James McBride's sentences move like music. They flow with the rhythm and grace of a gifted Jazz musician, dipping here, soaring there.
McBride's lyrical prose shouldn't come as a surprise — he's an accomplished musician who studied musical composition at Ohio's Oberlin College. Add to that a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and it's no coincidence his work possesses a potent synthesis of expression and craft.
The product of a biracial family — his mother was a Polish-born Jew; his father was a black minister from New York City who died before he was born — McBride's books investigate issues of race, religion and identity with an insight few are able to achieve. The 50-year-old author's latest novel, Song Yet Sung, tells the story of Liz Spocott, a young, beautiful runaway slave a decade before the Civil War in Maryland's eastern shore, home to the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Incisive and deeply affecting, Song Yet Sung finds McBride in the same stellar form that made his well-received memoir, The Color of Water (1996), and its follow-up, the novel Miracle of St. Anna (2002), such indelible works. (The former has sold 1.5 million copies and Spike Lee is adapting the latter into a movie.)
CityBeat recently spoke to McBride in-between stops on his book tour.
CityBeat: As in your previous novel, Song Yet Sung weaves both real and fictional characters into the narrative.
Why are you interested in using that approach?
James McBride: I don't know. That just seems to work. I'm trying to create believable characters, and believable characters are usually based on some semblance of reality. And also the characters in all my books are ambiguous. Some are good people who do bad things, and some are bad people who do good things. They're very much like us, and in order to create those kind of characters you have to sip from the well of reality. If you don't sip the well of reality the work doesn't stand up. That's just my opinion. There are other writers who may disagree. Stephen King sips from the well of reality and he sips from the well of science fiction and horror, and his books work and his characters work. My formula might not necessarily be correct, but it just so happens to work for me.
CB: Identity is another of your signature traits. Why are you so fervently interested in investigating the idea of identity in your work?
JM: I think identity is the big one. It's the big question we all share. It's in all of our hearts and minds. You know, ¨What am I? I'm a fill in the blank.' If God asks you what are you, you say ¨I'm an American, I'm a white person, I'm black person, I'm a Latino.' What do you write in that space if God were to ask, ¨What are you?' You'd be more inclined for God to answer that for you. I personally think that identity drives a lot in terms of how human beings behave and what they learn to appreciate. So I include those elements in my work often.
CB: While set in the 1850s, the book also seems to comment on contemporary issues via Liz's dreams. Why did you decide to inject that aspect into the narrative?
JM: I always ask myself what it would be like if a slave was dropped into America now, and what would he or she think of everyone, not just black people. What would a slave who's dropped into 2008 think of white people? What would they think of someone like Rush Limbaugh? You couldn't describe him to someone from 1850 — he sits in a box and talks. On the other hand, how could you describe someone like 50 Cent to a slave? So it seemed to be a ripe area to drop in a little bit of social commentary that was not necessarily negative but enlightening.
CB: In the past you've said that you don't think there's much of a link between music and writing, but don't you think they require similar innate skills?
JM: When I asked Spike Lee the other day what filmmakers inspire him he said he gets his inspiration from music, which I thought was pretty interesting. I don't really get my inspiration from music because I play it, so for me it's the difference between driving an SUV and a pick-up truck.
CB: In a practical sense I agree with that, but the writers I like have a certain flow and rhythm to their work. It's almost like listening to music.
JM: Well, you're my favorite kind of reader, and I'll shine your shoes and get you a haircut when I see you. If I started to think about it that way, I wouldn't be able to get the characters to move from one chair to another in a room. I think some of it is just a stylistic way of moving your story along. I understand what you're saying. I think it should have some sort of rhythm or lyricism to it once you're in the flow, but it's really hard to get to that flow. I could probably point to passages in the book where it was bumping along so good that it was like Bridget Bardot in her prime, man, making coffee for Richard Burton or whoever the hell she's making a movie with at the time (laughing). You know what I mean? But it's very rare on a first draft that I get to the level of sweeping prose that I like to try to create. It usually comes in draft four or five. Once in awhile, though, I'll hit the artery and just mainline it and get it good, but it doesn't happen that easily for me.
CB: The book obviously deals with a troubling period in our country's history. Given the events of recent years — the issues of torture and various other scandals — do you think America is losing its moral compass?
JM: Somewhat, a little bit. But I like what (Barack) Obama represents. I think Obama's great. If I could vote for him 100 times, I would. He's a straight-talking politician who tells jokes and who's not afraid to say hello to a Republican. I'm tired of the nonsense. We've lost our way a little bit, but America is a very resilient place. We are a nation of revolutionaries, that's who we are, that's how we were founded. We've lost our way a little bit these last seven or eight years, but I think that we'll bounce back fine whether it's Obama in the White House or anyone else.
JAMES MCBRIDE discusses and signs Song Yet Sung at 2 p.m. Sunday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.