The Madison Public Library hosted award-wining author Marlon James on February 13. In spite of the midwestern winter windchill, students, academics, and members of the public showed up and filled up the room to capacity. The toast of the night was James’ new book Black Leopard Red Wolf, a gripping fantasy story set in a medieval African world.

The event was jointly sponsored by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar, the Wisconsin Union Distinguished Lecture Series, the Wisconsin Book Festival, the UW-Madison English Department, and the Cyril W. Nave Endowment.

Madison Literary Festival Director Conor Moran and Humanities Center Director Prof. Russ Castronovo kicked off the evening with a few remarks. Prof Castronovo highlighted the importance of such an event and called for continuing to nurture initiatives that enrich the Madison community.

Kristina Huang, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed James, who has written four books and won the Booker Prize in 2015. She asked him a broad range of questions covering his writing, his process, and his life. The conversation was a lively, free-flowing banter. The audience listened in with rapt attention.

James addressed the representation of violence in his writing, noting the aesthetic and ethical considerations that go into how he portrays violence.

He talked about the visual bias in fiction writing—how, for example, writers tend not to think about the sensory experience of a blind reader when they solely rely on visual cues in their description. He noted that featuring a main character with an unusually heightened sense of smell allowed him to explore non-visual modes of representing the world of Black Leopard Red Wolf.

In answer to audience questions, he shared that he was inspired to become a writer from witnessing creativity in other genres such as music. James also shared that he could not write in silence. He didn’t trust it, so most of his characters were developed in conjunction with their own soundtracks.

“I am always curious about the character retreating from view,” James explains in reference to the unintentional protagonist in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He explained that secondary characters at the outset of his writing process had a knack for confiscating the plot and ultimately winning over his readers in true trickster fashion.

Like many other successful writers, Marlon James credited discipline for his creative output. “There is something that is unlocked from practice that performing artists already know. If you set a routine, set a practice, then the muses will show up.”

It was a night of warm fellowship around literature, ideas, and great conversations.

See the lovely photos!

[All photos are by Romulo Ueda]