When I arrive at James McBride’s office in Hell’s Kitchen, the recent National Book Award winner for fiction is living it up, mopping the floor of the small workspace. His last three books, a co-writing credit on Spike Lee’s film Red Hook Summer, and a whole bunch of music have been achieved between these four walls — that’s a lot of history.
McBride plays with history a lot in his work, but he points out that he’s never really studied it; rather, he just likes “anything that’s got a good story in it, anything that’s got some bump and dirt, some funk in it.” That bump, dirt, and funk have helped make him one of the most talked about novelists of 2013. His smart and funny novel, The Good Lord Bird, also helped sell FX executives on the idea that his 2008 novel, Song Yet Sung, would make for a good miniseries. It has, undoubtedly, been a banner year for the author, but he takes it all in stride. “You can’t plan for these kinds of things,” he says contemplatively. “They just happen to you in life, and if you’re smart, you’ll enjoy it when it happens and don’t look for it to happen again.”
Success and praise have come McBride’s way before, especially with his 1996 memoir about his family, The Color of Water, which told the captivating story of his upbringing at the hands of his strict mother, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who married McBride’s father, an African-American reverend who passed away a few months before his son’s birth. That book spent two years on the New York Timesbestseller list, but it has taken McBride close to 20 years to write a bona fide hit novel. His previous attempts earned him critical praise, but The Good Lord Bird‘s National Book Award win will surely convince more than a few readers to go back and see what they missed. “Awards help,” says McBride, an admission that sets him apart from the writers who would (perhaps disingenuously) tell you medals and accolades don’t mean anything.