Fun with National Book Award-Winner James McBride

The author talks John Brown, James Brown, jazz music, and winning the National Book Award.

The Good Lord Bird, a uniquely humorous novel based on abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, surprised everyone—no one more so than author James McBride—when it won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013. Wait a minute! Funny fiction about a bloody event that set the stage for the Civil War? Preposterous, maybe, but McBride not only pulled it off, he did so with aplomb, cool, and tremendous humanity. The Brooklyn-born author, musician, and filmmaker comes to Westchester March 2 to talk about the book and to dramatize it with music by his jazz quintet on behalf of the Westchester Library System. We talked to him about his unique book and multi-faceted career.

How did the National Book Award affect you?

If I was really young, it would probably ruin me. No matter how close to the earth you try to stay, something like this inflates your head a little bit. It was a great high, a dream come true, even though I didn’t really know I had the dream until I won it. Before the National Book Award, I was really happy to just be a writer who made a decent living writing books. Now I’ve moved up a notch. It’s deeply satisfying to be taken seriously as a fiction writer.

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You are a writer, a musician, a filmmaker. Is there anything you can’t do?

I pride myself on changing the oil in my own car but I haven’t been able to do that yet with my hybrid. Seriously, I try not to limit myself in terms of what I do artistically. You have to evolve or wither on the vine.

The Good Lord Bird is about the abolitionist John Brown. What drew you to his story?

I don’t think he’s been treated fairly. He was a great American. He belongs up there with Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. We have to talk about some of the issues John Brown’s life represented, issues like race and class and economics and war.

If John Brown were alive today, would he be called a terrorist?

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He could be classified that way these days, but there are some big differences. Terrorists attack innocent civilians, including women and children. John Brown would never hurt any child, ever. He was a father and he loved children. Also, when he could avoid killing his enemies by converting them to the cause of anti-slavery, he preferred to do that. A pro-slaver murdered [Brown’s] own son and John Brown could have killed him, but he didn’t.

Why did you choose to use so much humor?

I wanted to write a book that people would read that wasn’t too depressing. He was a fascinating person and everyone needs to know about him, but no one wants to read a book that’s going to depress them. That was one reason I made the book funny.

Tell us about your narrator, Henry Shackleford, a teenage boy who escapes slavery by joining John Brown’s followers dressed as a girl. Was there an inspiration for him?

Not really. I wrote a short story many years ago that didn’t work, but the voice of the protagonist—a lion—was so strong it kept coming back to me. It was written in that kind of country-tone, old-black-man style of talking, and I just had to find
a place for it. The Good Lord Bird was
the place.

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I like the whole business of a child’s innocent way of looking at things. It’s an overused device, but it can work. One of the tricks about writing in a kid’s voice is you have to understand that kids pretty much know what is going on. You have to be straight because they get it.

Is John Brown the only character in the book who isn’t trying to deceive everyone else?

I never thought of it that way, but it’s true. John Brown was pure. That was part of his problem. It’s hard to be that pure and survive, especially at his age. They describe him as a failed this and a failed that, but he was as close to God as America has seen. But his purity is what attracted me to him. 

What will your Westchester program include?

I will come out alone, read and talk about the book, then introduce the musicians. I’ll continue to talk about the book using music to dramatize and in some cases heighten some of the stories I’m reading.

In the program, I talk about what John Brown tried to do and try to reclaim the good part of his legacy. I also talk about the courage of the people who were with him. Then I talk about how he was a failure and how, through his failure, we have learned an enormous amount. We all have a right to fail, and that’s important.

What are you working on next?

I’m working my way through the ‘Bs.’ Next up is James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. I’m working on a book and studying the music. 

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