From His Mother to “Miracle,” McBride Talks To Fordham Students


Bestselling author James McBride spoke at Fordham on April 15. (Kathryn Feeney/The Observer)

Published: April 22, 2010

“Go to school, do good, make some money, try not to hurt people’s feelings, never hold a grudge and get started with life,” said James McBride on April 15 to a packed Atrium of professors and students.  The author moved from topic to topic without missing a beat and imparted wisdom that would prove valuable to any Fordham student, especially future authors.  McBride, who wrote both “The Color of Water” and “Miracle at St. Anna,” appeared at Fordham as part of the Reid Writers of Color Series.Arriving to applause from all corners of the Atrium on Thursday afternoon, McBride deadpanned, “You like me. You really like me,” before joking that [he was] going to read from his book for the next four hours. While he often spoke humorously, he also spoke at length on his own literary career, focusing on his memoir, “The Color of Water.” The book, which is the story of his upbringing with a Jewish mother and an African-American father, hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list and is used in many school curriculums.  One of its most noted factors is how McBride includes his childhood and his mother’s childhood both from their respective points-of-view.

“The more I learned about my mother’s experiences, the more I felt they were reflective of my own in many ways,” McBride said in an interview with the Observer before the event. “Every 15 year old is ashamed of their parents to some degree. Every teenager doesn’t feel like they fit in. We’re not that different unless we choose to believe that we are.”

His mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, forms the centerpiece of “The Color of Water,” almost making it more her memoir than his.  It was only through dozens of interviews that he was able to convey her voice from her point of view in the novel.  Ruth passed away at the age of 88 on Jan. 9 of this year, leading McBride to create a moving tribute and obituary on the front page of his Web site.  While she had shown a “my son, the writer” type of pride over McBride’s success during her life, he recently saw just how proud she was of him when going through her effects.

“A lot of the effects that she had were stuff that I had gathered for her or she’d gotten that were reflective of my work. I was very touched by that.  She had my college degree, my master’s degree.  She had all my papers I had never really paid much attention to.”

One of the main aspects of the novel is the subject of interracial relationships, which was far less accepted in the 1960s and 1970s than today.  McBride thinks that race relationships, both for interracial relationships and in general, have improved greatly since the time he was a child.  In fact, he thinks America is too hard on itself in some ways.

“I think it’s better for mixed race couples and mixed race people. I think we’re better than most countries. We really should be proud in many ways of what we’ve managed to do,” McBride said. “We have a ways to go but we’re doing pretty good.  You don’t see the Brits electing any black presidents and they’re our forefathers.”

Although many of the questions Fordham students had for McBride concerned “The Color of Water,” he often used his answer as a jumping- off point to discuss writing in general. One of the best techniques  he mentioned to writing a great novel—research, research and more research. According to the author, once you get past finding out all you can about the book’s subject, the writing should come naturally.

“God is in the details when you tell a story.  Writing is not that hard, but unless you’ve done your research, you don’t have anything to load your weapon with. Research is like gunpowder that goes down the muzzle of the old Civil War rifle.”

When asked for advice about writing, McBride used his experience as a professor at New York University to offer knowledge on the subject. As a Writer-in-Residence, he makes it clear to his students that they most likely won’t hit their stride until their 30s or 40s. They are required to write for him in longhand and then rewrite everything that they hand in as well. As for computers, forget about it. According to McBride, they just allow fake books to be published.

“The problem with writing on a computer is that you write the first paragraph, then you spellcheck it, then you start inserting. Barnes & Noble and Borders are full of gigantic inserts.  That’s just a waste of trees.  The form of the book will show itself eventually if you have enough information and if you’re servicing the characters properly.”

While the main focus of the day was on “The Color of Water,” McBride also discussed another of his well-known novels during his interview with the Observer. “Miracle at St. Anna,” released in 2003, is the story of four African Americans in the U.S. Army’s segregated 92nd Division during World War II. Throughout their story, they find themselves in a remote Italian village, trapped between the German army on one side and their racist commanding officers on the other.

The novel was turned into a film in 2008 by Spike Lee, after McBride created a screenplay of his book. It received many positive reviews from critics such as the Boston Herald and Roger Ebert but only grossed $9 million, less than a quarter of its budget. McBride was ecstatic over the film adaptation and the chance to work with Spike Lee but also discussed the difficulties in translating a full-length novel into a two-and-a-half hour film.

“Films are not books. You’re going to leave a lot of your babies on the floor. You just want to know, what are the deep moral questions that we’re trying to get to and what characters are going to best serve those questions being served to the viewer. Everything that’s on screen is a result of those questions being served in some way.”

Many students were very pleased with what McBride had to say and were impressed by his blatant honesty.

“I thought he was pretty straight-forward. He didn’t mask anything and he tried to relate his experience to our own,” Anthony Giudice, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’10, said. “It was about general life experience, not just his.”

“I appreciated that he didn’t have a set plan for what he was going to say,” Ray Saada, FCLC ’11, said. “Given how personal “The Color of Water” was, his honestly was very consistent between his writing voice and his speaking voice.”

While many students were happy, not everyone agreed with the author’s personality and mannerisms, especially his blasé response to signing books at the end.

“I felt like he didn’t want to be there and was just obligated to go because of the Reid Series,” Dominick Chiarenza, FCLC ’10, said. “His answers to everyone’s questions were very insightful and thought-out, but his reaction to the book signing pushed out his true sentiment.”

As time passed and the event neared its end, McBride left the crowd with some advice on getting the most out of college and out of life.  While some of what he said was just straight-up guidance, he ended on a story about an old woman he lived with during his early adulthood.

“Don’t let fear decide what you’re going to do for a living. If you do that, you’re making a terrible mistake. The best thing you can do for yourself when you leave here is have fun. Join the Peace Corps. Teach in St. Louis for two years. Leave New York and have fun.”

“When I went abroad, I lived with this old woman. She lived through the First World War and the Second World War. She said to me, ‘I have always done what I wanted to do and I have never been sorry.’ That’s what you want to be able to say about yourself.”