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James McBride discusses the themes in his new novel, 'The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The National Book Award-winning author James McBride has a new novel out today, "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store."

Like much of McBride's work, it's rooted in race, religion and personal history.

Jeffrey Brown turns the page for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Rehearsal for a musical called "Bobos." Make that a would-be musical.

Novelist and musician James McBride actually wrote it 35 years ago, and it's since done nothing, no productions, zero success. But McBride is unfazed.

James McBride, Author, "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store": I just can't let it go, in part because I think it's good.

And, also, I don't mind failing. Writers, most of what we do fails. And that's the lesson that writing teaches you. I tell young writing students all the time, fail, and fail better.

Jeffrey Brown: By that and pretty much any standard, the 65-year-old McBride, who lives in Lambertville, New Jersey, has been failing quite well.

He's author of five novels, including "Miracle at St. Anna," made into a film by Spike Lee, and "The Good Lord Bird."

Ethan Hawke, Actor: My name is Captain John Brown. And I'm here in the name of the great redeemer.

Jeffrey Brown: The irreverent Take on the abolitionist John Brown that won the 2013 National Book Award and was later made into a Showtime series.

He's also written a biography of singer James Brown and the bestselling 1996 memoir "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother," the story of his white Jewish mother, Ruth. Ostracized by her family for marrying a Black man, she converted to Christianity and raised her 12 Black children in New York, much of the time on her own.

McBride's new novel, "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store," began with the story of another family member, but one he never knew, and only learned about later in life, his grandmother.

James McBride: My grandmother was Jewish. And my mother was Jewish, of course, but my grandmother, I never met. She died in 1942.

But I wanted -- and she died. And she was an immigrant from Poland. And she had a very unhappy marriage. And I wanted my grandmother to be -- to have a wonderful life. I wanted her to be loved. So I wrote a book in which she was loved, and I made her loved.

Jeffrey Brown: So this became a kind of alternate life of a grandmother that -- who you didn't really know?

James McBride: That I never knew, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Through fiction.

James McBride: Through fiction, yes, yes.

Fiction is magical that way. Fiction allows your dreams to come true.

Jeffrey Brown: Like his own grandmother, McBride's main character runs a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood. He's grounded his fiction in a real place and time, Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1930s and '40s.

James McBride: This is the notebook that I -- that I keep notes in, that I have all kinds of Jewish faith, Friday night, can't touch money.

Jeffrey Brown: Combing through archives and local histories, he took notes about the largely Black community of Chicken Hill, with a mix of Jews and other immigrant groups, all facing levels of discrimination and antipathy by the surrounding white majority.

James McBride: Everyone was just kind of trying to stay in their own lane, but it was impossible because of outside influences.

And so, in that regard, Pottstown is a represent -- it's my Mayberry. Mayberry was where Andy Griffith was, and everyone was happy, and all the folks were white, and everything was good old America, which is just fiction.

Pottstown, my Pottstown, my Mayberry, which is Pottstown, is real. It's much more real. It's much more, in my opinion, accurate in terms of its depiction of American life.

Jeffrey Brown: McBride has always grounded his life in music, often tying it to his writing, as when he toured the country with his Good Lord Bird Band, when that book came out. He's also taught music to children at New Brown Memorial, the Brooklyn church his parents founded in 1954.

His art, he says, explores big themes in American life, including race, but always through characters he creates who live and survive on the margins, like the people he's known and loved.

James McBride: If you're a writer and you're writing about race, the best thing you can do is forget about it and deal with the humanity of characters. You know what the boundaries are.

Now you have to see which characters can kick up against those boundaries or illuminate those boundaries, so -- to make your story go. So I look at it from that point of view and also from the point of view that cynicism is like -- cynicism in a story is toxic. You have to really have a desire to see the good in people, to them push past their boundaries.

Jeffrey Brown: An openness to who they are.

James McBride: An openness to who they are, because they will lead you into a story that shows you good stuff.

And so I'm trying to get these characters to move to show readers, in a way that's not boring, that this history is important. Someone came here before you. And, believe me, it's going to be OK. Watch what he or she did.

Jeffrey Brown: That sense of hope amid adversity clearly comes from his mother, who died in 2010. And the story McBride told in his memoir has remained a touchstone for many, as mixed-race families have become more common.

James McBride: When my mother was -- married my father and had us, and we'd go on the subway and so forth, people would call her names.

Like, I remember, one time in the subway, and somebody went at her calling her N-lover and all this crap. And we got off the train. And, later on I said -- I said: "Ma, why do you -- why do you -- you can't let people talk to you like that."

She said: "Their names can't hurt me. I'm happy. I just -- what -- did you do your homework? Where is your homework?"

She didn't care. She already -- her world was good. Self-definition is the first step towards self-control and peace. Now, that journey is difficult, I agree. And I have been through it. But, ultimately, the best way to be happy in that regard is to just appreciate everyone for who they are.

Jeffrey Brown: Read in that light, "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store," weaving together characters from different backgrounds, is James McBride's latest appreciation of the lives lived just below the surface of American history.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Lambertville, New Jersey.

Amna Nawaz: That's a great line. Fiction allows your dreams to come true.

Thanks to Jeff Brown.

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