James McBride Says Fiction Writing Allows Him More Freedom

23 hours ago
Originally published on October 2, 2017 3:37 pm

If you've ever marveled at someone's ability to reinvent himself, then James McBride is an artist for you. He is an accomplished musician — a saxophonist — but the world was introduced to his writing more than two decades ago, with his intimate memoir The Color of Water, a Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, which won world-wide acclaim. And then he moved on to fiction, winning the 2013 National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird. Then just last year, he wrote a biography of James Brown called Kill 'Em and Leave.

Now he has a new work, Five-Carat Soul — and, you won't be shocked to find out, it's a new format for him: A collection of short stories that features a remarkable range of characters, from an obsessed vintage toy collector to a talking lion to a formerly enslaved little boy who thinks Abraham Lincoln is his father. "Abraham Lincoln is my father," jokes McBride, who describes his jump from nonfiction to fiction as "a great crossing ... because fiction is more where I live, and it's more creative and allows me a lot more freedom."


Interview Highlights

On what unites this group of very different stories

I like things that make me laugh, so I just created these stories, basically, to escape from my life. And to be an artist, creative in every genre, I think you have to preserve a little bit of your innocence. So for example, the story about the lion in the zoo in Washington, D.C., I actually wrote when I took my two nephews there to see the zoo, and they were so depressed when they left that I created this story about a lion who talks about his life, and he's funny, and he talks about how animals speak to each other.

They were so depressed, seeing the animals in cages — and you know something? I was depressed too. I don't want to insult anybody, but I don't really see the necessity of keeping an animal in a zoo. If you want to see an animal, you can go where the animal lives. if I was a Martian, or something, and I came to this planet and saw how people live, I just wouldn't understand it.

On whether he feels a particular mission right now, given our current divisions

No, I've been writing like this a long time, and I think you have to leave evil where it is, and evil will eventually eat itself alive. When I feel bad about what's going on in the world, I just teach harder. I teach kids in my housing project, they run a music program. I just believe in solutions. I'm not interested in talking about the problem. There will always be problems of race in this country — we've been having the same conversation now that we had when I was 18 years old, and I've long ago learned to tune it out.

You know, when DuBose Heyward wrote Porgy, which became Porgy and Bess — he was considered a really great writer. No one said he wrote about race. They just said, this is great ... but when a black writer writes about something that involves race, it suddenly becomes a race story. But these stories are all about human beings. The labels that we give each other really, if you want to be a good writer, you have to learn to look beyond that ...

Me personally and professionally, I haven't been that outspoken about race and class, partly because it's in my work, but in part because I don't want to get hate mail. I'm sick of trying to talk to people. I don't think you can change people. I think people have to be forced to do the right thing, so I'm not interested in trying to change people's opinion. I can illuminate, and you can see if you like. And if you can't see it, then just go buy the next book. But I'm sorry, I'm no longer interested in trying to be nice about what is right, because that doesn't work.

This story was edited for radio by Marc Rivers and Jennifer Liberto, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, if you have ever marveled at someone's ability to reinvent himself, then James McBride is an artist for you. He is an accomplished musician, but the world was introduced to his writing more than two decades ago with his intimate memoir "The Color Of Water," a black man's tribute to his white mother which won worldwide acclaim. And then he moved on to fiction, winning the 2013 National Book Award for "The Good Lord Bird." Then just last year, he wrote a biography of James Brown called "Kill 'Em And Leave."

Now he has a new work, and you won't be shocked to find out it's a new format for him, a collection of short stories that features a remarkable range of characters from an obsessed vintage toy collector to a formerly enslaved little boy who thinks Abraham Lincoln is his father. The book is called "Five-Carat Soul." And James McBride is with us now from our studios in New York. James McBride, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, thank you. And Abraham Lincoln is my father.

MARTIN: Oh, well, I assumed that. Sure.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So to quote one of my colleagues, it's been a minute. Has this been percolating for a while? Did you have some of these stories in your drawer and you just decided to let us have them? How did this all come together for you?

MCBRIDE: I've had some of these for a long time. Some of these I wrote when I was in my 20s, when I was working at The Washington Post in the Style section. And a few, you know, are newer. Some of them were stories I was shy about showing others. A couple of them I showed them to a few magazines and they were rejected some years back. And so I just forgot about them.

But then, after I won the National Book Award, you know, when you win that, you don't know if your jokes are funny anymore because everybody thinks you're so smart, you know. The thing is that when you're a writer in nonfiction and you cross over to fiction, people have to accept your ability to be creative. And so I made the great crossing from nonfiction to fiction because fiction is more where I live. And it's more creative and allows me a lot more freedom.

MARTIN: Well, you could also kind of live in other worlds - right? - that aren't your worlds. I mean, this collection is as eclectic as it gets. I mean, one minute, we're with a group of pre-teens who have a band, you know, it seems like kind of a little down-at-the-heels town in Pennsylvania. The next minute, we're following black soldiers during the Civil War. I mean, one story - the last story in the book is animals who can talk to each other. Pick one. I mean, tell me - do you want to just tell me the creation story behind any one of these?

MCBRIDE: Well, I just like to - I like things that make me laugh. I like Richard Pryor. I like things that make me laugh, so I just created these stories basically to escape from my life. And to be an artist of creative - in any genre, I think you have to preserve a little bit of your innocence. And so, for example, the story about the lion in the zoo in Washington, D.C., I actually wrote when I took my two nephews there to see the zoo. And they were so depressed when they left that I created this story about a lion who talks about his life. And he's funny. And he talks about how animals speak to each other.

So all of these stories - the story of the little kids in the down-and-out town in Pennsylvania is really based on the life of - my life and the life of my brother-in-law who grew up in a little place called Edenborn. And he used to talk about Edenborn when he was little and Uniontown and how the people there lived - steelworkers, blacks, whites everyone. And so it was just - it was a commonality. All of my pieces try to move to the common human experience and they move to things that make people laugh.

MARTIN: Go back a little bit. You said that your nephews were really depressed when they left the zoo. Why were they depressed when they left the zoo?

MCBRIDE: Because they were so depressed seeing the animals in cages. And you know something? I was depressed, too. I don't want to insult anybody, but I don't really see the necessity of keeping an animal in a zoo. If you want to see an animal, then you can, you know, go where the animal lives. I mean, if I was a Martian or something and I came to this planet and saw how people lived, I just wouldn't understand it, you know.

MARTIN: It's funny. Now that you've told me about your nephews, it adds a little texture to it. It was one of those stories that I could see - you could read to your nephews when they were, you know, 5 or 7 and it would have one meaning. And then as an adult, you're experiencing it on a whole other level. And I just couldn't help but wonder, is that what you were going for?

MCBRIDE: That's a very astute question because actually, the voice of that lion in the zoo that is talking really comes from one of my uncles who used to talk and tell us stories when we were young. So I tried to create a story that a young person would read and appreciate but an older person would understand.

MCBRIDE: Do you mind giving us a little taste?

MCBRIDE: Since we talked about the lion, why don't I just read a bit of that since we've been chatting about it?

MARTIN: OK.

MCBRIDE: And this is from the very beginning of that story. And it's called "Mr. P & The Wind." It begins as follows.

(Reading) I'm a lion. I live in a zoo. But I was once a free lion and I never forgot it. Many years ago, before I was captured and brung here, I knew a lion who ate a man. His name was Box (ph). Now, I don't know how Box come to that name, for lions got their own names for their own purpose. And that name was a puzzlement to me. Box is a human name, you see. And it stands to reason maybe a human gave him that name. However it happened, or whether Box got a reason for telling it or not telling it, it ain't my business to know. For most lions don't know that many things often ain't got no purpose. And no creature of the jungle is going to sniff around something that ain't purposeful, especially something big as a name. For Lions got their own names that's particular to them like Monkey Tricked Him or His Wife Don't Visit or Feet Smell Funny or Don't Trust Her Because She's A Sun (ph) or Orange Head And All Like That. For example, humans call me Hal (ph), but my real name is Get Along Go Along.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: So that's the - that's the lion sort of, you know, introducing himself and talking about how animals have thoughts, speak and how this animal named - this lion named Box ate a man and, you know, eventually asked him, what does man taste like? And Box says, tastes like chicken, you know.

MARTIN: If you haven't had a chance to read it yet, I'll have to just - for you - it is funny. And it also is deep, it is. It was so deep. I was going to save this for later, but I'll just ask you. Do you feel a particular mission right now, given that a lot of our conversation of the moment, both in the news and I think, you know, honestly, interpersonally, a lot of it has to do with kind of division and a lot of tenseness in our society at the moment, do you feel any particular mission right now?

MCBRIDE: No. I've been writing like this a long time. And I think that you have to leave evil where it is. And evil will eventually eat itself alive. I mean, when I feel bad about what's going on in the world, I just teach harder. I teach kids in my housing project, our music program. I just believe in solutions. I'm not interested in talking about the problem. There will always be problems of race in this country. We've been having the same conversation now that we had when I was 18 years old. And I've long ago learned to kind of tune it out.

You know, when DuBose Heyward wrote "Porgy," which became "Porgy And Bess," they just, you know, he was considered a really great writer. No one said he wrote about race. They just said, this is great. And "Porgy And Bess," you know, and George Gershwin never said that - they never called him a writer or about race. They just said, this is great. But when a black writer writes about something that involves race, it suddenly becomes a race story.

But these stories are all about human beings, the labels that we give each other. Really, if you want to be a good writer, you have to learn to look beyond that and look to what is really true. So I bury it all in the work. And I try to just ignore the outside stuff that I can. Me personally and professionally, I haven't really been that outspoken about matters of race and class because, in part, because it's in my work but, in part, because I just don't want - I don't want to get hate mail.

I'm sick of trying to talk to people. I don't think you can change people's opinion. I think people have to be forced to do the right thing. So I'm not interested in trying to change people's opinion. I can illuminate and you can see if you like. And if you can't see it, then just go buy the next book. But I'm sorry, I'm no longer interested in trying to be nice about what is right because that doesn't work. So in that regard, you know, I've become a lot more firm.

MARTIN: But I have to say, your work still has a sweetness and kindness to it. I don't see that - I don't see that leaving it. I still see it. I still hear it in the work.

MCBRIDE: I hope so. You know, I don't hate anyone, you know. I'm just concerned like most people. When E.L. Doctorow, when you read his work, he was - I was a big fan of his. I mean, I am a big fan of his. And I got a chance to tell him that when I won the National Book Award. When he spoke at Hofstra University when the war broke out, the Iraq War, and he spoke against the war and they booed him, I never forgot that. I said to myself, this man has done nothing but write peaceful, good, sweet books his whole life. And when he opened his mouth one way left or right, people just took it wrong and they booed him.

So my work will never - and his work doesn't - is not full of anger and rage and neither is mine. But what boils around in every writer is there are many elements that make the stew. And all the sweetness and kindness and wit in my work is only part of what I'm trying to show people and that is that we are all the same. And if you if you accept that, then, you know, I'm happy. If you don't, I'm not unhappy because I know what the truth is. That's - I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

MARTIN: That's James McBride. His latest book is "Five-Carat Soul." It is in stores now. And he was kind enough to talk to us from our studios in New York City. James McBride, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MCBRIDE: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL DESMOND'S "TAKE TEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.