Marlon James’ Visit with Duke English as Reynolds Price Guest Author

Marlon James at Reynolds Price Guest Author Reading

Award-winning novelist and educator Marlon James recently visited the Duke English Department as the Reynolds Price Guest Author. During his time on campus, James conducted a writing workshop with more than a dozen of Duke's undergraduate creative writers. Then he gave a reading that evening, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Duke English's creative writing committee had invited Marlon James to campus for a reading in 2020; however, the event was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While waiting to reschedule, Professors JP Gritton and Mesha Maren reached out to the co-editors of The Archive, Duke Writers' Collective and other campus writing groups to include Duke students in the planning process. Their input led to adding a writing workshop and a panel composed of Duke writers to the Q&A session following James' reading.

"It was a great experience to hear Marlon James in person. Hearing from him broke the 5th wall for me in my understanding of Brief History of Seven Killings, giving me a deeper understanding of the text that I couldn't have gotten from just reading it.” – RJ Oben, ‘23, Economics major and African and African American Studies minor

Writing Workshop

Over a dozen undergraduate creative writers joined Marlon James for a writing workshop. The creative writing faculty solicited the submission of short story drafts from students in their classes. Then the creative writing committee randomly selected four stories for the group and James to critique.

Before the workshop officially began, James used "what are you reading" as an icebreaker. This question led to the group discussing "narrative dirty tricks" used in writing, the importance of establishing "tone," the climate of writing, and locking in the reader’s attention.

James noted that he was impressed by the pieces submitted for review, so much so that he wanted to confirm that they were not the works of grad students and that everyone participating was an undergraduate.

Throughout the workshop, James encouraged the audience to share their thoughts about each selection before giving his feedback. Everyone seemed interested in seeing how their thoughts and ideas aligned with an award-winning author.

"I thought he was thoughtful and generous in his feedback. I think everyone in the room learned a lot during the workshop, self-included." – JP Gritton

Two of the students whose works were featured in the workshop shared their thoughts on the feedback they received:

Reynolds Price Guest Author - Marlon James Writing Workshop

"It was beneficial to my revision process to hear Marlon James' feedback. He focused more on the narrative's strategic structuring and the emotional effects it might have on the reader than on specific sentences or characters. A lot of James' advice surprised me but still rang true." – Natalie Farris, ‘25, English and Spanish major

"It was a great opportunity to have my piece workshopped by such a talented author. Marlon James himself was super insightful and engaging (I especially loved his emphasis on writing "raw data" instead of summation), and I hope Duke English continues to host more events like this!" - Sophie Zhu, ‘24, Economics and Creative Writing minor

The workshop concluded with a Q&A.  Participants asked James about his writing process and his love for Toni Morrison.

Reading and Q&A

James read passages from his novel Moon Watch, Spider King to an audience of 80+ members of the Duke and Triangle communities that packed the Ruby Lounge on a rainy Wednesday night. Prior to the start of the reading, the audience could be overheard discussing which of his novels they had read and which they would be purchasing from the Gothic Bookstore table that night.

Reynolds Price Guest Author Marlon James Q&A Panel

His reading was followed by questions from a panel composed of three creative writing members of the Duke community, each at different stages of their writing careers, Tyler King, '25, Biomedical Engineer and English major, co-editors of The Archive; Anya Lewis-Meeks, an English Ph.D. candidate whose class this semester read James' A Brief History of Seven Killings and Mesha Maren, one of Duke English's creative writing professors and a vital member of the creative writing committee that helped organize the author's visit. Each panelist asked the novelist questions before the Q&A was opened to everyone. King asked James about his writing process and if the pandemic caused it to change in any way. Lewis-Meeks asked about the role of motherhood in his works, and Maren inquired about the research he conducts for his writing.

"It was a great pleasure to hear Marlon James speak not only about Moon Witch Spider King, the newest novel in his Dark Star Trilogy, but also about his process, inspiration, and the other brilliant novels he's written throughout his career. It was lovely to be able to ask him some of these questions, and I'm grateful to the Creative Writing faculty for their dedication to allowing writers earlier in their careers to be a part of the conversation. Buy his books!" Anya Lewis-Meeks

Once the Q&A was open to everyone, he was asked to elaborate on some of his writing processes, inquired about the publishing industry, elements of characters in his novels, and if he reads amid his writing.

Learning from Marlon James through the workshop and the Q&A panel has been an incredible experience. Our discussions about craft and writing practice were encouraging and inspiring--from talking about how to let characters guide a story to thinking about how to weave myth and other stories into a narrative… and encouraged me to think more critically about my process as a writer. - Tyler King, ‘25

Recording of Writing Workshop | Recording of Reading and Q&A