James McBride, a distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, was presented the National Book Award in Fiction on Nov. 20.
His Civil War-era novel “The Good Lord Bird” was selected from five finalists for the award. Other finalists were Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland,” Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” and George Saunders’ “Tenth of December.”
“I had no speech prepared,” McBride said. “My presiding thought was ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself.’”
McBride, an experienced author who has published other books including “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” and “Miracle at St. Anna,” gained fame in the past because they have been ranked on The New York Times Bestsellers list. “Miracle at St. Anna” was also made into a film by Spike Lee. McBride has also written for numerous publications as a journalist and is an accomplished musician and composer.
In “The Good Lord Bird,” McBride combines the life of the real historical abolitionist John Brown with the fictive story of a young slave named Henry Shackleford.
“Getting to the actual truth of an event is like trying to pull a piece of eggshell out of egg yolk,” McBride said. “You try to stab the darn thing with your finger, pull your finger out, see the thing is still in there and now realize you’ve dropped a bunch of germs in your egg with your finger.”
McBride enjoys the freedom fiction grants. Preferring to keep the egg yolk clean, the author effectively tells the historical story by including bits and pieces from his own imagination.
“Journalism teaches you to see the facts,” McBride said. “Fiction allows you to show what you believe happened behind the facts, without having to actually prove it.”
The National Book Awards recognizes authors of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature.
“Publishers submitted a total of 408 books for the 2013 National Book Award in Fiction,” The National Book Foundation said in a press release. “Five distinguished judges were given the charge of selecting what they deem to be the best books of the year.”
Brian Berkowitz, who graduated from CAS in 2013, was among many of McBride’s former students who sent emails of congratulations.
“When I first heard he won the National Book Award … I smiled ear-to-ear,” Berkowitz said. “I thought to myself ‘There’s a voice people nowadays could really gain from listening to.’”
McBride’s influence on his students has extended far outside of the classroom.
“I was ecstatic when I found out that Professor McBride won the National Book Award for Fiction,” CAS alumna Samantha Gonzales said. “I know of no one who is more deserving of this than him. He’s a great example of not only what a great writer entails, but such a great human being as well.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 2 print edition. Chandler West is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]