Arts & Culture

Writer Madison Smartt Bell Talks About New Book

The author and Goucher professor joins us to talk about his new book Behind the Moon.

You’re best known for your trilogy of books about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, which is really different subject matter from this book. How did you come up with the idea?

Well, there actually is a connection. The first glimmer of an idea for Behind the Moon came from this Judith Thurman article in The New Yorker about the Chauvet caves. There’s some anthropologists that have a theory that cave paintings were part of prehistoric religious practice, the original shamanism. Some of the details reminded me of my experiences in the context of Haitian Vodou. I tend to fall back on that kind of stuff in Behind the Moon.

How did the idea evolve from there?

My previous novel The Color of Night had been rejected by my usual New York publisher, which perplexed me because I thought it was one of my best. About nine months went by where I didn’t know what was going to happen with that book, and then my New York editor changed his mind about it and published it anyway, which was nice. But during that gap, I was in the situation where I needed to write something, but I didn’t need to write to please anybody, so I thought I’d do something different, I’d do something strange and hopefully have a good time doing it. 

I rely a lot on unconscious processes and with this project maybe more so than most. Particularly the first movement had this thing going on where I found myself repeatedly fracturing the story line so episodes repeat with minor variations. Then the Marisa character appeared and she has a more conventional story line, and the parts with her in them are more realistic. Once she was in there, it hardened into an area of South Dakota. The upside of all of this, which I’ve really just started to understand from hearing people react to it, is there’s a non-linear process going on that’s in contention with the more linear story line. But that all happened kind of by accident. I didn’t do much planning for this one. 

I really appreciated the overall mood of the book.
One of the things I realized during the overall publication period—I was not conscious of this goal at the time—is not to describe the shamanic journey to readers but to have them actually experience that. So all the vagaries in the writing were toward that end. It’s a pleasant way to write. If you can write without thinking about what you’re doing too much, that’s the best way. 

I read an article in The New Yorker in which you talked said you put yourself in a trance to write. Is that still part of your method?
I honestly think that every writer does it, we just don’t necessarily think that’s what we’re doing. My wife and I were living in London in the early 1980s, and I went to a therapeutic hypnotist for some trivial cause. It was a really interesting experience. One part of me was saying, “Hey, this is cool, I could probably use this for teaching,” and the other part of me was experiencing it and thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know this was possible.” 

I thought it over afterward and I realized that writers try to get into a flow state where you’re writing easily, you’re not conscious of your material tools or craft knowledge, it just happens. It gets deployed automatically in the same way that musicians and athletes deploy their training automatically, and I think the mechanism for getting there is a kind of self-hypnosis through all the writerly rituals you hear about—the sharpening of pencils, writing in a certain place. Those basically are elements of the self-hypnotic induction.

Did you use that method when you were writing Behind the Moon?
It wasn’t so much that I thought, “Oh, I’m now going to do this.” I just realized I had always done it. I was a naturally committed daydreamer from the time I was a small child. Before I had this experience with hypnosis, I was trying to say to students, “I’m going to teach you craft, but the most important thing that can be taught is to enter the world you are writing about with your entire imagination. Once you can do that, describe what you’re experiencing and the whole thing becomes a lot easier.” 

You and your wife, poet Elizabeth Spires, have taught at Goucher College since 1984. How do you balance your own writing with your teaching?
The program has grown so much in the last few years. When my wife and I started it in the 1980s, there were a couple of courses and now we have this whole four-year program with about 60 students in it. A side effect of that is, though I used to teach everybody, now I get them typically in their third year so they’re all worked out and very committed and have some pretty good skill sets, so it’s really a luxurious teaching experience. 

For most of my teaching career, I’ve been able to say, “I’m going to write for two or three hours every morning and do whatever else I have to do after that.” I teach half time, since my wife and I split a single position at Goucher, so it’s not too arduous and probably more important than any of that, I am not one of those writers who feel drained by teaching. I’m actually able to take energy out of it and use it for my own projects. That’s a piece of good luck there. 

How has the Baltimore literary scene changed since you’ve started the program?
Having spent 25 years running around to readings and stuff like that, I don’t do too much of that any more. I’m an admirer of what Gregg Wilhelm and Jen Michalski do in terms of running reading series. And then the academic writing program at Johns Hopkins University—I think we can give them a run for their money at the undergraduate level, but at the graduate level, we’re not really doing what they do.

What can we expect to see next from you?
I have a novel that’s in submission right now, and then I have two contracts. One to do a biography of the late novelist Robert Stone. And then he actually owed a book to a publisher when he died, and they needed someone to curate that whole process, so I’m doing that on a second contract. I’m pretty busy. The unfortunate thing about that is I can’t really permit myself to write fiction until I’ve finished these project and I’m starting to get a little itchy about that. I’m on sabbatical this coming year and I hope to wrap both of them up in that amount of time.

When you start writing fiction again, do you already have ideas that you want to pursue, or do those come out once you start writing?
I do have a couple of projects that I had started before the Robert Stone stuff happened. One of them I might not go back to and one of them I probably will. 

Can you tell what it’s about?
A school shooting. It’s got the Columbine element in it. I created this imaginary place, a private school in this pocket between affluent neighborhoods that’s in the Rust Belt sector. The linchpin figure in this is a janitor who lives within the premises of the school who can go out the back gate to get to this other neighborhood, so he’s a person between two worlds. 

You could say that about Behind the Moon, too. The character Julie is literally caught between two worlds.
Yeah, I thought about calling it Girlfriend In a Coma, but that title was already taken.