Joshua Lukasik reviews the StoryWeek panel Turning Issues into Stories


Sitting onstage in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, the host, Johnny Temple, owner of Akashic Books, began the discussion by asking Marlon James and Bernice F. McFadden about the use of historical events in their recent novels. In the case of James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, the event was the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and of McFadden’s Gathering Of Waters, the event was the murder of Emmett Till.

It is difficult enough to write a fiction about imagined events, but to recreate a historical event is an intimidating task for a writer. This is why I loved the word ‘issue’ in the title. Everyone knows it’s common definition, but I prefer the archaic definition of ‘outflowing’. An issue or event cannot be simply captured or penned in, but that’s what a writer attempts to achieve.

Temple asked the authors if these events were central in the creation of their novels.

“Actually, no. It was very, very peripheral when this novel started out. Actually, I had no idea what I was doing,” Marlon James said, “…it was actually a friend of mine who pointed out that I had a novel [because] I thought I just had these loose strands.”

He went on to describe researching the attempted assassination of Marley, which hadn’t been thoroughly covered or explored, which spiraled in different directions of lost details, rumors, and conspiracy theories which helped him form his novel, albeit by accident.

Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. He teaches creative writing in Macalester College in Minnesota. During the discussion, he expressed his beginning influences were Victorian literature of Dickens and Eliot, his obsession with James McElroy’s American Tabloid, which he cited as a heavy influence to A Brief History of Seven Killings. He also told the audience that in his office he has posted Elmore Leonard’s twelve rules of writing, and admittedly bars his students from using adverbs, and allows them only a single exclamation point for every three hundred thousand words.

Temple asked the previous question to McFadden.

“I think I feel much the same way. When I started writing Gathering of Waters the [working] title was Campbell Street, because I started with this street, with these homes. I saw these people,” Bernice F. McFadden added, “at the point I had no idea that Campbell Street was in Money, Mississippi.”

The place where Emmett Till was murdered.

“And then I reached this chapter where the first line is: ‘That boy came down to Mississippi with these sneakers.’ And I knew exactly who that boy was, that it was Emmett Till.”

Bernice F. McFadden was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. After working in the fashion and tourism industry and later being laid-off, she returned to Fordham University, where after enrolling in African American literature, journalism, poetry, and creative writing, she pursued writing fiction, starting her first novel Sugar after quitting her job. She expressed being influenced by Caribbean writers Elizabeth Nunez and Paula Marshall. She’s influenced by the blues, and loves listening to Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone in order to reach, “a dark space that I need to be in to write.”

Temple asked the authors on the influence of the Caribbean in their work.

“A bigger influence on me was actually music. Reggae music in particular, largely because I always wanted to write in vernacular, and I was raised in a way that’s just ‘broken English’ meaning there’s something in it that needs to be fixed,” James said.

He elaborated on the affect of vernacular in his prose, “The idea you could use dialect…to talk about serious and complicated issues that you have very ambivalent feelings about. I didn’t know you could do that.”

McFadden added to the discussion, “I think it has [the Caribbean], and I gotta say, even though I’m born and bred here in America, I never felt like English was my first language. I just never felt that way. It just feels odd in my mouth, in my head, I know that’s a weird thing to say.”

The rest of the program included readings from McFadden’s Loving Donovan and James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, and questions from the audience ranging from individual writing processes, thoughts on the status of free speech, gender, and how to write morally-complicated characters.

Towards the end, Marlon James offered some advice to young writers on how to manufacture inspiration:

“The one thing I have to say about inspiration is, I think, why I agree with routines is that inspiration should serve you, not the other way around…The stuff I have written when I’m having a horrible day, and the stuff I’ve written when I’m having a great day are pretty much the same thing, ” James chuckled, then added, “you know Virginia Woolf wrote some very good things when she was at the point of suicide.”