Madison Smartt Bell: Ringing in a Devilishly Dark Book

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Maybe you’ve caught Baltimore-based novelist Madison Smartt Bell around town, singing lead for the Forgetters at Joe Squared–a bandanna tied around his head, wire-rim glasses on his nose, playful scowl on his lips–or hosting a lit event at Goucher, with the same nonchalant air about him on that stage, too (minus the bandanna). Refreshing when an established literary figure turns out to be an unassuming, approachable guy, as is the case with Madison Bell.

Bell is the author of 20 novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997) and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989. 

His eighth novel, All Souls’ 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 is the first novel of his acclaimed Haitian Revolutionary trilogy–Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused are the second and third. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography was published in 2007; Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Confederate Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest, in 2009. The Color of Night was released in April.  

Since 1984, Bell has taught at Goucher, where he is currently Professor of English, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires.

We caught up with Bell to discuss his latest, The Color of Night (Vintage Contemporaries), told from the point of view of a seasoned murderess, and what’s next on his vibrant horizon.

 

What was young Madison up to in 1969, the timeline of your book’s main story?

I was 12, living on a farm in Middle Tennessee, going to school in Nashville, so Nashville was the hub of my social world, though we lived 10 miles out of town. It was a working farm, though with no cash crops—we grew and froze or canned most our own vegetables, raised hogs, kept a milk cow, sheep. My mother ran a riding school and a summer camp. It was a nice situation. I thought peace, love and hippies were superfine in 1969. I saw Woodstock in a movie theater, Alice’s Restaurant, too. Scary stuff in the national news seemed fairly far away, though when I reread Helter Skelter for Color of Night, it did remind me, yeah, that stuff was scary, spilling out of the TV at you. If I was home alone and felt jumpy, I’d clean shotguns, which always made me feel secure.

In The Color of Night, the damaged female protagonist (and narrator) Mae is a middle-aged burnout, who works in a casino and, otherwise, stalks through the Nevada desert late at night, rifle in hand, her mind whirring–after Mae recognizes an ex-lover on 9/11 footage, she records and replays the woman’s image, and meanwhile mentally replays her disastrous days living with a murderous Manson-family-like tribe in the ’60s. The poetry of Mae’s voice makes the story’s violence easier to take (to believe). That is, we understand Mae’s particularly psychosis, not only by the stories she shares, of horrific abuse at the hands of her brother, but by the way she puts things. For example, “When I was small Terrell taught me how to catch snakes and keep them–not the poison snakes, of course, but chicken snakes and the black snakes that the summer woods were full of. They’d get used to you after a while and twine around your arms and legs, warming to the temperature of the blood inside your body. We kept them in a basket, till hunger turned them mean, but often they could go a week before that happened.”

Can you tell us a bit about how you created this rich yet restrained voice, and was it challenging to write from a female point of view (too, a female with a bruised psyche)?

Well, there are two ways of reading the book, and one is the way you have adopted: to understand Mae as a person living in a world of enormous delusions—the delusions generated by psychological trauma. Or you can adopt Mae’s own view of the situation, which is that she has been forged by suffering into a superhuman being and so possesses divine rights and divine attributes (immortality, and so on). In option one above, that would be the central delusion.

The book makes complete sense either way, or at least I think it does.

It can be read either way, but in order for me to write it, I pretty well had to adopt Mae’s version of the situation, otherwise I couldn’t have expressed it.  Or, to put it more the way I experienced it, that version couldn’t have expressed itself through me.

I have generally found it difficult to write in women’s points of view, despite a lot of conscientious effort. It may be the most difficult challenge for a lot of writers—going cross-gender, I mean. I usually want to get completely out of my own sensibility when writing a character, so I have often written across racial boundaries, I’ve written characters from times centuries away from my own, and found all that much easier to do than to write, um, the girl next door. In my Haitian Revolution novels I think I managed a few convincing women, but they are somewhat minor characters on the scale of that whole extravaganza.

But Mae was different and what was strange and wonderful was the voice just seemed to materialize in my head and, much of the time, I really just felt like I was taking dictation from her. It was surprisingly easy to write this book, which I mostly composed direct on the keyboard, quickly and with little revision.

What made you want to explore side by side the moral dissolution of the ’60s and the 9/11 attacks? What is the link for you?

Mmmm, I don’t agree that “moral dissolution” was the main characteristic of the ’60s. There was a lot going on, including an enormous momentum for positive social change, much of which was frustrated in the end. Still, the ’60s did give us more progress in civil rights than there’d been in a century, and showed that it was possible for popular resistance to end a foreign war. 

The Manson Family was on the dark side of that very strong impulse to reform the world. We forget that Manson had political goals—they were crazy but he had them. The Manson murders amounted to a terrorist act (they were certainly so intended), and the most frightening terrorist act to happen in the U.S. until 9/11 (I don’t think Tim McVeigh quite got there, though it was a good try), even though the Manson death toll was nowhere near the same magnitude… It was the style that made it so bone-chilling, and the fact that, like the recent Norwegian horror show, it erupted so close to home. The message to the World War II generation was that at any moment your children just might turn on you with bloody knives. Plenty terrifying, that.

For Mae, it’s just like she’s in suspended animation between the ’60s rampage and 9/11, and (I was not really conscious of this part during the writing) the desert she lives in becomes a metaphor for that.

What was the first seed of inspiration for this dark/mad/literary potboiler? (How much research was involved?)

 

There was a series at the end of the ’90s…that was paying literary fiction writers pretty good money to recast mythological stories. In about a paragraph I made a proposal with some elements of The Color of Night. Mae’s voice began there, although at that time I pictured her as a crone,  sort of like one of the Fates (that element is still in the voice). The series didn’t bite on the proposal and I forgot the whole thing. Years later I started thinking about it again and I really don’t remember why, though this page from one of my little shirt-pocket notebooks documents it: The “limbo” note at top left was some other idea for a narrative I have completely forgotten now. After that you can see a lot of the structure of C of N just immediately falls onto the page, along with some phrases of final text.

As for research, the Vincent Bugliosi book covers the Manson story quite thoroughly, though I did look at a few other sources. I read several books about Dionysian mystery cults, because I think the Manson Family essentially was one; that is, it’s one of the always available varieties of religious experience, so you don’t necessarily have to know the name Dionysus to replicate it…

In 2008, you received the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. What are the requirements for recipients? What are your related goals?

The Strauss Living is administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and funded by a donation from Harold and Mildred Strauss. Harold Strauss was an editor who thought that writers should write, and put his money behind that idea; this grant resembles the MacArthur in that you can’t apply for it, but is different because you are required to relinquish salaried employment for the period of the grant. Anything you can earn from writing is fine, and you are allowed to make a certain amount from appearances—readings and the like. Aside from that you can do what you want! I should say that Goucher College, where I have spent almost all my teaching career, has been remarkably generous and supportive in making it possible for me to accept the opportunity. During the period of the grant I’ve so far published two novels, Devil’s Dream and The Color of Night. I have completed two other manuscripts, in draft form anyway, a novel about Andrew Jackson and the Creek Wars of 1812-14, called Red Stick, and a novel I can’t easily describe, called Behind the Moon.

What are you working on now?

I’ve started a novel called (for the time being) Tombs, which is about zombies—not the George Romero kind but the ones that actually exist in Haitian culture. And I am beginning a biography of the Haitian Revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The biography project is funded by a fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY in New York. My wife, Elizabeth Spires, has a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library for the same period. So we will both be living a working in New York next academic year.

Do you generally work on more than one book at once?

Depends.  Between my first published novel and my second I had a gruesome episode of writer’s block that lasted more than a year, and since then, I have overlapped the end of one book with the beginning of another to stop that happening again. When I started the Haitian trilogy (in 1989) I knew it was going to take a Long Time… so would write a chapter of that and a chapter of a more contemporary novel (Save Me, Joe Louis; Ten Indians; Anything Goes) just so I wouldn’t forget how to do that. The shorter novels would of course get finished sooner and then I would bear down on the Haitian thing till it was done.

What’s your writing schedule like? Describe a day in the life of Madison Smartt Bell.

Unremarkable.  Monday through Friday I get up and start writing while I am still half asleep if possible—it’s good to sort of dream my way into the session—write for two or three hours, then turn to all the other stuff a middle-class middle-aged guy needs to do.

Who made up your band’s name, who’s in the group, and where do you play?

The Baltimore band name is the Forgetters, invented by James Alonso, who plays bass and is also a very good writer… Our drummer is Bill U’Ren, who I met when he was in the Writing Sems grad program—I didn’t know him as a student, but he invited me into a jam band, which was a lucky break for me…  I played mostly lead guitar in that unit, though there was some switching back and forth. Forgetters’ lead guitarist is John Rose, a virtuoso who plays different kinds of music all over town. Joe Squared, that excellent pizza palace and rum bar, has been good to this group, and John Rose plays there a lot with different jazz line-ups as well. We mostly play the Bell and Cooper catalog, with a few covers for fun–I started writing songs in the ’90s with Wyn Cooper, a poet I met in grad school ten years before…

What do you love about Baltimore/wish you could change about Baltimore?

I like the North/South blend of culture, and the village quality of the neighborhoods. I moved here from New York in the ’80s, and it was so much lower-pressure in every way that it was like a great sigh of relief to come here. (Okay, it’s not really that simple, I had New York withdrawal pains also for some time.)

Baltimore was a lot safer than New York at that time. Now the opposite is true. It would be nice to do something about the Maltese cross of urban blight that runs up and down Broadway and across North Avenue, and I don’t mean gentrification, or not just that. There’s a whole community that’s been abandoned. See The Boys of Baraka and weep. The Wire, great work of social realism that it is, is also a cry for help, I feel. But with economic crisis and political deadlock, I don’t see where help’s gonna come from any time soon.

Which question do you wish we’d asked?

Well, a song I want the Forgetters to one day do is the Graham Parker classic, “Don’t Ask Me Questions.”



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4 COMMENTS

  1. Great in-depth details from Mr. Bell. I want to read the new book. That scribbled journal page is intriguing — glad you included. A couple of notes meant so much!

  2. Great interview. Nice to reconnect with this author whose books I love. The Color of Night sounds fascinating. I really liked reading about his process for writing it.

  3. Like his book, and most of Besty’s work, this is exquisite, both from the interviewer’s side and the candid, honest remarks of MSB. This is an excellent example of why Baltimore Fishbowl is so well done

  4. Engaging interview: spot-on questions and insightful answers, especially Bell casting the Manson Family as a Dionysian mystery cult (Sadie, Squeaky, and Patricia as the Maenads!).

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