Interview with James McBride
Published: May 9, 2003
|Illuminating the past--and going beyond it|
By the time James McBride submitted the first three chapters of his debut novel to Cindy Spiegel, his editor at Riverhead Books, he had already been on The New York Times bestseller list at least a year for his critically praised family memoir, The Color of Water. But his first book's popularity was no guarantee of smooth sailing for the second, a tale of Italy and American soldiers during World War II. "I had high hopes," McBride recalled. "I thought the chapters needed work, but I didn't think they were that bad. So she gave them back to me and said, 'It's really bad.' I was sad she said those words, but it just made me want to go back and do it right, because I knew it needed work, too. That's when the research got serious."
McBride dusted himself off. He studied Italian, traveled to Italy on his own, moved his family there for six months, and intensified his reading and interviewing, building a deep well of research that would inform his novel just as it did his memoir. "The writing is the arms and limbs and tendons and so forth," he says. "The reporting is the lean muscle that will really lift your story off the ground."
In Italy, McBride recalls, "I interviewed everybody, I mean, at least 50 people. Anybody who had information, I'd interview them. I would just go and talk to a merchant for an hour and half, and he'd tell you what his brother did in the war. I'd talk to anybody. One of the hard parts of being a bestselling author is that you don't get a chance to listen; but when you're writing, you have to listen."
Many revisions later, McBride's novel, a story of redemption and love called Miracle at St. Anna, came out last year, again to widespread critical praise, and went into paperback. It is the story of four black American infantrymen--Buffalo Soldiers from the army's Negro 92nd Division--who get separated from their unit behind enemy lines and find their fate tied up with that of a traumatized Italian boy. The orphan has survived a massacre that was inspired by a true incident--the slaying of more than 500 Italian civilians in a village in Tuscany by German SS soldiers.
One of the Buffalo soldiers, a "huge chocolate giant" named Sam Train, insists on becoming the boy's caretaker. "I knew that I wanted them to go on some sort of journey together that would strip away all their cultural and social baggage until they were just down to their humanity," McBride says. The story, which builds to a miraculous finish, was praised by reviewers for its "intricate mosaic of narratives" as well as its author's storytelling skills, lyrical prose and ability to enter the minds of his characters.
Digging out the kind of information he needed to bring his novel to life may have been a skill McBride acquired as a journalist, but in other respects he has turned his back on journalism. In leaving the field to forge a more creative life as a self-employed writer and musician, McBride gave up a lot. After beginning as a reporter at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., he later quit two jobs that many reporters salivate over: feature writer for The Washington Post Style section and for The Boston Globe. He also worked at People and Us magazines.
But before all that came his singular upbringing and his amazing mother--the stuff of The Color of Water (1996), a remarkable testament to maternal love and fortitude that is both inspiring and, at times, heartbreaking. McBride has a white mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, who was born in 1921 to a Polish Orthodox Jewish family that emigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in rural Virginia. The daughter of a terribly unloving, abusive rabbi who hated blacks, she fled the family after high school for Harlem. She converted to Christianity and, in 1942, took a black minister, Andrew McBride, for her first husband. They had eight children, and together founded a Baptist church in Brooklyn. Andrew was James McBride's father, but he died before McBride was born. She had four children by her second husband, Hunter Jordan, also black, who died in 1972.
As she raised her children on a meager income, mostly in a Brooklyn housing project and a home in Queens, Ruth McBride Jordan's twin pillars of belief were the church and education. "She married two extraordinary men," her son writes, "and raised 12 very creative and talented children"--including two doctors, a historian, a nurse, a chemist, two teachers, a social worker and a computer consultant. "My parents were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the way to climb out of poverty in America, and over the years they were proven right."
In The Color of Water, McBride peels away, in alternating chapters, his mother's "lifetime of silent suffering" as well as his own complicated search for identity as a man caught between black and white. His mother tells her life story in her own words. As McBride uncovered the past from his beloved but reluctant subject--this "black woman in white skin" who refused to acknowledge her whiteness--"the part of me that wanted to understand who I was began to irk and itch at me, like a pesky mosquito bite that cries out to be scratched," he writes. "I had to find out more about who I was, and in order to find out who I was, I had to find out who my mother was."
Another part of who James McBride is is an award-winning musician and composer. He earned a degree in musical composition from Oberlin College in 1979, and, a year later, a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He won the American Music Theater Festival's Stephen Sondheim Award for musical theater composition and other honors; composed the scores for a number of shows; played saxophone in a variety of bands, including those of Little Jimmy Scott and Rachelle Ferrell; and had tunes recorded by Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr. and Gary Burton.
We spoke to McBride, 46, during a book-tour stop in Milwaukee. A religious man, he has a relaxed, quiet manner and an engaging street-smart quality.
You lead quite a hybrid existence. Other serious writers might elect to pursue music as a hobby, but for you these are both important endeavors.
Pretty much. What I do is I separate them in terms of my workday. My workday's pretty disciplined. I wake up at 4 a.m. [at home in Bucks County, Pa.], get to my office [in midtown Manhattan] about 5:15 a.m. or so. I try to work out three times a week, and then I write for about four hours. If I'm not writing, I'm fooling around. But I'm sitting there waiting for God to enter the room.
And then by noon, I'm pretty much done with my writing, so in the afternoon I usually take an hour or two to deal with music, whatever it might be. Usually it involves working out parts for my band, writing out arrangements, fixing parts, working on a song or composition. I have an album, The Process, due out nationally in September.
Generally, I go in to the office on Monday, stay till Tuesday. I go home Tuesday in time to pick up my kids [from school]. I stay home Wednesday. Thursday I go back in, spend the night, and stay till Friday.
I can't really write at home. I need some traffic noise. I'm not the kind of writer who can sit around and listen to birds twittering and that kind of stuff. I need some funk and dirt in my life, you know.
Any journalist would be struck by the fact you gave up some great jobs on newspapers. Did journalism not agree with you?
There's a certain type of person that's meant to be a journalist and I'm not one of them. Journalism has a certain growth pattern. You start out, you study, you learn to write obituaries and cop stories and so forth. Then you start writing metro stories and short features, and at some point you need to start learning to write with power, for length. I think eventually, I just outgrew newspapers. It wasn't creative enough for me.
And also I saw a lot of talented people working at newspapers who were frustrated. There was a lot of bitterness in journalism. The discontent level in journalism is cyanide for a creative writer. I saw these enormously talented people who were enormously underused because the form did not lend itself to their capabilities. Even feature writing, it's just that--feature writing. I just wanted to grow.
|To be a good writer, you really have to have your ear to the ground and listen to the buffalo. And I felt like I was losing that when I was in journalism. It's ironic, because journalism is supposed to be about being out there, getting the story, and a lot of journalists do. But there's a certain part of journalism that just involves getting in the Honda, driving to your office and getting your story over the phone. I thought I was losing touch with the things that really make me a good artist. That's why I drive in to the city--I have to hear people. You want to be Henry David Thoreau, that's fine, but you know, I'm a city boy, basically. And so I just felt like I was losing touch with the creative side of myself by being a journalist.|
Now, mind you, I'm very grateful that I was a journalist, because it helped me learn to write tight. I had some great editors; the who-what-why-when-hows--all that business--was something I learned to do, and it really taught me how to compete as a writer. But now, should a young writer pursue journalism first before writing a book? I think that's something everyone has to answer for themselves. I'm not sure it's the right path for every single person, particularly a creative fiction writer.
If you were describing your memoir as a construction project, you would say this one involved major excavation. Could you talk about the challenge of digging up the past when your mother was reluctant to do so?
Well, yeah, but see, my mother was a very good manipulator of us. So that I learned how to manipulate her a little bit. And so what I did was report around her. She would give a little tidbit of something and then I would go and use my journalism abilities to find out what she meant. She'd say, "The store was on the corner--I don't know, it was near the courthouse, you can see the jailhouse from over there, don't ask me any more questions." So I went to the corner, I saw where the jailhouse was, and I saw where the graveyard was, in Suffolk, Va., where she grew up, and I drew a map, I took copious notes and so forth. A lot of the details she talked about, I would get those same stories from other people, so that her story would have the kind of detail and pinpoint accuracy that you need in order to put the story in its proper place. I mean, God's in the details.
Your memoir really became a detective hunt in some ways.
Well, any good book--if it doesn't involve research, it's probably not worth writing about. The real hard part for me when I'm writing a book is not the writing part; the real hard part is the research. Ninety percent of what I get I don't use. Most of my mother's material from her life I didn't use.
The alternating-chapter approach in The Color of Water worked well. Was that how you originally conceived it?
No, that wasn't even my idea. It was Cindy Spiegel's idea, the editor at Riverhead. I wrote the book all in my mother's voice, with nothing of James McBride, other than the foreword. And I gave it to Cindy Spiegel and she said, "This is a good story, but it's not a book. You have to put yourself in it." So then I created my chapters based on the chapter breaks in my mother's narrative.
Was it hard to redo it that way?
Not that hard, because I'm not really afraid to rewrite. I think when you take things apart and put them back together, usually they're better. I'm sure most of your readers know: Writing is rewriting. I rewrote The Color of Water a whole lot. Once I'd finished the actual manuscript, I went back and fixed all of my work just countless times, until it was tight.
The problem with Mommy's narrative was not so much a matter of rewriting; it was a matter of editing and moving parts of what she said to other areas and adding small words so that things would connect and ideas would have some firmness and suppleness to them.
It was such a moving book. Your maternal grandmother was just the saddest story, the horrible grandfather ... While you were excavating the past, did you ever think, "I'm getting more than I ever bargained for here?"
Yeah, there were times where I had to cover up, sort of like a boxer who gets hit really hard and he covers his face for a couple seconds so he can recover and fight some more. But, you know, ultimately, other than the sexual abuse, there was nothing in this that I couldn't really deal with.
The toughest part of this book for me to write was dealing with Mommy's sexual abuse by her father, and me leaving for college. But you have to remember, if you're writing a memoir, you let God into the room; you just surrender the story to him. And you forgive the past. I mean, these things happen. People want to write memoirs because they want to purge themselves of the past. That's a mistake. I think you want to write memoirs because you want to take someone down this trail to show them there's a better way to go, or that they can learn something from your journey. I think bad memoirs are like navel-gazing; good memoirs are illuminating.
And the writer's job, really, is to get out of the way and let the reader see what you're trying to show them, however you do that. If I had gone on and on, wandering in my mind, pontificating about the sexual abuse, the tragedy of my grandmother and so forth, it wouldn't have been as effective. Anyone who reads the book knows that it affected me tremendously, because it affects them. And so then it has done what it's supposed to do: It's shown them that this happened, this existed, and then you as the writer and you as the reader have a responsibility to move on and say, "Why are we showing this?" As opposed to saying, "We're showing this to try to make you feel sad or to show you what I've done or what my subject has done and how strong they are." I think there's a difference. I think you have to come at it from a real honest perspective. If you don't, the readers will be the first to know.
What would you tell writers working in this area about getting reluctant subjects to open up?
I think they have to know, for themselves, that they're strong enough to weather the barrage of criticism that will come in their direction, first of all--the attacks, the poking and the prodding that may come from your unwilling subjects. You have to decide why you're doing it, and whether it's worth it to pull someone through that.
The second part, if you have an unwilling subject, is to report around that person, because in your reporting around that person you'll find facts that you can lay out as bait. She'll say, "The house is green." You'll say, "Well, that house was yellow in the picture I saw and it was right near the supermarket." "Oh no, it wasn't near the supermarket," your subject will say. "The supermarket wasn't built till 1965, blah, blah, blah." So it just becomes a cat-and-mouse game of corrections.
When I was reading Miracle at St. Anna, I was trying to put myself in your shoes: I've never been in the service; I've never been in combat; I've never been to Italy. Yet I'm going to try to recreate the smells, sights, sounds and emotions of battle; I'm going to capture the haunted landscape of Italy. Didn't you worry about getting all that right?
If you know you have to write something, you become like a sponge. It doesn't matter what you're writing about. If I had known how hard it was, I would've never done it.
There's something to say for being a little naive.
Yeah, and I keep it that way. I don't read too many books by too many other writers. I don't read too many methodology books by anybody else. I just figure I'll just put the shoulder to the wheel and try to push the cart till you get to the top of the hill and you can let it go down on its own steam. I just found a good story and I followed it up until it found me.
The novel is well put together, which leads me to ask whether you outlined it in advance.
No, I didn't really know where I was going at all. There's lots of ways to write a novel, but ultimately, there's a certain improvisatory quality to all of this. The characters are just flat pieces of paper--you resuscitate them and you're breathing life into them, and once they pop into life, they start moving in directions you hope they will move in. No outline--all I needed was I knew that I wanted to write a story about two people who are so different, yet so bonded by their humanity, by the commonality of the human spirit.
Given the talent you showed with your memoir, you could have done a perfectly fine nonfiction treatment of the Buffalo Soldiers. Why fiction?
That's a good question, because I don't want to really be somebody who is known for writing books that lambaste whites for the sordid history of racism in America. I'm beyond black and white in my thinking. I insist that people see Miracle at St. Anna as a story about a man and a boy, a group of men, a group of Italians. I don't read books that say, "This is what went wrong and this is what went wrong and that's why we're in this situation today." Those books bore me. Everybody knows what's wrong.
I wouldn't buy a book that said, you know, "The 92nd Division went to Europe and fought and they were treated poorly and so forth." That book's been written before, but I'm not the person to write that. I just don't think it's something that takes us anywhere. I think, if you want to take us somewhere, state that and then show us where to go, show us what the next step us. I see Miracle at St. Anna as the next step; that's why it's fiction. Because fiction makes your dreams come true.
One of my intentions with Miracle at St. Anna was, because history is told as mythology in America, to create the mythology of the black GI and hope somebody paid attention to it. But on a deeper level, my intent was to show how our commonalities are greater than our differences.
Now that you have your first published novel under your belt, what advice would you have for those writing one?
Get a slide rule, learn algebra and work in computers. [He chuckles.] I guess my advice would be to write lean, research hard and try to understand you're asking the reader to slip through a tiny keyhole--to enter your room of suspended disbelief. And to do that, you really have to make sure that you prepare the room.
Do your homework first; research is everything. And then holding back what you've learned and just using a small bit of it.
Everything you do as a writer, you have to really go taste it and smell it. If you want to be a writer who sits by the beach and looks at the peaceful ocean and writes a boring book, well, good for you. It ain't going to be a book I read. [Laughs.] Nobody's going to read it. You've got to out and taste it and smell it; I mean, that's just how it is. #
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.
--Posted May 9, 2003