Bibliophiles: James McBride on music, narrative, and reading on subways

James McBride has published a best-selling memoir and won the 2013 National Book Award. His new novel is titled “Deacon King Kong.”
James McBride has published a best-selling memoir and won the 2013 National Book Award. His new novel is titled “Deacon King Kong.”Handout

James McBride describes himself as a storyteller, whether he’s playing saxophone or writing. Doing the latter, he’s published a best-selling memoir, “The Color of Water,” and won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction with “The Good Lord Bird,” a comedic retelling of the life of abolitionist John Brown. His new novel, “Deacon King Kong,” opens with a shooting in Brooklyn in the summer of 1969. McBride, who toured with jazz legend Little Jimmy Scott and has written songs for Anita Baker and others, teaches a music class for kids at a housing project in the same Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. He is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

BOOKS: What are you reading?


MCBRIDE: For pleasure I’m reading Ann Petry’s “The Street.” She’s a black writer from the 1940s. I read it when I was a young man. I recall some tragic stuff happens, but it opens with a young woman trying to find a place to live in Harlem. I just ordered Lionel Shriver’s “So Much for That.” I read “Property” by her not too long ago. I don’t agree with her politics but she’s a very fine writer. She’s very cynical, which comes through in her work.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

MCBRIDE: I’m not a big fan of a novelist unless they really bring skills to the game. Otherwise I stick mostly to history and nonfiction. There are nonfiction books that are written like novels, like Taylor Branch’s histories of the civil rights movement. Another big favorite of mine in nonfiction is William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” I’ve read it several times. It’s appropriate to where we are now, more so than when it first came out.


BOOKS: Who are the novelists you turn to for craft?

MCBRIDE: The first would be Herman Melville. The last three chapters of “Moby-Dick” are the most exciting chapters of fiction I’ve ever read. E.L. Doctorow and John le Carré are two others. If Doctorow is Sonny Rollins, le Carré is John Coltrane. Doctorow never plays the same song twice ever, like Rollins. Like Coltrane, le Carré has so much technical masterfulness he can do the form to the extreme.

BOOKS: When did you start reading nonfiction?

MCBRIDE: In college. I read Amiri Baraka’s “Blues People,” which is still one of the greatest books about music. Then at Columbia we read “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses. That was fantastic and groundbreaking. A lot of books in the late ’70s and early ’80s didn’t have the narrative force that nonfiction writers today have. There were only a few, such as “The Autobiography of Malcom X” and Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes,” which was the first book to make politics exciting. I’ve seen nonfiction evolve over my life.

BOOKS: What books on Black American history do you recommend?

MCBRIDE: Leon F. Litwack’s “Trouble in Mind’ and “Been in the Storm So Long.” Litwack is my number one Black historian guy.

BOOKS: Were you always a big nonfiction reader?

MCBRIDE: No. I loved novels when I was younger, by writers like James Kirkwood and Kurt Vonnegut. I must have read “Welcome to the Monkey House” 10 times. I loved Beverly Cleary stories and William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy.” Ralph Ellison and Toni Morisson’s “The Bluest Eye” were big hits when I was younger. But the biggest was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That remains a great novel despite the whole renewed interest into why the n-word was used in it. I’m not interested in that kind of stuff, just the big picture.


BOOKS: Did the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd influence your reading?

MCBRIDE: I faithfully read three papers a day, and I stopped doing that because it got to be too hard. I live the story. I don’t need to be reminded of the story I’ve been living all my life.

BOOKS: What kind of reader were you as a kid?

MCBRIDE: I read an enormous amount. We didn’t have anything to eat but we had a lot of torn-up paperbacks that went from one set of hands to the next. I come from a very large family. You had to learn to read with noise or park yourself in a closet somewhere or sit outside on the steps. I read on the bus and the subway to school. I still can’t ride the subway without having something to read. I’ll actually get off to get something to read and get back on. I’ll pay twice.


Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland, the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane,‘‘ can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.