All Poetry Is Political: The Millions Interviews Olivia Gatwood

Author Olivia Gatwood’s debut collection of poems, Life of the Party, was a hot ticket at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and was published by Random House last month. In addition to being an accomplished poet both in spoken word and on the page, Gatwood is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery, and her new collection interrogates issues of the body and sexual trauma. The Millions spoke with Gatwood about the process leading to her first published collection, the distinction between poetry and spoken word poetry, and the importance of feminism and politics in art—and asked for a recording of her reading a poem from the collection as well.
The Millions: Was there one poem, or a few, in this collection that was harder to write than the others? If so, is there a story behind that you’d be willing to share?
Olivia Gatwood: The Babysitter poems and the No Baptism series were both really difficult for a variety of reasons. One, because they both unfold throughout the book, so I had to consider their narrative arc of the specific series as well as within the individual poems and how I would weave them in conversation with the other poems in the book. But also because they are both deeply vulnerable, personal stories that, to be honest, I don’t remember quite well but affected my life in significant ways. I felt like I was investigating my own life, forming a hypothesis based on what I remember and how I felt, then throwing my findings into the hands of other people.
TM: Do you distinguish at all between slam and written poetry in your work? Do you write differently when a poem will be published in print before it’s spoken, or vice versa?
OG: Slam poetry is a competition in which I am no longer active. The only distinction I make between spoken word and written word is that one is spoken aloud and one is not. When a poem is read aloud, no matter where or in what way, that poem is spoken word. I know that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people (often those who don’t perform) enforce this very strict boundary between spoken and written word in order to preserve some understanding they have of what makes something “literary”. Which is often just rooted in racism and misogyny. Anyway, I do think it can be important for poets like myself who were brought up in slam to learn how to consider their work on the page—can your poem still stand up for itself when you’re not there to give it life? That came later for me and when it did, it drastically changed the way I understood my craft. I think poets who haven’t historically performed their work should challenge themselves to do the inverse, too. Now when I’m writing, I’m considering both (performance and page) equally and in constant conversation. I don’t want people to rely on me to read my poems aloud to them. But also, when people come to my shows, I want them to leave feeling like that was exactly how they needed to experience it.
TM: How did you work to strike a balance between the more traditionally lyric verse in your book and the more prosaic?
OG: I studied fiction in undergrad so I think it’s pretty natural for me to tell stories in prose. I love how much permission poetry gives me to write a story, to honor the form that it takes despite genre. I wish I had a more concrete answer but that’s really it. I write the poem how it’s asking to be written and rarely do I try to sculpt it into something else.

TM: This collection mines personal experience very explicitly, in ways that would seem to encourage readers to see its author as the speaker in many of its poems. Do you see yourself as a “confessional” poet? Why or why not?
OG: I don’t really know what it means to be “confessional.” To be honest, I just had to google it. Okay so it means the poet uses “I” versus I guess, writing about what is happening outside of the self. In that case, I’m extremely confessional. Or maybe just a narcissist.

TM: In addition, this collection is strongly feminist and takes a stand against patriarchal values and the representations of domestic violence in pop culture. Do you see yourself as a “political” poet? Why or why not?
OG: All poetry is political. Even the freedom to be indifferent is political. Poetry by white, cis, straight men that doesn’t explicitly talk about politics is political because white, cis, straight men feeling unburdened enough to not talk about politics is political. So yeah, I’d say my work is political.
TM: Which poets working today whose work you see as similar to yours do you most admire, and why? Similarly, what poets do you see as writing very different poetry from yours whose work you admire?
OG: Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are super close friends and came up alongside each other in poetry—I admire her work so much because she is bending genre in really interesting ways. She’s merging comedy and poetry and performance and challenging her audiences to come with her, which they are. I see a lot of similarities between my work and Kim Addonizio’s. When I came across her book, I read every poem aloud to myself and was overcome with how much of myself I saw in it. I’m endlessly inspired by Ada Limón. Discovering her work taught me more about writing than any class I’ve ever taken. Same goes for Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, Kristin Chang and Carrie Fountain. I love Remy Ma, Amy Winehouse, Lorde. All of their work is super different from my own, because of genre but also lyrical content, but I turn to their work and their careers for guidance all the time.
TM: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting together a book of poetry?
OG: Building a clear, narrative arc with a bunch of soundbites that you didn’t write in chronological order. Every wall in my house had poems taped to it.
TM: What can you tell us about the poem you chose to read and why you chose it?
OG: I chose this poem because it functions as a kind of retroactive disclaimer for the entire book. It explains something explicitly that I think I’m trying to explain all along.

This Is the Right Way to Capitalize Headlines

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Headline writing is a mug’s game. In print, there’s rarely much space to play around. On the web, there’s too much space, and readers don’t click on anything interesting. And no matter how hard headlinese writers may try, they’ll never beat Variety headlines from the 1940s. It’s rough out there.

But when a hed is finally finished after much hemming, hawing, and editing, writers and editors are faced with an even tougher challenge: knowing which words to capitalize and which to keep in lowercase. There are just so many parts of speech! And so many words with multiple uses! Recalling all the ins and outs of proper headline capitalization is a daunting task indeed.

Which is why, after being shackled to a table adjacent to a whiteboard with nothing but pamplemousse La Croix to hydrate him for nearly an hour, Publishers Weekly managing editor Dan Berchenko laid out for me a strategic plan for capitalizing correctly in headlines (and in any titles, actually!) in the remixed and modified University of Chicago style that is PW’s own. It has been birthed in the form of this handy flowchart, the product of the blood, carbonated sweat, and grapefruity tears of an expert grammarian. Use it wisely.

But wait, you say. Surely there must be exceptions. What about the phrase take on, for instance? Or team up? Surely both those words would be capitalized! Well…. “The word up in team up is not a preposition—it’s an adverb,” Dan clarifies between gulps of sweet, sweet seltzer. “It modifies team as a verb—‘I teamed up with X.’ If it were a preposition there, you’d literally be talking about teaming above something, which is nonsensical. Almost all short words have multiple functions, and you have to think about the function, not the word. In other words,” he clarified, “it’s not an exception.”

Exactly. There are no exceptions in copyediting. Except for all the exceptions, of course. Check some of those out in our next Do You Copy column, in which we’ll dig a bit deeper into the knotty world of names and how, exactly, to denote them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.

Telling Toni Morrison’s Story: The Millions Interviews Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

A new literary documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which chronicles the life and career of the prolific author (and, less famously, influential book editor), hit theaters last week.
The film touches on a number of milestones in Morrison’s wide-ranging career: fighting for a salary equivalent to those of her male colleagues at publisher L.W. Singer; editing, among others, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Quincy Troupe, and Muhammad Ali; and the backlash from the white male publishing and literary zeitgeist following her Nobel Prize in Literature win. The Millions spoke with the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, about what he hopes his film will achieve.
The Millions: How did this documentary come about?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: I first met Toni Morrison in 1981 when she sat for a portrait in my East Village studio. Tar Baby was just out and I shot her for a cover story of the Soho News. Our friendship continued, and over the years I photographed her for book jackets and press images. As the years passed, I split my time between portraiture and documentary filmmaking. It was a 2006 conversation with Toni in my kitchen that sparked the idea for my film series on identity. Toni was the first to sit for HBO’s The Black List, which ultimately featured 50 leading African Americans. It became clear to me then that Toni deserved her own feature documentary.
TM: Morrison is known for being extraordinarily perceptive. How did she make for an interview subject?
TGS: The key to any great interview is trust. Toni trusted me to make this film and, consequently, was very open about her life. Additionally, Toni is a master storyteller, and the camera loves her. Her warmth and wisdom come through…and she is blessed with a magnificent, mesmerizing voice. As filmmakers, you could not ask for anything more.
TM: How did you strike a balance between portraying Morrison’s family life, her publishing career, and her writing career?

TGS: We wanted audiences to see more than just Toni Morrison the Nobel laureate. She had a huge career at Random House, where she edited bestsellers like Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story and published voices that might have been lost without her support: Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton. She “cracked the ivory tower” of the publishing world and did all of this while she was writing her own incredible novels, teaching college, and raising two boys as a single mother. We wanted to show all of Toni’s hats and how her life of books had all of these lesser-known facets among her many achievements.

TM: How did you come to choose the other voices from the publishing and writing worlds that appear in the documentary? How did Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Robert Gottlieb, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Sonia Sanchez get involved?

TGS: We started with a long list of names, and a very sharp pencil to cross most of them off! We became very specific about what each interviewee would bring to the narrative. For example, Oprah, the Book Club and Beloved; Gottlieb, his experience as her editor; Lebowitz, her humor and long friendship with Toni, etc. I didn’t want too many other voices, so there would be plenty of room for Toni. Visually, my idea was to shoot Toni direct-to-camera and the other interviewees looking off camera. This way, Toni talks directly to us and the others talk about her. It was a risky decision because once you go down that road, you’re stuck with the format. It did work out beautifully.
TM: Writing is not an activity that’s visually interesting. How did you manage to tell Morrison’s story on film, considering this challenge?
TGS: There are more than 600 archival images and video clips in the film. Our editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, was also the researcher, and she pulled remarkable material from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Howard University, archives in Toni’s hometown in Ohio, the Random House archive, and Toni’s personal archive at Princeton. Toni’s old interviews with Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, and Bill Moyers were also important elements. Additionally, we incorporated stunning fine art paintings from a wide range of African American artists such as Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, to name a few. These artworks help illustrate the themes Toni explores in her writing. Mickalene Thomas came onboard and used my images of Toni to create a spectacular opening credit montage.
TM: Were there any interesting publishing tidbits you chose to leave out of the film? If so, can you share one?

TGS: The one person we interviewed, who sadly didn’t make the final cut, was Peter Sellars. Toni and Peter worked together at Princeton in the atelier program that Toni created and had many debates about Shakespeare. Peter challenged Toni to write an answer to Othello and Toni’s play Desdemona, which focused on the female characters, was the result. We edited a riveting discussion of Toni and Peter’s artistic collaboration, but ultimately didn’t have room for it. Hopefully, this will be in the DVD extras. Toni’s thoughts on writing about sex for her book Jazz was also cut for time. Fascinating stuff!
TM: In what ways do you think this film, through telling Morrison’s life, gets at a fundamental truth about American publishing and literature?
TGS: An important section of the film explores the mostly white and predominately male world of 60’s and 70’s publishing. Toni describes how she navigated that. Her own writing and her publishing had profound impact, and fundamentally changed the canon by introducing African-American writers to a large audience. We also show how she brought to publishing her experience as a teacher, which gave her a critical insight into what literature and books were missing from the “catalogue.” It was a heady time, and while people were demonstrating in the streets, Toni’s mission as an editor was to create a permanent record of the ideas percolating outside—most importantly about race and the American experience.
TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
TGS: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am presents Toni as the person that I know…and I think one that her other friends will recognize too. That’s a rare achievement for a documentary. Audiences will see her as the brilliant, strong woman that she is. They will also love her more than ever. I also hope the film introduces Toni and her writing to a new generation that might not have read her books.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

How Do You Like Your Copy?

Copy editors are a serious bunch to whom excitement comes slowly and furor over a misused semicolon comes quickly. At least, that’s what the popular narrative would have you think. Enter “comma queen” Mary Norris (of The New Yorker) and Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, both of whom have written whole columns or books (or both!) about copy that were, believe it or not, riveting. Literary Hub has brought the two together to discuss their love of editing, copy mistakes writers often make, and more. It is technical. It is also fun.

Image Credit: Pxhere.

An Imagined Possibility: The Millions Interviews Claudia Rankine

On March 19th, poet Claudia Rankine published her debut play, The White Card, which, according to Graywolf Press, poses an essential question: Can American society progress if whiteness remains invisible?
The Millions sat down with Rankine to discuss the differences between writing for the page and for the stage, and watching her work take life in the theater.
The Millions: What made you decide to write The White Card, and specifically to format it as a play?
Claudia Rankine: Our inability to have conversations is manifesting as a national crisis. As poet T.S. Eliot writes, we must “after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis.” Since plays can perform an imagined possibility, I wanted the genre to help me see what a continued discussion around race could look like.
TM: Why publish the play in book form a year later? In particular, why now?
CR: Never has it seemed more urgent for us to begin to trouble the conversations we attempt regarding a dynamic that is costing Americans and others around the world, their lives and livelihoods. The book seemed to me a beginning look at the anxieties and fragilities we encounter in these encounters.

TM: Did you think of this play as an extension of your work in Citizen: An American Lyric, or as something completely different? Why?
CR: The play would not have happened were it not for the discussions about Citizen that I had around the country in Q&A sessions, onstage interviews, and conversations with various artists and thinkers. It was only then that I understood our limitations when trying to discuss issues of racial difference face to face.
TM: What are some of the differences between the way you write poetry and the way you write for the stage?
CR: Playwriting is a deeply collaborative endeavor. The work of The White Card could not have been made without the efforts of the dramaturg P. Carl, the director Diane Paulus, and the rest of the crew. The text shifts based on the voices and personalities of the actors, their lines of inquiry into the characters they were embodying. In many ways I feel like I entered the room with an idea, and it was only through the interaction with others that it came into fruition.

TM: The play premiered staged last year in Boston. What are your thoughts on its staging?
CR: The staging of the play was brilliantly realized by the scenic designs of Ricardo Hernandez, the costume design of Emilio Sosa, the lighting design of Stephen Strawbridge, and the sound design of Will Pickens. I communicated to the designers that I wanted people to understand the structural nature of whiteness, and in this way the set (a white box) became a metaphor for troubling, immersive structures of white dominance.
TM: Do you think the premiere’s location—in Boston, which is often called, as the Boston Globe has itself noted, the country’s “most racist city”—was appropriate, considering the play’s themes? Did you think it might have prompted a different audience response in another city?
CR: Though Boston holds the dubious categorization, I think the play could have opened anywhere in the United States, given that we are talking about structural segregation that has predetermined the nature of our institutions and interactions.
TM: Are you working on any other works for the stage presently?

CR: I am presently working on a monologue about illness with affect theorist Lauren Berlant, who recently published The Hundreds.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

2019 Whiting Awards Winners Announced

The 10 winners of the 34th annual Whiting Awards were named last night in a ceremony featuring a keynote by author Adam Johnson, winner of the 2009 Whiting Award, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction. Based on “early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come,” the annual prize gives $50,000 each to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.

“Every year, our corps of expert anonymous nominators point us to some of the most exciting and vital work happening today,” Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs, said in a statement. “These names may be new to us, but they’re writing the future of literature in this country.”

The fiction recipients are:
Hernan Diaz, author of In the Distance (And a Year in Reading alum)Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People (Featured in various 2018 Year in Reading entries)Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back

The nonfiction recipients are:
Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir (A Millions Most Anticipated title)Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks, a forthcoming memoir.

The poetry recipients are:
Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of What Runs OverTyree Daye, author of River HymnsVanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of Beast Meridian.

The drama recipients are:
Michael R. Jackson, playwright of the forthcoming musical A Strange LoopLauren Yee, playwright of Ching Chong Chinaman

In his keynote, Johnson spoke on the dying tradition of observation of the world around us in the era of earbuds and ubiquitous screens. “The literary arts have always excavated memory, topographized terrain, resurrected voices,” he said. “But the times are changing. I believe we now need writers not only to show us the realm behind the curtain, but the one before our very eyes.” He added, “Is the world too much? Too much to gaze directly upon?…Perhaps the delamination of life is too much to bear…All the more reason why we need writers to take our hands and say, ‘Look! See what I see.'”

Previous winners of the award, which was first bestowed in 1985, prove the point. That list includes Colson Whitehead, Denis Johnson, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, August Wilson, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Cunningham, Z.Z. Packer, Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Tony Kushner, Alice McDermott, Terrance Hayes, Jorie Graham, Deborah Eisenberg, Anthony Marra, Ben Fountain, Yiyun Lee, Tyehimba Jess, Justin Cronin, Alexander Chee, Jericho Brown, Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, John Jeremiah Sullivan.

More recent winners include Tommy Pico, Catherine Lacey, Tony Tulathimutte, Lucas Hnath, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lisa Halliday, Layli Long Soldier, Ocean Vuong, Francisco Cantú, Weike Wang, and Antoinette Nwandu.

The honorees are chosen by an anonymous panel of six judges.

How Do You Like Your Quotes? Straight or Curly?

Welcome to Do You Copy, a new semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Once upon a time, in order to put words on a page quickly and avoid having to write them out by hand, people used a machine called a typewriter. It smelled like ink and metal and oil and made clicking and pinging noises that many people still find delightful, and it occasionally inspires white men who are Oscar-winning actors to write fiction that The New Yorker will probably publish. It also bestowed upon the digital generation one of its most divisive typographical tools: the straight quote.

You are probably familiar with the straight quote, as it is the quotation mark of choice for many web publications. There are some good reasons for this! However, many people—especially those who, for one reason or another that may or may not include childhood trauma, are extremely passionate about typography—absolutely despise it. They even have a mean and somewhat ableist name for the straight quote: dumb quote. These people also sometimes call curly quotes, which are the more traditional form of quotation marks in American and English typography, smart quotes.

Admittedly, if you are not the type of person who really cares about typography and/or traffics in writing and/or editing for a living, the debate over straight quotes and curly quotes may seem like the debate over straight fries and curly fries—rather purposeless, either because (a) you are aware that they are effectively identical in function (and taste, unless they’re seasoned differently) or (b) it is obvious to you that one of the two options is more aesthetically (or gustatorily) pleasing. Either way, it’s probably clear that this is all pretty purely a matter of personal preference.

Except…it’s not! There is a whole complex history behind the trend toward the straight quote in favor of the curly quote, which began with the typewriter but was exacerbated, like many other things in the very late 20th century, by the computer. And while curly quotes are still preferred by editors (and especially book editors, who tend to exhibit ferocious loyalty to the traditions of their rather old trade), the straight quote has become a staple of Internet writing thanks to the complexities of code.

The reason for this is that the use of curly quotes while coding can result in a whole mess of problems, which is mostly the fault—as Glenn Fleishman noted in 2016 in a piece for The Atlantic, which both outlines pretty much the entire history of quotation-related typography and makes excellent use of the elasticity of Tom Hanks’s goofy face—of competing computing platforms back when the Internet was a new frontier:

[I]n the early days of the web, different computing platforms—Unix, Mac, and Windows, primarily—didn’t always agree with how text was encoded, leading to garbled cross-platform exchanges. The only viable lingua franca was 7-bit ASCII, which included fewer than 100 characters, and omitted letters from alphabets outside English and curly quotes…. ASCII and a few similar small character sets acted as a limitation only early on. With the right effort, even by the late 1990s, a browser could properly show the right curly quotes. But effort is the right word: While browsers could show typographers’ quotes, it was hard for users to type them.

It’s certainly gotten a bit easier, although it’s still somewhat frustrating on a Microsoft machine, and even on noted typography dweeb Steve Jobs’s beloved Mac it takes an extra step. Straight quotes are, like it or not, the digital standard. Much of that comes from the funky things that curly quotes do when used in many a content management system—namely, curl in the wrong direction, and seemingly at random. This apparently has something to do with key commands while coding, and theoretically there are plugins that fix this, but those plugins are probably specific to different sorts of CMSs, and also nothing is compatible with every type of code, and at this point why bother, just use the damned straight quote.

At this juncture it should be clear that the whole matter is overly complicated, so let’s simplify it: Use curly quotes when you can, because they are lovelier, and use straight quotes if you’re coding, because who wants to deal with manually checking that every curl is the right curl? (This is essentially also what the Chicago Manual of Style says, albeit in a more persnickety manner and using many more words.) And if you are in doubt as to how to curl your quotes, here is a handy guide touching on the easiest method for both Windows and Apple, courtesy of the type fiends at Butterick’s Practical Typography:

As for when to use a single quote or double quote? Go ask your high school English teacher—maybe over a plate of curly fries.
Image credit: Unsplash/Raphael Schaller.

The Power of Myth: Marlon James Wants to Take You on an Epic Journey

When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”

Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.

Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.

Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.” 

That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.” 
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.

Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s. 

The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.

This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on

How White Are Your Comp Titles?

The publishing industry is roughly 86% white. Yet comparative titles, or “book comps,” are whiter still, the L.A. Review of Books has found, arguing that this makes it exceptionally difficult for writers of color to place their books with imprints at Big Five publishers. “Comps,” in other words, “perpetuate the status quo.” Here’s how.