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About Madison Smartt Bell

A Profile by Wyn Cooper
Ploughshares Winter 1999-00

When asked about the role of martial arts in his life, Madison Smartt Bell replies that it gave him the opportunity to be bad at something. To those of us who have followed his career as a writer, it's something of a relief to know that this might actually be true. In sixteen years he has published nine novels and two collections of stories to almost universal praise, in addition to writing essays and reviews for Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, The Village Voice, and many other publications. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 92nd Street Y, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and Goucher College, and his students have included Carolyn Chute and Darcey Steinke. In addition to writing numerous screenplays from his own novels and those of others, he is also an accomplished musician and songwriter.

Madison Bell was born in 1957 and raised on the family farm outside Nashville. His parents had gone to Vanderbilt and had been friends with Allen Tate and some of the other Fugitive poets. Bell's mother taught him how to read when he was four, and he began having an image of himself as an author "when I was not as tall as the table." "By the time I was seven," he says, "I thought the writer was the most powerful person in the universe--that's what I wanted to be." He went to a grade school that encouraged creative writing, and a high school that didn't. Near the end of his senior year, he had a spontaneously collapsed lung and was offered the choice of surgery or staying in bed for a couple of weeks to see if the lung would mend on its own, which it did. "Out of ennui," he says with a laugh, "I wrote my first real short story."

In need of a change, Bell applied to Princeton, which, to his great surprise, accepted him with a hefty scholarship. They had a creative writing program for undergraduates, rare in the 1970's, "but you had to show them a body of work to get in. I didn't understand the requirement was a paper tiger, so I left for a semester, moved back to Nashville, got a job, and wrote stories at night." He returned the next semester with an entire portfolio, "which was overkill, but I ended up in George Garrett's workshop and became one of the hundreds of people whose career he has started and fostered." In his four years at Princeton (described in hilarious detail in an early story, "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services"), Bell won four awards for his fiction and graduated summa cum laude.

After Princeton, Bell moved to New York, where he worked as a security guard, a production assistant, and a sound man for Radiotelevisione Italiana. The M.A. program at Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, followed. There, he studied with Richard Dillard and Rosanne Coggeshall, and continued writing some of the stories that would appear in his first collection. His classmates at Hollins included Jill McCorkle, Cathryn Hankla, and Kimberly Kafka. Bell also managed, in the intensive one-year program, to write his first published novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, which Viking put out in 1983.

After Hollins, Bell returned to New York, the locale for most of his early work. In "Zero db," the title story of Bell's first story collection, a sound man in a bar on 14th Street ends the story by advising, into his recording device, "Listen. Listen. Listen. We can never be too attentive to our world." The two novels that preceded the book of stories, The Washington Square Ensemble and Waiting for the End of the World, showed that Bell had already taken this advice. These two New York novels put a twenty-something Tennessean on the New York map. His characters represented everything about New York that scares (or used to scare) so many away: junkies, dealers, prostitutes, anarchists. At a time when Bright Lights, Big City was getting an abundance of attention, Bell was writing about a world that didn't come and go in a decade, a night world that told the rest of the story. His characters, he says, "are the guys that would have been mugging McInerney's characters as they stumbled out of the Odeon at three in the morning."

His fourth novel, The Year of Silence, took an unusual tack: it ends in chapter six, the only chapter from the main character Marian's point of view. The five chapters before, and the five after, are narrated by ten very different people who all knew--or thought they knew--Marian before her overdose. Soldier's Joy, published in 1989, was a long tour de force about a Vietnam vet who comes home to Tennessee and runs into his black childhood friend, a novel held together in part, as its titles implies, by bluegrass music. Bell's second collection of stories, Barking Man, appeared the next year, and the year after that saw the publication of Doctor Sleep, which Bell has described as "basically structured as a prayer." When he finished it, he 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."

Doctor Sleep was Bell's eighth book in as many years, and it was the first time he took a break of longer than a week before starting his next book. Not that he wanted to rest, though: he felt that Doctor Sleep was the end of a trend in his work, and he wasn't sure where to go next. In his own view, his first novel presented "a rather complicated argument" between Islam and the Afro-Caribbean religion Santeria; his second had very much to do with Eastern Orthodox Christianity; his third, Straight Cut, which was more like a conventional thriller than the others, involved "philosophical Christianity under the aegis of Kierkegaard"; The Year of Silence concerned life in a world without religion, based on the ideas of French existentialism; and Soldier's Joy went back to primitive Christianity. Bell's pilgrimage ended with Doctor Sleep, which embraced hermetic gnosticism and the writings of Giordano Bruno. "This seemed like the answer," Bell says. "I think the idea that the universe is divinity is viable as a fundamental precept for a reformed religion for our time."

While researching Santeria for his first novel, Bell ended up reading some books on voodoo, which fascinated him. While researching his second novel, he happened upon some studies of the Haitian revolution, and became especially interested in the character of Toussaint Louverture. Thus All Souls' Rising was born, a dozen years before its publication in 1995. Bell continued researching the only successful slave revolt in this or any hemisphere, and finally began writing the novel, very slowly at first, after the release of Doctor Sleep. He intensified his research, relearned French, and learned Creole--but there was one thing he could not do, because of an embargo: go to Haiti. The conditions under which he wrote the novel, he says, "were in a way ridiculous. I'd never been there, I didn't know any Haitians, and so I was relying entirely on historical records, which fortunately were pretty complete, and on anthropology."

The fact that All Souls' Rising was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and that he was named one of Granta magazine's "Best American Novelists Under Forty," seems less important to Bell than the fact that "it was good enough to convince a lot of Haitians who've talked to me about it. For an outsider writing from the point of view of an insider, to get anybody on your side validated it." Bell knows a lot about the reaction in Haiti to his book, having made nine trips there in the four years since the book appeared. It has also done well in France, where he has read from it--in French. The novel is the first in a trilogy that will eventually cover the entire revolution, with Toussaint Louverture at the center.

Bell recently completed the second volume, Master of the Crossroads, which Pantheon will publish in the fall of 2000. "I tried to make this book less violent than the first one," he says. Indeed, the violence in All Souls' Rising got rather graphic. In The New York Times Book Review, John Vernon called it a "carefully drawn road map through hell." He also said the novel, "refreshingly ambitious and maximalist in its approach, takes enormous chances, and consequently will haunt readers long after plenty of flawless books have found their little slots on their narrow shelves." The only negative reviews seemed centered on the assumption that the violence was gratuitous. Bell received complaints from readers that the book gave them nightmares. "The real reply," he says, "is that it's supposed to."

The fact that Bell's maximalist approach has paid off critically is more than just a feather in his cap. In 1986, before he had turned thirty, Bell turned his sharp critical eye on the rising tide of minimalist fiction in an essay for Harper's, "Less Is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story." Taking aim at a few writers who Bell thought had far too much influence, his long, cogent essay sent shock waves across the literary landscape. Someone was daring to criticize the work of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie? Was he out of his mind? Was Carver really guilty of "dime-store determinism," abusing his characters, "presenting them as utterly unconscious one moment and turning them into mouthpieces for his own notions the next"? Bell's argument was extremely convincing, though his courage took its toll. More than one person threatened to stamp out his career. "There was enough ire among powerful publishing types to do me harm, but obviously I'm still around."

Bell shares the position of writer-in-residence at Goucher College with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has taught there since 1984, and has helped a small army of fiction writers find their way into print. He finds that teaching helps him immensely when it comes to editing his own work, because he stays in practice. What does he do in his spare time? He wrote a screenplay for Roger Corman about the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. Two current film projects, one based on Doctor Sleep and one on Save Me, Joe Louis, "are looking like they might happen." He is a first-rate guitarist, very partial to his Gibson Les Paul. A current book project involves that very instrument, as well as both a fictional and a real rock and roll band--and the songs of both.

Wyn Cooper attended Hollins College with Madison Smartt Bell. He is a poet and songwriter. His second collection, The Way Back, will be published by White Pine Press in the spring of 2000.


Madison Smartt Bell's Web site