In his novels “A Brief History of Seven Killings” and “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” Marlon James frequently conjures lost and forgotten voices. As one of the hosts of “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People,” a new podcast whose first two episodes will be available Monday, he does something similar with the spoken word. In the audio series from Riverhead Books, James and Jake Morrissey, his editor, strive to breathe life into the literature of the past.
The podcast is an outgrowth, both hosts said, of discussions that they’ve been having for years. “People kept walking in on me and Jake having arguments about books,” James said in an interview. “The thing they noticed was that we were always arguing about no-longer-living authors as if they just wrote a book last week.”
“Marlon and Jake Read Dead People” has retained this spirit. Despite its focus on the work of dead authors, it’s a far cry from stodgy academic discourse. Morrissey likened its tone to two friends “sitting at a bar talking about their favorite football teams over beers.”
For James, this irreverent approach avoids the pitfalls associated with both sides of the ever-churning debate about the status of the literary canon. “Too often the canon means ‘these books are untouchable and let’s talk about them in that way,’” he said. “People fought about ‘Moby-Dick’ in the 1800s. Why can’t we fight about it now?”
The podcast’s topics, too, reflect the hosts’ wide-ranging tastes. While they do spar over the relative merits of English department favorites like Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, they also discuss the work of the romance novelist Jackie Collins (a favorite of James’s) and “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp on which the film “Die Hard” is based.
James, a professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., won the Booker Prize in 2015 for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” and was a National Book Awards finalist last year for his fantasy novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” That he would gravitate toward podcasting is no surprise to those familiar with his books. In “Black Leopard,” he worked hard to retain the oral and aural dimensions of the western and central African epic traditions that inspired the project. “I write to be read aloud,” he said.
On top of encouraging readers to expand their literary horizons, James has found there are other benefits to talking about authors from the past. “I’m not denying there is some fun in talking trash about dead people,” he said. “They can’t attack me on Twitter.”
After the first two episodes of “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People” drop, the subsequent six installments will be released each Monday on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.