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Jamaican author Marlon James edges out Baltimore's Anne Tyler for Man Booker Prize

British author Sunjeev Sahota, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, U.S. author Hanya Yanagihara, U.S. author Anne Tyler, British author Tom McCarthy and Jamaican author Marlon James chat as they pose for a group photograph the day before the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced.
British author Sunjeev Sahota, Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, U.S. author Hanya Yanagihara, U.S. author Anne Tyler, British author Tom McCarthy and Jamaican author Marlon James chat as they pose for a group photograph the day before the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was announced.(NIKLAS HALLE'N / AFP/Getty Images)

Jamaican-born author Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction on Tuesday, besting five other finalists, including Baltimore's own Anne Tyler.

"I'm not an easy writer to like," James, who now lives in Minneapolis, said after the surprise announcement from London's 12th century Guildhall. James, the first Jamaican native to win the Booker in the award's 47-year history, was honored for "A Brief History of Seven Killings," which imagines the real-life attempted assassination in 1976 of reggae legend Bob Marley.

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The 686-page novel has more than 75 characters that range from CIA agents to ghosts; James has credited Charles Dickens as one of his major storytelling influences.

"Ten years ago I had given up on writing," James said in his acceptance speech. "I had written a novel that had been rejected about 70 times and I thought, 'I'm clearly not meant to write books.' This is so sort of ridiculous I think I'm going to wake up tomorrow and think it didn't happen."

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This was only the second year that Americans were eligible to be nominated for what is arguably the world's second most prestigious literary prize, surpassed only by the Nobel Prize for Literature. (And in the English-speaking world, the winning Booker novel may be the more widely read.)

James will receive 50,000 British pounds (the equivalent of about $76,200 today in U.S. dollars) and instant fame.

In selecting 44-year-old James as the winner, the judges went against the odds-makers, who had declared New York Times editor Hanya Yanagihara the front-runner for "A Little Life," a harrowing novel that explores the consequences of child abuse. Yanagihara has minor local ties; she has said in several interviews that she lived in Baltimore at an unspecified time as a child.

Michael Wood, chairman of the Booker judging panel, said in a news release:

"This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. ... It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times."

Baltimore's Tyler wrote in a pre-ceremony email Tuesday that she was "comfortably certain" that she wouldn't win.

Merely making the Booker prize shortlist is a considerable achievement. Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" was one of six finalists out of 156 nominations culled from all books published in the English language between Oct. 1, 2014 and Sept. 30, 2015. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Tyler has become closely associated with Baltimore, in part because she sets all her novels here and populates them with endearingly quirky local character types.

The other shortlisted authors were:

  • London-based novelist Tom McCarthy for "Satin Island"
  • Chigozie Obioma of Nigeria for "The Fishermen"
  • The British writer Sunjeev Sahota for "The Year of the Runaways"
Finalists will receive a prize of 2,500 British pounds (about $3,814 in U.S. dollars) and specially bound editions of their books. The ceremony capped two weeks' worth of festivities in England that included appearances by the finalists at literary festivals in London, Birmingham and Cheltenham, as well as a traditional group reading on Monday.
Tyler, 74, has written 20 novels. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for her 11th book, "Breathing Lessons," and her 10th novel, "The Accidental Tourist," was made into a film starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Geena Davis.

"A Spool of Blue Thread" tells the story of Red and Abby Whitshank, a couple in their 70s. Red Whitshank has already had a heart attack and is semi-retired from the family construction business. His wife, Abby, is experiencing occasional mental lapses so worrisome that the couple's four adult children decide their parents no longer can live alone.

"Spool" travels back and forth in time from the 1920s to the present and from Hampden to Roland Park, weaving stories of Red's parents and of his and Abby's four adult children. In many ways, it is an extended meditation on human mortality and the challenges of aging.

"Spool" has been greeted with more acclaim in England than in the U.S. In addition to being a runner-up for the Booker Award, Tyler's novel also was one of six finalists for Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize.) That award went to British novelist Ali Smith's book, "How To Be Both."

In the U.S., "Spool" did not make the longlist for the National Book Award. The winner and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction won't be announced until the spring of 2016.

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mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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