In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Marlon James is living something of a writer’s fantasy life. In 2015, he won the prestigious Man Booker Prize—for his third novel, the decades-spanning, multi-voiced A Brief History Of Seven Killings—becoming the first Jamaican author to do so. In February, just a few days after the publication of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, his sprawling fantasy epic set in an alternate-reality Africa, it was announced that Michael B. Jordan would be adapting the novel into a movie for Warner Bros., with James serving as an executive producer. The first book in the planned Dark Star trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf follows a ragtag group of mercenaries enlisted to find a missing boy. The voice is commanding, the action violent, and as critic Bradley Babendir wrote in his A.V. Club review, it asks “whether it’s possible to thrive in a brutal world while remaining humanely sensitive to the brutality.” When he isn’t writing or making deals with Killmonger, James teaches creative writing at Macalester College, splitting his time between St. Paul and New York. He recently talked to The A.V. Club by phone about his cooking prowess, his favorite post-apocalyptic novel, and the lamp that he might—if it came down to it—ditch his significant other for.
1. What’s your favorite fast food menu item?
Marlon James: Popeyes Chicken. It’s not just any Popeyes Chicken. It has to be the Popeyes Chicken on 135th in Harlem. Because it’s the best of all the Popeyes. Not every Popeyes in every city is the same, even though they think so. So it’s that—it’s usually chicken, biscuits, fries. I can’t remember what they call it. I’m sure they have a specific name for it, but that would be it. Other than that, I really don’t eat junk food.
2. If you could re-live an event or moment in your own life, what would it be?
MJ: The first one I thought about was not even all that important. It was the first time I ever went on a plane. Because the first time I went on a plane it was to Chicago, and there were absolutely no bumps whatsoever. It was so smooth and so quiet. I thought all flights were like that. Except every single flight I’ve had since then has been disastrous, full of bumps. I’m not even going to church anymore and I start praying. It’s just, you know, I keep going, “You know what, flight to Chicago, you really deceived me.” I thought all flights—I thought I was floating on clouds. And I thought that’s what all flights were gonna be.
The A.V. Club: Have your subsequent flights to Chicago specifically also been bumpy?
MJ: Oh yeah, everywhere. But particularly when I’m going to France. Flights to France are the worst. I remember being on one that was so terrible I was like, “All right, that’s it, that’s it, let me send this [manuscript] now ’cause we’re gonna crash, and hopefully someone will publish the book.”
3. Who’s your favorite fictional villain?
MJ: My favorite fictional villain is Magneto, mostly because, favorite in the sense of on the scale of villains I actually like, he’s a villain I actually like. I always believe him when he turns for good, and then when he turns for bad, he disappoints me and breaks my heart again. He fools me every time.
4. What’s a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary?
MJ: I still say, “What’s your damage,” from Heathers. It’s [bad] because absolutely nobody knows what that means. Particularly my students who are like the teenage children of people who would have been old enough to be in that movie. I still say, “What’s your damage.”
AVC: That movie is fairly quotable in general.
MJ: Oh, yeah. There are other lines like, “Fuck me [gently] with a chainsaw,” but I can’t imagine I would ever say that. [Laughs.]
5. Who would play you in the movie of your life?
MJ: Who would play me… Oh, my god. Who would play me? I’m gonna go with Chadwick Boseman. Just because I’d like to think I look as good.
6. What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?
MJ: Shawshank! To the point where I have no idea how that movie begins. I have never seen the beginning of Shawshank. I’ll be flipping, and I’ll go, “Oh, Shawshank!” And I’ll watch it because men are allowed to cry at that film. But it’s such a channel-flip movie that I’ve never seen the beginning of it. I still seriously don’t know how he ends up in prison.
7. What possession can you not get rid of?
MJ: So I have the—it’s called the Moooi horse lamp. It’s a standing lamp that’s a full-size horse. It is thoroughly ridiculous, it is absolutely crazy, I should not have it in my house, and I’d rather dump the friend first before I dump the horse. I mean, if it were my significant other, if it becomes an either/or, he might be surprised at my decision.
AVC: How did you come upon this lamp?
MJ: There’s a sort of feminist design collective named Front, which, funny enough, everybody but Americans immediately get that joke. ’Cause everybody else in the world uses “front” as a pseudonym for a woman’s private parts. So of course in the beginning they call it Front, and everybody but the Americans go, “Hahaha… funny.” And Americans are like, “What?” Anyway... Are they Swedish? They do these crazy things. They do things like flip a living room sofa on its side and put a lampshade on top. And this is one where they have this very outrageous idea of getting a full-size horse—this horse is actually life size—and then just slap the lampshade on its head. It’s brilliant. It’s even in MOMA.
AVC: I can’t imagine moving that into an apartment.
MJ: They couldn’t imagine it either! It’s maybe why I’m on a ground-floor apartment. The funny thing is it’s more expensive than an actual horse.
AVC: Well, it’ll last longer.
MJ: I will die on that horse.
8. What specific skill would you bring to a post-apocalyptic society?
MJ: I can cook anything including things that should not be cooked. So if it ever gets to the point where somebody has to turn a shoe back into beef, I’m the guy.
AVC: How would you cook a shoe if somebody gave it to you now and you had access to whatever spices you want?
MJ: Well, I think you’re gonna have to spend a good several hours boiling it just to get all that dye and poison out. Bear in mind, ultimately you’re going to be eating cow skin, so it’s not like it’s going to be some great meal. And also, you know, zombie apocalypse is not a nuclear apocalypse, so I’m assuming there’d still be lots of plants. I mean, Walking Dead still has lots of vegetation, I think. I don’t know, I don’t really watch that show.
9. Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?
MJ: Victor LaValle. Somebody asked me a few months ago what do I envy about Victor LaValle, and I said I envy that he always gets there first. A lot of the stuff we take for granted now—fiction that’s fiction with fantasy, and fiction that’s postmodern, and black writers who are playing with slapstick and comedy and trying to come to terms with the world, and the black nerd as a character—Victor already did that years ago. His novel Big Machine... And his last novel [The Changeling] was a major, major work. And it got some attention, but I also think he may be one of those writers that a lot of people still can’t put quite a finger on, sort of like Russell Hoban, whose another writer who I would put as an underrated writer that people should read. He wrote Riddley Walker. We’re talking about zombie apocalypse—[Riddley Walker is] still, to me, the best post-apocalyptic novel ever written. These are writers who are literally ahead of their time. And writers who are ahead of their time, people don’t have the language to talk about their work yet. But they will.
10. If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?
MJ: I’m gonna be really pretentious and say Can, even though that’s what I think. Maybe Funkadelic! Funkadelic but not Parliament, because Parliament is all horns, and Funkadelic is all guitars. So it would be Funkadelic. Actually, actually, you know what I want to be in? I want to be in Miles Davis’ electric fusion band. When they’re doing those crazy freakout records like Bitches Brew and On The Corner, and so on.
AVC: Those all sound like pretty good options.
MJ: Yeah, I mean, if you’re playing Funkadelic you pretty much can’t play that bad, right, and vice versa. The one thing all three bands I mentioned have is that they’re all funky.
11. What would you do during The Purge? Would you commit any crimes?
MJ: What crime would I be committing?
AVC: You don’t have to, of course.
MJ: I’m a wuss, I’m a wuss. My crime would be robbery. I’d break into every art gallery and steal almost everything they stole from African tribes. I’d be Robin Hood during The Purge.
AVC: Bonus 12th question from Werner Herzog: “Do you know how to open safety locks? Do you know how to forge a document, let’s say a shooting permit, in a country that has a military dictatorship?”
MJ: I’m getting Werner Herzog’s question? Wow.
AVC: This is very specific to him.
MJ: I do not know how to open safety locks, but that’s not the only way to get through a door. I don’t know how to open a safety lock, but I certainly know how to take a door off its hinges. So I’m in anyway. That way I can screw everything back and nobody will know you were there.
AVC: That is a little bit slyer.
MJ: Yeah, well. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you know how to forge a document?
MJ: Let’s put it this way, my father has been sending notes that I’ve been sick almost all through my years in high school. He has no knowledge of this, but he sent quite a few of them. So I think I could probably forge that. I think I could do it.
AVC: What would you like to ask the next person who’s interviewed?
MJ: What film, book, or TV show do they talk about the most that they’ve actually never seen or read.
AVC: Do you have an answer to that?
MJ: I talk about all of Robert Altman’s work, but I think I’ve only seen two. I can’t remember what else. Probably tons of stuff. I remember for years I used to talk about Great Gatsby, and I only read it in maybe 2010, when I got caught in class, when I talked about, “Yeah, it’s like when Gatsby ended up in that car crash.” And my student was like, “I think Gatsby was shot.” And I went, “Not in the edition published in Jamaica…” But I got found out. I was teaching a book I did not read. So, I decided not to be intellectually dishonest anymore. I read the book. But yeah, that would be my answer to that question, because I used to talk about it all the time. Now that I’ve read it, I don’t talk about it at all.
AVC: Do you feel like it lived up to its expectations?
MJ: It absolutely does, but I think people forget how 19th century it still sounds. Even though it’s the first 20th-century novel. It’s like I think Tommy Orange’s novel There, There can officially be the first 21st-century novel, but it’s still set in the 20th century.