In The Good Lord Bird, James McBride portrays abolitionist John Brown as seen through the eyes of a former slave boy disguised as a girl.
What is it about pre–Civil War America that draws you?
There’s a romantic quality to that era I’ve always found attractive. It’s ripe for storytelling. Every time I see something about the Wild West, I’m reminded that our version of history may not be what really happened. I wanted to attack the myths that exist with a fresh perspective.
Why did you re-create legends like Brown and Frederick Douglass?
The book is meant to be a kind of tragicomedy parody of the past. It’s not meant to accurately reflect everything that was said and done. I’m sure Frederick Douglass wasn’t chasing a 12-year-old girl/boy around his sitting room while drinking bourbon, but, like most men of that era, he had some antiquated views about women. It’s fun to show how these characters might have acted.
Why such flawed heroes?
I think heroes who are not flawed are not believable. John Brown was clearly flawed in real life. He did some terrible things, but he did some things none of us would have had the heart to do. His moral leanings were unquestionably admirable. As for the narrator, I wanted it to be a kid, to speak with a child’s innocence, but with the maturity and guile of a trickster—an old coot who’s seen and done it all. I’ve known many of those in my life: my stepfather, my uncles, old men who could really spin it out. Some of their stories were yarns, but they were so funny. I wanted to put this guy in a position where he had to do a lot of pretending and wiggling to survive.
Was it difficult to keep the humor while writing about slavery?
The whole notion of owning a person is so ludicrous, there’s plenty of room to make fun. Most people didn’t own slaves. I made fun of them, too.
Why did you use dialect?
A lot of that language—that direct Southern telling it like it is in a colorful fashion—I heard as a boy, living down South and even in Brooklyn and Queens, because most of the older people in my world were from the South.
How did the scene of Sibonia’s hanging evolve?
There are several accounts of slaves caught in insurrections, [and] former masters or white friends who can’t understand why. Sibonia shows readers how difficult slavery was for everyone. I wanted to show a heroic woman willing to die for a cause she believed in. I’m sure there were millions like Sibonia. There’s a story behind her name. She’s named after the sister of a friend of mine. In one of the movies I wrote, I named a really bad character after him. I wanted to make it up to him so I named this heroic character after his sister.
And the chaos of Harper’s Ferry?
It was chaotic. It would be like the guy driving a beer truck who stops in front of your house and knocks on your door and says, “You got dogs in the house? I’m going to liberate them right now.” You wouldn’t know how to respond. It was unrehearsed, total chaos. They didn’t know it was history. We never do.