I recently had the opportunity to interview James McBride for a newspaper article in preparation of his upcoming visit to our area to discuss his book “Song Yet Sung.”
As is the case with an article, with all of the background and event information that needed to be included, I wasn’t able to get much of his interview into the actual text.
Oh, but he had such great things to say! What an incredibly intelligent, gentle, and humorous person he is. I just love this guy’s wit and honesty, so I asked him if I could post his responses on this writer’s blog and he gave me permission.
Please enjoy this informational and delightful glimpse into James McBride’s thoughts on his writing.
Giants, witches, there’s a very fairytale quality to Song Yet Sung and like all fairy tales, the oppressed escapes and wins in the end. What made you choose this approach in telling your story?
Stories tell themselves. Writers just happen to be in the room. I’m glad the story had a happy ending. I’d rather read about a slave who frees him or herself. I know what happens to the ones who didn’t. I don’t want to read a book that depresses me, so I didn’t write one that was depressing. On the other hand, Song Yet Sung ain’t exactly ‘Chicken Soup For The Soul.’
Liz – the runaway slave who can see visions of the future – why is it important that she can see “fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes?” Is this a future that she is running to or away from as she runs away from slavery?
She is befuddled by some of the hip hop culture. Any African American from that era who dropped into the world today would be confused by what they saw today. The same goes for their white counterparts, slaveholder, abolitionist, or just plain citizen.
You write of being inspired by Harriet Tubman saying that her story is taught as a good-girl fable but it is anything but. Why is it important to portray a fictionalized version of Tubman with some less than desirable characteristics?
Nobody is perfect. Tubman was a magnificent woman of extraordinary courage and brilliance, of that there is no doubt. But our legends ought to be less than perfect. It makes them more human and likeable.
Why do you think American’s need mythology? “We need it. We pay for it. We want it to run free”? By exaggerating the characters in the story are you inferring that the slaves also needed mythology to give them hope?
Nothing of the sort. Slaves needed religion, spirit and music to give them hope. Everyone needs a little mythology. Jesse James is considered by some to be a great American mythic figure. If I recall correctly, he was also a slaveowner and was responsible, at least in part, for the shooting death of an 11 year old who happened to be standing on a corner while he and his men were robbing a bank. If he were alive today, he’d be a fixture on America’s Most Wanted. Americans need mythology because mythology is one way of selling hype, beer, cigarettes, booze, soap, detergent, skin products, somebody else’s version of history, and toothpaste. I’m not against those things. In fact, I just brushed my teeth. But we need to see what’s real and what is not.
Reading Song Yet Sung is, at times, like reading a meticulously written wild plant guide of the area. How much research did you have to do in order to get all those plants and their descriptions accurate in the story?
I spent months down there on the eastern shore. But I never ventured onto an oyster boat that went out onto the Cheseapeake Bay. I even took a course on how to build an oyster boat down there. But I’m afraid of the water, and the Cheseapeake is serious business.
You write lyrically and with rhythm to your words. As an accomplished musician, what impact do you think your musical background has on your writing style.
There’s probably some improvisational quality to my writing, but I don’t think about it. However you can get to the mainland. The characters write the book. You just follow them along.
What message do you want people get out of your book?
We’re all the same. No one is perfect. In every era we are faced with difficult moral choices. Everybody remembers slavery differently, but I feel pretty certain it wasn’t like Gone With The Wind. It was a complex web of relationships that lasted over 250 years. That’s a long time.
What does it mean to you to have Song Yet Sung be chosen as the book read by an entire town?
I think it’s great. Hopefully it’s too late for anybody to change their mind.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I can’t think of a thing, which is my usual condition.
About James McBride
James McBride is an award-winning writer, composer, and saxophonist who tours with his 6 piece jazz/r&b band. He served as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton and the PBS television character “Barney.”
McBride’s first novel, “Miracle at St. Anna,” was called “searingly, soaringly beautiful” by The Baltimore Sun and became a major motion picture directed by acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee. His memoir, “The Color of Water,” is an American classic read in high schools and colleges across America.
As a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People, and The Washington Post, McBride has also contributed to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. He received the 1997 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award as well as several awards for his work as a composer in musical theater.
McBride studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and is Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.
About the author:
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).
And you better believe, I’ll be in the audience when James comes to visit.