Interview with James McBride, 2013 National Book Award Winner, Fiction

James McBride

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride James McBride

The Good Lord Bird

Riverhead Books/Penguin Group (USA)
Photo credit: Chia Messina

Interview by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki: Firstly, congratulations on being a Finalist for the National Book Award! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. What was the first thing you did after hearing the news of your nomination?

James McBride: My agent Flip Brophy woke me up to tell me about it. I didn’t quite understand her. I was half sleep. I hung up the phone, washed my face, shaved, drank a cup of tea, then called Flip back and asked her to repeat what she’d just said. I was pretty stunned.

EL: Do you recall a moment in writing this book when the process seemed just too difficult to go on? How about a moment when you really enjoyed yourself? Please explain.

JMc: My mother died Jan 9, 2010. My niece Jade, 28, died two weeks later. Later that year, my wife divorced me. I wrote most of this book while sleeping on a futon in my 43rd street walkup while going through the divorce process. It was a rough time. It was a relief to descend into Onion’s life and watch him find joy where there was none. Onion’s adventures with John Brown made me laugh. He helped me through a difficult period. I still miss him.

EL: How does The Good Lord Bird differ, in your mind, from your previous work? In other words, how is the book a continuation of aesthetic preoccupations, and how is it a divergence?

JMc: It differs in that it’s a book of caricature that aims to be funny. I never tried that before. So it’s different in that regard. However, this novel is similar to my other books in that it deals with the underlying notion that we are all essentially the same. We all want the same thing. My artistic life is predicated on the belief that our commonalities far outweigh our differences. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

EL: The Good Lord Bird fictionalizes abolitionist John Brown. While Brown has been imagined in novels before—Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter first came to my mind—your vision of the man is comic and playful. Can you talk a bit about how you approached depicting this historical figure?

JMc: There are plenty of good books written about John Brown. They are all serious. To write a serious one seemed a fool’s errand. Plus I don’t like serious books too much. I don’t like books that say, essentially, ‘Take your medicine.’ They depress me. I wanted to write a book that would make folks laugh with and still inform them. I wanted John Brown to be as popular in American mythology as, say, Jesse James, who was, among other things, a slave holder and a killer. Also, caricature drives a straight line to the truth. It eliminates the grey. Much of what took place in The Good Lord Bird actually happened, but how to prove it? Impossible. Did blacks sprint the other way when John Brown showed up? I’m sure quite a few did. Did others join his crusade at Harpers Ferry? Probably just as certain. But there were no Shelby Footes and Ben Quarleses kicking around in those days to chronicle their story, or the whole John Brown business, from the point of view that I can personally trust. We know only what we’ve been told about him, and the historians of his life moved the goal posts around based on a lot of criteria that one may now deem irrelevant, or less than completely trustworthy. Indeed, it can be argued that the very act of deciding what to write about and what to ignore calls to question every piece of nonfiction ever written, and places fiction closer to the element of real truth.

I have no doubt that much of what has been written about John Brown, while it might be ‘true,’ is not the whole truth. I wanted to get closer to him without being penalized for being inaccurate. Also, I admired his desire to stick to the Calvinistic principles that guided him, the notion of predestination, and his overall deep commitment to the moral principles that guided him, even as he did wrong. His adherence to religion was, for me, magnetic. Probably because I grew up in church myself.

EL: The novel is told by Henry Shackleford, nicknamed Little Onion by John Brown, and the first chapter begins, ‘I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.’ This opening delights me to no end! Can you talk about getting Onion’s voice on the page, and perhaps, also, how the retrospective gaze enabled the narrative?

JMc: I once tried writing a short story about a lion in a zoo in Washington D.C., told in the lion’s voice. The story fell flat, but the voice lived on. I always liked that voice, the boldness of it. I just had to find a human character to shove it into. Onion took years to arrive. I have always loved the voices of the old black folks—and white folks too—from the south. Most of my relatives were from the south. They spoke as Onion did, with the same kind of colorful directness that those who lack formal education speak with. I also grew up in church, and there was nothing funnier than watching our preacher mangle the Bible, just kill it, driving those poetic Bible verses to dust, putting corn pone and toe sauce to ‘em, storefront preacherin ‘em to nothing, grinding the eloquent prophecy that St. Thomas and others studied and delivered with great eloquence; he’d reduce the whole bit to curds and whey every Sunday morning. We lapped it up like puppies. Not that he was wrong. It was his delivery of The Word, the earnestness and surety of it, that moved me. I don’t fun him in derision though. I respected him. He was also the local barber who cut my hair. He also sold records out of his barber shop. I liked him. So I fun him, and preachers in general, with a sense of love and respect as if they were family.

EL: The Good Lord Bird has been called ‘a rollicking good time’ by Baz Dreisinger for the New York Times, who says that the book’s irreverence creates a ‘new kind of homage.’ Can you discuss how the comedic tone informs and reacts to the book’s content? How does the comic perspective expand and illuminate our conversation about slavery?

JMc: Slavery is hard to talk about because we focus on the stereotypes and the brutality of the institution. We have to find ways to discuss the past while giving each other room to breathe, make mistakes, and stumble forward despite our lack of wisdom and knowledge on that subject. If that doesn’t happen, the conversation does not happen. If the conversation does not happen, the discourse dries up, the learning stops, and the ability to understand one another dissipates.

EL: If your book could go on a cross country road trip with another book, what book would that be, and why?

JMc: Any book would do. Books are like family. They are all related. There is connective tissue everywhere in storytelling.

Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me and a staff writer for The Millions. Her first novel, California, is forthcoming in 2014 from Little, Brown. She's the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles.