"Conflicts Are Magnets": James McBride

The Good Lord Bird is James McBride’s fourth book, his third novel, and one that takes on a characteristically ambitious topic:  the violent faction of the pre-Civil War abolition movement, led into the Kansas territory by the charismatic wielder of a patchwork gospel, John Brown. The novel follows young slave Henry Shackleford, whisked away from his owners by the already-notorious Brown’s renegade group. Posing as a girl to avoid trouble, Henry, lovingly dubbed “Little Onion” by his captors, travels with Brown on his quixotic mission to end slavery. He struggles all the while with his feminine disguise; growing into a lustful young man presents a great many agonizing and ultimately comic challenges. After meeting a bevy of colorful historical characters including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Onion reluctantly accompanies Brown on his real-life, ill-fated 1859 raid on Maryland’s Harpers Ferry, in the doomed hope of igniting a nationwide slave rebellion.

McBride, author of the internationally bestselling memoir The Color of Water, wears many hats: novelist, journalist, writing teacher at New York University, tenor saxophonist, and a signature porkpie that he keeps firmly cocked on his head at nearly all times — I had been a student of Mr. McBride’s in 2009, in a New York University class called “Point of View.” We interviewed legends of jazz drumming, took a field trip to Philadelphia to eat a deli sandwich, and chewed tobacco, all in the name of generating raw, honest writing. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about his new novel, lessons from class, and our shared fascination with the connection between making music and books, held over coffee and donuts in his small, spare Hell’s Kitchen apartment, a utilitarian space he uses only for writing. —Sarah Ungerleider

The Barnes & Noble Review: The Good Lord Bird is set during the pre-Civil War era in America. You’ve written two other novels, Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna, which are respectively set during the Civil War and World War II. What is it that attracts you to writing historical novels?

James McBride: I like stories where normal people are in abnormal situations, and that’s what appeals to me about history.  I also think you can find elements of romance in history as a novelist. There’s nothing romantic about our time, to me, and if there is, other writers have already beaten that horse to death. I’d like to write novels about modern life, but that’s not where the story comes from, in my opinion. I write stories that are already in the air, and I think it’s important to have the correct listening device to tune in to that frequency.

BNR: This novel is written in an African-American vernacular from the 1860s.  Was telling the story in that voice a challenge? What was your research process?

JM:  I have cousins in North Carolina who talk in that old Southern style of “yakking,” if you will. All the black men in my life when I was a boy talked that way, and I love that kind of talk. It’s that kind of direct, non-educated attack on the English language, a unique approach to describing events and people, and I’ve always found it to be very charming and funny.

In writing vernacular, you have to be a ventriloquist, where the audience watches the puppet’s lips, with the challenge that no one should be able to see your lips — the writer’s — move. As the writer, you have to make it seem like you aren’t working that hard to sound a particular way, and after a while it’s almost like you are just following what the character is saying. The writer ends up transcribing.

In researching the vernacular, I read slave narratives, first-person accounts of blacks in the reconstruction era in the early 1900s, anything I could get my hands on that deals with Southern vernacular.  And as you can probably imagine, I read all the time. I must have read thirty books for this novel.

BNR:  The real-life abolitionist John Brown is a central character in your novel. You portray him as a a flat-out fanatical man who believes that he is doing God’s work in killing “Pro-Slavers” and freeing slaves. What about Brown intrigued you, as opposed to other famous abolitionists of that time period?

JM: John Brown was the abolitionist to end all abolitionists. People thought he was crazy. He was like John Coltrane playing free jazz, exhausting all possibilities in his approach to harmony and improvisation. Brown had exhausted all possibilities in trying to create an environment where African Americans were considered equal in America, and so he just went to the next level.  A lot of people during that time talked about the abolition of slavery, but he actually did something about it. In order for him to work toward freeing the slaves, he had to treat African Americans as equals, and that was not possible for a lot of white people at that time. But Brown broke through that barrier, and that made him singularly unique.

Also, he was really funny, because he prayed all the time, and this was a guy who chopped people’s heads off in the name of God. It’s bizarre, but if the story is played right, it’s very funny. The Good Lord Bird is meant to be entertaining as well as enlightening. Who wants to be bored by some droll commentary on race? That’s not my game.  You have to find a character who can really speak to such an important issue in a way that’s funny and poignant and true, and this is what made John Brown the prime candidate for my novel.

BNR: Narrator Henry, a.k.a. Little Onion, is a young runaway slave who poses as a girl in Brown’s group of rogue abolitionists to survive. Throughout the novel, he struggles with his identity, not only as a boy, but also as an African American with very light skin (some characters in the novel aren’t sure whether he’s black or a “white girl with a dirty face”). What are you interested in sharing with readers regarding the story of his passage out of childhood ?

JM:  Little Onion’s search for identity is very important to the story, because it’s a universal struggle. That search for identity is actually a lifelong process, but Little Onion has to accelerate that search and deal with it instantly because his life depends on him posing as a girl. It’s that conflict between the inner and outer journey that makes him so compelling. Conflicts are the magnets that hold the story together. In this case, Little Onion’s sense of identity as an African American and as a boy is being challenged tremendously by a series of outer events that are shoving him in all different directions.

BNR: Henry not only feels conflicted about his identity, but also about his notions of good and evil, truth and falsity. He falls in love with a slave named Pie, who ends up giving away an insurrection plot that culminates with the execution of her fellow slaves. She does this to curry favor with a judge who may have promised her freedom. Your novel portrays the moral complexities of that time period, showing wrongdoing and betrayal among slaves as well as among their owners. How did you arrive at this theme, as opposed to sticking with a more straightforward one of victim-versus-oppressor?

JM: Everyone was a victim in slavery — the owners and the slaves. Now, the slaves were more victimized, but injustice makes victims of us all. In order for the slaves to be realistic, they had to be presented as fully dimensional characters.

It can be hard to swallow, but some slaves were content with being slaves, just as there were others who were not content.  There were slaves like Pie, who were willing to step on the necks of their fellow slaves to gain freedom. The complexities of slave life are delicious and easy pickings for a writer.  If you look deeper than the surface history, you’ll see that there is a complexity of inner relationships that’s at work behind a particular act of brutality. My job is to let readers see that.

BNR: Let’s  talk about your portrayal of Frederick Douglass, which does not cast him as a saint. In the story, when John Brown and Henry pay a visit to Douglass to discuss abolitionist tactics, Douglass becomes drunk and tries to seduce twelve-year-old Henry while he is dressed as a girl.

JM: Frederick Douglass was just ripe for caricature. The man had a black wife and a white mistress. I’m tired of the old “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” black hero of the slavery period. I respect and admire Douglass, but I make fun of a lot of people in this book. I imagine that the Frederick Douglass chapter will draw some heat from some African-American historians, going on about how inaccurate and unfair my portrayal is. Let the historians give the accurate portrait if they want. I’m not saying Frederick Douglass would actually do something like try to seduce a child, but it is true that many a great civil rights or political leader has unhinged his trousers at the wrong time.

BNR: Harriet Tubman also makes an appearance in The Good Lord Bird, but unlike Douglass, she’s portrayed in a solemn light.

JM: I think Harriet Tubman is one of the great unsung American heroes — she’s like John Brown in that regard. I felt like I could blow some smoke at Frederick Douglass, because he was a wordsmith: a man who could fight with speeches but not with deeds. Harriet Tubman was different; she was the one with guts, talent and an enormous intelligence. However, not many people know very much about her. I’ve been fascinated with Tubman ever since I wrote Song Yet Sung, which was based in part on her life. She was a woman of guile and guts and extreme courage. A true Jesse James. However, because Tubman was a woman and because she was black, she’s always presented in these eighth-grade textbooks in a rather silly, sentimental tone. She deserves better.

BNR: In our class, you were well-known for your advice on the writing life. “Write in an uncomfortable chair” was one that I’ve always kept in mind. Do you have any other tactics to help you write?

JM: I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning. It doesn’t matter what time I went to bed, I will always get up at that hour to write. Even if I’m just sitting at my desk playing with paper clips, should an idea hit, by god, I’m ready for it. I do sit in an uncomfortable chair, although my spartan surroundings here in this apartment are actually a lot nicer than they have been in the past. I’ve been writing in this crummy little room for the past eighteen years, and it’s served me well. When I’m writing, I fail a lot; I just keep failing until I fail better. The Good Lord Bird took at least five years to write.

BNR: You also said quite frequently that “bitterness is the enemy of great writing.”

JM: If you’re bitter about something, you’ll never learn anything from it. And really, what do you have to be bitter about? Unless you can’t afford to eat, you are getting a clean-sided life. In The Good Lord Bird, Little Onion has a lot of stuff to be bitter about, but he’s not at all. What happens with bitterness is that it makes you someone who knows everything, and someone who knows everything cannot write from a perspective of innocence and discovery. This is crucial as a writer.

I’m game for anything that helps me see the wonder of life. I want to continually be surprised, and you can’t experience this when you’re bitter. That kind of attitude is ashes for a young writer. It’s like dropping acid onto the page, and then when you try and put the pen to the page, there’s nothing to write on — the page is gone.

BNR: In being both a musician and a writer, do you find any parallels between the creative processes? This is something I think about a lot as a fellow tenor saxophonist.

JM: To give an example: as you know, on the saxophone there are two common ways to play a B Flat. You play with your first finger on your right hand or the first finger on your left hand mashed over two keys, and depending on the structure of the musical passages you decide which fingering to use. In writing, it’s the same thing in the sense that when you find yourself in a certain situation in your story, you need a certain level of technical ability to get out of that situation. It’s that dexterity blended with a creative impulse that makes it possible for you to remove yourself from whatever literary corner you put yourself into, and music is the same way. You already know you have to move your fingers in a certain way so that you can play a B Flat smoothly and efficiently. Once you have that technical ability, you can add the flavor to it.

BNR: You insisted that as students we handwrite our essays with pencil, on yellow legal pads. Why is this your preferred writing medium and why do you use it in your class?

JM: When you handwrite, you edit. The first thirty to fifty pages of all my books are handwritten, and I do that because if you work on a computer, you end up going forwards and backwards and end up inserting entire chapters. Writing by hand forces you to edit before you edit — the act of moving a pen or a pencil across the page is a form of editing that cuts the fat from your work. It makes you a lean writer, and you really have to be lean in our time. Nowadays, writing is just covered in fat and icing. Everyone is a blogger writing in the first person, twittering about going to the store — I wouldn’t do that if my life depended on it.

So handwriting, especially today, is precious, and forces you to edit your work immediately. It moves you to clean your characters and content, it pushes your story forward, and it makes you identify what is important right away. Typing at a computer is like going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant. It’s too much. Stay lean.