Process Notes: Marlon James on Research


photo credit | wall street journal

From Booth 12: 


RaeNosa Hudnell: What was your research process [for A Brief History of Seven Killings]?

Marlon James: I am an extremely exhaustive researcher. The book I’m writing now, I’ve been researching since spring 2014. That is two years of research before I have even sat down to write. Even the stuff I know, I like to know more about it. The interesting parts in a novel often come from the stuff you pick up in research. The stuff that makes a character feel natural,d the organic way in which people live their lives, the almost trivial stuff, is important to know when you start writing. For me, this is when the book starts to take off, when I can have my character contemplate multiple outcomes because they can’t and wouldn’t be able to afford gas that week. It’s all good to know who was in power, but how much was a tube of toothpaste and could the characters afford it? If they couldn’t, what would they do? Would they run to Mom’s house and steal toothpaste? Could that lead to an argument where Mom is telling them to grow up? That is when the characters become real. But I research everything from society to politics to the price of food and clothing at that time. When I start writing, I commit and go full speed ahead. I don’t stop. I need to know as much as I can to do that. I do some more research after I finish a draft or a chapter, so I can look back and ask if this could really happen. What’s a better way to write this? Would this type of character even exist? Was the record I referenced the number one record? Would that be playing on the radio? Would the character like that song or just shut it off? That is where research helps me the most. It’s not the big things. You can google that. It’s the details.