Interview with Madison Smartt Bell

Continued ...

JC: Is it confining to work within a recorded series of events?

MB: It took me a while to figure this out, but once I did it wasn't so difficult. The historical text becomes the subtext of the novel, so you're really reading a story about people, and you learn of the history insofar as it affects them. Every now and then there are certain key transitional episodes where I have enough documentation to do a fully realized scene that is historically true. The other scenes that are written like that are about key political decision of key political events. The rest of the novel is such that I can't put the real people on stage, and don't have to.

JC: To change the subject slightly, your essay in the Chattahoochee Review begins by addressing "Southernness" as a feature of your writing. In what way do you perceive yourself as someone whose writing has a regional aspect? Do you see your yourself as a writer operating within a particular tradition or a set of artistic habits?

MB: I feel like I am a Southern writer. Since I haven't written that much with a Southern subject matter, I'm off that hook to some degree, but my prose style is very much influenced by growing up in the South and doing my first serious reading of literary fiction from the fiction of the Southern Renascence. That's all kind of in the back of my brain, as a writer.

JC: So what about your sensibility is particularly Southern? What is the difference?

MB: I never have wanted to be a "professional" Southern writer. That's kind of tedious. I'm not sure I could talk about this without reciting a lot of cliches, but a lot of the cliches are sort of true. I kind of take Walker Percy's attitude toward this. The sense of human limitation, which may or may not be expressed in religious terms, has been a little bit different in the South ever since the Civil War because the experience of defeat was not shared, until recently, by the rest of the country. The fact that I come from a culture that was basically eradicated in a war has some effect on the way I see the world. For a long time, even in my childhood, there was a sense in the South that the rest of the country was racing at the galloping pace of industrial and technological prosperity on a long, long trajectory to nowhere, something we'd already experienced. I'm not somebody who sits around and nurses grievances about the Civil War; I don't think many people in my generation do, but certainly my grandparents could remember specific events that they'd been told about by their parents, and they're still personally pissed off about this stuff. Now we're coming into a time where national experience is able to serve up experiences of disenfranchisement of one kind or another to almost everyone, irrespective of region.

JC: In my experience, living for a year in Memphis, it seemed that the sense of proximity to the past, to that past was so much greater there than I had ever imagined.

MB: In some ways it's hard for me to understand why people don't feel the same way in the North, because if you look at the death toll, at the number of soldiers killed in combat, there were as many of y'all as there were of us. Somehow, it seems to make a difference whose territory the war was mostly conducted on.

For me the connection is not direct; it's not personal, But because it did directly and personally effect the people who were raising me, I got a diluted sense of it, much more an abstract philosophical attitude than any kind of structured position. A lot of the Southern fiction that I cut my teeth on was predicated on the idea that- disregarding the whole slavery issue, which is sort of necessary for this reasoning, and thus renders it, shall we say, incomplete-the Civil War was really a conflict between the pastoral way of life and the industrial way of life, which is true; it's just not the whole truth.

JC: It may be a way of remembering the truth.

MB: It's not the only thing that is true about the Civil War. It conveniently disregards the fact that the pastoral way of life depended on slavery, which was completely untenable. But the idea that industrial society is a trap, that it tends to lead to its own destruction-I think that's true.

JC: "A vector placing us in permanent proximity to our absolute destruction," as you've called it.

MB: That's right. I think the person who in my reading brought me into the latter half of the 20th century was Walker Percy, who has a very traditional, conservative Southern attitude toward history. The interesting thing about Walker Percy as a Southern writer is that he didn't write about the past. He tended to write science-fiction, instead. He was interested in teleology, how the present was going to form the future. According to Percy, it's all spelled out in the message of the Bible. Everyone inside the Judeo-Christian tradition tends to refer original sin and failings of human nature to some kind of aboriginal catastrophe, some version of the fall form the garden of Eden story. For Southerners, the aboriginal catastrophe tends to be the Civil War. Things were better before, theoretically, for white people. This is not a point of view held by blacks, I don't imagine.

What that means is that certain vicissitudes of modern life, like ecological catastrophe or the threat of nuclear war, are seen, from a Southern point of view, as inevitable, as something that comes to everybody. There's going to be a point in every culture, every society where your momentum in one way or another is broken, whether by violence of by exhaustion. It seems to me that's happening in America now, across the board.

JC: With only a couple of exceptions, you have not written about the South per se, by which I mean use it as a setting. Many of your characters are Southerners, but their living somewhere else. Even characters who aren't technically Southern seem to share a related state of spiritual and physical exile, a sense of not being properly at home.

MB: Yes, and again, this is a big Walker Percy theme, this sense of estrangement. To some extent, this aspect of my work does draw on personal experience, because I've lived most of my adult life out of the South. To a certain extent, I feel like a pilgrim. I feel like someone on a very extended visit. On the other hand, I've been gone so long that when I go back to Tennessee, which I do with considerable regularity, I feel the same way there. There's no place where I feel fully at home.

JC: Where's the last place you felt fully at home?

MB: I don't know. I guess I feel most fully at home on my family farm in Tennessee, but it's increasingly difficult to think it can be preserved as a physical space, because the subdivisions are gnawing their way toward it constantly. I felt connected to the poorer sections of Brooklyn in a way that puzzled me for a long time. The best answer I can come up with is the Southern belief that any society based totally on frenetic industrial advance is bound for destruction. An industrial slum-where the manufacturing is gone, and the sidewalks are broken, and the streets are full of people who speak languages unknown to you, where everything is falling down and decaying-sort of bears that out. Urban decay is evidence of a cyclical return to the soil. The well organized, highly functioning parts of New York City have never appealed to me. The ghettos are more comfortable for me because they're atavistic. The way life is lived there is like village life. The physical structures are submitting to natural process in a way that buildings on 5th avenue don't.

JC: You've made yourself a spokesman, or anti-spokesman, for a certain kind of writing. I'm thinking of your essay in Harper's in 1985, in which you made a claim that a good deal of contemporary writing was overly influenced by a few practitioners. I really have three questions here: Is Minimalism dead? What did it accomplish? And how did you, as a young writer, manage to avoid it? It seemed to have barely mussed your hair.

MB: I wouldn't say I did avoid it. First of all, Minimalism isn't dead. It never will be dead. Hemingway created that mode. He stole things from his predecessors, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and even, to a certain extent, Kipling, and he welded them into something really new, which is an example of the proverb: small talents borrow; great talents steal.

Hemingway's stories are based on the model of Freudian repression. The problem in the story is unstated, and the characters are very laconic about it. Much of the story has scrubbed away, but it's still there; the writer knows it's there, because its presence is felt. Hemingway worked all of this out, theoretically. He achieved it, too, by editing his own work ruthlessly. He would try to see how much of the story he could cut and have the story still make sense and retain its mood and its subterranean tendencies. It's masterpiece fiction, and it's still a perfectly viable mode. He had hosts of imitators while he was alive, all of whom are now forgotten. Right around the time he blew his head off, Raymond Carver was just beginning to publish his first stories. Carver rewrote all his early work, but if you go look at Best Short Stories of 1968 and read "Will You Please Be Quiet Please," you'll see it's 40 pages long. Need I say more? He did the same thing, and he was aware of what he was doing: reifying Hemingway.

JC: He reinvented a bunch of stories that way- "So Much Water So Close to Home."

MB: Yeah, sure. Hemingway's developmental period is lost because of a missing suitcase. Carver went back and systematically swept away his tracks. Carver was a big enough talent to do the things that Hemingway did with Anderson, Stein and the rest.

Then come the host of Carver's opportunistic imitators, who wrote stories that had his mannerisms, but for no particular reason. There isn't any subtext. Writing without subtext is extraordinarily hollow; there's nothing to attach to. So here's where I begin to have a problem.

I think that the fad of Carver imitators is pretty much finished. But I certainly don't think that approach is defunct, nor do I think it should be. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of this has more to do with the economics of publishing than with any aesthetic questions. The ascendancy of the Carver-Hemingway style happened to coincide with a peculiar moment in publishing when it was discovered that short story collections could be presented as a novelty. A six or eight year fad brought the short story back into the public eye in what, I think, was ultimately a good way. I've benefited from it. I think I had an easier time publishing my books of stories because of the momentum that had been started by Carver and Carver imitators, whose work I don't especially like. And it brought to greater prominence a lot of other writers who had been around for a long time but had been relatively ignored, writers like Peter Taylor and Andre Dubus. Grace Paley suddenly got a new lease on life. But all that appears to be over, too.

JC: This leads to something else I was curious about. A lot of good mid-list writers of literary fiction are at this point in some peril from changes in the publishing world. You wrote in the Mississippi Review last year that there was a lot of good literary fiction being written right now, perhaps more than ever before, but that the outlook from the publishing standpoint was dire and getting worse all the time. Has that changed at all?

MB: From the point of view of short story writers, things are really bad now. The situation is back to where it was before 1977. If you're a new writer, you can basically forget about publishing a collection of short stories unless it's stapled to a novel in a two book contract. Collections are just more difficult to describe and promote. They don't lend themselves to capsule description. I think there will be a resurgence, but publishing tends to be the canary down the coalmine of the general economy. People stop buying books before they stop going to the movies, buying drinks, buying cars. I'm eagerly waiting for some sign of recovery, because the rest of the economy seems to be picking up, but that doesn't mean things will goes back to the way they were before, because whole houses have been eliminated. That's what happened last January when Harcourt Brace, Ticknor and Fields, and Athenaeum effectively closed their doors, to literary fiction, at least. I don't think they're going to be replaced.

JC: It seems to me that more writers are going to have to look to smaller houses whose stock-in-trade is literary fiction, places like Ecco Press and Algonquin.

MB: The funny thing is that's been predicted for at least twenty-five years by intelligent observers, but it hasn't really happened. The pace of change is a lot slower and the nature of the change is not what people thought. I think it was a case of commercial publishing being lifted by the rising tide of the general economy, but the bogus boom of the 1980s saw the prominent success of some fairly literary writers.

JC: It seems like commercial publishers co-opted and popularized literary fiction and, maybe, in the process, created some false hopes.

MB: I don't know if those hopes were false. Again, my career was lifted. too. I was a beneficiary. The sluggishness of publishing is the discouraging thing. Whenever it takes a long steep dive, the way it has now, things become frightening because there's so much consolidation. Now every publishing house of any size in New York can be traced back to one of seven conglomerates. That's a real structural change. It gives me pause, but I think that the feeling of constriction will probably go away again, unless the general economic trend is irreversible.

JC: What do you think we need from our writers right now? I read your work and it's so intellectually dense, I feel that perhaps you're saying we need a more ambitious fiction. Certainly you write fiction of an intellectually ambitious kind. You've also talked about the virtues of cross-pollination, writers that are both literary and popular.

MB: Cormack McCarthy is a writer I've admired for a long time. I still admire him. He has ceased to be particularly obscure, so I don't think he needs much of a lift from me. People who have lately become interested in him should go back and read his earlier books. I think Mary Gaitskill is a terrific writer. Of all the urban, New York fiction that was written in the 80s, I think she is probably the only writer whose work will be of real interest in ten years. I think those books are going to really grow. William Vollmann is really the most exciting new writer to come along in quite some time. His brand of experimentalism has really broken a number of molds and created very liberating possibilities for other writers.

JC: He's brought back the visible writer, put the writer back in the frame, so to speak.

MB: Yes, but in a very different way from what we had in the 60s.

JC: Do you think he's more on the mold of George Orwell? I'm thinking of Down and Out in Paris and London or Homage to Catalonia.

MB: Yeah, or Poe. (laughs) Really, those are the sort of writers he likes. He's not particularly amenable to 60s metafiction.

JC: I don't think his work is metafiction at all.

MB: Well, technically it is. He uses that same bag of tricks, but the nature of his enterprise is very different. What we got before was a fundamentally insincere demonstration of cleverness and agility. Suppurating sincerity is all over everything Vollmann does, and it's really touching. The idea that you can use those devices and somehow be an authentic presence in the work instead of some Mephistophelian manipulator is really quite new. I don't recall anybody doing it quite that way. In twenty or thirty years I think people will be playing off of some of his innovations in the way that a whole generation of writers played off Faulkner and Joyce.

JC: A final question: which of your own novels is closest to your heart?

MB: I'll say about this what Vollmann said about the worst book he's published so far, An Afghanistan Picture Show, which he called "a masterpiece of failure."

Aesthetically, I think Dr. Sleep is my masterpiece to date. It's as good as I can make a book and I'm really very happy with it as an aesthetic object, but in terms of communicating the message of the story, it was a masterpiece of failure too.

There's something kind of appropriate there, because Giordano Bruno's life was very much like that. He was a writer. He was multi-lingual, and he would drift from country to country trying to get people to entertain his ideas, which were very dangerous because they could kill you for heresy in those days. His tracts were disguised as popular literary forms of the day, cycles of love sonnets in Italian, dramas, and so on. Buried underneath it were themes of religious reform that were recognizable to people who might somehow be competent to recognize them. Eventually they did, and he was duly burned at the stake. So I have my main character, Adrian Strother, doing the same thing. He goes around and whenever he starts spouting all this hermetic nonsense, everybody sticks his fingers in his ears. The response to the novel bore out the character's experience perfectly. People enjoyed it. At least the reviewers did. Every now and then I meet a reader with a wild, deranged look in her eyes, who actually understood this stuff. But for the most part, everybody, without exception, was completely bewildered by it. What people seemed to like was the thriller shell in which it was wrapped. I certainly didn't expect that all the readers of the book would convert to Gnostic hermeticism, but I guess I thought the message would be understood and observed somehow. I couldn't get anyone to listen to it anymore than Giordano Bruno could.

So there you have it. I'm not complaining. It's nice for me that they no longer burn people at the stake.

April 28th, 1994