James McBride Says Fiction Writing Allows Him More Freedom
We are marveled at your ability to reinvent yourself. You are an accomplished musician and a well-known writer. How do you manage to combine all that?
The world was introduced to your writing more than two decades ago, with your intimate memoir The Color of Water, a Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, which won world-wide acclaim. And then, all of a sudden,you moved on to fiction and won the 2013 National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird.
McBride: (Smiling) Such things happen, you know. And last year, I wrote a biography of James Brown called Kill ‘Em and Leave.
Now you have a new work, Five-Carat Soul — and, wearea bit shocked to find out, it’s again a new format for you.
McBride: Five-Carat Soul isa collection of short stories that features a remarkable range of characters, from an obsessed vintage toy collector to a talking lion to a formerly enslaved little boy who thinks Abraham Lincoln is his father. Abraham Lincoln is my father, I’d say. (McBride laughs). Otherwise, how can I describe my jump from nonfiction to fiction? It was a great crossing … because fiction is more where I live, and it’s more creative and allows me a lot more freedom.
What unites this group of very different stories?
McBride: I like things that make me laugh, so I just created these stories, basically, to escape from my life. And to be an artist, creative in every genre, I think you have to preserve a little bit of your innocence. So for example, the story about the lion in the zoo in Washington, D.C., I actually wrote when I took my two nephews there to see the zoo, and they were so depressed when they left that I created this story about a lion who talks about his life, and he’s funny, and he talks about how animals speak to each other.
Some people think you write about race.
McBride: You know, when DuBose Heyward wrote Porgy, which became Porgy and Bess — he was considered a really great writer. No one said he wrote about race. They just said, this is great … but when a black writer writes about something that involves race, it suddenly becomes a race story. But these stories are all about human beings. The labels that we give each other really, if you want to be a good writer, you have to learn to look beyond that …
Do you mean to say you do not speak about race, do you?
McBride: Me personally and professionally, I haven’t been that outspoken about race and class, partly because it’s in my work, but in part because I don’t want to get hate mail. I’m sick of trying to talk to people. I don’t think you can change people. I think people have to be forced to do the right thing, so I’m not interested in trying to change people’s opinion. I can illuminate, and you can see if you like. And if you can’t see it, then just go buy the next book. But I’m sorry, I’m no longer interested in trying to be nice about what is right, because that doesn’t work.