A Conversation with Madison Smartt Bell

By Molly Moynahan

One Smart Man

Madison Smartt Bell is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, musician and someone I’ve known with long, intermittent pauses in between, since 1981. A mutual friend who had attended Princeton University with him first introduced me to Madison.  This is how he remembers that first time in Hoboken:

We were at 98 Willow, a kind of sinkhole below the train station, and then a Hispanic ghetto.  Y'all were in the more civilized part of town, like five blocks north.  The building had been built by a photographer with a little apartment on one side and that fantastic studio with a sort of filtered glass barn wall and roof-- amazing but impossible to heat as we didn't have wood for the stove and a lot of glass was broken out anyways.... ah, to be young again!  It was fun no matter what...”

Honestly, while I was initially intimidated by Madison’s intensity and brilliance, he proved to be a supportive and generous fellow artist, blurbing my first novel, inviting me to Goucher College to meet with his creative writing students and introducing me to his agent.

Bell’s Soul in a Bottle, a memoir about contemporary Haiti, Amy Wilentz describes thus: "Soul in a Bottle, Madison Smartt Bell’s memoir of his visits and his commitment to Haiti, is both a rollicking adventure story and a profoundly spiritual enterprise. It offers not just a short testament to its author’s questing mind but also a smart and lucid tour d'horizon of recent Haitian political ups-and-downs, all of it inflected by Bell’s commanding knowledge of early Haitian history.  When you read Soul in a Bottle, you can feel the real Haiti surround you, vivid, palpitating, breathing, and smoldering with ancient energy and contemporary ambitions.”

Bell’s biography is both impressive and eclectic. He is the author of twelve novels. He has also published two collections of short stories. In 2002, his novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and Wyn Cooper, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; Bell's eighth novel, All Soul's Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy,Master of the Crossroadsand The Stone that the Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries.

Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil's Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009.  His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York, London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland.  A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires.  He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003.  At present he is working to complete The Witch of Matongé, a novel as indescribable as The Golux’s Hat.

In preparation for my conversation with Madison, I reread a number of his interviews. In this quote from a piece by Jack Stephens in Bomb Magazine (2000), Bell discusses his treatment of a central figure from the novel All Soul’s Rising:

We’re all human, sure, but different historical circumstances produce a very different mentality. The most extreme case that I’ve dealt with, and the hardest to write initially, is the character of Riau—in terms of being furthest away in his experience of the world from anything I or the reader would be familiar with. Doctor Hébert is much closer to the modern reader’s point of view—I think not anachronistically so (there were people with his brand of rationalist idealism running around in that part of the world), but he does serve as a pilot fish for the reader. In between there’s a whole lot of characters who think and react in terms of their own time as faithfully as I could get them to.”

MM: How do you get them there? Is it possible?

MSB: A good-faith effort is analogous to getting to know someone well enough that you can imagine her point of view.  The less you have in common with that other person the more difficult it is, but you proceed in all the usual ways of getting to know someone.   

The difference for the fiction writer is that you also have to create that person out of your imagination. If the character is distant in time or culture or both then it gets harder (with Riau I relied a lot on history and case histories of both marronage and Voodoo), but, it’s not impossible to get to a place where sympathy/empathy allows you to operate from within the sensibility of the character you’ve invented. Cynics will say all that is illusion, but so what? As fiction writers we are in the business of constructing convincing illusions.

MM: Is it something your readers can handle or understand?

MSB: Hmm, well, any answers to questions about audience tend to strike me as projections into a void, like a flashlight beam trained on outer space, whatever…. Most readers of fiction right now read genre fiction and I imagine they prefer stock characters, just for the sake of reassurance. These are people who want to buy a consistent product (nothing against that, by the way). 

I think readers of literary fiction are there for the nuances of character in very large part. One does occasionally hear some avant-garde sneering about “character-based fiction” being passé—I wonder what the hell else you can base it on?

Those literary readers show up for a credible vicarious experience of being someone else. And, in fact, I think that’s our best defense to Plato’s case against the poets.  Especially now, when in the United States assimilation is no longer a universal goal, when many groups composed of U.S. citizens prefer to preserve their cultural integrity and separateness.

In that situation it’s more important than ever for all of us to improve our ability to imagine the lives of others – and to carry those acts of imagination across cultural, ethnic, religious and racial lines—across all the borders defended by identity politics. The social utility of made-up stories is to improve the reader’s empathic faculty. The less we have that faculty, the more we have hate crimes.  And we do seem to have our share of those. 

Bell is rarely caught bemoaning his fate as a successful writer, which is probably a good thing.  However, in reading his moving memory of his friend, writer Robert Stone, I found this quote:

In the dark watches of the night when I’m looking for some way to justify having spent my whole life trying to make up stories and write them down, it’s usually one of Stone’s books I’ll pull off the shelf, meaning to comfort myself with just a few favorite passages. A day or so later, when I find I haven’t been able to resist reading the whole thing, backward and forward and all the way through, I will finally close it and put it away, thinking, Right, that’s it; that was it all along—the thing that’s still worth trying for.”

MM: Is writing what determines meaning for you, despite fatherhood, teaching, and the work in Haiti? 

MSB: it’s more like, was I right to be a writer instead of a lawyer or full-time body-worker or itinerant musician? I think I do write from psychological need—it feels like an innate trait to me, and, if acquired, that happened very early, from being read to and learning to read when I was just a tween. The drive to publish is a different thing, and lately I wonder… well, an angry blogger wrote apropos of The Color of Night (I happen to think that’s one of my two or three best ever, but that’s another story) words to the effect of –goddammit Madison Smartt Bell gets to publish ANOTHER novel while hundreds of budding writers can’t even get a first one out.

After a flash of irritation I did think, well, dude has a point.  Perhaps I have published enough—I mean I know I have published enough for ego gratification, although I still have stuff to say and I still need to turn a buck with it if I can…. Teaching would feel very dry, I think, if I weren’t writing too, alongside it.  I love teaching students on the cusp of realizing their talent.  But if I didn’t have something parallel going on I wonder if it would feel the same.

As for personal life, family…I need to write to be a whole person for the important people in my life, which is a very different thing from sacrificing those people for the work. In the eighties I used to hear some of my confrères justifying their bad behavior (affairs, usually) by saying ah, it’s all for the work! 

I thought that was inauthentic in the French existentialist sense of the word (not to mention contemptible).  I mean there are artists so desperately driven (Picasso, Malcolm Lowry) that they really can’t behave responsibly to others; the compulsion to create just burns everything down.  But, I’m not one of them and I don’t regret it.

In a April 11, 2011 New Yorker piece, Bell discusses how he experienced an unnerving experience while staying in a Haitian hotel near a hounfor, a place where Haitians hold Voodoo ceremonies. Bell said, “Your ego is so reluctant to give up its place in your brain that its claws just tear you as it’s pulled away. One description that people use is it’s like having the peel broken off the banana but since you’re the banana it’s like being skinned alive.”

MM: Because I have been brought up in a completely spirituality-free, anti-religion family this description of being peeled not only sounded unpleasant but unlikely. Is this (meaning the peeling) helpful to your writing, life, and ability to manage other things, like the DMV, paying taxes, housework?

MSB: The quote refers to first-time possession experiences, basically.  (You can read more about that in Soul in a Bottle.)  I generally relate possession to inspiration to flow states (as they tend to be called in the general-creativity context), but the entry doesn’t have to be quite so rough! I mean most people don’t want to do that every day….I think a flow state is only useful at the DMV if you wish to run amok there; to prepare your taxes you really need to be in a so-to-speak, non-altered state so as to concentrate properly.

MM: I lived in a Zen Buddhist Monastery off and on for two yearspolished wood, baked bread, had sexual fantasies about my teacher. Zip writing.

MSB: Perfect conditions for writing can often be disastrous.  It’s a way of setting yourself up for failure. Walker Percy has a lot of good stuff to say about this problem (The Message in the Bottle, Lost in the Cosmos).  But the Zen masters like to say, before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.  After enlightenment, I chop wood and carry water.  That statement is deeper than the spin I’ll give it here: familiar mundane tasks that are not mental (tax preparation no; mowing the grass or mopping the floor, yes) CAN be good for inducing flow states.

When your body is chopping wood or carrying water your mind is on a medium leash. It can’t stray so far that you sink the ax in your foot, but it does have a degree of freedom and a sort of emptiness to run around in. That situation can be more propitious than the one where you’ve dedicated the time and laid your pencils and parchment out on the polished wood.

On the tediously familiar drives, I carry one of the little passport size moleskin notebooks in my shirt pocket to scribble down a stray idea or two….(Only at red lights of course!) and, later when I take up my instruments I already have a little something to work with… something I was just sort of playing with previously….

In Chapter 16, Bell references the Charles Manson murders, an event that defined much of my own sense of danger during the late sixties and early seventies. 

I was 12, I think, when the Manson murders happened. I did a little research on that part of the story, enough to make me realize what a different time that was from the one we’re in now. There was a moment in the 1960’s when it really did look like society might collapse, implode or transform itself beyond recognition.”

MM: Your reference to Manson resonated with me. My oldest sister went to Radcliffe in 1968 and briefly dated the head of the Harvard Black Panthers. I was always afraid she’d be murdered. The whole Manson thing was such a potent combination of drugs, celebrity, violence and conspiracy. Was it the fact we had less access to moment-to-moment "news" or that the journalism that existed then told the truth and we didn't expect exaggeration? Was it the way one thing happened after another—Kennedy (Bobby), King, Manson, and Vietnam, always Vietnam?

MSB: I can’t track the “it” in the question here. As for the journalism of that day I doubt it was more truthful. It tended to be more unanimous. There were fewer voices, and they were more apt to harmonize. Television news had not yet understood that it was actually entertainment, so there was a sense of responsibility that has now disappeared.

During the publication of the Color of Night I made an appearance at my old high school in Nashville—a private boys’ day school that in the early 70’s was a conservative bastion—dress code, haircuts, compulsory athletics.

The school was devoted to preserving the lads from the dangerous influences afloat in the then popular culture. (It’s much more-user friendly now, I think….) I go back as this middle-aged dude remembering the old days and felt a closer understanding of the attitudes of the adults back then, especially the headmaster, a Yahweh-like figure who scared the dickens out of everybody.

There was more to it than loud guitars and hippie hair. If you were a terrified conservative clinging to the status quo you could look at the counterculture and see a concerted effort to overthrow the political system and the established social manners and mores along with it—and replace it with some new scary indefinable thing.

An exemplary insight I had during that visit is that when the Manson violence began to surface nobody understood how small and isolated he and his group really were.  It looked like the tip of a big iceberg, which, of course, is what he hoped and intended it would become. 

Manson’s political agenda was completely nuts, but the fact he even had one is alarming enough.  He’s our Nechayev, I think, for what that’s worth. 

(Note: Madison went to Princeton. I who attended Rutgers had no idea who Nechayev was).

MSB: Nechayev was a Nihilist when that was an actual group/movement, a revolutionary by any means necessary, stop-at-nothing, kind of guy.  Dostoevsky was fascinated with the implications of his existence and that interest plays out in The Possessed, my favorite Dostoevsky novel.

MM: What is the apprenticeship for aspiring writers now? We had awful jobs, maybe an MFA program, incessant reading and writing. What do you tell writers? 

MSB: I try to recommend books that might suit them.  I have a young fantasy novelist to whom I just recommended Amélie Nothomb (the Belgian sensation)—just because outside of Alice in Wonderland it’s the closest thing I can think of to what she seems to be trying to do.

I still refer students to agents and publishers when their work is ready but my success rate has gone way down, along with everybody else’s. The irony of the situation is that at the same time that we manage to release six thousand trained fiction writers onto the market EVERY YEAR, that market (in terms of conventional trade publishing) has shrunk to a third of what it was in the 1980’s, when we had maybe a tenth of people coming out of MFA programs compared to now. 

Dare anyone say that this situation is unsustainable?  The digital revolution hasn’t helped much yet, though I think it will. There is a paradigm shift at work, but at the moment it’s stuck in the crawls of Amazon & conventional publishing trying to swallow each other.

The MFA system provides decent guild training still and can also provide useful networking to some—but even in the pool of most successful MFA’s now… well, most of those hatchlings won’t make it off the beach, much less survive the predators waiting in the water

“A good book will get published,” was a piece of hypocritical cynicism back in the eighties even (when the favored example was A Confederacy of Dunces, whose author had killed himself in despair before the book ever came out).

But between three and four hundred good works of fiction do get published every year in the U.S., some of  them by new writers. So, there’s a chance, if not, statistically, a good one. Stubbornness is a virtue. In thirty years of teaching I have seen a lot of tortoises pass a lot of hares. So… silence, exile, cunning…. Always, good advice!  I mean internal exile of course.  Most of us got out of Ireland back in the 18th Century.

I haven’t yet devoured most of Soul in a Bottle but this excerpt from its preface where Bell describes how Haiti transformed him resonated deeply with me:

In Haiti I became less devious, less ambitious, less fearful, less greedy for myself, less vaingloriously proud. In Haiti, it seemed natural for me to try to practice humility as a virtue, and practicing what elsewhere would have been a dangerous candor seemed in Haiti to be a practical necessity.

“In Haiti I tried to adopt a kind of personal openness, which I would have shunned (in horror) in the United States. I was compelled to be much more candid in whatever I said than I would have been elsewhere, and once I returned I felt compelled to be more forthright than usual in whatever I wrote about the experience. I could not write in the usual way. Linear domino chains of cause and effect lost their usual power over my writing. I couldn't seem to reason like I used to, for logic had stopped progressing from front to back and instead seemed to run around in all directions. This phenomenon made it hard for me to complete journalistic assignments, and it seemed to grow stronger with each excursion.”

MM: Being transformed by a culture is an amazing experience. My almost three months living in Abu Dhabi briefly made me an Uber Patriot. How do you reconcile your life in the United States with your Haiti insights? Can You?

MSB: There are numerous possible answers. No, it’s impossible, would be one. I learned at least that radically different ways of being are possible and that they can be just as viable as ours…. That’s worth knowing, and remembering.

One thing Haitian Voodoo offers to practitioners is suppression of the ego—liberation from the prison of the self—in an extremely dramatic way. Most religions offer something like it in one form or another. Lately, I’ve found I can get a similar effect from sitting in the silence of Quaker meetings—you don’t absolutely have to have the drums and the dancing. 

I should say too that many Voodoo adepts can get to the same place without a lot of noise and commotion.

 MM: Are you bringing anything valuable to their culture?

MSB:  I got more than I gave, I think, though I tried to give what I could.  Probably the best I have offered is reporting as honestly as I could.  

MM: Why do you assume God has a face? 

MSB: Ah, well, I don’t, necessarily…. But there’s this anthropomorphic thing that tends to go on. I think a lot of religious people imagine a sort of cross between a teacher and a judge. We hope for explanations, and also for forgiveness—forgiveness especially. A lot of people seem to want that.

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