Writer-musician James McBride

Highly successful in two careers, McBride unpacks his latest novel, The Good Lord Bird, which, since our sit-down, won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction.

Journalist and saxophonist James McBride has won several awards for his work as a writer and composer. After earning his master's at age 22, he began his journalism career with stints at The Boston Globe, People and The Washington Post. At age 30, he decided to pursue a music career and has scored several musicals and toured with a variety of artists. Equally accomplished as a writer, the native New Yorker's The Color of Water is an American literary classic, and his novels Song Yet Sung and Miracle at St. Anna were best sellers. His screenwriting credits include 2012's Red Hook Summer. Currently a writer-in-residence at NYU, McBride's new novel is The Good Lord Bird.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Imagine a narrative full of irreverent humor and packed with larger-than-life adventures that’s also a thought-provoking commentary on our collective history, as I think about it, with colorful characters, both real and imagined.

You have a sense of what’s in store for you when you read James McBride’s latest novel, “The Good Lord Bird.” It takes place in 1856 Kansas, when that region was a battleground between pro-slavery forces and abolitionists, and features both John Brown and Frederick Douglass.

Its hero is a runaway slave who hides his identity, pretending to be a girl. James McBride, as always, good to have you on this program.

James McBride: Well thank you, good to be back.

Tavis: And you have done it once again.

McBride: Well, I just happened to be standing in the room when God crossed and I had a handkerchief. (Laughter)

Tavis: I like that. Let me start with this – I asked you when you walked on the set and sat down before these cameras came on, I was enquiring as to whether or not you read “The New York Times” review of your book, and you said to me -

McBride: I said I didn’t read it because I can’t take it.

Tavis: You can’t take reviews.

McBride: Yeah.

Tavis: What do you mean, you can’t take it?

McBride: Well, if you’re a creative person, you’d better not read what people write about you, because if it’s good it’ll blow your head up and it’ll force you not to take the subway and you’ll start taking cabs, and you’d better stay around people, and if it’s bad, it just hurts your feelings so much it discourages you. So I just can’t take it. My heart can’t take it.

Tavis: I empathize with that, but let me press anyway. How then does James McBride get better? What is your benchmark for improving your own work if you avoid reading critiques that might even be healthy for you?

McBride: That’s a difficult question. I always get those when I’m on the air with you. Well, you know what needs to be done when you’re a writer. You know what the job is, particularly if you’re an African American writer, or if you deal with people, or if your subjects are poor people or people who need voice.

So you don’t really need to know whether or not you are doing the right thing. What you have to be wary of if you’re doing the right thing to the right level that will surpass your own life. I’m hoping that my work will surpass my own life.

Richard Wright and James Baldwin and people like that, Toni Morrison, all the great writers. Just the great writers and the great artists, they just work, they have a kind of tunnel vision, and they work beyond the area, the time in which they live.

So I just – I don’t feel that good about my work, really. I think I have to be – I just don’t think I’m that – I don’t really think I’m that good. So I just have a high wall to climb, and I don’t really need to hear how much better I need to get in order to get where I want to be, and I don’t need to hear that I’m not any good. I already kind of like know that.

Tavis: You’ve said two or three things I want to get to. I haven’t even gotten to the text yet, the novel. I promise we’ll get to the novel in just a second, but as always, James, from the very beginning of the conversation, sets me off in a direction that I just want to keep pursuing.

McBride: That’s all right.

Tavis: Everything you say is so loaded, in a beautiful way. So there are two things you’ve said now I want to unpack and get you to unpack before I go inside the novel. In no particular order, number one, when you talked about the fact that you don’t think you’re as good yet as you can be, or you’re not that good.

First of all, with all due respect, you’re wrong about that, and your work and the best seller status and the movies and everything else, and the songs that you write, it all speaks to that. So I appreciate the humility.

But I’m trying to juxtapose these two things – if you don’t think you’re that good yet, then how do you expect that your work will live beyond you?

McBride: That’s my hope. I grew up in the church, and so I feel that God gave me certain things to do, and I’m lucky enough to kind of have figured those things out. I just don’t want to die not having tried to help somebody else with what I know.

I could have been, and may one day well be a high school English teacher, because I’ve been given so much I just feel like I have to give something back. The fact that some people consider my work to be good or strong, it’s nice, but I know in my heart that if it’s not coming – oftentimes it’s probably not coming from the best place.

I’m trying to educate people about things that I believe are right, and some of the things that I believe are right might not be right, so I live in constant self-doubt. I think that creates a kind of search that you have to have, and it prevents you from doing a lot of stuff that you would normally do.

It forces you to take the subway instead of taking a cab. It forces you to be around young people or, quote, unquote, “poor” people who need voice, because they’re giving you their story for free, and then it’s your responsibility to turn it over to other – and then someone pays you for it. It’s like cheating. You’re taking something, you’re robbing people of their history and then you’re presenting it in the way that you want to present it.

So if you’re going to cheat and take people’s history and you’re not writing the Bible, you ain’t really so great. But if you try to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt too many people, then you probably can get out of bed in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror.

Tavis: Let me close the circle that I started with this first question about critics, and then we’ll, again, go inside the new book, the new novel, “The Good Lord Bird.”

I’ve often wondered – here’s where I thought you were going to go when I asked you about critics and you said you didn’t read it. I thought you were going to say, in your own humble way, that it’s hard to critique the stuff you’re doing if they don’t know what you’re trying to do.

In other words, critics across the board oftentimes are critiquing people’s work and they have not even done work that rises to the level of the stuff they’re trying to critique.

Put another way, how do you critique Prince as an artist if you ain’t gifted in that way? How do you critique Train, how do you critique Monk? You don’t what Monk is even trying to do. You think Monk is playing off-key, you think Train is playing too fast. How are you going to critique what they’re – and they both famously were oftentimes dogged by critics who didn’t even quite get what they were doing.

Now we know that what they were doing – now they’re iconic. So speak to me, I know you don’t read the critics, but give me some sense of what you think of critics, particularly of African American novelists, who oftentimes, in the “Times” and elsewhere, are given the assignment to critique your stuff, and if they don’t have the tools -

McBride: Oh, that’s – okay.

Tavis: You see what I’m getting at?

McBride: Yeah, well that’s a very, very difficult issue for African American personalities, artists, and people in the storytelling business, in which you and I are involved.

First of all, you’re not a Black man. You’re a human being in God’s eyes. So when you sit down to talk to someone and you talk to them in really intelligent terms, you ask difficult questions, there’s a militancy that’s assigned to you without you asking for it, because you are simply judged by what you look like.

If you’re a white person asking the same questions, you’d be one of these CNN guys and say how brilliant he is. That doesn’t work for you, because this is the world we live in.

Now you accept that and you say, well, this is me, I’m Tavis Smiley, I do these things. So when you say something that’s off or you ask a tough question and some critics or bloggers that start attacking you personally, you’re strong enough to take it.

You just say this is part of the job. The bullets bounce off and you move away. Me personally, I can’t read that kind of stuff about myself and not take it personally, so I just cross it off.

But I will say this: As a journalist, I never critiqued anyone. I never review books. I’ve never felt qualified as a musician to say whether someone is a good musician or a bad musician.

What happens with Black writers and Black artists is that if you’re critiqued, for example, by a Black historian who wants to get his name on the cover of “The New York Times,” and he says something, like, wacky, well, he’ll get his name on the cover of “The New York Times” and he might get tenure, and your career suffers.

So I’m one of the few Black writers, or African American writers, who managed to work my way through the system so that it has allowed me to speak in a kind of free way. But most African American writers don’t have that. They don’t have that opportunity, they don’t have that.

It’s not like they don’t want it. They just don’t get it. They’re only – still it’s just a few people who get through for a myriad of reasons. I’m fully armed because I can play music, I can compose, I can write books, I can do a lot of stuff. But a lot of -

Tavis: Produce movies.

McBride: Yeah, that too. But I’m aware that there are many, many people, both ahead and behind me, who are equally, if not more, talented, who don’t get the opportunity.

The thing that I do is that when I fail, I just keep quiet about it. I just let it go. It’s done. I just go to the next thing. I don’t complain, I don’t go to – I pick my battles very, very judiciously, and I just assume that there’s good in the heart of everybody.

I’ll just find the next person that will open the gate that will allow my story to pass through. I don’t know that you have that opportunity, because you deal with a myriad of subjects that are really hot, politically, and you ask the questions that would get a lot of us fired. So that puts you in a different place.

Tavis: Might work for me one day if I keep asking. I don’t know how much longer I have around here, asking some of these questions, I suppose. You’ve said two or three things now that I am dying not follow up on.

I’m going to have to husband myself, because your world view and your cosmopolitanism is so delicious to me that I want to keep following up on the stuff you say.

But it’s so unfair to “The Good Lord Bird” if I don’t turn the corner, because you keep saying stuff I want to just keep following up on. But I digress. I’ll let that go. Maybe off-camera somewhere we’ll -

McBride: Yeah, sure.

Tavis: I’ve got a few more things I want to ask you based on what you’ve just said now. That said, I recall many years ago being in a conversation, speaking of great Black artists, with Dick Gregory.

I was saying to Dick Gregory, as my audience has heard me say so many times, that I regard Martin Luther King Jr., me personally, I regard King as the greatest American this country has ever produced.

I could debate you on a bunch of other people, but I regard King as the greatest American we’ve ever produced. Gregory let me get my thought out and he said, “Son, you’re wrong about that.”

So this is Dick Gregory, so Gregory’s speaking, I’m listening. Gregory says, “Nah, not King.” I’m thinking but Dick, you were Martin’s friend. How are you going to push back on Martin King?

Dick says, “It ain’t Martin.” I said, “Well, who is it?” You know who he said? John Brown.

McBride: John Brown? Wow.

Tavis: Dick Gregory said to me he thought John Brown was the coldest cat, the coldest American this country has ever produced, and he went into this soliloquy about John Brown.

So obviously, that brings me to “The Good Lord Bird,” because John Brown is a major character here. Tell me, and for those who’ve never heard the name John Brown, give us a little history lesson about John Brown.

Well, John Brown was a white man who in 1856 decided that slavery was wrong, and he conducted a one-man war against slavery. He went out to Kansas, because Kansas territory was where slavery – they were trying to decide whether Kansas, when it was being settled, whether there should be slavery – slavery should be allowed or not.

So the pro-slavers, people who were for slavery, came into Kansas and they attacked the Yankees, who were coming from Boston and New York and Philly and so forth.

John Brown went out there with a wagonload of guns, and he got busy. He started kicking the pro-slavers around. When I say “pro-slavers,” I’m saying that a lot of these pro-slavers became the Jesse James and these mythic figures that were mytholocized, or made into great legends in mythology in American history.

John Brown went out there and he started wearing them out. Eventually, he came back East and he attacked America’s biggest arsenal in what is now Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in an attempt to take over and get – well, they made 100,000 guns there.

He attempted to take it over. He wanted to start a war against slavery and expected the Blacks to come and join him and bring America into slavery. What he did, really, was to start the Civil War, because this attack just panicked America.

It just brought – only two things during slavery time really panicked America greatly about the slavery element, and that was Nat Turner’s rebellion and John Brown’s takeover of Harper’s Ferry.

So people thought he was crazy, because he was a white man, he had 19 others with him, four of whom were Black. Probably more Blacks than four. They actually took over America’s biggest arsenal, and he actually had it for, like, a day and a half.

But they captured him because he was waiting for the Black folks to show up. (Laughter) That’s like me waiting for the drummer in my band to show up. They didn’t come.

Well, there’s some issue about that now, like the great Ben Quarles, the Black historian, wrote about it. Several historians, not all of them Black, have written that there were more Blacks that were there than was written.

Also, he had to move a week early. He had planned to attack Harper’s Ferry October 23rd, but he had to move a week early because he was hiding out in the house nearby and a neighbor found him out and decided to bring the sheriff in.

The sheriff was going to investigate the house where they were hiding, so he left early.

Tavis: What ultimately, so that the audience knows, what ultimately happened to John Brown when they captured him?

McBride: Oh, he was hanged. It doesn’t happen in the book, though.

Tavis: I know.

McBride: But he was hanged, and the 19 others, all of them, most of them were killed. One Black guy got away, and three other whites got away. Then some of the Blacks in the actual, who were actually – because he made a last stand in the engine house where Colonel Lee and Jeb Stuart came in and kicked the door in and they tried to kill him, but they didn’t.

There’s several other Blacks who climbed out the windows and got away. But before he was hung, there were six weeks before, when he was captured and when he was hung, and during that six weeks, John Brown did more against American slavery than he ever did with a pistol or a sword.

Because he wrote letters to editors and he became, really became a national hero at that point, because he knew he was going to die. He said, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die because I’m an abolitionist, and I’m proud of it.” So he became, like, almost a mythic figure in that time.

Tavis: I think you’ve already answered this question, but let me ask it anyway because you may want to go in a different direction. So what makes all of that juicy enough for you to want to turn it into a novel?

McBride: Well, I want people to – when I was a kid, I thought Jesse James was the coolest cat in the world. Only when I was an adult did I realize he was a slave-owner and he killed innocent people and he shot an 11-year-old when he was robbing a bank.

If he was living now, the DEA and the ATF and the XYZ, they’d all be coming after him. So I would like young people and Americans to know what kind of man John Brown was, because I think if you understand what he was, you’d feel a lot prouder to be an American.

I wanted to put it in a form that people could accept, that it wasn’t like a depressing kind of book.

Tavis: You did that, because the book is a lot more – I’ll come back to the story in a second. An overarching comment, though. The book has a lot more humor in it than I expected.

We circle now back to the very beginning to this conversation, when I asked you about “The New York Times” review, because they raised the issue of satire, they raised the issue of Quentin Tarantino in “Django” and the drama that he got into, et cetera, et cetera.

How far do you take that kind of narrative in novel form? What liberties do you take with the storyline, what liberties do you take with putting humor in it? Talk about the liberties you take.

McBride: Oh, that’s a difficult question. There are certain lines you kind of cross. I probably danced a little bit too far over it when I wrote the Frederick Douglass chapter.

Tavis: I was about to go there. (Laughter) We’ll get to Frederick Douglass, but go ahead. Since you raised it, go ahead.

McBride: Well, let it be said that “The Good Lord Bird” is not “Django.” I’m glad that “Django” brought the slavery issue up so that young people will understand a little bit about slavery, young people of all types.

But “Django” is a kind of one man’s image and view of – the fact is, “Django” is filled with enormously wild fiction. Any time a Black man pulled out a six-gun and dropped the hammer on it and a white man, during slavery time, he’d be dead three minutes past breakfast. There would be no shootout.

That’s what Harper’s Ferry was all about. John Brown, it was a white man attacked this arsenal, and they tore him up. The Blacks, one of the Blacks that got caught, this fellow, one of his men, Dangerfield Newby, when they got hold of Dangerfield Newby, they dragged him outside the armory, they cut parts of his body off, and then they let the pigs feed on them.

So “Django” was funny and it was good and I’m glad it happened, but it’s not like the John Brown, and certainly not like my book. Now that said, my book is a book of caricature, so John Brown is – he’s like this guy who preaches all the time, and he was very religious.

When I got to the Frederick Douglass part, it just was too – what happens so that the viewers will understand is that Onion, the guy who’s telling the story, who is an 111-year-old Black man looking back on his life, when he had to pretend to be a girl to survive, he had to pretend to be a young girl, he ends up in Frederick Douglass’s house.

Because John Brown and Frederick Douglass were really good friends, and John Brown planned Harper’s Ferry at Frederick Douglass’s house. When he got to Frederick Douglass’s house, Frederick calls him into his office and he says, “Hey, have a drink.”

They get kind of – and this guy is a light-skinned guy, and Frederick Douglass is like, mm, you know, he wants a little taste. It turns out that in real life, Frederick Douglass has a Black wife and a white mistress. Now in a book of satire, you just can’t (laughter) -

Tavis: You couldn’t resist, could you?

McBride: That’s hard now. (Laughter) So -

Tavis: To try to resist now, much less -

McBride: So I had a lot of fun with that. But – and I admire Frederick Douglass deeply. I’m one who kind of steers clear of politics, but I understand what Frederick Douglass was all about.

I’ve been to his hometown, I’ve studied his life, and I satire the slavers, the slavery owners, as well as the abolitionists as well. So my satire is across the board. So even though Frederick Douglass is a great man, I had fun with him as well.

Tavis: Do you expect push-back?

McBride: I’ve already gotten some. I’ve already gotten some, and look, slavery is a raw subject for a lot of people, particularly African Americans. But we have to find a way to talk about these subjects.

I’d rather people be angry that I wrote something funny about Frederick Douglass than not know who he is at all. Not just see him as a guy with this funny hair who looks – because I don’t think people really understand how clever African Americans had to be to survive during slavery.

Slavery was a web of relationships, and if people knew how thick the whole business was, they would not make fun of people like Harriet Tubman. They would understand how intelligent she was and how sharp.

This woman was – you talk about a two-gun Sally, this woman was – once you got on her train, you weren’t allowed off.

Tavis: You mentioned the name, and we moved right past it. Let me go back now and ask you to say a word about the narrator of the story, Onion.

McBride: Well, I used to know a guy named Onion. He stole my bike, too. (Laughter) I remember him.

Tavis: And the shout-out he gets is you name a character after him?

McBride: Well, he wasn’t a bad guy. I still know his brother. I still know his family.

Tavis: Did he return the bike yet?

McBride: When I told him my brother found out about it, yeah, he did. He said, “The bike’s in the backyard. I don’t know how it got there,” you know. (Laughter) I love those kind of wacky – first of all, I love the way the old Southern talk, both whites and Blacks from the South, they have that.

My whole family was – we grew up in New York, but all my relatives and all my father and stepfather’s family, they were all from the South. So I like that old Black voice, and I love the sort of old Black man with a corncob pipe, sitting there telling a whopper.

So I wanted it to be in that voice. Then for him to play as a girl, what happened was I had to figure out some way of identity to power that character, because identity powers character, really, and character powers plot.

So his search for identity had to be a little stronger than just a Black boy who’s going for freedom. It had to be something that would, as John Brown spun toward his disaster, as John Brown was going down, this character was going up.

So he had to move to manhood, and him deciding to stop pretending to be a girl to live, him deciding to become a man, was what really spins him to freedom. It’s not the whole business, “I want to be free.”

Because a lot of times, people didn’t know what that meant. But it was his desire to become a man, to be a man, and to take that bonnet off and just say okay, I’ve had enough, to be a man, that’s what made him, spun him toward freedom.

Tavis: We started this conversation talking about reviewers. Let me close at talking about historians. Give me James McBride’s take on what you think of historians, given that you had to go back and do some research.

A couple of times in this conversation you’ve noted well, it wasn’t quite like that, and it wasn’t quite like that, and we now believe this and we now believe that. How seriously are we taking the history that we read about people like John Brown or Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner, or et cetera, et cetera?

McBride: I think the younger historians and African American historians, of which there are several dozen very talented ones, have a difficult time unearthing this information and passing it to people, because people don’t read books as much.

Which means that a lot of African American historians, and historians of the African American life and diaspora, if you will, have fewer avenues in which the true history can get out.

I think a lot of the history we’ve read up to this point, some of it is just off. It’s written with the same prejudice that certain networks have when they report the news of the day.

It took me years to figure that out. So I think history is – that’s all I read. I just read history books. I read nothing but history books. They have so much to give; I wish I’d majored in history in college.

Tavis: The new book from James McBride is called “The Good Lord Bird.” It’s a good read, and like everything he writes it, I’m sure, will be at the top of the list before you know it, and a movie, maybe.

McBride: Well, I hope so.

Tavis: Yes? You hope so?

McBride: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

McBride: Yeah, I hope so.

Tavis: Yeah, okay. I’m sure. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it. I’m always honored to have you on here.

McBride: Thank you. I appreciate you, Tavis.

Tavis: I appreciate that.

McBride: I really appreciate being here.

Tavis: Man, I enjoy talking to you all the time. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: November 25, 2013 at 12:40 pm