Interviewing James McBride, author of the best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” and “The Good Lord Bird,” the unexpectedly hilarious new novel about the 19th century abolitionist John Brown and his violent crusade to end slavery, is like sitting in with a great jazz band. In talking about writing and other topics, McBride — who is in fact a musician and composer — plays a great melody and even better harmonies using anecdote, metaphor and improvisation to perform his conversational solos. He deploys all the same tools with virtuosic skill in “The Good Lord Bird,” in which Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a young black slave in the Kansas Territory in 1856, gets swept up in the wild campaign of Brown, which culminates in his daring, doomed raid at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. McBride mines a surprisingly rich vein of comedy in the proceedings, with Onion — who for most of the book masquerades as a girl to stay alive — narrating the story in a way that will have the reader laughing out loud on nearly every page.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Printers Row Journal caught up with McBride, 56, for a phone interview from his home in Lambertville, N.J. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You teach writing at New York University, yes?
A: Yes, I have some students there, but they teach themselves, really. Writing teaches writing. I just force them to write. In longhand, by the way.
Q: Longhand! Now that's old school.
A: Well, longhand forces you to edit before your ideas even hit the page. That way, you don't end up writing a gigantic insert inside your original thought. It slices some of the fat out of your work, I think, subconsciously.
Q: Do you write in longhand?
A: Not usually. I type most of my books for the first chapter or two — I use a manual typewriter for the first 50 pages or so — and then I move to the computer. It helps me keep the work lean, so I don't end up spending 10 pages describing a leaf. It's just like music. If you can whistle the melody, then the song will stick. But if you need a bunch of machines to make it sound good, you're probably not writing anything that's going to last a long time.
Q: But no longhand for you?
A: Well, when I get stuck, I do write in longhand, and then transcribe it into the computer. It helps me get back into flow. My main problem with fiction is that once my characters get moving, you just have to follow them along and get out of the way of the story, but sometimes they pull me in too many directions and I need to focus. Sometimes switching to longhand helps me do that. It's all about getting to the mainland, you know, but I can't get the plane off the ground with computers.
Q: You used the word "flow," and of course there's something literally flowing about longhand.
A: That's right. Another reason it's helpful is that I don't tend to see my stories — my characters, the landscapes they move through — in color. I see them in black and white at first, like an old film. When I'm writing down the stories, initially I feel like I'm just transcribing. But the colors I make up. In "The Good Lord Bird," I didn't see the color of the cabins, I didn't see the color of the plains of Kansas. So I had to go back later and colorize everything.
Q: And the colorizing process involves bringing extra layers of nuance, description and so forth?
A: Yeah. That's where you tuck in the corners of the sheet on the bed, if you will. I add extra nuance, extra detail, extra descriptive elements. Color.
Q: When most people begin to read a novel about John Brown, I think they would expect it to be fairly somber, given what we know about him. But you've written a comic novel. Was that organic to the story, or just organic to you?
A: I did want it to be funny. You can be funny and be instructive. You can be funny and make people cry. Obviously this wasn't a particularly funny period in American history, but frankly, I wanted to write a book that I would read. I hate these heavy books about slavery and black-white relations in the 19th century, because they're boring and depressing. You know, a lot of funny stuff happens between the lines, in the details of life. And if people want to learn more about John Brown, they can go to the history books and find out the real facts about the guy.
Q: But you take my point, I think, that the last adjective that would occur to people about John Brown is "funny."
A: That's true. He had hardly any sense of humor at all. People don't think about John Brown and Rodney Dangerfield in the same sentence, that's for sure. (Laughs.)
Q: But he's pretty hilarious in the book.
A: Right, although he's not trying to be. In real life, actually, he was quite a character. People thought he was crazy. And I just wanted a funny way to talk about him. It helps, of course, that Onion has a funny way of telling stories. I've always loved that old country style of yakking, the old black man in a barbershop telling a whopper, and it just seemed like a good way of approaching this man's life.
Q: Onion's father is a barber, and we all have this idea of black barbershops as places where this kind of storytelling — the tall tale, the comic story that also has a serious point — is practiced. Do you have direct experience in that area?
A: Sure. A lot of whoppers are told, a lot of yarns are spun, and a lot of half-truths are swept up off the floor along with the hair clippings.
Q: Was John Brown on your radar for some time before you wrote the book?
A: You know, I found out that the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" — you know (sings), "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" — was written to honor John Brown. I was in Maryland around 2003 writing my previous novel, "Song Yet Sung," and took a ride over to Harpers Ferry and became fascinated by Brown's story. I started to think about how I could put together something that would show who he was. It took a long time. This book took five years to write, and the germination process took five years before that. It was hard to figure out how to tell this guy's story in a way that was unique, and not serious or preachy.
Q: When I was reading it, the tone reminded me of Mark Twain, "Huckleberry Finn" in particular. Part of it is the period, and part of it is your funny way of getting at serious issues, which Twain does in "Huck Finn" as well.
A: Oh, I love "Huckleberry Finn." It's nice to be mentioned — though I don't deserve it — in the same sentence with Mark Twain.
Q: Of course, some people have a problem with "Huck Finn," for reasons I think you know — Twain's use of the N-word, for example.
A: Yeah, well, I don't have a problem with that. Nobody's begging anybody to read that book. Look, how can you talk about these kinds of issues if you don't let everybody get up to the bandstand and sing or play their own solo? "Huck Finn" is a great book, and Mark Twain was a great writer, period. Although some people may have found certain terms and elements in that book offensive, they're not required to read it. It's not like it's "Gone with the Wind."
Q: Another element of your book is that Onion spends a good deal of time in disguise as a girl. How did you settle on that as a device in the book, and did you think about its implications?
A: You know, if I thought about all the implications of everything that I wrote, as I'm writing it, I would never write it. So you just shut that kind of stuff out of your mind. That said, I'm interested in the business of identity and self-search. The outer motion of a story — man walks into room, man pulls out gun, man fires, man jumps through window — is pulp fiction unless it's driven by some sort of inner conflict. And much of that is often tied to the business of identity and the search for the self. And so I wanted to put some layers of complexity onto Onion's character. He's not just running from slavery or away from John Brown. He's running into his own confusion about where he belongs.
Q: Of course, this takes us back to Twain. Doesn't Huck Finn dress as a girl at one point?
A: I'm sure you're right. I better reread "Huck Finn" before I publicize this book any more.
Q: You also have a foot in the film world, and when I was reading "The Good Lord Bird," I was thinking, "This is a movie waiting to happen."
A: I hope you're right, and I do have an agent in L.A. who has some copies of the book that he's passing around. But I didn't think of it as a film when I was writing it. If you do that, you're dead out the gate. Your horse is going to come in last.
Q: You're also a composer. Do you hear music — a soundtrack — when you write your novels?
A: No, not really. It's true that I see these things reeling behind my eyeballs, in black and white, but I don't see them as films. I just see them as people moving around. So the impact that music has on my writing is more structural than anything else. Jazz forces you to work within a certain harmonic framework. If you're in the key of A-flat, for example, and you play an E natural, you should have a good reason for playing it, or be Charlie Parker. So you're forced to use certain rules, certain harmonies, to make your solo work. And with writing, fiction and nonfiction, there are certain things you can do within the parameters of that story. You have a wide palette of choices in terms of the improvisational tools you can use. But you can't go outside the key of that song.
Q: Well, there are key changes in some songs.
A: That's true. But if the key changes, you have to change, and go with it.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
"The Good Lord Bird"
By James McBride, Riverhead,
432 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun