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James McBride Stays In Tune

James McBride's debut stands as one of the most acclaimed and treasured family narratives in contemporary literature; seven years after its publication, the story continues to find and astonish new readers by the tens of thousands. "The Color of Water [will] make you proud to be a member of the human race," Mirabella fawned.

James McBride In the double memoir, McBride braided his upbringing as the eighth of twelve siblings raised in Brooklyn's Red Hook projects with the remarkable story of his mother. A rabbi's daughter, born in Poland and reared in Virginia, Rachel Deborah Skilsky headed north to New York on her own as a teenager, fell in love with a black man, founded a Baptist church that still stands today, and sent each of her twelve children through college to careers as doctors, chemists, teachers, and artists yet none of them knew so much as her maiden name until they were grown.

A jazz saxophonist and composer whose credits include songs written for Anita Baker and Grover Washington, Jr., now McBride offers his first fiction. Six years in the making, Miracle at St. Anna finds four Buffalo Soldiers stranded deep in the Italian hills, behind enemy lines, hiding among the residents of a small Tuscan village and one very special, orphaned child.

Inspired by tall tales shared by his proud uncle Henry, a World War II veteran, and supported by exhaustive research that included interviews in America and overseas with surviving soldiers from the 92nd Division as well as residents of St. Anna di Stazzema, "McBride creates an intricate mosaic of narratives that ultimately becomes about betrayal and the complex moral landscape of war," The New York Times Book Review cheered.

"Searing, soaringly beautiful," raved The Baltimore Sun. "The book's central theme, its essence, is a celebration of the human capacity for love."

Dave: You're a writer and a jazz musician; you're the son of a black father and a white mother. Now you have a book that's being sold with two completely different covers.

James McBride: Well, why not? My goal is to be able to fill out one of those forms that asks Who are you? and be able to just put "Human being," you know? None of this stuff really matters.

Essentially, I'm a storyteller, and I make my living by telling stories, be they music or nonfiction or fiction. Miracle at St. Anna has different covers because I thought, and the publisher agrees, that different people read books for different reasons. A lot of people are not interested in stories in which they don't see themselves. From my perspective as a writer, I'm not writing to any audience — I'm writing to the reader — but if putting different covers on the book makes more kinds of readers think they'll see some of themselves in it, fine.

Really, Miracle at St. Anna is about the commonality of human experience: how these people from different cultures come to see themselves as one. If having two covers helps get more people to read it, fine. If it doesn't, okay. The way the market is now, it's hard for any kind of good writing to rise to the top, no matter what it's about.

Dave: It's a war story that's not exactly about war. It's tells the story of four black soldiers in World War II who become stranded in the Italian hills. The bulk of the novel takes place while they're waiting among villagers to be rescued.

McBride: It would be nice if we redefined what we meant by "war story." If you're making $15,000-a-year living in a certain area of Portland, trying to make it with three kids and no husband, that's a kind of war. It's a kind of war we really don't talk much about in literature or in real life, partly because you need to really get inside it in order to tell the story from the inside out, to have enough bone in it. You have to either live it or be part of it in order to give the reader the kind of detail that will make it go.

I needed a place where the framework of society was more or less removed. And I also needed a barren landscape in order for these miracles to take place. Italy seemed like a good place for it. But this is not entirely by some grand design of mine. It's just what happened, what was in the air. The story took that direction and I followed it.

Dave: The Tuscan village wasn't your original focus.

McBride: Originally, I wanted to write a book about a group of black soldiers that liberate a concentration camp in Hungary, but after researching it I just didn't feel qualified to write about the Holocaust. So I started writing a book that was similar to Miracle at St. Anna. I wrote the first three chapters, and they were rejected by my editor. I discarded them and did a lot more research before trying again. You know, I discarded a lot of stuff before I handed it in. There are times I want to discard everything. That's the process, painful as it is.

Dave: When did it start coming together for you? Was there a scene or a character that created momentum for you to move forward?

McBride: I started this book in late 1996, and I knew I wanted to deal with a really big guy who was sweet and innocent and kind, but I didn't know who he was. It took me four years before he actually showed up.

It was in July of 2000 that the story started to have some arc in my mind. Around then, I was lying in a hotel bed in a town called Barga, which is near Lucca. I was looking at the Mountain of the Sleeping Man, and I saw it: I saw the mountain, and I saw which way the story could go. This character that I'd imagined finally started to come to life. That's when he started to crystallize. Some of the other characters died when he came to life, and some peripheral characters were resuscitated.

When I write, I'm looking for the five or six dramatic points that can connect in some way to give the story its initial arc. Once the characters arrive, at least in fiction, it changes everything. It can change the entire landscape. But in terms of putting together that so-called braided narrative, I look for those dramatic points and the underlying message I'm trying to deliver, which is sort of the connective tissue that hits each of the dramatic points. That came when I was in Italy, doing research and talking to a lot of Italians as well as a bunch of Buffalo Soldiers who were there, being honored by this village. That's really when Sam Train came to life.

Dave: Was there ever any compulsion on your part to write a nonfiction account of the events at St. Anna di Stazzema?

McBride: No. For one thing, a nonfiction book about the 92nd Division has been done already. But also, we get so much of our history through mythology, so what I was trying to do was create a mythology that people would read, particularly young readers, so that the myth of the World War II G.I. would no longer be just your basic wisecracking kid as played by John Wayne on the 2:30 Sunday movie.

It's not my style to write a history book, partly because a history book is going to say, "They were treated so badly, and this is why." You're proving a thesis, and that kind of stuff is not my style. I'm a storyteller, not a historian.

I knew the 92nd Division was treated poorly. And I knew that the disorganization and mistrust rampant during the war was going to be there. Racism today is in many ways reflective of the racism that was present in 1944; it's no different from the racism that existed in 1844 or 1544, for that matter. It's all the same kind of hate, whether it's white versus black, Protestant versus Catholic, Muslim versus Jew. Hate has the same result, no matter who the participants are. So when I read the history and learned about it from many of the living participants, I wasn't surprised by what I heard. I was dismayed by some of the things I heard, but not surprised. I don't think writing a history book about this would take people to a new place.

Dave: And now you're back on the road, promoting the paperback release of Miracle at St. Anna, but I would assume that a lot of the questions from your audiences are aimed at material from The Color of Water.

McBride: Yeah. They're still interested in me.

Dave: Which isn't likely to change, given the continued success of that book.

McBride: It'll never go away, but it's not the worst thing that can happen to a person in his or her life. I just go with it. Sometimes it can be boring for me to answer questions about a place that I was so many years ago, physically, metaphysically, and spiritually, but I understand that people are curious. I try to do my best to satiate their curiosity.

Dave: If you were growing up now, do you think you'd have the same opportunities? Would your chances be better or worse? I'm curious because I know you spend a lot of time now as a public speaker, particularly at schools.

McBride: It's a good question. One of the reasons I do what I do is because I think it has a lot of effect on young people, and they need all the help they can get.

If I were growing up now I'd probably be in jail, the kind of kid I was. There was no crack when I was in high school. Heroin was around some, but crack wasn't. Crack is so much more accessible, and the drug culture today is so much stronger than when I was a teenager. So in answer to your question, I think it's harder to be a young person now.

There are so many different ways that young people can get screwed up. Television is a much more powerful influence now than it's ever been. We have to do the best we can to keep young people from floundering. There's always a big discourse about how to get young people to read, for example, but if the parents aren't doing their job, it's an uphill battle, period.

I'm lucky I grew up when I did. I'm very concerned about my own children, knowing what the world is and what exists for them out there. I don't think we've given our young people a lot to aspire to, in terms of our own behavior as adults.

Dave: Growing up, did your family seem unusual to the people in your peer group?

McBride: No, by and large, with the exception of a few knuckleheads, my mother was not only accepted in the black community but also respected and admired by black mothers. Why? Because black mothers want the same thing for their children that white mothers want: to do well in school, to be good kids, to go to church, and so on. She had all these kids who didn't bother anybody, who took care of each other, you know? You knew that if one of her kids was coming to visit one of your kids they weren't going to cause trouble. (Unless it was me or maybe one or two others!) But we were known as a family that took care of ourselves. If you messed with one of us, there were several others that you would eventually meet up with. That's how it was. It was a city.

Often the subtext of questions I hear is: "How did she raise these black children in the black community?" Black, black, black...It's almost like, "How did she raise these Martians?" The stereotypical image of what Black America was and is, as opposed to what it really is, are really two different things completely. It's sort of like when it's snowing outside. You look on television, and they say, "It's going to snow. We're going to have black ice out there. Get your milk and your cookies and all that stuff because we're going to get eight inches. Eight inches is coming." Then you turn on the television a little later, and they say, "Looks like it's going to be seven inches, but it's still coming. Any time now." By the time you finish seeing this and reading about it in the newspaper, you don't want to go outside. It's the same with Black America: When you read about it and you see it on television, the blacks and Latinos depicted are exaggerated caricatures. People see a movie like Training Day and they think all black and Latino America is like that.

One of the reasons I wrote Miracle at St. Anna was to show that just because four black soldiers are sitting in a village in Italy doesn't mean that they all agree on what to do or they all agree about why they're there.

Dave: In fact they agree about almost nothing.

McBride: Anybody who believes two black people agree on anything ought to visit a barbershop in Harlem sometime.

I was working in a newspaper one time, and I was walking down a hallway with two other black reporters when an editor came up and said, "Don't you guys conspire to do anything wrong!" It didn't occur to him that we were talking about a baseball game or whatever it was. But that's just how people think, unfortunately. And you can suspend a reader's disbelief, but it's very difficult to change their inward prejudices and stereotypical beliefs. With young people, it's possible. With older people it's not as easy.

Dave: When I was in the store earlier today I noticed that bell hooks has a new book about self-esteem in the black community [Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem]. Do you recommend other books along these lines to readers, or do some titles come up repeatedly in conversation?

McBride: People bring up all kinds of books with me in conversation, but most of them I haven't read. I just finished reading Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. I read history books sometimes, but I don't read that many.

With all due respect, bell hooks is certainly much more knowledgeable about these things than I, but I don't need a book to tell me about self-esteem in the black community. In fact I don't need a book to tell me about self-esteem in any community. It's real easy. A first-grade teacher in a white suburb of Portland can tell you all you need to know about self-esteem: If a child's getting love at home from a parent that cares about him or her, a parent that is tuned in to what that kid needs, self-esteem issues can be worked through. Easy.

I'm not talking about bell hooks or anybody else, but the intellectual fluff and puff that exists about these problems in society...I have no interest at all. And I don't talk to other writers about their ideas about the fluff and puff of American society. Ninety-eight percent of that is bullshit. Who's doing the work? Who's going out to talk to these kids? Who's spending elbow grease on the problem? The rest of it is just book sales and t.v. commercials as far as I'm concerned. It's no different than someone selling soap on television.

Dave: You still have connections to Red Hook, where you grew up, right?

McBride: I'm going to Red Hook on Monday, when I get back.

Dave: What will you be doing there?

McBride: There's a Martin Luther King Day celebration that we're taking my kids to see. And we're taking my mother to visit her best friend there. My godmother lives there, and her church has a service on that day, so we'll go to the service.

I still do some things in Red Hook, but since I moved to Pennsylvania it's harder for me to get back. I sponsor a community day that the church puts together every year. There are some kids in Red Hook that I try to be around for; I try to mentor them. I do what I can, but it's not enough. There are a couple high schools in New York that I'm involved with now.

If I wasn't a father with three kids of my own, I would be much more involved in Red Hook than I am, but ultimately my responsibility rests with my own personal tribe. At one point I tried to start a marching band in Red Hook, but it takes so much time, and you have to be there. I live almost two hours away now. I have a one-year-old, a nine-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a wife, so it's tough. Once I get the kids out the door and into college, maybe I can go back. There's still a lot of road ahead.

Dave: You compared writing to music. You're a storyteller either way, but the two forms are so different. I can put together words in some kind of meaningful order, but I couldn't for the life of me write music. I love listening, but I have no ear whatsoever.

McBride: Hey, I know musicians like that.

Dave: Is music more purely spiritual for you? Less intellectual than writing?

McBride: Well, if you've ever heard anyone play the blues right, you can see why someone would want to play the blues rather than sit around with a bunch of writers yapping about writing. It's something that I happen to know because I was always involved with music as a kid. I played in church and so forth. I came up with jazz and blues and gospel as part of the vocabulary in my house.

There was a point after The Color of Water came out that I was so busy I couldn't play at all. I had no time. I was touring with the book. That was a pretty unhappy time. It was the first time in my life when I went for months without playing anything. It was good because it showed me I could live without it, but I wasn't happy without it. So I got back into it. I just finished a jazz record with my band, and I'm mixing it now. We do about three weeks worth of gigs a year. I go and speak, and we play afterwards. It's nice. I get to travel with musicians and the focus isn't all on me and my life and my words, as if I really know what I'm talking about.

It's become so much a part of my life. It is a kind of storytelling, but you can say things in music that you can't say verbally or as a writer, and in some ways they have a deeper impact. Songs are in many ways the lighthouses of your life. They're markers. You can remember the song you heard when you fell in love, the song that was out when you had your first car....

It's a powerful medium that works for me in terms of expressing myself, but what boggles my mind is that here I am, a writer, and I have a hard time expressing what music is, because it's a completely different language. It's beyond words and that's good. What do you need to know about music if you just listen to John Coltrane play? He's beyond explanation. And you could say that about the right kind of Jethro Tull song. It doesn't matter. If it touches your soul, it works.

Recently I was listening to a very famous jazz clarinetist on public radio, and a very famous broadcaster was explaining the music to me, the listener. The broadcaster would say, "In this part of the song, the clarinetist is playing the part of the serpent." And the clarinetist would say, "Yes, I'm playing the part of the serpent." I said to myself, "Why would I want to listen to this? Just put the song on, man! I'll figure it out. I don't need you to lead me through. This is not Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra playing Vivaldi. Just play the music. I'll work it out on my own."

Dave: What music have you've been wearing out lately?

McBride: I've been listening to a lot of Edith Piaf lately. And Don Byron, a clarinetist. He's a friend of mine. I went to school with him. He's a bad cat. Great composer.

I've been listening to Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Band. Frank Sinatra is a great singer. And when he was with the Basie band, the swing was out of this world. Listening to Sonny Paine on drums he could write a book. Sonny Paine was a real storyteller. You listen to Frank Sinatra singing "My Kind of Girl," you listen to him sing "she walks like an angel walks," and you hear Sonny Paine dramatize that whole business of her walking like an angel.

The nice thing about rap music and I know people give rap a bad rap good rap that's straight ahead and deals with truth really gets to the point and takes you places, just like a good book will. And it's all valid. It's no more or less valid than Def Leppard or Henri Salvador, the French singer. It's all storytelling.

Dave: What do you want to do now? What's your next story? More music? Another book?

McBride: I'm working on a new book about jazz, but it hasn't really crystallized yet. It's been an interesting time for me. The Color of Water was such a successful book it didn't just sprint out, but it gradually became more and more popular and now with Miracle at St. Anna I really have to work to get people to read it. It's a different audience.

People want you to write the same book over and over again. They're waiting for The Color of Water, Part Two. There will never be another Color of Water. It's given me pause in terms of thinking about the publishing business as a way to live. I'm lucky. I happen to be able to make a living at this, but there are so many bad books that become bestsellers and so many good books that nobody's ever heard of. It makes it difficult to get up in the morning and do your job.

How can we expect our society to grow and develop into the America we want it to be if bestselling books don't take us anywhere? It's not going to happen. We're not going to grow as a society unless we're reading books that deal with thought and reason and discourse, and take us places that help us grow. Maybe this was the lament in the twenties, too, but I don't think in the twenties you had so many bad books with beautiful covers. We need an awakening. We need to unProzac ourselves.

If you're not going to say anything to people that gets them through the day and comes from your heart and has some kind of spirituality, you shouldn't do this. You have to live honestly. When I run out of good things to say to people, that's when I'll stop writing.

James McBride visited Powell's City of Books on January 16, 2003. He signed our Wall of Fame ("Peace, Love, and Truth—James McBride") and promised to send us a cheesecake upon returning home.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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