James McBride's works, from his best-selling memoir, "The Color of Water," about growing up mixed-race, to his National Book Award-winning novel, "The Good Lord Bird," explore the lives of African Americans. His new book, "Five-Carat Soul," a story collection that features, among other characters, Abraham Lincoln, continues on that theme. In a phone interview from his home in Lambertville, N.J., McBride talked about race, writing, politics and how music has shaped his work.
Q. You write almost exclusively about black lives and black characters. Do you feel a responsibility to do that?
A. Black writers are in a tight space already. You're a black writer first. It's like Obama — he wasn't just the president. He was a black president, although his mother was white. My mother was white as well. I do want to illuminate the lives of African Americans, which most people see from behind the wheel of a locked car or through Fox TV. The men aren't all thugs, and the women aren't all fat. People aren't throwing molotov cocktails at cops. Everyone isn't sitting around listening to hip-hop with their pants around their asses. That's just not true. Black life is as diverse and as wonderful as white life. My stories show that kind of humanity, because that's really the world I live in.
Q. Does your writing feel more political in the age of Trump?
A. I try to avoid politics because I think it's just a way of labeling someone who is different. Obviously I'm alarmed by our current political situation. We've reached a kind of McCarthy era, something I thought I'd never see. On the other hand, I personally need some relief from the hatred that is pinging from Washington all the way across the country. And just because you yell the loudest doesn't mean you're the smartest. It means you just yell the loudest.
Most of my characters: they don't yell, they don't scream. They don't curse, by and large. They're good people. And you know what? Good people don't have to be boring. The really interesting parts of life are the parts we are not witness to. Because the man who decides to shake his neighbor's hand, or help him cut the grass, they're the true heroes. Only with disasters like the one in Houston are we able to see our humanity. So these stories give me the room to breathe. Fiction offers some relief from the drudgery of sitting on the third rail of race, where most of us sit or avoid. Fiction allows us to dream. Without dreams what do you have? Fiction gives you real hope.
Q. Why have you dedicated the book to Sonny Rollins?
A. We became friends earlier this year; we talk about once a week, and we talk for hours. He's 87, and he's still learning. We talk mostly about the bigger picture. What he really taught me is that it doesn't matter how good you write, it doesn't matter how good you play or paint, it doesn't matter what kind of job you have, or what kind of business you create. There's a bigger story. There are multitudes behind us that are expecting us to do the right thing. It's been a wonderful friendship. And you know — who wouldn't want to talk to one of the greatest living jazz legends in the world?
Q. You're also a musician. How does that influence your writing?
A. Music requires a certain level of technical expertise. If you're going to improvise in jazz, your knowledge of harmony and theory has to be even deeper than that of a classical player. You don't need to use them all the time; you just need to have them in your pocket. In that regard, jazz does help. Music also gives you the capacity to hear different voices in different keys in different settings. Any good writer can do it, but maybe music allows you to hear it and instill it with a little more zing and punch and humor.
Carole Burns is the author of "The Missing Woman and Other Stories," which won the Zacharis Award from Ploughshares.
By James McBride
Riverhead. 320 pp. $27