Baltimore Writers Club #6: Madison Smartt Bell’s Behind the Moon

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I’m sitting here trying to recover from reading Madison Smartt Bell’s new novel, which is quite unlike most anything else (except previous books by MSB – I’d recognize the ferocity of the prose style anywhere). I’m a little shaken, I’m spent, and I truly feel like I have been Somewhere Else.

Behind the Moon starts out as a realistic novel about a teenager named Julie, who schemes with her friend to spend the night out in the desert with some boys, letting their parents think they are having a sleepover. One of the guys, a sweetie named Jamal, is almost her boyfriend; the other two are nasty baggage who slip the girls drugs in the Vitamin Water to loosen them up prior to filming a porn movie.

When Julie tries to escape from them, she falls fifteen feet through a hole into a cave, and it’s two days before Jamal can bring help to get her out, alive but comatose. Immediately she becomes a local news story: Cave Girl, with broadcasters counting the days of her coma.

At the same time as all this is happening to Julie, her birth mother Marissa goes through some big life changes and starts to search for the baby she gave up for adoption 17 years ago. Very quickly she realizes it’s Cave Girl, and she joins forces with Jamal and Julie’s adoptive mother to watch over her and try to save her. Marissa’s involvement makes her a target for the two bad guys, who are already after Jamal and threatening Julie.

As soon as Julie gets out in the desert and drinks that purple drank, and quite a bit more so after she hits her head, she starts to experience an alternate reality – a Carlos Casteneda-ish fever dream with hawk and bear and bison and mystic beings, sometimes fracturing the narrative into floating phrases and gray orbs. Perhaps inspired by the ancient Native American drawings on the wall of the cave, she is traveling through some kind of underworld, and it’s no trip to Wal-Mart.

It turns out there’s someone in town who might be able to help Jamal and Marissa – it’s Ultimo, who is a hit man, a pornography maven, a keeper of drugs and high-strung dogs, a bounty hunter for runaways – but also a shaman. Unfortunately spending time with him is so dangerous and scary that the seekers are almost deterred.

This is a book that really begs for an interview since it is so full of mysteries. I’ll ask some of the questions you will surely have when you read it.

What was the inspiration for this book? Are any of the characters or situations real?

My fevered imagination, mostly.  A starting point was a Judith Thurman article in the New Yorker about the Chauvet cave paintings.  Then I looked up some of her sources, notable a book called The Shamans of Prehistory… a speculative work, but with lots of cool pictures and some interesting ideas.

It’s interesting that you find it starts as a realistic novel because to me the first movement isn’t like that at all.  I wasn’t even gonna definitely specify the place.  But then Marissa showed up and started driving around on an actual map and I had to identify places and she got in charge of the story’s realistic dimension, so to speak.

And the story and all the people are completely fabricated.  It takes place in an area of South Dakota where I’ve spent maybe 18 hours in my entire life.  Like Jamal, I used to be pretty good at cooling out aggressive dogs, but even that was a long time ago….

What was your process in writing the fever-dream sequences? I actually wondered if maybe you took something.

Dear me, no!  some of the characters have experience with MDMA, but that came out after my time, and I’ve been kinda scared of hallucinogens since a couple of my high school friends failed to return from their excursions…

But… I had a dream about the leaf form that’s described in Julie’s experience at one point and later gets conflated with some of that helical light shower imager, visual phenomena of the shamanic journey.  It was of the genre of dream that appears to reveal the whole meaning of life but turns out to be completely nonsensical when you wake from it, only in this case there was something left.  I thought I could use it as a new kind of structural design principle for narrative and this novel is a first attempt at that.

Your attention as a writer really gets around. I don’t think I could describe your “fictional territory.” But maybe there is a through-line that is more obvious to you?

I have a low boredom threshold and never wanted to write the same book twice (which is disadvantageous for building a ‘brand,’ but whatever…).  The exception is the three volume Haitian-set—but I had conceived that as one monstro book really and just subdivided it for publishing convenience.

Almost all my books are about some form of spiritual pilgrimage, one way or another, and in vastly different contexts.  That’s hindsight, to a large extent.

Are there any other novelists you feel particularly close to or are inspired by? Who would you say is in your posse or are you a total loner?

I have plenty of writer friends… from college, grad school and later, but we don’t really write the same kind of stuff.  In the sense of belonging to any kind of school, I am pretty much of a lone wolf I guess.  I was powerfully influenced by Southern writers of the mid-twentieth century (Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate), and then by the 19th century Russians esp. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  George Garrett, an early teacher and lifelong friend, is a big influence.  Also William Vollmann and Robert Stone (whose biography I’m working on right now).  With Vollmann the influence has more to do with new ways of thinking about what’s possible.  But there’s some real resemblance, I think, between some of my work and some of Stone’s.

I see that you are published by the iconic City Lights, but I remember your saying that it was a rocky road to the book deal. Want to discuss?

Why not?  I wrote the novel during a period when The Color of Night had been rejected by Pantheon (my publisher since 1995).  I thought, well, I don’t have to please anybody else with this one, so I’ll just do something completely different and weird.  Then my Pantheon editor had a change of heart and decided to publish The Color of Night after all, but as a paperback original, which was meant to get a younger audience or something of that sort.  I was on board with that plan but it didn’t work very well.  So I turned in Behind the Moon and both the hard cover and paperback editors said they liked it.  After about a year I wondered to my agent where the contract was, and she came back with, “They like it… but they don’t think it should be your next book.”

After overcoming a modicum of annoyance I decided I could see that point.  The Color of Night hadn’t done all that well, and to follow it with a near-indescribably weird thing could be damaging.  At the time there was a lot of concern that poor performance of your previous book caused brick and mortar stores to order less of the next one, etc. etc.

So I thought maybe I had better write something more identifiable as a book by me (although as you point out, that too is a bit of problem…) to sell in New York, and set Behind the Moon aside for a while.

Then a brilliant former student of mine, Hillary Johnson (Physical Culture, etc.) turned up on the West Coast with a nifty new-paradigm publisher called Dymaxicon.  It had begun as a bread and butter operation publishing tech books, but then Hillary decided to try a novel she liked that no one else would publish, The Bad Mother by Nancy Rommelman.  It’s kind of a postpunk rejoinder to Sue Miller’s The Good Mother (as I see it, dunno if Nancy agrees) and it was a bit of an underground hit, selling in stores like Atomic here in Charm City, for example.

So Hillary thought she would do more fiction and we came up with this scheme where we’d use Behind the Moon to spearhead a list of books by my friends and former students that I thought were great but had never been able to find agents or publishers.  Quite a bit of development was done on several titles, including a great design concept for Behind the Moon by Hillary, later expanded on by Linda Ronan at City Lights, using enso and some other artwork I’d produced with digital painting programs… (that part was an extra kick for me).

But then Hillary realized that, in spite of doing everything right to promote through social media and all that, Dymaxicon just wasn’t selling any fiction after The Bad Mother.  The fiction list just flat-lined and she had to roll it up.  Very sad for everybody.  (Dymaxicon still prospers as a tech publisher, all the same).

Meanwhile, I had got to know Elaine Katzenberger at City Lights from working with her on Nan Domi by Mimerose Beaubrun, which is to the best of my knowledge the only book there is about the interior, mystical practices of Haitian Vodou.  Gerard Barthélemy and I had collaborated on finding a French publisher for it, and I wrote a preface for that edition and then sold the translation to Elaine.  That was all a very happy experience so I thought she might go for Behind the Moon also.

So here we are.  It’s looking good so far.  Being a relatively big thing in a small house is different than being a relatively small thing in a big house—there are advantages and disadvantages to both, I think, but I’m optimistic about this run.

I’m curious about your launch party at Bird In Hand. Are we all going to drink ayahuasca and go behind the moon? I’m definitely game!

Oh, right!  Only if you bring it…

On May 13 at 7:30, Madison Smartt Bell will appear as part of the “Starts Here” series hosted by Jen Michalski at Bird in Hand Bookstore, 11 East 33rd St.

Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody for the Baltimore Fishbowl on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love", "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead" and other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik