His Novel Sold a Million Copies. James McBride Isn’t Sure How He Feels About That.

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When people ask the author James McBride what he does for work, he tells them he’s a saxophone player.

In a sense, that is true enough. He runs a small music program at a church in Brooklyn and spends much of his time playing the tenor and soprano sax in the basement of his New Jersey home, which he’s soundproofed so the noise doesn’t bother his neighbors.

But McBride, 66, makes his living as an author — and right now, that living is very good. His latest novel, “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” which follows the Black and Jewish residents of a Pennsylvania town in the early 20th century, hit a milestone: Since its release last summer, it has sold more than a million copies. Most authors are lucky to sell 10,000 books.

McBride, who has written eight books, has found success before. His novel “The Good Lord Bird” won the National Book Award. “Deacon King Kong” was an Oprah Book Club pick and a New York Times best seller. His debut, “The Color of Water,” a memoir about his white Jewish mother, Ruth, got off to a slow start but began spreading by word of mouth once it was out in paperback. Eventually, it sold more than 2 million copies.

But sales as fast and robust as McBride is seeing now are vanishingly rare, especially in the world of literary fiction. And while he is certainly grateful for his success, McBride does not seem all that comfortable with it.

“You’ve been David all your life, and you become Goliath,” he said, sitting at a worn, wooden table in his kitchen. “Your life changes when you become Goliath.”

McBride grew up in Brooklyn and Queens with 11 siblings, on precarious financial footing “just short of welfare,” he said. His mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, raised her children taking advantage of free cultural events in New York City and free lunches at school. As adults, her children became, among other things, doctors, professors and teachers.

His mother, an Orthodox Jew, was born in Poland as Ruchel Dwajra Zylska and raised in Virginia. At 17, she left home and found her way to Harlem, where she converted to Christianity and married a Black minister, Andrew D. McBride.

His parents founded the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in their living room on Hicks Street, McBride said. He still teaches English as a second language there every Saturday and runs the music program. (McBride’s father died while his mother was pregnant with him.)

“My first book was about me, unfortunately,” he said. “‘Because of ‘The Color of Water,’ I became the Black Jewish Guy. And what do I know about that? I can’t even balance my checkbook.”

Since then, his books have all been about other people, mostly imagined.

McBride learned to be a novelist, he said, by being a reporter. After graduating from Oberlin College, where he threw himself into playing jazz, he worked as a journalist at newspapers including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

“You learn to walk into a room and smell the room, eat the food, count the room,” he said. “You just draw the story out of the room. That’s what journalism teaches you.”

That reporter’s instinct has stayed with him. McBride spent months in the South doing research for “The Good Lord Bird” and went on several trips to Pottstown, Pa., so he could write “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store.”

“The greatest thing about him is his interactions with people on the street,” said Patrick Strzelec, a sculptor and friend of McBride’s. “He’ll talk to everyone and pull information from them somehow.”

McBride has been a working author for about 30 years, but the success of “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” has been extraordinary. Kristen McLean, the executive director for Circana Books and Entertainment, said sales of this magnitude generally come from memoirs by exceptionally high-profile authors, or the release of a new book in a popular series.

“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” by contrast, found its success in large part through support from bookstores, McLean said. The novel was chosen as the best book of 2023 by both Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and was supported by independent stores, as well. And then there’s the strength of the novel itself, which is a story of justice, love and community that has resonated with readers, she said.

“There are writers who are interested in story, writers who are interested in character, writers who are interested in place and writers who are interested in voice,” said Jake Morrissey, McBride’s editor and an executive editor at Riverhead. “He manages, either by intention or by some other alchemy, to be able to hold all four of those strains in his hands at once.”

Despite his accomplishments, McBride’s tastes remain sensible and pragmatic. He lives in a small city in central New Jersey in a brick house that used to be a grocery store. He likes cars, but he doesn’t buy fancy ones — his current ride is a white Chevy Bolt. He has an apartment in Brooklyn, so he has a place to stay while teaching at New York University, where he is a writer in residence, but his apartment building is a simple brick co-op without fancy amenities.

Even his garden skews toward common sense. McBride said he likes to grow broccoli, tomatoes, kale and potatoes. But not flowers. “All the practical stuff,” he said.

His home in New Jersey is packed with instruments — a grand piano dominates the living room, and a drum set and an electric bass guitar keep the saxophones company in the basement. But aside from the music, his house is mostly quiet, and he said he misses the busy family life he grew up with. His children are grown and he is divorced; his partner lives elsewhere in New Jersey.

There are stacks of books and papers on his scuffed wooden desk, beside a typewriter with green keys that he’ll sometimes use when feeling stuck. McBride says he reads mostly nonfiction, though recently, he has been into John le Carré. He likes le Carré’s voice and his narrative power, McBride said, but he also read his memoir and a biography because he was curious about the man.

“Here was a guy who was really successful. Super successful. Far more successful than I am,” McBride said. “I just wanted to see if he was happy, you know?”

McBride is grateful if still a little surprised with the freedom success affords him — he said he was somewhat baffled that he could afford to soundproof his basement so he could play his saxophone more freely. But he is, all the same, suspicious of the distraction that public literary fame can become.

“I’ve always steered clear of the hubbub of the business,” McBride said. “Because it doesn’t help me do my job.”

And that, he said, “is to listen to people.”

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