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Anisfield-Wolf: James McBride Returns To Brooklyn With New Novel

James McBride has won the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction for his novel "Deacon King Kong." [Chia Messina]
James McBride has won the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction for his novel "Deacon King Kong."

Author James McBride is the first person to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. In 1997, McBride won the non-fiction award for his memoir "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother." This year he won the fiction award for his novel “Deacon King Kong,” which is set in McBride's hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

Specifically, it’s set in the South Brooklyn neighborhood known as "Red Hook," where McBride's mother and father founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in 1954.

New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in South Brooklyn. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

Ideastream Public Media caught up with McBride at his family's church to discuss his award-winning novel.

On church experiences that influenced “Deacon King Kong”

Church is a funny place, you know, it's a public place. It's a public neighborhood place, so you get everything that happens in the neighborhood at a church, you know, you get the good and the bad. You get the good people who you'd run through a brick wall for who are truly Christian. And you get the people who show up every Sunday who don't really do anything but show up. You get troubled people. You get happy people, you get everything. You get a bit of everything. So, all the life experiences that I've had, you know, some of them were in this building, I got married where I'm sitting. On the other hand, you know, I had plenty experiences in other places. I've been all around the world, you know, but I still feel comfortable here. I feel like this is my home.

James McBride inside the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

On book’s dedication, "For God's people - all of 'em."

I don't like to write stories, nor do I like to read stories and say, "Here, take your medicine. This is bad," because, I know. I don't need to know how bad things are. I know it. I'm living. But, I like to write stories that make people laugh and illuminate things a little bit, make them feel like, "OK, somebody else is out there trying to do something good," you know? But in terms of the dedication at this point, I've reached the point in my life where I just get up in the morning, and I write, you know, go at it. More often than not, nothing good comes out. But you just do it until something good happens.

James McBride works with music students at New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

On writing “Deacon King Kong”

For me, the characters in “Deacon King Kong” are different and it's very... they are as different and varied as white people when they are in their Catholic Church or Jewish temple or whatever, wherever they worship, or at the mosque or whatever they might worship. They're all unique. And my job as a writer is to serve the uniqueness by showing the reader how special each one of them is in their own way without judgment. Because when there is judgment in writing, when there's judgment, there's no journey. And good writing is all about the journey.

On challenges of writing a novel

In some ways when you walk through a bookstore, a lot of what you see is just a waste of trees because people feel they can they can write a book. But a novel is really, it's kind of a wish. It's kind of a magical thing that you hope happens when you sit down to write. And so, you call on everything you can to make it go. And you find that most of what you know doesn't work. Just a small sliver, a sliver, just a small slice of it works, 10 percent of it, and even then, usually you are using too much. The trick really is to cut the fat off the story and get to it. And that happens when you allow the characters to move around. In the case of “Deacon King Kong,” certainly a lot of the inspiration for it comes from being born here and spending time here, continuing to work in the church as a grown man, it helps. But ultimately, you're driven by your desire to make the world a little bit better and make people understand just a little bit more about things and people that they might not necessarily know that much about.

James McBride [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]

On receiving his second Anisfield-Wolf Book Award

I have a lot of respect for [Dr. Henry Louis] Skip Gates, because he's done a lot for the literary community and Anisfield-Wolf has done a lot for me because it was the only award that I ever won back in the day when nobody knew who I was. It was the first award and was the only one for years. And now, of course, you know, I won all sorts of prizes and awards. But this one is special for me, because it, it's kind of coming home. And it also, it means that I wasn’t a flash in the pan and it's a way of me acknowledging that the awards’ faith in me was not misplaced.

Ideastream Public Media's Mary Fecteau and Shelli Reeves contributed to this report.

Get to know more of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners Thursdays during the "Sound of Ideas" on WCPN Ideastream Public Media.

Celebrate all of this year's winners in a TV special airing Sept. 14, 9 p.m., on WVIZ.


Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.