Writeliving Interview – Madison Smartt Bell

It’s a pleasure to present our next Writeliving interview—Madison Smartt Bell. The first book of Madison’s I read was Soldier’s Joy after I left the Army, and I resonated with the subject matter of returning home and the true nature of brotherhood. Enjoy!

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Just about everything I read, from the Narnia Books through Mark Twain through Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren in my middle teens, and the other great Southern writers of the period (Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Ellen Douglas, and in the next generation Madison Jones, Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews).  Next the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky especially, whom I read in college for the first time.  My interest in Chekov came later (still can’t figure out how he did it… and suspect most people can’t).  I read a certain amount of Francophone literature and recently have really been rejoicing in Stendhal and Flaubert, along with Haitian writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor, Yanick Lahens, Evelyne Trouillot and Edwidge Danticat (though Edwidge does write in English).  Latter-day influences outside of these categories include Mary Gaitskill, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson and Robert Stone.

For hands-on effect, George Garrett, whom I knew first as a teacher and for a long time after as a friend.  Garrett was adept with many different styles and genres of both poetry and fiction.  He taught me many things by instruction and by his example—importantly, not to fear trying anything, and to keep an open mind toward your own work and also work by your students.

Andrew Lytle I had the good luck to know from childhood on.  He paid attention to my published work toward the end of his life and was a remarkably penetrating and original reader of it.  I listened to what he said with great care.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Like most people, though not all of them know it, I tend to compose in a state of light trance.  There are different ways of getting there.  Self-hypnosis, consciously undertaken, is one.  Many writers’ rituals, I believe, amount to self-hypnosis unconsciously undertaken.  In First World culture we usually think of inspiration as coming from within, but in many other cultures it comes from without, a possibility which is built right into the word “inspiration” if you look it closely. At an extreme one may reach a state resembling spirit possession (my travels in Haiti taught me that), or if your belief system prefers, a radically altered psychological state.

Andrew Lytle said, you put yourself apart from yourself, and enter the imaginary world.  After that it’s easy enough—you just describe what you find there.

I have written a good deal about these matters, e.g. in my textbook Narrative Design (http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/nardesign.html) and also been written about in this context:

(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/04/madison-smartt-bell-color-of-night.html).

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, I was never a big fan of Norman Mailer’s work, with the exception of The Executioner’s Song.  I met him once, late in his life, and was surprised, and touched, really, by the kindly interest he took in me.  There’s one thing he said (long ago, I read it in my twenties), which I’ve always valued.  I paraphrase:  The difference between a novice and an experienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day.

When I first read that line, I really couldn’t work on a bad day.  Now I can.  And given the state of publishing and one thing and another, a middle-aged writer’s got a decent supply of bad days coming.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Practically everything.  I don’t trade in my own secrets.

About the Author:

Madison Smartt Bell has published more books than he has fingers and also plays a number of fretted instruments, poorly.  He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

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