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Talking with author James McBride

October 24, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

A conversation with author James McBride, who's book "Song Yet Sung" was chosen for the One Maryland One Book program.

Tell me about the process of researching all this. How did you avoid getting lost in a lot of the details?

I just use the details to help me tell the story that I want to tell. I mean, the character really determines the detail you really need. Character sells plot every time in fiction. If you're following character, you know the Dreamer's not going to get her hair done on Thursday. ... the methodology of research is determined what the characters do.

It could have been really easy to make the Dreamer be a certain thing. I picked up a lot of references to Harriet Tubman, King's speech, but she was a real character.

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How did you go about developing her? Tell me about your process.

I can't tell you what the process was like other than to say every character has to have ambiguity. The stereotypical black character - even by black writers - in slavery is oftentimes not a very healthy character. It's sort of like someone who's this dignified woman who's been through so much pain.

Sort of like the "big mama" archetype, in a way?

It is. It's a stereotype that's really not true. It's not any more true than white women walking around in petticoats that made their butts stick out 10 yards, or that they were all fanning themselves and having grapes dropped in their mouths by servants. On the Eastern Shore, they worked like slaves almost and blacks were slaves. The stereotypical images of what believe existed back then, in my mind, are stereotypes. They just aren't true.

Why do we have these images of what it must have been like for slaves back then?

Just talking specifically about Maryland and the Eastern Shore, the rich write the history. The winners of the wars write the history. Maryland was a place that was deeply conflicted during the Civil War and it had tons of poor people. And it had lots of free blacks and lots of slaves. Most of these people didn't write their history. It's easier to sell a mythology than reality. Reality is a difficult sell because reality contains ambiguity.

And the ambiguity is not easily packed into a two-hour movie or a 350-page book. Not all slaves were good, not all masters were bad. Of course, all slaves wanted to be free, but some slaves were too stupid - I should say, too imprisoned in their minds - to understand what freedom meant. It's a complicated piece, made more complicated by the economic ramifications of slavery and racism.

Speaking of ambiguity, I found very interesting the character of Woolman. What was your inspiration for that character?

I felt like the Woolman was the unknown entity. You have to have a wildcard in a good story. Well, I'll put it this way - it's nice to have one in a good story. A wildcard that you really can't predict. The Woolman kind of falls into that category. There's an innocence to him, yet he's deadly. And he represents a certain kind of freedom African Americans pined for, yet his freedom was absolutely unattainable for anyone.

Even himself?

Sure. Especially himself. He represented a kind of freedom for everyone, really. He was free of societal wars and laws. He represented the kind of purity only Native American people could brag about. He was a tragic figure because he really did nothing wrong initially. As civilization encroached upon him - look, if the Woolman wasn't black and none of the characters were black or white, the story would be a man who lives in the wild and suddenly society encroaches on him. But because we have to have labels and call things black and call people white - we label it on our own version of reality. the book is not about the Woolman, but the book is very much about The Woolman - at least the whole second half of the book, if you look at it in a really deep way.

To change topics, about the Dreamer, What made you want to inject her allusions to the future? What was the message she was trying to get across?

The idea that what kids are reading now. If someone was a slave (and) saw what kids were subjecting themselves to, they would be very disappointed, and I think that crosses all racial lines what we have allowed our young people to absorb and expose themselves to.

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