When I arrive at James McBride’s office in Hell’s Kitchen, the recent National Book Award winner for fiction is living it up, mopping the floor of the small workspace. His last three books, a co-writing credit on Spike Lee’s film Red Hook Summer, and a whole bunch of music have been achieved between these four walls — that’s a lot of history.
McBride plays with history a lot in his work, but he points out that he’s never really studied it; rather, he just likes “anything that’s got a good story in it, anything that’s got some bump and dirt, some funk in it.” That bump, dirt, and funk have helped make him one of the most talked about novelists of 2013. His smart and funny novel, The Good Lord Bird, also helped sell FX executives on the idea that his 2008 novel, Song Yet Sung, would make for a good miniseries. It has, undoubtedly, been a banner year for the author, but he takes it all in stride. “You can’t plan for these kinds of things,” he says contemplatively. “They just happen to you in life, and if you’re smart, you’ll enjoy it when it happens and don’t look for it to happen again.”
Success and praise have come McBride’s way before, especially with his 1996 memoir about his family, The Color of Water, which told the captivating story of his upbringing at the hands of his strict mother, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who married McBride’s father, an African-American reverend who passed away a few months before his son’s birth. That book spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, but it has taken McBride close to 20 years to write a bona fide hit novel. His previous attempts earned him critical praise, but The Good Lord Bird‘s National Book Award win will surely convince more than a few readers to go back and see what they missed. “Awards help,” says McBride, an admission that sets him apart from the writers who would (perhaps disingenuously) tell you medals and accolades don’t mean anything.
What struck me the most about The Good Lord Bird was McBride’s how natural the book felt, despite its subject — because, whether it is slavery, the Holocaust, or any other tragic period in history, there is a very fine line between art and exploitation. The mix of humor, history, and great storytelling wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I cracked open the book for the first time, because when I think of slavery and the life of John Brown, the last thing I think about is laughter. I mention this to McBride, and he tells me, “I think the problem is that the language of history covers it with this whole blanket of slavery.” He continues, “I think the discourse around slavery is still pretty primitive,” citing the commonly seen example in which “the mean overseer or master shoots the black guy in the field. The poor black guy is whipped, he’s a slave for 12 years, they kidnap him.” McBride allows that “all of those things are true, but there are other elements of slavery that tell the story in even a deeper way than those we’ve heard about.”
McBride has found that deeper way to write about these things. Where The Color of Water is a story of an escaped slave that flirts with magical realism, The Good Lord Bird contains shades of William Faulkner and even Mark Twain. I even found myself comparing McBride’s book, oddly enough, to the films of Mel Brooks. While McBride isn’t necessarily working in the comic genre the way Brooks has throughout his legendary career, there is something similar in McBride’s work to the way Brooks, an American Jew who fought in the Second World War, dealt with something horrific like the Third Reich by finding the comedy in it.
McBride doesn’t make fun of slaves or slavery, but his book is undeniably humorous. John Brown remains convinced throughout the book that the novel’s protagonist is a girl, and that’s only part of the sense we get that Brown was a little off his rocker to begin with. In writing a humorous book about a serious topic with such aplomb, McBride has created his own strain of historical fiction. “Going after the deep violence is easy,” he points out. “I think the current surfeit of ‘slavery’ tomes —12 Years a Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s movie [Django Unchained], The Butler — are really crude and primitive, but they’re important.” Yet, without playing his material for cheap laughs, McBride has embraced a different tone. “I think humor is the way to tell a true story,” he says. “It’s the best way to get to the truth sometimes.”