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

James McBride is also the author of <a href="">The Color of Water</a><em> </em>and won the National Book Award for Fiction for <a href="">The Good Lord Bird</a><em>. </em>He's shown above<em> </em>in Paris on Sept. 23, 2015.
Joel Saget
AFP via Getty Images
James McBride is also the author of The Color of Water and won the National Book Award for Fiction for The Good Lord Bird. He's shown above in Paris on Sept. 23, 2015.

"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.

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.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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