Michael B. Jordan and Warner Brothers Option Movie Rights for New Novel by Marlon James, Mentor in St. Francis College's MFA Program; Time Magazine Names James One of 2019's Most Influential People
For anyone familiar with Marlon James, there's a mythical quality about his rise from the staggering seventy-eight rejections of his first manuscript, to having the actor Michael B. Jordan acquire the film rights to James' most recent work Black Leopard, Red Wolf—an epic African fantasy—almost immediately upon its release. But this enchanted aura surrounding the Man Booker Prize winning author was the result of dedication, perseverance, and skills developed in a community of fellow writers.
James embarked upon his writing journey in 2004, bringing his manuscript to a workshop at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica. The instructor there found promise in his work and they began a mentor/mentee relationship that would see him cross the threshold from a fledgling amateur into a published author. Even after the success of his first novel, John Crow's Devil, James—at his mentor's suggestion—earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at a low-residency program.
Ten years into James' tenure in academia, he joined the staff for the inaugural class of burgeoning writers at New York City's only low-residency M.F.A program at St. Francis College. Program Director Theo Gangi reflected on the establishment of his relationship with James.
"Marlon was very keen on the low-res structure and our Brooklyn roots as a way to reach students that have historically been left out of the conversation," said Gangi, who is also a graduate of an M.F.A. program, and his experiences influenced his decision to opt for the low-residency structure.
"I attended a traditional program and worked a full-time job for my entire time there. That was very difficult, because a traditional M.F.A. program typically demands that the student not work. Students of independent means typically thrive in [full-time] programs, and therefore as writers in the profession. With the low-res program at SFC, I hoped to challenge that dynamic."
Like the performative bards ubiquitous to all cultures, Marlon James thrives on sharing knowledge with a community. James has the type of lilt in his voice that keeps an audience captivated. Each sentence is metered in rhythms that force anyone listening to hang on his every word, as if missing one note would throw off the symphony of his message. He peppers his craft talks during each residency with words such as 'Slog' for works that bores him, and—while he's no prude in his writing—will generally choose 'Flipping' when looking for an emphatic expletive.
In his talks, or in the intimacy of his classroom workshops with a 6-to-1 student to instructor ratio, James disperses kernels of wisdom from films, TV shows, and literature as disparate as the epic Beowulf, to the atypically structured short-story "Boys" by one-time SFC Walt Whitman Reading Series visiting author Rick Moody.
"Marlon is an ideal writer and teacher for our program for many reasons," Gangi continued. "One is, he genuinely loves to teach. Another is his sophisticated approach to genre, unlike many MFA programs that value 'literary' fiction like a default setting, rather than one of many traditions to study, learn from, and create. [He] is a successful literary writer with interest and expertise in fantasy, crime, historical fiction and poetry, and that reflects our upcoming generation of students that's challenging simplistic genre labels and attitudes."
Like most writers without a community, M.F.A. candidate and fiction writer, Jenelle Alfred, found that it was easy for her work to stagnate without the infusion of new ideas or opinions.
"I love how intimate the setting is," Alfred said. "It allows you to be among a diverse group of writers, receive constructive criticisms from writers outside your 'genre', and also offers one-on-one time with your mentors."
Along with several other students, Alfred is a returning SFC alumnus. Her decision to come back for her master's degree was rooted in practical, as well as ambitious, reasons.
"I decided it was worth getting my M.F.A. for two reasons: firstly, I wanted to challenge myself as a writer. I always felt I had these stories inside me that needed to get out—but, along with these ideas of potential greatness, comes a lot of insecurities. And, secondly, I've considered becoming a professor, and the reality is, I'd need a master's degree to do so. Most importantly, though, is that it gives you an opportunity to have a steady job while working on your degree. New York isn't cheap to live in, so to be able to kill two birds with one stone was a major factor in my choice."
As Alfred went on to point out, Marlon James is just one of many well-known authors who have visited or participated in the M.F.A. program at St. Francis.
"It's one thing to read great works of literature, but to be taught by the brilliant minds behind said works is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Alfred said. "The M.F.A. faculty featured some amazing writers, like Marlon, but also Jamel Brinkley, and one of my favorite poets, Mahogany Browne. This is an experience you can only gain by being in an SFC M.F.A. classroom."
As a student, sharing a space for ten days with a writer whose work, A Brief History of Seven Killings—the novel for which James won the Man Booker, and which is also in the process of transitioning to the screen through HBO—left me wondering how one person was capable of writing such a complex and fascinating story. The answer, I would learn, was that while he was the sole author, it was through the influence of countless others that he developed the skills to write prolifically.
As Professor Gangi and Jenelle Alfred both mentioned, St. Francis College avoids favoring one genre over another, which encourages participation between the Poetry, Dramatic Writing (for stage and screen), and Fiction tracks.
Each of the ten-day residency periods see students sectioned off for discussions with their mentors where they hold craft talks and explore the roles and expectations of a writer. Throughout the day there are visiting speakers who are editors, publishers, poets, playwrights, authors, and sometimes a blend of all these aspects and more. Recently, essayist and activist Yahdon Israel of Brooklyn's LiterarySwag Book Club, poet and director of the Nuyorican Poets Café Mahogany L. Browne of Black Girl Magic, and the emerging author whose collection of short stories A Lucky Man is a 2019 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction finalist Jamel Brinkley, have all either mentored, lectured, or workshopped with students at the program.
Part of the residency also includes free-time, during which the students can work independently, or in groups with newfound cohorts, taking advantage of the community the proximity to fellow artists encourages. This time can also be used to explore historic Downtown Brooklyn, an area that has a deep-rooted literary tradition. When they return to their genre designated workshops, the M.F.A. candidates get to share whatever work they choose to focus on with their peers and mentors for intense feedback.
Adela Sinclair, an M.F.A. candidate with a concentration in Poetry, is a full-time teacher, and finds the spacing of the residencies, in January and July, to be ideal for preserving her career while further her passion.
"I love the long distance part because I am able to maintain my writing community, keeping it alive in between the time we share on campus," Sinclair said. "It allows me to partake in other workshops throughout New York City so there's never a lapse in my time of production and learning."
The program incorporates cloud-based communication to maintain contact with one-another during the distance residencies. Whether solely for the one-on-one workshops with students and the mentor of their choice, or through self-organized groups that keep the energy of the in-person workshops alive, M.F.A. students have the option to never work on their own again.
Screenplay writer Gunnar Dessources expressed his unbridled passion for St. Francis when asked about his experiences so far.
"This program is insanely awesome because we are being bombarded with secrets from writers who have made it," Dessources explained. "The program brings writers from all walks of life and tells us, 'Here is how I made it. You can try it this way, or build your own path.' It's just what my work needed."
Program Director and Professor Theo Gangi defines the aspirations for St. Francis College's M.F.A. program by highlighting what makes it unique to other schools.
"A low-res program is geared towards emerging writers with a realistic approach to the profession," he explained. "Most writers, even very successful writers, maintain day jobs and sources of income that enable them to build a career. An M.F.A. program should not take the student out of the workforce when one of the most crucial skills, and a key to success in the field, is to learn to write, peruse your goals, and make a living."
To read about Marlon James inclusion on TIME's "100 Most Influential People of 2019" list, click here.
For more information on the only low-residency M.F.A. program in New York City, visit www.sfc.edu/mfa.