"If the characters don't work, it sounds like you're just making it up."

James McBride on John Brown, working with Spike Lee, and his new novel, The Good Lord Bird.

By Michael Hardy August 26, 2013

Robert Boswell and James McBride
Aug 26 at 7:30
Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.

The polymathic James McBride studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music and journalism at Columbia University. In addition to writing a best-selling memoir (The Color of Water), he has toured as a saxophonist with Jimmy Scott; written songs for Anita Baker and Grover Washington, Jr.; and had his debut novel Miracle at St. Anna adapted into a 2008 film by Spike Lee. (He collaborated with Lee again as the co-writer of last year’s Red Hook Summer.) McBride’s new novel The Good Lord Bird tells the story of a young slave who joins up with John Brown’s quixotic campaign to instigate a slave rebellion in pre–Civil War America. He reads tonight as part of the Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. 

Houstonia: Why did you decide to set your novel amid the events of the John Brown saga?

James McBride: Well, it was a mistake. I just happened to be passing through Harper’s Ferry and I took a look around and just became fascinated with John Brown. I thought the incidents of his life, and the incident of Harper’s Ferry, was a great event to kind of explore how this guy impacted American history. I wanted to write something funny, and I thought he was funny—I mean, I don’t think he was funny, but I thought it would be a good place for comedy. And I love his character. I love what he did. I don’t love everything that he did, but… And there’s so much conflict in his character, and the places he had to go, that it gave me a lot of creative room to work.

H: Do you think John Brown is misunderstood by most people?

JM: It’s a good question. I think he’s better understood now that he was, but he is misunderstood. People thought he was a lunatic at the time—some people, anyway. Abolitionists didn’t. Certainly some Southerners weren’t pleased with his activities. And he was a little bit crazy, truth be told, but I think he’s a misunderstood hero. I kind of wanted to illuminate his life and shove it into the modern discourse of American history.

H: You also include other historical characters like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in the novel. Why did you decide to include them?

JM: They were actually involved—Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were friends of John Brown. Frederick Douglass wasn’t trying to get laid, as the book portrays him, but he was involved in the abolitionist movement and was a very close friend of John Brown. As was Harriet Tubman. So it would have been remiss not to include them.

H: What are some of the challenges of including boldfaced names like those in a work of fiction?

JM: Oh, it’s dangerous. You have to release the reality and deal with the fiction element when you start dealing with those kind of characters. You read about them, and you read what they’ve written, but ultimately you have to come to some sort of conclusion about how they fit into the story that you’re telling, and the particular piece of history that you’re presenting. Look, if the characters don’t work, it sounds like you’re just making it all up.

H: Your previous novel Miracle at St. Anna was made into a film by Spike Lee, and you also collaborated with Lee on Red Hook Summer. Are you hopeful that The Good Lord Bird will become a film?

JM: I won’t stand in the way. But I think if you write a novel thinking it will be made into a film, you’re dead in the water. It won’t work; it won’t be believable.

H: What was it like working with Spike Lee? What’s he like as a collaborator?

JM: He’s very demanding—of himself, and people around him. He’s very fair. Spike’s a high-level worker, so you have to deliver. He’s not a guy who does a lot of small talk—Spike gets right to the work. And when the work is done everyone gets up and leaves the room.

H: So you weren’t just palling around with him.

JM: I went to a Knicks game with him a couple times. That was kind of fun. 


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