James McBride

in conversation with Susan Orlean

Recorded July 29th, 2020

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James McBride in conversation with Susan Orlean
Wednesday, July 29, 2020

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James McBride’s Deacon King Kong was already one of the most celebrated novels of the year – before it was selected by Oprah Winfrey as her Oprah Book Club Pick.  “In a moment when our country roils with righteous anger and grief,” Oprah says, “Deacon King Kong reminds us that when we come together as a community in compassion and empathy, our love triumphs.”

James is an award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, published in 1996, has sold millions of copies and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Considered an American classic, it is read in schools and universities across the United States.

His debut novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was turned into a 2008 film by Oscar-winning writer and director Spike Lee, with a script written by McBride.

His 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, about American abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award for Fiction and will be a Showtime limited series in fall 2020 starring Ethan Hawke.

James has been a staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine, and The Washington Post, and his work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His 2007 National Geographic story “Hip Hop Planet” is considered an important examination of African American music and culture.

A noted musician and composer, he has toured as a saxophonist sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott, among other musicians. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Pura Fé, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” (He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney, but he wishes he did.) He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical Bobos, co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ musical tour was filmed for a nationally televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. He often does his public readings accompanied by a band.

In addition to being an author and a musician, James has other attributes. He admits to being the worst dancer in the history of African Americana, bar none (he claims he should be legally barred from dancing at any event he attends). And when he takes off his hat, fleas fly out. Little things, little talents.

A native New Yorker and a graduate of New York City public schools, James studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his master’s degree at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. In 2015, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

“You have to choose between what the world expects of you and what you want for yourself

– James McBride

Get ready to join James in conversation, Wednesday July 29th.

In the meantime, we invite you to take a moment now to help shape this upcoming conversation.

Check out the list of questions submitted by other registered attendees, and then vote to support any that match your interests.

Feel free to add your own question. Then spread the word to make sure others have the chance to help move your question to the top of the shared list.

  • 5

    votes

    A recurrent theme in Deacon King Kong seems to be the many aspects of “knowing and not-knowing,” what is unknown (where the treasure is, where the Xmas box is, who sent the cheese, why Hettie walked into the water), being known by others (some characters really know others intimately, others remain unknown), the intersection of knowing, love, and trust; communities that know their members in a deep way (the Cause) and those who don’t (the cops). Can you amplify what undergirds your interest in the many meanings of to be known?

  • 4

    votes

    How did you get the idea for “Deacon King Kong”? Did you know how the story ended before you began writing?

  • 3

    votes

    When you were a kid what was your favorite book?

  • 2

    votes

    Who are some of your favorite authors, whether fiction or non-fiction, and have they influenced your writing?

  • 2

    votes

    You toured with Jimmy Scott!!!! Can you talk about what it was like to work with him? And to listen to him night after night?

  • 2

    votes

    A National Humanities Medal by President Obama! Come on! What does THAT feel like??

  • 2

    votes

    What do you want your fiction to do for your readers? Does what you want for your readers change with each book?

  • 2

    votes

    I think “Kill em and Leave” is one of the best books about race in America that I’ve ever read. What do you think about how great that book is now! (It’s great!).

  • 2

    votes

    Deacon King Kong deals with death and danger and loss, yet it felt almost like a fairy tale to me in the way Neil Gaiman’s books do. That is, yes, our world is often a miserable place where we are mistreated and make decades-long mistakes, but mysterious forces can bring about redemption in odd places and imperfect heroes are the most effective ones. How do you see the magical forces at work in your fiction, where is that hopeful bright thread drawn from?

  • 2

    votes

    In previous interviews about The Good Lord Bird, you said you were “funnin” with John Brown and Frederick Douglass. The trailer for the upcoming miniseries The Good Lord Bird makes Brown seem simply like a nutcase and fanatic. Are you concerned about that given that racist forces in this country have always sought to discredit him?

  • 1

    votes

    Your book, The Color of Water, is one of the most gorgeous books I have ever read and it has inspired me at so many levels. Can you talk about the ways you struggled with the structuring that book and why you ultimately chose the beautiful structure you did, or were there other structures you had considered? Your love of your mother really comes through in this book and yet you are able to write critically of her as well. How did you walk on that tightrope? Thanks!

  • 1

    votes

    Did your history as a reporter help you to write Deacon King Kong?

  • 1

    votes

    Political prisoner and former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal, has said “Of course, John Brown was crazy—he fought for Black folks–slaves! How crazy is that!? By default… racism becomes the norm.” You’ve said that John Brown was a hero. In your book are you saying, as Mumia does, that it took a crazy religious zealot to begin the Civil War that ended slavery? In 1964, the year of another critical election, Malcolm X proffered it’s either the ballot or the bullet. Do you think it will take another major social upheaval to purge systemic racism from this country?

  • 1

    votes

    Just a few years before the Good Lord Bird came out another book was published with the title The Lord God Bird. Did you and your publisher have a reason for picking an almost identical title or was it just a coincidence?

  • 0

    votes

    Your words about not reading novels strikes a chord with me. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I find more inspiration from works in other literary forms, but also other arts, such as dance, painting, etc. Do you find that to be true for you?

  • 0

    votes

    Do you listen to music while you are writing?

  • 0

    votes

    That are your feeling toward orchids these days?

  • 0

    votes

    I’ve enjoyed a number of your books and you seem to Gravitate toward writing about people with obsessive passions? If that’s true what in yourself does it resonate with?

  • 0

    votes

    I utterly loved The Good Lord Bird, your writing and the depth of your character development. As an aspiring novelist, I would love to hear about your process for developing characters, the structure of your books, anything about your craft process.

  • 0

    votes

    Just wanted to say I loved the Color of Water!

  • 0

    votes

    Did you have role model ‘inspiration’ for Deacon Sportcoat? When did you know that his favorite player would be recovered? redeemed? and play?

  • 0

    votes

    As a writer and a musician, do you reread your sentences to see if the cadence feels satisfactory? I wanted to read all your books aloud because the words are so memorably rhythmic. Thank you.

  • 0

    votes

    Please USE the listeners questions…they are excellent.

  • 0

    votes

    In ‘miracle at St. Anna’ (great movie and story) the character was a postal worker with a European antiquity. In ‘ Deacon King Kong’ there is a postal worker who sends himself European antiquities. That story element seems personal to you. Is it?