Interview with Madison Smartt Bell

This interview was authored by Justin Cronin and appeared in the Spring Issue of Four Quarters. Copyright LaSalle University 1995

Still in his thirties, novelist and short story writer Madison Smartt Bell has won a following among readers of serious literature that any author would envy. In the twelve years since the publication of his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Bell has published not one or two but six more, and a pair of story collections besides, all to wide acclaim. His work has appeared frequently in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, and the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies, and among the many honors he's received are fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the midst of this, he manages-somehow-to teach, at Goucher College in Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, and their young daughter.

Intellectually rich, tautly crafted, ambitious in scope and form, Madison Bell's fiction sets him apart from the vast majority of writers of his generation, weaned on the spare prose, buried emotions, and implied plots of the Minimalists. A rural Southerner by birth but an urban Easterner by habit, Bell brings to his work the rhythms and sensibilities of both regions, making a literature that, as novelist and critic Anne Bernays has written, "loves people and things the way they are while simultaneously expressing outrage that they are not better, wiser, kinder." Everywhere in Bell's work the reader finds extraordinary combinations, dramatic turns, and a bottomless appetite for story. In his last three novels alone, he has covered considerable territory. Dr. Sleep, published in 1991, is perhaps his most ambitious novel, telling the story of an insomiac hypnotist in contemporary London, whose nightly wanderings draw him into a high-profile murder case involving the London underworld (while making considerable structural reference to, among other things, 16th-Century Gnostic cosmology, the music of John Coltrane, and the London subway system). Save Me, Joe Louis, published two years later, takes the form of a road novel, chronicling the violent lurchings of two petty criminals en route from New York to Baltimore to the author's native Tennessee. Bell's newest novel, All Souls Rising, marks his first major foray into historical narrative. Set in 18th century Haiti during the slave rebellion, the novel is part of a planned trilogy and is due out in October.

In April 1994, Bell visited La Salle to read from the new book and visit with students who had been studying his work in a course on contemporary fiction. After class, we stopped at my house in the East Falls section of Philadelphia to talk.

JC: I'll start by asking you about your last two novels, Dr. Sleep and Save Me, Joe Louis. When I read them again, I thought I saw something new happening, perhaps a brewing confrontation between your love of plot and the more ruminant philosophical aspects of your work. How do we get from Adrian Strother, a hypnotist and modern-day practitioner of 16th-century hermeticism, to a petty thief like Macrae?

MB: To my mind, Dr. Sleep was the end of a whole trend in my work. The book is basically structured as a prayer, and Adrian Stother's internal monologue drives the story. After I had finished it, I realized in a way I hadn't before that all the novels I had written up to that time were spiritual pilgrimages of one kind or another. Though they are by and large couched in the form of thrillers, they're essentially experiments in religion. My model for that is Dostoyevsky, who was basically a thriller writer with a lot of religious obsessions that he was trying to work out. I wasn't completely aware of this strain in my own work until I'd finished Dr. Sleep, or was well on the way to finishing it. In my first book, Washington Square Ensemble , there's a rather complicated argument going on between Islam and santer'a; the next book, Waiting For the End of the World is basically about Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the next-that's Straight Cut I'm speaking of-is about philosophical Christianity under the aegis of Kierkegaard. The Year of Silence is a novel about life in a world without religion, based on the ideas of French existentialism. In Soldier's Joy we're back to primitive Christianity, and then in Dr. Sleep, it's hermetic Gnosticism and the writings of Giordano Bruno. To me, this seemed like the answer. I think the idea that the universe is divinity is viable as a fundamental precept for a reformed religion for our time.

So after I finished that, I decided I couldn't write that kind of book anymore, and I started two new projects. One was the historical novel about the Haitian slave rebellion, and the other was a novel that I'd planned earlier, which became Save Me, Joe Louis. To my mind, Save Me, Joe Louis doesn't have the kind of philosophical system beneath it that the others do, at least not one that I was aware of. It's pretty much anarchic. To an almost comical extent, the main character is living in such a way that he doesn't know his intentions until he has already enacted them. Then he looks back and thinks, "Hmm, this seems to be not planned." Macrae is an internally silent character. I fumbled my way toward this structure because I think it's a fairly accurate picture of the way small time criminals operate. They're not geniuses, and they're not particularly good planners; most crimes are not very thoughtful acts.

JC: The southward motion of those characters from New York to Baltimore and back to the territory that you originally inhabited, and that we see in Soldier's Joy- was that part of the original plan, or did it just evolve?

MB: Well, some of that was preconceived. Certainly by the time I got to the end of the New York section, I had figured out all the rest of the characters' movements, but the plot of the book unfolded from circumstance. That was the way I wanted to do it, to make it seem almost random.

JC: You said in class today that after you finished Dr. Sleep, you felt for a while that you couldn't move on.

MB: I experienced some real confusion and depression after I finished Dr. Sleep, because I really liked the book. To my mind, it didn't have any serious flaws, and it was what I'd always wanted to do, and I could see how the tendencies of all the other books fed into it. I considered not writing any more, either slitting my throat or going to law school. (laughs) Those thoughts continually ran through my mind. I haven't taken that course, so I guess you could say they weren't serious considerations, but they did prey on me for about a year after I finished Dr. Sleep.

JC: But there wasn't really a gap in the writing between Dr. Sleep and Save Me, Joe Louis. There couldn't have been, given the publishing schedule.

MB: There was, though, for me. I usually only take about a one week break. That time it was more like six months. In fact, it seems to me now that it was nearly a year, but maybe that's not true; maybe it was just a few months. I know I started Save Me, Joe Louis, and I think what I did was piddle with the Haitian material a little bit without getting anywhere. I finished Dr. Sleep in the summer. I remember that because I was in London, and I actually finished writing and typing the final chapter sitting in Russell Square at a little picnic table. The weather was atypically pleasant for London, so I was working outside. I think it must have been the next summer that I really started Save Me, Joe Louis. At that point I'd written maybe fifty pages of the Haitian thing. That, to me, is not work.

JC: About your new work on the Haitian slave rebellion: I recently reread Russell Banks' Continental Drift and was reminded of the animism of voodoo and African religion. Is that what drew you to the subject?

MB: Partially. When I was trying to research santer'a for my first novel, I ended up reading a lot about voodoo because more has been more written about it. There's a kind of structural similarity between the two, and the more you read Haitian history, the more you see how voodoo played a part in the rebellion because the structure of that religious community was cellular, the way that revolutionary organizations are cellular. They had these little congregations, groups of people and a priest and a kind of secret language that was already in place. And they had a communication structure-a spider web-that was all ready to go, which is why, I think, Toussaint L'Ouverture tried to suppress voodoo when he came to power in Haiti. He was always nominally Christian and a publicly devout Catholic, but I believe that he was a voodoo practitioner, too. Although this is an unorthodox reading, I believe his motive for suppressing voodoo was not Christian devotion or the desire for a single religion in the country but the understanding that the structure of voodoo observance could be used to organize an insurrection because he'd used it himself.

JC: What would you say is the center of the new book? What drives it?

MB: I'd been probably working on it for three or four years before I figured this out. The ultimate question behind the novel is: what's a human being? This question is easily overlooked, because in our society it's theoretically no longer an issue. It's generally understood that regardless of skin color, human beings are all human. You don't find any serious exception taken to that. But in the 18th century this belief was not generally shared. It was held by some people, but it was quite seriously being argued at the time that black people were the missing link between apes and men, that they were indeed less than human and that this was sufficient justification for slavery.

JC: For the record, the new work on the Haitian slave rebellion is a trilogy. Could you describe the narrative shape of each of the three books? The question is kind of cumbersome, I know. Let's start with the decision to write it as three books.

MB: It seemed to me that the complexity of the politics was so great that I couldn't cover it in one novel of reasonable length. There were too many factions, and I'd have to have an incredibly large cast. I quickly saw that if I did it as one book, it would be about 2000 pages long and probably not publishable. If we still lived in a culture where you could write a novel the length of War and Peace I would probably just do that. But that's not the way it works. In fact, it was psychologically easier on me to subdivide the story. It made the project more conceivable.

Each individual novel is designed so that there will be closure, and it will function as an autonomous novel. The structure resembles The Year of Silence, but played on a larger scale with a smaller number of parts. The resolutions of the three novels depend mostly on things that go on in the lives of fictional characters who are involved in these historical events. My ultimate plan is that if you read all three books together as one book, Toussaint L'Ouverture will emerge as the protagonist of the story. I'm pretty confident I can get that to work. I have experience with those kinds of designs. The first volume, All Souls Rising, is written, and it's on the way.

The peculiarity of this first volume is that Toussaint L'Ouverture is not hugely prominent, because it covers a period when very few of his activities were known. He didn't show his hand in the revolution until comparatively late. Initially, he appeared as a subordinate to some other black leaders. He gradually broke off from them and eventually eliminated them.

The first volume begins with an outbreak of insurrection in 1791, and stops in 1794 with a watershed event, which was the burning of the capital city. White factional politics was really the cause, but what ultimately happened was that tens of thousands of disorganized blacks, not Toussaint's party actually, were admitted to the city by one group of whites who were trying to overcome the others. The whole thing went crazy, and they burned the place down. That's the conclusion of the volume I've completed.

The second volume covers all these military successes of Toussaint's middle period. War in Europe between France and Spain had caused the Spanish people in Santo Domingo, which is at the other end of the island of Haiti, to subsidize the black revolutionaries. At one point the black revolutionaries were even incorporated, at least theoretically, into the Spanish army. Many of them did this in the early period and they invaded the French part of the island as Spanish soldiers. Because Toussaint had gotten news of the abolition of slavery by the French National Assembly, he suddenly changed sides at a moment when the French were totally embattled. There was an English invasion going on the other end of the island, and they had all these black insurgencies to deal with, and they were blockaded; the French position was completely hopeless. All of a sudden Toussaint comes over to their side. He attacked the Spanish and the English on two fronts, won both and negotiated a treaty with the English. After this, a war broke out between the mulattos and blacks, which was called the "War of Knives" because the participants would frequently throw down their swords and pistols in favor of using their nails and teeth to attack each other. Their antipathy ran very deep, sort of visceral and primary.

Volume three is the story of Napoleon's invasion. Napoleon comes to power and things in France get much more conservative. Napoleon sends about 25,000 soldiers to Haiti, commanded by his brother-in-law. This force misread the situation, basically; they were supposed to go down there, briefly put down the slave rebellion and restore slavery, although these were secret orders. Later they were to go on to Louisiana and invade the United States. Haiti would function as a supply post for this maneuver. The truly interesting thing is that if Napoleon had cooperated with Toussaint, he could have led a multi-racial French-sponsored invasion of the United States through Louisiana. Napoleon acknowledges this mistake in his memoirs. Ironically, a fair number of the people who were prominent in the Haitian slave revolution got their military experience fighting in the American Revolutionary War under Lafayette. So the whole thing made perfect sense. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it wasn't at all ridiculous. If Napoleon had succeeded, everything south of the Mason-Dixon line would be like Martinique is now.

That was all completely possible, but instead Napoleon wanted to depose Toussaint, restore white supremacy, and ultimately restore slavery. Napoleon's brother-in-law, Leclerc, arrives with zillions of French soldiers, they fight all these battles, and finally negotiate a settlement with the insurgents. Toussaint was sold out by his own subordinates. There was a lot of unauthorized surrendering on the part of black generals who wanted to believe that the French were sincere in their claim that black liberty was close to their hearts. Leclerc also promised that black generals who acknowledged French authority would retain their rank. A lot of Toussaint's aides de camp believed these claims and went over. Only one held out to the end, Jean Jacques Dessalines, who negotiated a truce whereby he would retain his rank. Toussaint was isolated. He was shortly thereafter entrapped and deported to France in secrecy.

Meanwhile, the fever season began. A lot of French soldiers got sick. Black resistance had never stopped completely, but it broke out again at the height of the French fever epidemic. News came that slavery had been restored in Martinique, and the whole thing just caught on fire. Napoleon lost 25,000 men in this operation, another little known fact. A lot of them were killed. One of the ways this is usually presented is that they died of yellow fever, but a lot of them were killed, probably half.

JC: What are some of the problems you've encountered writing an historical novel? I'm thinking especially of a place like Haiti, with a very complicated history dominated by some strong personalities.

MB: The worst thing about it is the temptation to generalize more. If you're writing a story that takes place today, you have access to a good deal of precise information, all the things that make fiction engaging, that address the senses. When I start describing some character in 18th century Haiti and I want to say what she's wearing, or what she had for breakfast or what she does in her spare time, I have to somehow find these things out. Everyday minutiae that you would simply know if you were writing about events in our own lifetime-all of that material has to be researched or faked. It's very time consuming. It's also very interesting. In fact, the research that you do tends to make you a fanatic.

Another thing that bugs me about it is not really knowing how anybody looked. In Toussaint L'Ouverture's case, there are verbal descriptions and several portraits, but they don't resemble each other at all. They could be six different guys. A lot of them are probably fake anyway. It's like looking for a picture of Crazy Horse. With the Europeans, this drives me crazy because I know that somewhere there are probably fairly accurate pictures of these people, but I don't have any idea how I'm supposed to find them. What do I say about the person's face? So that kind of thing can be very taxing.