An author whose first novel was rejected 70 times has said it was “kind of surreal” to be the first Jamaican to win the coveted Man Booker Prize for fiction.
Marlon James, 44, collected the award for A Brief History Of Seven Killings from the Duchess of Cornwall at a glittering ceremony at central London’s Guildhall.
It comes with a £50,000 (€67,000) cheque and a warmer reception than he received for his first novel, John Crow’s Devil.
An option to turn the Booker winner into a film has already been taken up by HBO, and James told a post-victory press conference: “We have a script already, we have a director who is interested, and everybody is very excited.”
He is the first Jamaican to win the literary prize – billed as “fiction at its finest” – in its 47-year history.
James said: “Jamaica has a really rich literary tradition. It is kind of surreal being the first and I really hope I will not be the last. I do not think I will be because there is this real universe of spunky creativity that is happening. For me, first just means the first to get attention. I think there is a lot more that is coming.
“I hope it brings more attention to what is coming from the Caribbean and Jamaica. There are some brand new voices coming out and we are exploring what is beyond politics, contemporary society and colonialism, comics, humour and I hope there is a greater lens turned towards that.”
The 686-page story includes large sections written in Jamaican patois, and covers the attempted murder of reggae superstar Bob Marley in 1976 and the rise of the drug trade on the island.
It is set in Kingston and has more than 75 characters, voices and witnesses, from FBI and CIA agents to killers, ghosts, beauty queens and Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s drug dealer.
James smiled as he told the press conference: “I think Keith Richards would love it. Keith Richards lived in Jamaica for so long.”
The judges unanimously picked the book as the winner after “more than one but less than two hours of deliberation”, according to Michael Wood, chairman of the panel.
James joked that he is getting used to and enjoying seeing his name on an internationally successful bound book.
He said: “Bound books look nice. I am not above looking at a shelf and saying, ’I wrote that’, and now it is written in Italian – I cannot read Italian but I know I wrote that.”
The book includes a whole chapter in patois, bad language and a testing subject matter, but Mr Wood urged people to read it – even though he might not give it to his own mother to read.
He said: “I think there is a kind of excitement right from the beginning. I think (James) has thought, ’I am not trying to rub people’s noses in difficult terms, I am trying to get them to think about things that are actually out there. I am going to give them ways in and I am going to give them voices they can listen to’. A lot of it is very, very funny and a lot of it is very human.”
The judges started with 156 books before whittling them down to a shortlist of six.
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which had been the bookmakers’ favourite, made the final cut along with A Spool Of Blue Thread, by fellow American Anne Tyler.
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year Of The Runaways was also a finalist along with British compatriot Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island and Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma completed the shortlist with The Fishermen.
This is the second year the prize has been open to writers of any nationality writing in English and published in the UK, having previously been restricted to the UK and Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe.
The prize comes with the added fillip of a guaranteed boost to sales, with last year’s winner, The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan, selling almost 800,000 copies worldwide.
Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookshops, described the winner as “a visceral and uncompromising novel that sheds a stark light on a profoundly disturbing chapter of Jamaica’s history”.
He said: “It’s also an ingeniously structured feat of storytelling that draws the reader in with its eye-catching use of language. For booksellers, it’s truly heartening to see such ambition and originality recognised and rewarded, and readers have already been embracing it with great enthusiasm.”