The writer-musician rewrites the Battle Hymn in his new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
Image from Flickr via The Wexner Center
James McBride says he views his writing and his music as distinct disciplines, but one is hard pressed to quite believe that’s true. His conversation percolates with noise and rhythm, his lines stretch to improvisational lengths studded with sloppin’, sassafrassin, and frying eggs. This quality runs strong in the pages of his most recent work, The Good Lord Bird, a novel depicting the wild gospel of abolitionist John Brown en route to Harpers Ferry. Relayed through the eyes of Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a young slave who spends years posing as a girl, the story spins through tall tales, religious fanaticism, and comedic interpretations of history’s horrors. “You’re just looking to slap some grease on the griddle,” McBride says of developing the story’s particular tone. “You just pretend you’re a starving, no-count, mealy-mouth, prairie bum, and after awhile you start seeing things in that way.”
John Brown may be a familiar literary subject—fascinating writers from Herman Melville to Russell Banks—but McBride develops an original angle, crafting humor, even irreverence, from brutality and religious zeal. “Some things are so terrible that you just have to laugh at them,” says McBride. “What humor allows you to do is to let the past go with less pain.” A saxophonist, composer, journalist, and teacher, McBride is the author of three other books, including the memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, which spent over one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in trade paperback.
We spoke by phone between New York and L.A., where McBride, on a trip to the West Coast, described how he wished he could get inside the heads of the people he passed on the streets. “It’s a real stumper to sit around and try to think in your own head,” he says. “But when you go into somebody else’s head that takes the foot off the breaks.”
—Katherine Rowland for Guernica
Guernica: John Brown has been the subject of many different tellings; how did you arrive at a way to depict him so originally?
James McBride: I’ve always liked that old black guy telling a whopper, with a guitar in his hand, a corncob pipe, and a straw hat. I have relatives like that. It’s a voice I always liked. I knew I couldn’t write about John Brown the way it’s been done before, because he’s been done pretty good. So I tried to look at him from someone else’s point of view—that of the black participants—who had been there but never really been spoken to or about. But I had to figure out a way to find them and help their voices drive the story home. So I just absorbed what existed and let this world open up to me through the eyeballs of this young kid, or through this old man who’s looking back on his life as a young boy playing a young girl.
Guernica: And Henry or Henrietta is the lens through which we see this John Brown. How did he take shape?
James McBride: He’s an amalgam of myself and two or three other people; if we had been there, this is what we would have seen, and this is how we would have seen it. Onion—that what’s I like to call him—he’s a kind of conscience. When you read about John Brown, you read a lot of people’s prejudice into what they report, even though they strive to be objective. And in a lot of ways, there is no such thing as objectivity.
Guernica: I imagine that’s especially the case for a character who’s such an icon, who represents such a radical moment and idea in history.
James McBride: That’s true. He’s a person who inspires a lot of discourse and opinion. If you go in any direction with him, you’re wrong with someone else, and that kind of limits where you go with him as a nonfiction character. If you agree with what he did, you agree with someone who was a murderer, among other things. If you disagree with what he did, then you’re disagreeing with a heroic figure who took God’s words literally and tried to right a terrible wrong. But in fiction you can just lay it out. You’re being the writer and can let someone else take the heat.
You can never follow the crowd as a writer. Don’t play the other guy’s solo, play your own.
What humor allows you to do is to let the past go with less pain. It’s a healing element. It releases some of the pain from the shotgun wound.
Guernica: Why did you choose to use comedy to take on such a serious subject?
James McBride: That’s how things were dealt with at my house, most of the time, and that’s how I deal with bad things. Some things are so terrible that you just have to laugh at them. What else can you do?
There are two responses to really awful things. One is to lament and say, “Oh my God, oh lord.” And the other is to laugh at it a little bit, try your best to deal with it and, if you can, forget about it as soon as possible.
What humor allows you to do is to let the past go with less pain. It’s a healing element. It releases some of the pain from the shotgun wound. I make it sound good now, but I wasn’t thinking of that when I put this book together. Once Onion became a real character to me, I just really enjoyed spending time with him.
Guernica: Is that how it generally works in your writing? The character takes its own shape and you can move along with it?
James McBride: When it’s going well. It’s not something where you can snap your finger and just say, “OK.” Sometimes it just doesn’t go, and you can’t get to the level of concentration required or make the character cleanly, or you create a situation and the character doesn’t respond to it properly. You feel yourself pulling to the left and the character’s pulling to the right. It’s a tight keyhole to get into the character’s head.
Guernica: The John Brown character that you created is a lunatic on some level. What was it like spending so much time with him?
James McBride: I loved it. I don’t know if he’s any nuttier than some of the people we have running for office today. Certainly he was nobler than some of the political rascals that run our lives today. I felt there was another, deeper part of him that was so lovable. This book really helped me in that regard. It was a balm for me to do. I wrote it when I was going through a really difficult divorce and it was in some ways easier to step into this world than it was to live in my own. That was the first time a book has been like that for me, where it was more fun to live there than it was to live here.
Guernica: How was this experience different from writing your memoir?
James McBride: Working on the memoir was a kind of catharsis and my life was different at the time. It was a cleansing process that was a little painful and refreshing. This was different: it was an escape, and an escape into a world where I felt there were real heroes and villains.
If you had a toothache back then, God would help you if he’d kill you.
Guernica: The lines separating the heroes from the villains are rather blurred throughout the book.
James McBride: Well, I’d say that’s how life is, as well. You get a flat tire and it’s two o’clock in the morning and someone from the Tea Party stops and helps you put a new tire on… well, they’re great people. If you’re a Tea Party person and it’s two in the morning and some liberal person from Boston helps you put your tire back on… well, they’re not all that bad. You really can’t judge people. That’s something you really can’t do as an artist, as a writer. And this book doesn’t try to judge, it tries to show and not tell.
The act of choosing what to place in your piece when you’re a historian or a non-fiction writer already renders it into fiction for someone else. In some ways fiction comes a lot closer to reality. When you start talking about something as brutal as slavery and life in the American West, it’s really important to take a non- judgmental stance. We romanticize a great deal about life in the American West, but I thank God I wasn’t living during that time. No matter what color you were, it was rough, crude, tough living.
If you had a toothache back then, God would help you if he’d kill you.
Guernica: You mentioned how in your house, comedy was a way to deal with all that life throws at you, and it reminded me of a review of your book in the New York Times, which suggested that this use of comedy signaled a greater ease with history. Do you think that’s true?
James McBride: I think comedy allows people to accept the more difficult parts of history. I don’t think I needed it myself, I just didn’t want to write a book that was going to depress people. And history, if it’s presented wrong, is just very depressing, particularly the history of slavery. If slavery is presented properly, it’s a great story. But I think that within the commercial world of storytelling in which I live, there haven’t been many strong works that discuss slavery in ways that are palatable and funny and interesting to the reader.
There are some really great books that have been written about slavery, but I don’t think that the discourse about it in society has been very accurate or healthy. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve come up with ways to tell it that don’t insult people or hit them in the wrong way. Part of the problem is that most people don’t really understand what slavery was anyway. Most white people didn’t own slaves. Slavery was a way of life, just like driving cars is a way of life now. It doesn’t mean that it was right. I’m not an apologist: I would have been a slave had I been alive then. I’m just saying that the web of relationships that existed at that time was quite complicated.
Guernica: Your protagonist, Onion, is a boy, and yet he spends years disguised as a girl. What does this gender bending show us about this complicated web of relationships at the time?
James McBride: I wanted to present John Brown as the person I believe him to be: an extremely complicated religious man, who had stern, strong beliefs and once he was firm about an idea, that was it: he would just direct his energies toward that and nothing on this earth could stop him. And there is good and bad in that. And one of the bad things is that once you have an idea, you’re all stridency. You have your fork tuned to that pitch and there is nothing else you hear, you miss out on a lot. And I wanted the reader to see that John Brown didn’t see this kid for who he was, but rather as a black person who wanted to be free. That was certainly part of the self-definition of an African American during those times, but there were other definitions as well. Some were shy, some had a toothache, some needed a haircut, some didn’t like their first cousin—that’s another definition of a person. But John Brown’s definition was the imposed definition he placed on this young boy, who after a lifetime of servitude, accepted it and figured out a way to survive with it. That was pretty much how slavery worked anyway.
Guernica: Were you also trying to recall the legacy of passing, of black slaves pretending to be white to get out of bondage?
James McBride: I didn’t think of that. But you took advantage of any way to get out of slavery that you could. I’m sure there were many slaves who passed, and if they could, they tried as hard as hell. Because the burden of bondage was so massive, passed on to your children, and was worth fighting and risking your life for, as we’ve all learned very painfully.
When you walk the land, the land speaks to you—even if it’s 150 years later. You walk the earth and good things happen.
Guernica: How did you go about conducting research for the book?
James McBride: I read a whole bunch of books and immersed myself in that period. I went to Kansas a couple times, and visited Harpers Ferry several times. I would walk around. I low-keyed it. Harpers Ferry was the site of several important battles, but really it’s known for what John Brown did, and you see the ground and how big it was. It wasn’t like they were just kicking in the door of an apartment. There was an armory with a gate.
When you walk the land, the land speaks to you—even if it’s 150 years later. You walk the earth and good things happen. There’s always something to be said for going to a spot, even if there’s nothing there. That’s why you have a brain, your mind moves to other places when you’re standing at an important spot.
Guernica: For your writing, do you have any particular spots that feel like they’re most expressive?
James McBride: I can write anywhere really. I have a hard time writing when the birds are tweeting and the brooks are running outside. I need a few sirens wailing, somebody asking for change. I need a little bit of grit and gristle. I need the smell of boiled cabbage. I’ve tried that several times, for months at a time, trying to write in a quiet, wonderful place where birds are twittering and coffee’s brewing. And nothing happens. But if I’m in an old dump like my old apartment and I can’t find my fingernail clippers and nothing’s working except the old tea maker, that’s just great. You always have to find and live in a place that’s a little uncomfortable when you’re a writer. You need a burr in your side.
Guernica: In a recent interview, you said that there’s nothing romantic about our time. And I wondered where you find inspiration in the present, and how you cultivate that sense of wonder that seems so important to the writing life.
James McBride: It is hard to find romance in the present because there’s nothing left to the imagination.
Guernica: How can you say that?
James McBride: Well, we know everything there is to know about everybody else. Everything we do is televised. I remember when I was a kid watching a football game and the coach on the sidelines was just yammering away, and I would wonder, what’s he saying? But nowadays they’ll tell you what he’s saying, and when I find out I don’t like him at all. There has to be some mystery in life, because the joy of being a writer and the joy of being a musician is the joy of discovery. I don’t want someone discovering for me what I should be discovering on my own. If a person is discovering for me, then they’re living for me. It’s my responsibility, indeed it’s my privilege, to go out and discover the world for myself.
You always have to find and live in a place that’s a little uncomfortable when you’re a writer. You need a burr in your side.
Guernica: When we first started talking, you mentioned that you have family members who talk the way that people do in your book. How did you immerse yourself in that particular vernacular?
James McBride: I rewrote everything. Whatever I wrote when I was too much in the framework of my written language—my east coast, New York vernacular—I would go back and change. I would say, how do you make this thing grumble and mutter and go hee-haw. ‘Cause it’s not working like this. And after awhile you just fall into it, you find the grease, you’re just looking to slap some grease on the griddle. Everything you do, you just put some grease on it, you just pretend you’re a starving, no-count, mealy-mouth, prairie bum, and after awhile you start seeing things in that way and it just starts coming to you.
Guernica: Did that language free you up to tell the story in a new way?
James McBride: Yeah, it does. It’s a real stumper to sit around and try to think in your own head, but when you go into somebody else’s head that takes the foot off the breaks. You can think in someone else’s head.
Guernica: You also teach, and I imagine that one of the most difficult things to learn in writing is how to find and nurture an organic voice. What sort of advice do you give to your students?
James McBride: The basic thing is to be humble, and pretend you’re a bartender in the tavern of life. Don’t get too comfortable and don’t really listen to anybody else. Don’t stand around with a bunch of writers and talk about writing. You know when you see plumbers at a plumbers convention—not that I’ve been to one—but when you see two talking, usually they’re not talking about plumbing: they’re talking about whatever it is that two men happen to talk about. They’re talking about sports, a new truck, their wives and children, a good pair of shoes. I just tell my students, don’t talk about writing too much, just go out and do it. Find out whatever you need to get to the mainland.
The mainland is where writers find their voice, and you have to figure out how to get there. Sometimes you go by boat, or by lily pad, sometimes you have to sit down with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and just work your way through that square.
Guernica: Do you find that as both a musician and a writer it helps to have another creative outlet to help you get to the mainland in your own work?
James McBride: I’ve been at it a long time, and there was time when it was hard and now it’s not as hard. You get better at this stuff. I’m a better musician now, and I rarely practice because age has taught me the value of economy. And I think I’m a better writer now because I don’t waste as much time, dilly-dallying and sassafrassin’ and sloop and sloppin’ and frying eggs. When you start writing, half the time you’re just saying howdy to the page.
My process now is a little more lean and muscular. I don’t waste a lot of time. When I had kids, I learned how much time I had before, and how much time you actually need to do something. If you don’t have time, you’ll just do it and get it done. When you have kids you realize how much time you burned before.
Guernica: Do you see your music as influencing your writing? Are the disciplines in dialogue?
James McBride: I see them as pretty separate, because they both demand a whole lot of soul. Technically, they do fold together in the sense that you have to have a certain level of skill in order to execute your ideas and you need a medium. The idea of improvisation is one that many writers fall into, and I obviously improvise a great deal when I’m writing, but there’s always a structural framework that I’m working around, and that takes more time than the actual writing. Once the characters get to yapping and talking, they’ll move from one room to the next, and I just have to make sure that the house is built. That’s really hard, that’s the kind of thing that sits with you all day long, and you can get hung up on that for a while. Character pushes plot along, but these people have to interact in a certain place and if the place isn’t right then they’re lost in space.
Guernica: How do you know when you hit the sweet spot?
James McBride: You’ll know it. The characters will start to howl to the moon and you’ll think it’s funny.
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