The Beatrice Interview

Madison Smartt Bell

"I've always felt that the Haitian slave revolution is a microcosm of American racial history.."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

In 1996, Madison Smartt Bell was chosen by the British literary magazine Granta as one of the twenty Best Young American Novelists. At the time, he had eight novels out, the most recent of which, All Souls' Rising, was in some ways a significant departure from his earlier work. In it, Bell, who was highly regarded for his portrayals of contemporary society, presented the first volume of a proposed trilogy about the Haitian slave uprising of 1791. Praised by critics nationwide, it went on to earn nominations for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction.

Ten Indians was published a few months after the Granta awards were announced. Returning to the modern world, Bell tells the brief, but intense, story of Devlin, a Baltimore child psychologist whose attempts at community outreach with a martial arts school in an inner-city black neighborhood meet with tragic consequences.

RH: After the historical setting of All Souls' Rising, you jumped right back into a very contemporary urban story with this novel.

MSB: I actually didn't write for a few months after finishing All Souls' Rising, which was a very exhausting project. And while I do plan to write two more novels about the Haitian slave uprising, I've always planned to write shorter novels in between them, so I wouldn't lose touch with my own time completely. Also, All Souls' Rising took five years to complete, and if I devoted fifteen years to writing that trilogy and nothing else, I'd become completely identified as a historical novelist.

RH: But it definitely seems like there's resonance between the historical work and the contemporary novels.

MSB: I don't set out to do that intentionally, but I can certainly look at these two books and see some continuity of theme. In the historical novel, I'm looking at some of the roots and origins of the racial strife that exists in today's society. I've always felt that the Haitian slave revolution is a microcosm of American racial history, and I saw it as very relevant to the plight of the United States today.

RH: Baltimore's an interesting location for the new novel. For a lot of people who aren't familiar with that area, it's a city that's neither North nor South. Watching the interaction between Devlin and the black teenagers is fascinating because Baltimore isn't a place that we think of when we think of, say, the racist South.

MSB: Well, racism is virulent all over the country. I grew up in the South myself. There was a lot of oppression, inequality, apartheid-like stuff, but there was also a lot of contact between the races. People would interact although it wasn't on an equal basis. When I moved to New York and almost everywhere else I've lived in the States, you have a very different kind of apartheid, one where there's virtually no contact on a large scale between the races, just suspicion and fear on both sides. I actually think that a healthier situation is more likely to develop out of conditions in the South rather than New York or Detroit, and indeed has already done so, in places like Atlanta, because of that contact.

RH: Devlin's concept of 'sanctuary' and the inner calm that it gives him also reminded me of Toussaint in All Souls' Rising. His inner calm has a different source, but...

MSB: I hadn't really thought of that, but I guess it does come through in my portrayal of Toussaint. Many of the Haitians I've met seem to have that kind of patience and fortitude, the ability to be in the moment, which is a great cultural gap between us. One of the reasons I've studied martial arts as long as I have is for the opportunity to reach that state of mind.

RH: What prompts the decision to tell a story by weaving multiple voices together? What is it that brings the characters that tell the story to the foreground as you write?

MSB: It just seems like a natural way to tell a story. It's an instinctive choice. In the Haitian novel, multiple voices are necessary to give a clear presentation of the political situation, while in Ten Indians I wanted to use an "on, off, on, off" model, alternating between third person and first person in every other chapter.

RH: In that book, the way you 'count down' the chapters is striking as well.

MSB: Those were the two formal ideas I started with. Part of the appeal was that I knew that that format would probably be limited in length, and I really didn't fell like writing another thousand-page novel then.

RH: How did the National Book Award nomination last year and your selection this year as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists affect you?

MSB: It'll be interesting to see how that affects sales, but it's really too soon to tell. Things look good for the paperback of All Souls' Rising, but the buzz that I've gotten and the numbers that Penguin has been able to shift indicate that I might do better on sales in the short term than with any previous paperback publication I've had. That's probably true for the hardcover as well, in terms of what they'll be able to shift.

I've always had a good critical reputation. I tend to get reviewed well. But I'm not sure how long people will remember the nomination. I think they'll remember it now, because it just happened last year, but if you want people to still be thinking about it in five years, I think you actually have to win. Still, these are all things that keep an author's name in the fore, keep people aware of an author's existence.

RH: It doesn't sound like it's affected your routine.

MSB: The prize nominations generated some additional travel for publicity purposes, which almost immediately led into the tour for this novel. I'm glad that the travelling is over, because I don't have my next novel written. Usually, I have a novel already finished when my latest novel is out, but this time I have two works in progress that are nowhere near complete. The outcome of that is that I'll probably get to stay home for the next twelve months.

RH: One book in progress is the next Haitian novel. And the other?

MSB: That's going to be a short novel about a bar band that travels around the country. I've got one chapter of that written, and about four of the forty chapters of the next Haitian novel. Right now I'm going back and forth, writing a chapter of one, and then a chapter of the other, but in all probability I'll shift my attention fully to one or the other soon.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
John Banville | Joseph Kanon

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan