Jake Morrissey can speak for a long time, I tell novelist Marlon James, referring to his longtime editor at Riverhead Books.
“Well, I’m giving him some really, really long books to edit, so maybe it’s my fault!” Said James laughing on the phone line from his home in Brooklyn.
James connects to present season 2 of “Marlon and Jake read Dead People, The deeply literary and deeply fun podcast on the books of writers of the past. In this second season, they’ll look to books that are new for at least one of them, as well as more original choices – all while sticking to their theme of speaking candidly about the dead. here is a new season trailer.
Their debates – on Trollope vs. Dickens, or the pros and cons of “Moby-Dick” – can be quite controversial, and I wonder if the podcast mimics life.
“In the sense that our conversations have almost nothing to do with the books right in front of us, yes,” says James, who is currently working on the second book in his Dark Star trilogy. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” the first in the series, was a finalist for a 2019 National Book Award and won the Times first Ray Bradbury award. His previous novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” won the Booker Prize in 2015.
Born and raised in Jamaica, James received what he calls a “very posh” education in boys’ schools, the curricula of which remained colonial even after the country gained independence from Britain in 1962. Chaucer and Spenser and Christopher Marlowe.
He absorbed more than he knew at the time; after all, “even Shakespeare had good reviews about absolute power.” And postcolonial literature was heavily influenced by its oppressors. “I mean, Marquez has magical realism because he was never too far from Cervantes.”
What makes their show work is this interplay of cultures and education: James knows books that Morrissey may not know, and vice versa. Season 1 covers a vast array of genres and topics – myths, memoirs, epics, movie adaptations, “trashy novels”.
“We have a pretty large library of books to draw from between us, which is another way of saying we both read too much,” says James. “Our conversations are always very discursive. Jake was dropping a hint, and I would say, ‘This writer is an idiot!’ “
These lively exchanges lasted for years. After a while, coworkers started floating down the hall whenever James stopped at Riverhead’s headquarters to chat. In no time, a colleague had the idea to produce a podcast in-house.
“What drew people to these arguments is the idea that literature is worth fighting for, but it’s also worth fighting for,” says James. “If you have an argument about ‘Hamlet’, that’s another way of saying ‘Hamlet’ is important. “
Morrissey agrees. “We talk about books like the others talk about sport” said the editor. “Or about the “Game of Thrones” or “Friends” episodes or whatever. We are talking about literary works as fans, [which] means we are not reverent. We don’t kneel down at any author’s altar, and since our primary relationship is author and publisher, we are both very interested in the mechanics of books. How do authors get feedback from readers on them? “
Each man told the other about books he had never read before, and listeners will hear a lot more about them this season. “In Season 1, we mostly talked about books that we both knew well,” Morissey says, “but this time around it’s more of, ‘Dude, did you read that?’”
Enthusiasm aside, they’re not above a little leg pull. “I’m a huge Anthony Trollope fan and Marlon hates the Barchester Chronicles. So for one Christmas, I gave her a complete set of Palliser’s novels, neatly wrapped, with a card that said, “There will be a test,” Morrissey says. “On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Dickens, but he’s a bigger fan. He even adores “Big Expectations”. You can practically hear Morrissey’s eyes roll.
But James has a good reason for liking “high expectations”. He thinks books are made to take us on adventures – physical or internal. “I want to see a character develop and change, and that can happen in an afternoon in a living room or across continents, you know?”
He looks back on his student years: “I had read so much smothering British exile on, and I finally went to the exams office and asked if there were any other books on the program. This is where I stumbled upon “Tom Jones”! Dude, have I had the time of my life reading this novel? He has since read with little respect for high-low conventions. “It’s that kind of ridiculous thing that we have in literature, where the prettiest – I mean the most acceptable – makes the rules.”
He pauses. “Harold Bloom would have problems with that, but I think we need to broaden the idea of what is considered classical lighting. Not just Toni Morrison, but also Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, to give just one example.
Don’t cast it (like Morrissey did) on “A Streetcar Named Desire”. “A lot of people must find us exhausting when we have this kind of argument,” says James. “I was screaming, ‘Stanley is not a hell of a rebel! Stanley is a dangerous and deceived rapist! Her vision of reality is as fragile as Blanche’s! ‘”
James says that the fact that he and Morrissey can create a podcast around “dead people” is a testament to the idea that the books themselves are anything but. “Talking about literature is a way of reminding people that literature is something you can participate in. Don’t keep people away! Nobody comes to look for “your” books! … Arguing over a book does more for its legacy than trying to keep its value intact.
In Season 2, James and Morrissey will be talking about everything from the latest books published by major personalities (eg, “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath) to favorite short books and new mutual reads. For the latter exercise, James entrusted Morrissey with an early 20th century novel about the Great Migration. Morrissey returned the favor with “the shortest memoir in the world, at 88 pages”. Let the debates begin – and the odds are forever in Charles Dickens’ favor.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.