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James McBride Says Fiction Writing Allows Him More Freedom

If you've ever marveled at someone's ability to reinvent himself, then James McBride is an artist for you. He is an accomplished musician — a saxophonist — but the world was introduced to his writing more than two decades ago, with his intimate memoir The Color of Water, a Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, which won world-wide acclaim. And then he moved on to fiction, winning the 2013 National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird. Then just last year, he wrote a biography of James Brown called Kill 'Em and Leave.

Now he has a new work, Five-Carat Soul — and, you won't be shocked to find out, it's a new format for him: A collection of short stories that features a remarkable range of characters, from an obsessed vintage toy collector to a talking lion to a formerly enslaved little boy who thinks Abraham Lincoln is his father. "Abraham Lincoln is my father," jokes McBride, who describes his jump from nonfiction to fiction as "a great crossing ... because fiction is more where I live, and it's more creative and allows me a lot more freedom."

Interview Highlights

On what unites this group of very different stories

I like things that make me laugh, so I just created these stories, basically, to escape from my life. And to be an artist, creative in every genre, I think you have to preserve a little bit of your innocence. So for example, the story about the lion in the zoo in Washington, D.C., I actually wrote when I took my two nephews there to see the zoo, and they were so depressed when they left that I created this story about a lion who talks about his life, and he's funny, and he talks about how animals speak to each other.

They were so depressed, seeing the animals in cages — and you know something? I was depressed too. I don't want to insult anybody, but I don't really see the necessity of keeping an animal in a zoo. If you want to see an animal, you can go where the animal lives. if I was a Martian, or something, and I came to this planet and saw how people live, I just wouldn't understand it.

On whether he feels a particular mission right now, given our current divisions

No, I've been writing like this a long time, and I think you have to leave evil where it is, and evil will eventually eat itself alive. When I feel bad about what's going on in the world, I just teach harder. I teach kids in my housing project, they run a music program. I just believe in solutions. I'm not interested in talking about the problem. There will always be problems of race in this country — we've been having the same conversation now that we had when I was 18 years old, and I've long ago learned to tune it out.

I'm sorry, I'm no longer interested in trying to be nice about what is right, because that doesn't work.

You know, when DuBose Heyward wrote Porgy, which became Porgy and Bess — he was considered a really great writer. No one said he wrote about race. They just said, this is great ... but when a black writer writes about something that involves race, it suddenly becomes a race story. But these stories are all about human beings. The labels that we give each other really, if you want to be a good writer, you have to learn to look beyond that ...

Me personally and professionally, I haven't been that outspoken about race and class, partly because it's in my work, but in part because I don't want to get hate mail. I'm sick of trying to talk to people. I don't think you can change people. I think people have to be forced to do the right thing, so I'm not interested in trying to change people's opinion. I can illuminate, and you can see if you like. And if you can't see it, then just go buy the next book. But I'm sorry, I'm no longer interested in trying to be nice about what is right, because that doesn't work.

This story was edited for radio by Marc Rivers and Jennifer Liberto, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.