James McBride's Advice For New Writers: 'A Simple Story Is The Best Story'

Feb 29, 2020
Originally published on February 29, 2020 8:21 am

"In the real world, villains too often succeed and heroes, too often die," says writer James McBride — and that's one of the great things about being novelist. "In novels you can move matters around ... you get to show the best side of people. You get to show redemption, and forgiveness, and you get to show the parts of people that most of us never get to see."

McBride's new novel, Deacon King Kong, opens with a shooting, then soon moves — improbably, memorably — into laughs, love, quirky and compelling characters, and the connective tissue of human experience in multiracial Brooklyn in the summer of 1969.

"At the beginning of the book, an old deacon who's affectionately known as Sport Coat gets drunk ... and goes out into the plaza of the housing projects and shoots the most ruthless, notorious drug dealer in the housing project ... " McBride explains. "It's a place where, you know, but you can't blame someone for doing something stupid, because it's a stupid world."


Interview Highlights

On the setting of his book — September 1969, in the Cause Houses, a south Brooklyn housing project

Sixty-nine was the year the Mets won the World Series. ... Brooklyn was the unknown borough. New York was in the process of being diced and sliced up by Robert Moses, who dropped expressways everywhere and just destroyed entire neighborhoods. And so the Cause Houses is part of that whole process of metamorphosis that takes place in New York during that period of time when people had to connect with each other. You had your Italian Americans, and your Irish-Americans, and your Jewish Americans, and your black Americans, and your Hispanic people — people were forced to get along. ... It made Brooklyn in particular a really interesting melting pot.

On what doesn't make it into the headlines

For every act of violence that you read about, there are 10, or 20, or 30 acts of kindness and and goodness and, you know, just reasonable behavior. I've often felt that one of the things ... most people don't understand because they drive by neighborhoods like this and see them only from behind the wheel of a tightly locked car, is that people, really, they should be a lot madder than they are. ...

I still work in my old housing project in Brooklyn. I run a music program there. I'm there every week. And I must say ... I admire my students and their mothers, and in some cases their fathers, and in some cases the cousins who are raising them. These are my heroes. And so I wrote a book about my heroes, really.

On Sport Coat — the "king of the projects"

How many of us know that that drunk who ... gets drunk at 20 and dies at 80? ... I've known many like him over the course of my life. He's ... lovable, good natured. He's the uncle who comes to the house at Christmas every year and pulls out his teeth ... This is our family, and family is oftentimes, you know, funny and rude and just ridiculously out of place, but they're still family. And so he's kind of the king of the projects. ...

King Kong [in the title] is a homebrew, a rotgut kind of drink — joy juice, booze — that Sport Coat enjoys drinking. So his nickname is ... Deacon King Kong.

On the church in the novel

I've been to church a lot in my life. And it was a pleasure to be able to create or recreate a black church that's funny and not ... you know, just the stupid stereotypical jokes. But a place where there's a lot of heart, a lot of fun, a lot of forgiveness. It shows the dimension of a feeling and thought that exist in the black church — and also a lot of the humor.

I force my students to write in longhand every week. Double space. No computers. ... Because you edit in your mind when you write in longhand. - James McBride

On the guidance he gives his NYU students

I tell them that a simple story is the best story, and that time and place is really crucial to good storytelling. Establish your stories in a specific time and place and get your characters set solidly within that framework before you let them start moving from one room to the next. And that's not as easy as it sounds. ...

I force my students to write in longhand every week. Double space. No computers. ... Because you edit in your mind when you write in longhand. ... You have to really shape your characters properly.

On writing the stories we don't see

When I was a kid, my mother told me about the time my sister got lost at the circus in New York in Madison Square Garden. ... She said out of the throng of people, suddenly after looking for a long time, she said a cop just appeared and he was holding my sister's hand — she was a little girl. My mother never forgot that picture in her mind. We never see those stories about each other. And I think the writer who wants us to have a better life must take on the responsibility of showing us those kinds of stories.

Sophia Boyd and D. Parvaz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

James McBride's new novel opens with a shooting and soon moves - improbably, memorably - into laughs, love, quirky and compelling characters and the connecting tissue of human experience in the multi-racial Brooklyn in the summer of 1969, just after humans landed on the moon and Dr. Martin Luther King was lost to an assassin's bullet. His new novel, "Deacon King Kong." And James McBride, author of the classic memoir "The Color Of Water" and his novel "Good Lord Bird," which won the National Book Award for fiction, and is also a winner of the National Humanities Medal and distinguished writer in residence at NYU, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted to be back.

SIMON: There's no mystery about who pulled the trigger in this one, is there?

MCBRIDE: No, no. We catch him right at the time.

SIMON: Can we explain that a bit?

MCBRIDE: Sure. At the beginning of the book, an old deacon who's affectionately known as Sportcoat gets drunk on some rotgut and goes out into the plaza of the housing projects and shoots the most ruthless, notorious drug dealer in the housing project. And that's how the book gets started.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's hear how different people in the community see this shooting, or how they try to justify it. Could you read a section from near to the top?

MCBRIDE: Sure. (Reading) Sportcoat had rheumatic fever, declared Sister Veronica Gee, the president of the Cause Houses Tenant Association and wife of the minister at Five Ends Baptist Church, where Sportcoat had served for 15 years. She told the gathering that Sportcoat was planning to preach his first-ever sermon that upcoming Friends and Family Day at Five Ends Baptist titled, Don't Eat the Dressing Without Confessing. She also threw in that the church's Christmas club money was missing. Quote, "But if Sportcoat took it," she said, "it was on account of that fever." Sister T.J. Billings, known affectionately as Bum-Bum, head usher at Five Ends Baptist Church, whose husband was the only soul in that church's storied history to leave his wife for a man and live to tell about it - he moved to Alaska - had her own theory. The mysterious ants had returned to building nine. Sportcoat, she said grimly, is under an evil spell. There's a mojo about.

SIMON: Nobody seems to recoil in horror at the crime.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) Well, this is the Cause Houses, where anything goes. And it's a place where, you know, you can't blame someone for doing something stupid because it's a stupid world.

SIMON: The Cause, as they're called, the projects in which so much of the story takes place, is its own character, its own protagonist in many ways. Could you tell us about that place and that time?

MCBRIDE: You know, '69 was the year the Mets won the World Series. And New York was a different time. Brooklyn was different. Brooklyn was the jungle. Brooklyn was the unknown borough. New York had - was in the process of being diced and sliced up by Robert Moses, who dropped expressways everywhere and just destroyed entire neighborhoods. And so the Cause Houses is part of that whole process of metamorphosis that takes place in New York during that period of time. You had your Italian Americans and your Irish Americans and your Jewish Americans and your Black Americans and your Hispanic people. People were forced to get along. And so it made Brooklyn, in particular, a really interesting melting pot.

SIMON: Terrible things happen in the Cause, but people look out for each other, don't they?

MCBRIDE: That's true. And that's how it is in most places where poor people live. There's a trust. There's a - there's an understanding that no one really knows what it's like in here, but we do. And so we do our best, you know? One of the things that poor people really don't express well and that most people don't understand because they drive by neighborhoods like this and see them only from behind the wheel of a tightly locked car is that people really - they should be a lot madder than they are. Look. I still work in my old housing project in Brooklyn. I run a music program there. I'm there every week. And I'm - I must say that people, they - I admire my students and their mothers and, in some cases, their fathers and, in some cases, the cousins who are raising them. These are my heroes. And so I wrote a book about my heroes, really.

SIMON: Yeah. Sportcoat - OK, he drinks too much. I mean, I - but, you know, I don't want to know him by his drawbacks. Let's put it that way. You do find yourself inspired by him in a way, don't you?

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, you know, how many of us know, you know, the drunk who gets drunk at 20 and dies at 80?

SIMON: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: And I've know many like him over the course of my life. He's a lovable, good-natured - he's the, you know, uncle who comes to your house at Christmas every year and pulls out his teeth and then, you know, (vocalizing) and then puts them in his mouth and gets drunk, you know? These are people who - these are - this is our family. And family is oftentimes, you know, funny and rude and just ridiculously out of place, but they're still family. And so he's kind of the king of the projects.

SIMON: Yeah. I don't want to give away too much of the story, but everybody gets a chance to be their best selves. Would that be fair to say?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I mean, one of the nice things about being a novelist is that in the real world, villains too often succeed, and heroes too often die. In novels, you can - you get to show the best side of people. So you get to show redemption and forgiveness. And you get to show the parts of people that most of us never get to see. Remember my - when I was a kid, my mother told me about the time my sister got lost at the circus in New York in Madison Square Garden. And she just - she said she looked all she could. She said out of the throng of people, suddenly, after looking for a long time, she said a cop just appeared. And he was holding my sister's hand, you know, she was a little, little girl. My mother never forgot that picture in her mind. We never see those stories about each other. And I think the writer who wants to have a better life must take on the responsibility of showing us those kinds of stories.

SIMON: James McBride. His novel, "Deacon King Kong." Thank you so much for being with us.

MCBRIDE: Oh, delighted. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIBUTE TO NUJABES' "TIME TRAVELLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.