DOWN
TO THAT SMALL, YOU KNOW.
BUT I'M ALSO REALLY EXCITED
ABOUT THE IDEA OF SOMEBODY ELSE
INTERPRETING SOMETHING I WROTE.
I AM NOT JUST... YOU KNOW, MY
NOVELS ARE LIKE MY FOURTH KID,
IT'S LIKE, TAKE HIM, PLEASE.

[LAUGHTER]

Nam says IS HE GONE, IS HE EVEN HERE?

[LAUGHTER]

Marlon says BECAUSE, YOU KNOW, I ALWAYS
THINK... AND PARTICULARLY FROM
FANTASY NOVELS, YOU KNOW, IF 100
PEOPLE READ
LORD OF THE RINGS
THAT'S 100 DIFFERENT
GOLEMS...

COLSON SAYS SURE.

Marlon says GOING AROUND.

NAM SAYS RIGHT.

Marlon says AND I AM JUST SO INTERESTED
IN HOW SOMEBODY ELSE WOULD
INTERPRET
SOMETHING THAT I WROTE.

Nam says WE TALK ABOUT
REPRESENTATION MATTERING.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR EACH
OF YOU TO BE BLACK MEN IN A
POSITION TO TELL THE STORIES
THAT YOU FIND IMPORTANT... REAL OR
IMAGINED... WHILE FINDING
COMMERCIAL SUCCESS FROM
AUDIENCES OF DIFFERENT
BACKGROUNDS WHO ARE DRAWN TO
THESE STORIES?
COLSON.

The caption changes to "Being storytellers."

Colson says WELL, I THINK, YOU KNOW, A GOOD
STORY TRANSCENDS THE SPECIFICITY
OF WHO WRITES IT,
AND THE CULTURE.
AND, YOU KNOW, WITH
UNDERGROUND
RAILROAD,
I WASN'T THINKING
ABOUT HOW OTHER COUNTRIES WOULD
INTERPRET, BUT IN FRANCE AND
POLAND THEY SAW THE FRENCH
RESISTANCE AND THE POLISH
RESISTANCE AGAINST THE NAZIS IN
THE ABOLITIONISTS IN THE BOOK,
AND I HADN'T THOUGHT ABOUT THAT
WHEN I WAS WRITING, I WAS JUST
NOT TRYING TO SCREW UP THIS
REALLY GOOD IDEA... WHICH IS HOW I
NORMALLY GO ABOUT MY BOOKS.
BUT ALSO I THINK ALL MY BOOKS
ARE GOOD, SO I'M NOT SURE WHY MY
BOOK ABOUT THE WORLD
SERIES OF POKER DIDN'T SELL AS
WELL... [LAUGHTER]... AS
THE
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.
AND SO...

NAM laughs and says WELL, THEY'RE
PLAYING POKER, I DON'T KNOW
PEOPLE WHO READ.

MARLON SAYS EVERYBODY PLAYS POKER.

COLSON SAYS OR THE ZOMBIE BOOK.
SO I ALWAYS THINK THAT I'M JUST
TRYING TO DO MY BEST AND PEOPLE
WILL COME ALONG AND THEN
SOMETIMES THEY DO
AND SOMETIMES THEY DON'T.

NAM SAYS AND THE STORIES
SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.

Colson says YEAH.

Nam says MARLON.

Marlon says I WAS GOING TO SAY
DITTO...
[LAUGHTER].
YEAH, IT'S,
BRIEF HISTORY
WAS
TRANSLATED I THINK IN NEARLY... I
THINK AROUND 27 LANGUAGES, AND
IT WAS INTERESTING HEARING FROM
TRANSLATORS HOW THEY ENTERED THE
WORLD AND HOW THEY PRESENTED IT.
YOU KNOW, IT WAS IN TWO
DIFFERENT FORMS OF PORTUGUESE,
BECAUSE PORTUGAL AND BRAZIL HAVE
TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF
STREET CULTURE.
SO THE WAY... IT'S ALMOST AS IF
THEY FOUND THIS POINT WHERE THEY
CAN HAVE THIS EMPATHY WITH A
STORY, WHICH COMPLETELY BLEW MY
MIND ABOUT THE WHOLE IDEA ABOUT
WHAT A UNIVERSAL STORY IS, THAT
ANY STORY CAN BE UNIVERSAL,
I JUST THINK IT HAS TO HAVE
CHARACTERS WE ARE INTERESTED IN
AND CHARACTERS WHO ARE CAPABLE
OF CHANGE AND DEPTH, AND A STORY
THAT ENDS IN A DIFFERENT PLACE
THEN IT BEGAN, OR IF
IT DIDN'T EXPLAIN WHY.
AND THAT THE READING AUDIENCE,
DESPITE IT BEING TRANSLATED IN
SO MANY DIFFERENT LANGUAGES,
THEY FIND A WAY TO CONNECT.
IT REALLY PUTS A FAITH IN THE
READER YOU HAVE DESPITE WHATEVER
ELSE MIGHT BE GOING
ON IN PUBLISHING.

The caption changes to "Producer: Colin Ellis, @ColinEllis81."

NAM SAYS WELL, MARLON AND COLSON,
THANK YOU SO MUCH,
IT'S BEEN AN ABSOLUTE PLEASURE
TO HAVE YOU HERE AT
THE AGENDA
TO TALK ABOUT YOUR WRITING.

Colson says IT WAS A LOT OF FUN.

Marlon says THANK YOU, YEAH.

Watch: Truth and Fantasy in Literature