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James McBride’s ‘The Good Lord Bird’ offers ‘room to laugh’ at difficult history

December 2, 2013 at 6:00 PM EST
In "The Good Lord Bird," writer James McBride offers a retelling of the history surrounding abolitionist John Brown and his failed raid at Harpers Ferry. Jeffrey Brown talks to McBride, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for fiction, about what drew him to the topic and what makes it "ripe" for a humorous rewriting.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: this year’s National Book Award for Fiction went to a novel that retells a very familiar story from American history with a thoroughly new twist.

Jeff is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I was born a colored man, and don’t you forget it, but I lived as a colored woman for 17 years” — the words of Kansas-born slave Henry or Henrietta Shackleford, who in the novel “The Good Lord Bird” becomes one of the ragtag followers of the abolitionist John Brown and survives to tell of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

This is the third novel by James McBride. He’s also author of the bestselling memoir “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.”

But, first, congratulations to you.

JAMES MCBRIDE, “The Good Lord Bird: A Novel”: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the story of John Brown has been written and written about in nonfiction and fiction. You, what, felt you had something more to tell?

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, I wanted to tell it in a funny way and I wanted people to, you know, know about them. And I wanted to — I tried to come up with a way to tell his story that was compelling and funny, I suppose.

JEFFREY BROWN: Funny, you use that word twice. This is a very funny book about a very serious subject. I mean, why did you want to put humor into it, into the life of John Brown and slavery?

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, slavery is such a droll subject.

And it’s depressing. I didn’t want to write a book that was depression. I don’t want to read a book that’s depressing. So I just thought that — and he’s — and John Brown was so funny. I mean, he wasn’t funny. He was — he actually had no sense of humor at all…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JAMES MCBRIDE: … which made him perfect, the perfect person to make fun of.

JEFFREY BROWN: All those pictures of him and, you know…

JAMES MCBRIDE: So strict and…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

JAMES MCBRIDE: … just so stern-looking, and he was very religious. And it just made him a perfect caricature item.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and in your telling he’s often going on and on with the prayers, forever mangling passages from the Bible, right?

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, he actually — yes, he mangles the Bible pretty badly in my book, but in real life he was a little more — he probably was more cognitive of the Old Testament than most people he came across.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you used the word caricature. Was that the intention from the beginning or — is that a way into a more — well, what is it a way into?

(CROSSTALK)

JAMES MCBRIDE: Historical novels are hard to do for the general public for commercial writers like myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

JAMES MCBRIDE: So I had to create something that would allow people room to laugh at things they can’t really talk about easily. And that’s really — that was really the point of it, to kind of give people space to laugh at everyone so they can see some of the truths inside the historical facts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the way in is this wonderful character Henrietta, whose nick named by John Brown Onion…

(CROSSTALK)

JAMES MCBRIDE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … Little Onion, right?

A vernacular voice that you write in, a black voice telling this story.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, I love that old country, that old country talk, you know. We still have a lot of Americans who talk like that black and white that sort of direct black vernacular. I was born by the river and, you know, the kind of hee-haw chitchat.

A lot of the old men in my family talk like that. And I always wanted to find a way to put that in a narrative. And this was just the perfect place.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you just had fun with it? How did you do it?

JAMES MCBRIDE: I just had fun with it.

Well, once the character Onion became real to me…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES MCBRIDE: .. I just tell fell into his voice.

I mean, in real life, I was going through a lot of personal trauma, divorce, my mother died, and my niece passed away. And this was a chance for me to just have fun with someone, to dip into a world with a character who had deep problems, but just managed to laugh them off and kind of keep moving.

JEFFREY BROWN: And along the way you’re messing with some big icons, John Brown, of course. Frederick Douglass comes in for a cameo here. And you — it’s not the most reverent view of Frederick Douglass I have ever read, that’s for sure.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, yes, I got scorched a little bit by that Frederick Douglass depiction, but it is funny.

And Frederick Douglass in real life was married to a black woman and had a white mistress and they lived in the same house together. I mean, that — you know, you can’t do that in Brooklyn now.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES MCBRIDE: I don’t know where you can do it. Maybe there are places you can do it.

But my point is that it’s just ripe for making — for cracking a joke about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So did you start — I mean, the inevitable question is, how much did you stick, feel you had to stick to facts? Did you do research and then throw it all aside or check your facts along the way? Because you also have a past a journalist, I happen to know, too, right?

JAMES MCBRIDE: Yes.

Well, you know, I made sure to make people understand that this is a novel. But I would say about 70 to 80 percent of it is true. The basic facts are quite true. I mean, they couldn’t be truer. I had to have — I took some liberties with John Brown’s praying, you know, and some his language.

But the facts are, John Brown did do the things he did. He was against slavery. And he fought in the wars in Kansas and then he attacked Harpers Ferry. And he Frederick Douglass did — he did ask Frederick Douglas to join him, and Frederick Douglass said, no. Are you crazy? This is a suicide mission.

And John Brown did fumble through life. He was a failed businessman. He failed at a lot of things. And he always managed to do things, but he never did them on time. They kind of never — they never — he just — the train just kind of rumbled forward, but never arrived on time and with the passages on it that should have been there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, how did you come to see John Brown in the end?

JAMES MCBRIDE: I loved him. I mean, I grew up in the church. And he was very religious, and that was one of the things that really attracted me to him and the power of religion that made him so — that made him such a force as something that still exists in my own life.

And so I really admire him. I admire him now more now than I did when I first learned of him.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online.

But, for now, the book is “The Good Lord Bird.” National Book Award winner James McBride, thanks so much. And congratulations.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Thank you very much. Delighted.