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