Best known for an acclaimed trilogy of novels which chart the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803 (All Souls Rising; Master of the Crossroads; and The Stone That The Builder Refused), Madison Smartt Bell was born and raised in Nashville, TN, and educated at Princeton University and Hollins College. In addition to fiction that ranges from historical novels to short stories to dark psychological thrillers, he has written biographies (one of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier and another of Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture) and Charm City, an idiosyncratic guided tour of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and at Johns Hopkins University and currently directs the Creative Writing program at Goucher College. In 1996, Bell was chosen by the British literary magazine Granta as one of the twenty Best Young American Novelists. He is also an accomplished songwriter and musician.
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Good to Know
"Two of my longterm pastimes are martial arts and music. I think this item of fact should make the characters I've written who practice both more plausible. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for 20 years until my knees stopped cooperating. Since then I've been doing Tae Chi -- great for concentration, meditation, clearing the head and restoring the energy, as well as being easier on the joints for anyone over 40. I've played various fretted instruments since I was 11, most recently electric guitar. Anything Goes, my most recent book, is a novel about a year in the live of a traveling cover band. It features a few original tunes cowritten by me and Wyn Cooper."
"Since 1996 I've been importing a few paintings from the Cap Haitien area of Haiti, as a benefit for painters there who suffer from the sharp decline of tourism. and some of these paintings can be seen at http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/painting.htm."
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Madison Smartt Bell answered some questions from Barnes & Noble.com in the fall of 2002.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
Peter Rabbit? The Holy Bible? The Hobbit? I mean, really. But I'll pick one -- The Idiot, by Dostoevsky. I read this novel in college, when I had been trying write seriously myself for a couple of years, and it made me see how psychological events can be seen as magical or mystical events operating from outside the psyche -- or vice versa -- and that really the distinction between the two categories is arbitrary -- there is no real difference when the experience is the same. And this idea lies behind a lot of what I wrote later.
What are your ten favorite books, and why?
- Dostoevsky -- The Possessed -- This novel may be all the more worth reading today as a study of the psychological inner workings of a terrorist cell. I used a lot of the ideas here in a novel of mine about domestic terrorism in the '80s, Waiting for the End of the World.
- Peter Taylor -- Collected Stories -- Taylor is an old master who can cover ground in a short story like few before him and no one since -- read these to learn how to escape from the tyranny of real time in a short story.
- Robert Penn Warren -- All the King's Men -- Fair to call this a GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, since it dramatizes the best and worst of the American political process as well as it's ever been done.
- Flannery O'Connor -- Complete Short Stories -- The clean and ruthless energy of these stories never fades; they show what it can mean for a writer to be powerfully committed to something larger than the self.
- Robert Stone -- A Flag for Sunrise -- Fair to call this a GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, since it shows how nightmarishly the American Dream has evolved in other parts of the world (and for different reasons,just about any novel by Robert Stone deserves this description just as much).
- George Garrett -- Death of the Fox -- The book that taught me more than anything else about how to write historical fiction credibly from the point of view of another time -- rather treating history as a masquerade with modern characters in costume.
- Russell Banks -- Continental Drift -- Fair to call this A GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL since it makes great art out of the gap betwee the desires our culture encourages, both in and out the United States, and the actual chance of realizing those desires.
- Carolyn Chute -- Merry Men -- This masterpiece, which incorporates her two previous novels, The Beans of Egypt, Maine and Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, can fairly be called a GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL for being the most eloquent work written at the end of the 20th century about the situation of the American working poor.
- Edwidge Danticat -- Farming the Bones -- This chilling account of Trujillo's massacre of Haitian canecutters along the Haitian Dominican Border in the 1930s has a peculiar eternal quality, beyond its horrors.
- Mary Gaitskill -- Bad Behavior -- Stories of the '80s New York scene, this collection is still electrifying today, and stands in vivid contrast to the shallowness and phoniness of so much art and writing of that time and place.
- Ghost Dog -- What a smooth, indissoluble blend of comedy and tragedy! Both a spoof and a tenderly sympathetic study of ritualized cultures of violence as they die.
- Jacob's Ladder -- A bewildering, fascinating hall of mirrors that shakes one's whole idea of personal history, cause and effect, and time itself.
- Performance -- First and most effective use of the subliminal cut -- manipulating the emotional response of the viewer with clips too short (eight frames, typically) for you to know you've seen them.
- Fleischer cartoons! See Ghost Dog above.
Complete works of John Coltrane -- especially A Love Supreme.
- Complete works of Charles Mingus, especially his little-known piano solos.
- Aimee Mann, for the amazing cunning subtleties of her songwriting, and Neil Young, for the blunt sincerity of his.
- Not to forget Captain Beefheart: What sounds like sheer anarchy turns out to be some of the most meticulously crazily organized music ever composed.
What are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
- George Garrett -- Capable of kneeslapping comedy as well as tragic seriousness, Garrett is the most protean and unpredictable writer I've ever known.
- Percival Everett -- A black writer who has consistently declined to be what black writers are supposed to be. Each of his brilliant novels shatters some mold.
- Carolyn Chute -- A wonderful and wonderfully original stylist with a social mission she has consistently expressed in great art.
- William Vollmann -- Vollmann's novels gave "metafiction" the heart it never had before -- as well as as changing our whole idea of what stance the writer can successfully adopt within the work.
- Isak Dinesen -- For the mystery and magical numinosity of her Seven Gothic Tales and others.
- Robert Stone -- Stone has written a brilliant novel about just about every important phase of the "American Century," and his clean, incisive style makes all his work a joy.
- Flannery O'Connor -- The depth of her spiritual commitment gives her work its cutting edge.
- Cormac McCarthy -- One of the very few writers to walk through the shadow of Faulkner's high style and survive the experience, McCarthy is an extravagant southern stylist with a dark but compelling vision.
- Eudora Welty -- Quiet and unassuming as was her life and writing, Miss Welty missed nothing, and expressed everything she observed with a perfect grace.
- Donald Harington -- His cycle of Arkansan novels makes the Ozarks the literary equal of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county.
- Richard Bausch -- An extraordinarily gifted story writer and novelist, Bausch extends the gift of Peter Taylor, and so preserves into our time something of the delicate incisiveness of Henry James.
- Denis Johnson -- Poet as well as a novelist, Johnson gets the best of both genres in his best work, for example, The Stars at Noon.
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Inspiration...the more writers actually have of it, I sometimes think, the less they like to talk about it. But I did once write a few paragraphs on the subject, first published in the Washington Post "Writing Life" section in 1996. I kind of like my original title:
The last time I came back from Haiti, I used a Haitian car service to get into Manhattan. I hadn't known such a thing existed, but there was a dispatcher shouting in Haitian Kreyol when the crowd of Caribbean travelers flushed out onto the curb at Kennedy Airport, hawking a fleet of sleek black cars. My driver was a young Haitian, and during the quiet half-hour transit we spoke to one another in French; it seemed a good way for me to cushion my culture shock.
When I mentioned the research reasons that had taken me to Haiti, the driver asked me why I should have chosen the Haitian Revolution as a subject for a series of novels. I had been asked that question an awful lot of over the past couple of years, and I had a whole anthology of reasonably truthful replies stored in my mind like a worn pack of cards, but after I'd shuffled through all of those, I gave him the strictly Haitian answer: C'était un ésprit qui m'appellait à le faire. It was a spirit which called me to do it. Or in Kreyol, Genyen youn espri ki rele'm pou fè sa.
If one's sense of self is largely constructed out of language, then it may begin to slip when one moves from one language to another. Languages, or even different manners of speaking within a single language, are passports from one culture to another. In writing fiction set in contemporary American subcultures I had become accustomed to setting my personal self aside in order to imagine experience for characters entirely unlike me. When I began writing about Revolutionary Haiti, I had to make more radical transitions in order to imagine what the subjective experience of an eighteenth century French colonial, or of an African imported to Haiti as a slave, would have been like. All this I did through books and maps and pictures and imagination, apparently with a fair success. Haiti was embargoed during the time when I wrote the first of my trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution, so I did not go there until afterward; that third transition was the most radical of them all.
In explanation of a moderate prolificity which has sometimes been admired and at other times held against me, I like to say that my work is dictated to me by demons. It's a workable ploy, a reasonably effective way of brushing off the question. If people ever pressed the point (it's funny how they don't), they'd find out that I actually believe it. Of course it is not that way all the time; that would be too much to pray for. Most of my writing time is a labor of craftsmanship, interminably engineering the rock toward the top of the hill.... But there are other moments, usually with short stories but sometimes with key sections of a novel too, when the narrative simply pours itself onto the page without my having any sense of constructing it. I become no more important an instrument than the pencil I hold, when the narrative is speaking itself through me. These moments are euphoric enough to make all the surrounding laboriousness worthwhile.
Psychologists sometimes call them "flow states." Certainly that state of mind has a great deal in common with light to medium hypnotic trances. Another word I like to use for it is possession.
Vodou, the Haitian religion, involves regular abdication of the self, to make way for the spirits who literally, actually mount the heads of their servants just as a rider mounts a horse. The lwa of Haitian Vodou roughly resemble the pantheons of most other polytheistic religions; they equally resemble the archetypes of the collective unconscious posited by depth psychology. One need not believe in the supernatural to accept the phenomenon of possession, which can be explained (though not explained away) by analogy to hypnosis and multiple personality syndrome. But to Haitian believers, the lwa are as real as rocks. I can say myself that the episode when a stray spirit from a nearby ceremony ripped its way into my head remains the most terrifying and the most seductive of my life.
How does one come to such a point? A modern, First-World citizen thinks of both his conscious and unconscious mind as being discreetly contained within his brain. But at the root level of Haitian society, among the paysans who form the vast majority of the population, the unconscious is not internal but external. There's nothing especially "primitive" about that; you find in early Christian texts, for example, that what we now would consider to be wishes and impulses are discussed as the external promptings of daemons. Well-educated Haitian intellectuals may operate on a continuum between the two extremes; they function in the First World as separated, self-actualized individuals, but when they are reabsorbed into the roots of Haitian culture, they too can be possessed by it all....
In traveling to Haiti I began to accept the breakdown of my personality which would commence at the Port au Prince airport and continue as I went deeper into the country. It started linguistically, with the shift from English to my inferior French and the even more rudimentary Kreyol I have been able to master. Shards of the different languages would jangle together in my head until finally, gratefully, my thinking would pass into a kind of wordless silence.
Comprehension of what was going on around me was no longer the consequence of thought but rather came floating toward me from without, like the inexpressible insights which flower in your dreams. Impulses for action were also external and often had the force of orders from spiritual messengers. In obedience to these I sometimes did peculiar things which were very difficult for me to understand myself, much less explain to anyone else, once I had returned from Haiti. As for my self, it eroded so completely that once, upon catching a glimpse of my face in a mirror, I merely wondered how the white person had got into the room.
Yet I was still somehow doing historical research for the novels, and my trip was usually financed by some magazine assignment to do with the Haiti of today. My notes would collapse day by day from English through French and a little Kreyol until finally I could execute nothing but pictographs. My notebook evolved day by day into a magical object, which, by the end of the trip, I would have to carry always under my belt buckle, next to my skin.
All this gave me a better insight into what it might be like to be Haitian, which was what I needed for the novels. The nonfiction assignments were a bit harder to perform. It was very difficult to organize the experience of being in Haiti into a piece of writing because the experience had nothing at all to do with any of the ways of thinking I normally use for composition. I failed many times, and when I finally succeeded it was because I stopped trying to organize it all and instead simply typed up concentrated fragments of this or that, spread them out on the floor like a giant solitaire game, and began drawing pictures of possible relations between them. When I saw that these pictures resembled the ornamentation on the sword of the lwa Ogun, I realized I was actually making a vévé, one of the mystical diagrams used to summon the gods -- I was doing what the spirit had called me to do.
I... I... I... In the First World, all art is ego-driven, and alas, I am no exception to that rule. I am as greedy and lustful for more and more praise and reward for my work as any other writer in America. My best claim is that at least I am ashamed of it... but that is not at all the same as being free of it. Anyway I'm no worse than the rest of us. If art is to be self-expression then it must always be self-gratification too, so there is no real altruism for artists, even less than for other people. The only way out of this bind is to go to Haiti, where the self has little to do with what you make as an artist, where the work to be made simply uses you as its instrument of passage into the world, where not only your work but your whole life can be dictated to you by daemons.
Haiti is a magical, mystical, marvelous island, and in historical reality it is the very ground of liberation -- the one spot in the Western Hemisphere where African slaves shattered the chains that shackled their European masters to them. Today, Haitian culture is potent enough that I dare hope that it can free me from the tyranny of self. Gegne youn espri ki rele'm pou fè sa. At the very least, it has changed the way I think of my calling.
In the Works
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Bell says he is working on a long novel called The Stone That the Builder Refused a sequel to All Souls' Rising and Master of the Crossroads that "will complete my trilogy about the Haitian Revolution and the rise and fall of Toussaint Louverture."
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|Madison Smartt Bell Home
Good to Know
In the Works
|The Washington Square Ensemble, 1983|
|Waiting for the End of the World, 1985|
|Straight Cut, 1986|
|Zero Db and Other Stories, 1987|
|The Year of Silence, 1987|
|A Soldier's Joy, 1989|
|Barking Man and Other Stories, 1990|
|Dr. Sleep, 1991|
|Save Me, Joe Louis, 1993|
|All Souls' Rising, 1995|
|Ten Indians, 1996|
|Narrative Design: A Writer's Guide to Structure, 1997|
|Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, 2000|
|Master of the Crossroads, 2000|
|Anything Goes, 2002|
|The Stone That the Builder Refused, 2004|