James McBride
Photo Credit: Chia Messina

James McBride


James McBride is an accomplished musician and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Color of Water. His second book, Miracle at St. Anna, was optioned for film in 2007 by Black Butterfly Productions with noted American filmmaker Spike Lee directing and co-producing. McBride has written for the Washington Post, People, the Boston Globe, Essence, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. He is a graduate of Oberlin College. He was awarded a master’s in journalism from New York’s Columbia University at the age of twenty-two. McBride holds several honorary doctorates and is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. McBride lives in Pennsylvania and New York.

James McBride

James McBride



A Conversation with James McBrideAuthor of Miracle at St. Anna


Q: How do you describe this story?A: Miracle at St. Anna is the story of a Negro soldier in Italy during World War II—a member of the 92nd Infantry (Buffalo) Division—who befriends a young Italian kid he finds on a battlefield. As a result of their meeting he ends up in a small village in the mountains of Tuscany with three other men from his squad. There they encounter a miracle. Like my first book, what it’s really about is the commonality of the human experience. The Color of Water explored that commonality through the real-life story of my mother and my siblings and how we came to fruition as successful adults through her persistence and faith in God. Miracle at St. Anna explores the same subject through the journey of two human beings who, on the face of things, have nothing in common: an illiterate black soldier from the American south—a colossus of a man—and a six-year-old Italian boy who has lost his memory after witnessing a horrible atrocity. In fact they are both innocents. And they are both victims.Q: Do you classify this as a “war story?”A: I do not. The war simply serves as a backdrop for the human drama that takes place in the relationships among these four Negro soldiers, the six-year-old boy, a group of Italian partisans, and the Italian villagers. Italy was a fascinating place during that time. The Italians suffered terribly during the war. The ramifications of those years still reverberate throughout the country today.Q: One of the heroic characters in Miracle at St. Anna is a German soldier. How did this part of the story evolve?A: The book was inspired by a true event that happened in the area where the 92nd Division fought—specifically, a village called St. Anna di Stazzema. St. Anna was the site of a massacre of more than 500 Italian civilians by members of a German SS unit. What I discovered, in researching that incident, was that there were several German soldiers found among the Italian dead, apparently shot by their own comrades when they refused to participate in the mass killing. That hit me very hard. Given what the German army was, and what the SS was, and given the level of cultural indoctrination that existed in Germany at the time, it had to have taken an enormous amount of courage for these men to discard their entire history as soldiers and Germans and face death rather than participate in an atrocity. These real-life events underscored one of the key themes of this story. Namely that in war we’re all victims—soldiers and civilians alike—regardless of nationality.Q: In what way did you draw inspiration for this story from your childhood?A: Several of my family members were veterans of WWII including my uncle Henry, who fought in Italy and France, and my cousin, Herbert Hinson, who also served in the 92nd. When I was a kid I used to hear them, and other family friends who were veterans, swap war stories. Uncle Henry would talk about the Italians and the French and how much they loved the American soldiers. He used to say we were kings over there. I don’t remember much of what they spoke about because as kids we’d just tune it out. And of course I never saw anything about black soldiers in the war mythology of television and film that I worshiped as a kid. Nevertheless the subject still interested me when I became a professional storyteller.Q: Did discovering your Jewish background add to your interest in the subject?A: In coming to terms with my own “being” as a person of Jewish heritage I found myself much more sensitized to the events of World War II then ever before. I also learned that my mother had two or three cousins who died in the holocaust. My initial aim was to write a novel about a group of black soldiers who liberate a concentration camp in Eastern Europe. I read lots of books and spent a lot of time researching the subject but soon came to the realization that I’m not qualified to write about the holocaust. It’s too much. It’s too great. Even if you were to bite off the smallest bit of it, the poison within is so mighty that you can’t absorb it because it’s simply not absorbable. That’s when I began to come to grips with the fact that I was trying to write much more than a war story—I was trying to write about pain and suffering and liberation. In other words I was seeking to write about the commonality of the human experience that existed in Europe at that time. That’s when I thought back to the war stories I had heard as a kid about the 92nd Division.Q: How did you research this book?A: I started the research process in 1996 right after The Color of Water was published. I just sucked up whatever information I could find. I was like a sponge. I read roughly 25 books about the war in Italy. I interviewed dozens of 92nd Division vets from all across the country. I even traveled to Italy with some of them when they went back for a reunion. I studied Italian at the New School in Manhattan and then spent about eight months in Italy, including a five-month stint with my entire family. While there I interviewed just about anyone I could find including civilians who had survived the war, survivors of massacres, former soldiers, fascists, and partisans including the sons and daughters of men and women who had died during the war and wanted to tell their parents’ stories. Of all the people I interviewed they were the most interesting.Q: Why were they the most interesting?A: Because they were just children at the time. Basically they took up arms against the Germans because they could no longer stand to see their parents suffer and their fellow villagers starve. They were not the equivalent of the hip people in Soho who wear black and cry crocodile tears on Martin Luther King’s birthday. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain except their freedom, which is not a small thing. They basically fought the German army with toothpicks and a resolve of spirit that’s almost impossible to imagine. They hiked into the mountains where they lived in caves or outdoors for days and weeks at a time while trying to sabotage the German forces that had invaded their country. It’s easy now to say “I would have joined up too,” but anyone who’s seen those mountains in Italy at night, like I have, would think twice about leaving the comforts of home, however much of a shambles that home may have been, to go out and fight an enemy who had repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to kill you and your entire family should you resist.Q: How has history treated the African American soldier of World War II? And what’s the biggest misconception people have about black servicemen from that era?A: The biggest misconception is the they weren’t as patriotic as whites and that they didn’t serve in any great number. Clearly that’s not the case. The 92nd Division alone was made up of roughly fifteen thousand men. Many people also think that blacks only served as cooks, quartermasters, truck drivers, orderlies and the like. Anyone who thinks tha


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Little Onion is headed for the big screen! Deadline.com announced last week that Riverhead author James McBride will produce the screen adaptation of his National Book Award-winning novel The… Read more >

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