I bet it’s hard for some people not to be jealous of Madison Smartt Bell.  He published his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, in 1983 when he was only 25.  Since then he has published 20 more books and has been named a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for All Souls Rising. Additionally, in 2008, Madison was awarded the Strauss Living Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Aside from all the awards, Madison has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he plays guitar, and he sings like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash.  And let us not forget that  Richard Avedon took a very cool photo of him once for The New Yorker!

Madison’s latest book, The Color of Night (Vintage Original), is a haunting, violent, terrifying story that will grip you from the first word to the last.  In the acknowledgments, he writes, “Surely it is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page, so inevitably some people will hate it.”  I loved this book and have a feeling all but the very prudish will feel the same.

Here are six questions for Madison Smartt Bell:

 

THE COLOR OF NIGHT is written from the point-of-view of a woman, Mae, teetering between middle and old age.  Was that a hard voice for you?  Or did you feel her inside you?

My first idea was for the narrator to be a sort of witchy old crone.  But then if I realized that if she had been in her teens in the late sixties she didn’t have to be as old as all that.  Fifty is the new thirty….you know.  She could still be active and attractive.  Although in another sense you might say that she is archetypally old.

Writing her voice was bewilderingly easy, though in earlier work I’d found it very hard to write from a woman’s point of view convincingly.  (Since finishing this book it has seemed easier; I hope that’s not a delusion).  It just fell out of me from somewhere onto the page.  The whole thing was written quickly, composed directly on the keyboard for the most part, and with very little revision either.  I felt like I was channeling the character, or possessed by her, which seemed to fit this particular story spookily well.

 

You describe the Manson Family without really mentioning the Mansons.  Can you tell me if the details in this story are accurate to the Manson Family or if they’re made up?

I would say it’s more like a group that makes the reader recall the Manson Family.  I’m writing about a Dionsysan cult that produces frenzies among its women, who in fact are maenads.  I happen to think that the Manson Family did fit that paradigm, but that’s just my theory, for whatever it’s worth.  For me the important thing for the book was to coax the elements of classical tragedy and the old mystery cults out of the situation.

These are fictional characters, especially Laurel and Mae.  I wouldn’t have had enough freedom with them otherwise.  The exact details of the Manson story are found in Vince Bugliosi’s HelterSkelter-a very good book and a very scary one, even now.

 

This is one of the most violent books I’ve ever read.  I couldn’t finish In Cold Blood because it was too much for me.  But there’s something about the way you approach the violence via Mae, your narrator, that eased me through it.

You should try All Souls’ Rising sometime.  But seriously….  For me the creepiest thing about In Cold Blood is that at the time of the writing Capote understood that readers would already know the “what” of the story, since it had been all over the news, so in order to generate suspense he shifts attention and expectation to “how,” which becomes what the whole book has to reveal.  And he does it very subtly and skillfully.  The reader is lured along through the story by the most prurient interest imaginable in exactly how the hair got on the walls of the Clutter house, which the writer teasingly withholds to the end-and of course the reader knows these are real people …so, you know, it’s a snuff movie.  I still find this tactic to be fundamentally depraved.

So I hope that’s not what I did!  I think not.  The point in common is  that the reader can anticipate the outcome of the sixties plot thread in The Color of Night, but to me that meant I didn’t have to write those scenes explicitly.  I don’t think there are more than a thousand words directly depicting violence in the book, and even Mae’s eye is somewhat averted from the murders in the canyon, so there are only quick flashes of those.  Though I do think that maybe the less you see of it the more it bothers you; it casts a shadow over the whole narrative.  The real point of interest, for Mae and for me and the reader too I hope, is not hair on the walls but violent catharsis, in the Aristotelian sense.

 

I don’t want to give away too much, but I have to point out that although Mae commits some horrible, heinous crimes in this book, she is also a very sympathetic character.  It’s the same way I feel about Tony Soprano-he strangled his nephew to death (among other crimes), and yet when the FBI guys were running after him I was rooting for him to get away.  Did you deliberately seek the reader’s sympathies with Mae?  Or do you think that’s just how it sorts out when you give the complete, full character?

Yes, that aspect of things is rather strange; even I find it so.  I once said she had the beauty of a snake and my agent said it was like watching a cat kill mice; that is you don’t blame the cat for acting on its nature.  Mae expresses her essence, dreadful as it is, in a very pure way, and there’s something attractive about that.  Or at least compelling.

A conventional explanation of Mae would be that she is a victim/perpetrator in a cycle of abuse, and this option is available to the reader, but she doesn’t see herself that way, and I don’t either.   In fact her refusal to think of herself as a victim has its admirable side.  Tony Soprano’s sympathetic, I think, because he’s human and so many ways such a “regular guy.”  With Mae it’s the other way around I think.  Her project is to make herself immortal.  The more she can pull the reader into her vision of the way the world is, the more sympathetic she becomes.  Denis Johnson does something similar in The Stars at Noon, a book I much admire.

Making a real bid for the reader’s sympathy is not something Mae would do.  She’s a take it or leave it kind of person.  And in the writing I really did feel I was functioning as her secretary and not much more….

 

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 also appear in this book, but in a way that I’ve never seen before.  What made you decide to pull the events of 9/11 into an already tragic and violent story?

Well… for me the whole structure of the novel depends on the two horrifically violent episodes – 9/11 and the one in the sixties-and the space between them, which for Mae is empty space, the desert she inhabits for all those years, as if in a state of suspended animation.  9/11 brings her out of it.  For her (she’s not like the rest of us!) it’s invigorating.  In the end her attitude changes a bit, or is at risk of changing, as she becomes increasingly alarmed and even a bit threatened by her own human dimension.

 

I know that you wrote this book while you were writing one or two other books, running the Kratz Writing Center and teaching at Goucher College, and raising your daughter.  Can you please tell me how you manage to get so much done?  Do you ever watch TV? Do you ever lounge on the couch and read magazines? Have you ever wasted an afternoon playing Scrabble against a computer on your iPad? Please explain!

I don’t watch much TV, though as you see I do have an opinion of Tony Soparano; I tend to save magazines to read while operating exercise equipment; and I don’t play games on computers or have an iPad (though do think it’s a cool machine….).

I’m not a total workaholic either, lest I give the wrong impression.  I do martial arts, mostly tai chi now.  I spend quite a bit of time playing music.  I take naps and read for amusement.

But I think the real answer to your question is that I have always had a really good intuitive grasp of structure, which means that I can usually get a piece of writing, long or short, organized the way I want on first draft.  And I also can get a sufficiently polished surface quickly.  Together those two things save a lot of time.  I think I spend a lot less time on revision than most writers; it’s the one area where I’m a little lazy and don’t like to do it.

 

Okay, so you revise less than the rest of us.  Maybe that’s what it means to be a genius.  Lucky you!

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JESSICA ANYA BLAU's third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was selected as a Summer Read on NPR's All Things Considered, CNN's Book Chat, and Oprah's Book Club. She is also the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.

32 responses to “Six Questions for Madison Smartt Bell”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    This is great, Jessica, and the book sounds amazing. Thanks!

  2. You’d love the book, Greg. It’s chilling–it will haunt you!

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Darn it, Jessica Anya,
    Now I have to download another book,
    since this one sounds like it’s right for Victor.
    I will totally be in trouble again.
    I hope you’re happy.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      No, you won’t be in trouble! Victor will love it! Victor’s cool and interesting and curious and this is an intense book for curious people.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Jessica Anya,
        You don’t understand how carefully Victor peruses the MasterCard bills.
        Seriously, there will be a storm coming.
        I have not been thrifty with my kindle downloads.
        I must admit that.
        I am totally in the wrong here,
        since I believe I have more books on mine than I can possibly read
        even on a month-long trip.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    I forgot to say something, Jessica Anya,
    Madison Smartt Bell is the coolest name in the world.
    Did he make it up?
    Surely you can’t have that name for real.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Someone, I think it was the poet Greg Williamson who’s from Tennessee (like Madison), told me that Madison’s related to some famous Tennessee witch–The Bell Witch, or something like that. We’ll have to get him on here to answer this question. Or, I’ll send him an email and post his answer for him.
      Yes, very cool name. And I’m certain it’s real. He’s got this cool Tenn. accent. People who talk like that don’t make up their names.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Jessica Anya,
    The only hope I had was that it wasn’t available on kindle.
    It was available on kindle.
    I’m so much in trouble when he sees.
    You should stop giving such good interviews,
    it’s bad for my marriage.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      I’m glad you got this book! But save your kindle dollars between now and next week, because next week I have an interview with Francine Prose who also wrote a very, very great book.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    NO!!!!!!!!!

  7. Madison Smartt Bell is my government name. Madison was my grandfather’s 1st name, which he received many years before the Splash mermaid feminized it.

    Smartts with ttwo tts are a big clan in Middle Tennessee where I am from. they would be mad at me if I did not use their name.

    Bell descends from the bewitched John Bell of Tennessee, and his family, the witch being known as The Bell Witch. You can feast your Google eyes on that one…. and before that Scotland, etc….

    y’all be good

    msb

  8. Rosalia says:

    Excellent and intriguing interview. I just bought the book and am looking forward to reading it! In fact, I’d like to hoard all of MSB’s books and read them all!

    thanks for a compelling six questions!
    Rosalia

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Thanks for reading, Rosalia! This book is shorter than most of Madison’s books–you can start and finish it in an afternoon. Might be a good one to start with.

  9. Thanks, Jessica, for the great interview, as always. I do think characters take a hold of you when writing, and it’s less about making a character sketch and trying to get all their details right in your head than just getting the f*ck out of their way on the page. Looking forward to reading it as well!

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Yes, I agree with you, Jen. The characters that come out of us naturally are always the best. You can tell when someone’s forcing out a character, you can see the act of creation in a sense. But the best characters feel like they are fully present–around before we read about them and still around when we’re done with the book.

  10. Great interview, Jessica…. another book TBR. I need more time!

  11. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for reading, Robin. Yes, yes, yes, we ALL need more time! But I really don’t want to stop playing Scrabble on my iPhone–such a great time-waster!

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    Terrific interview — and I say that after a long period of feeling a bit burnt out on reading interviews.

    I first heard of MSB through a development exec for Roger Corman. Her name was Beverly Grey, and she’d been an English professor at USC before working for Roger (or it may be that she worked for Roger, then moved on to USC, then went back to Roger). Later, she wrote a book about Roger, for which I was interviewed, and I remember her saying, with a note of displeasure, that the transcript of her interview with me was the lengthiest she’d done for the book. We’ve since fallen out of touch, but I always enjoyed meeting with her for input when I was writing for Roger. She knew literature (of course), so that her notes would catch the influence of, for instance, Pinter’s The Homecoming in my scripts. (Yes, I would — pretentiously? — draw on the likes of Pinter for Roger Corman scripts.) At one point I started writing “serious” novel, which I mentioned to her, asking for advice as to publication, etc., and she cited MSB as a serious novelist of her acquaintance, sort of passing along things he’d said to her about the business of being a serious novelist. Later, I knew a filmmaker who wanted to adapt one of MSB’s stores into a film, possibly a short film and possibly without MSB’s knowledge (I’m hazy on the details), but I don’t believe anything ever came of that. At the filmmaker’s request, I read the story, and while I don’t remember the title, I did think the story was very good.

    I like what MSB has to say about the Manson Family. I’ve always thought the murders they committed were less the result of Manson’s orders and more the shared madness of the group. All it would take was a suggestion on Manson’s part, a mere hint that he wanted something done, and his followers would gladly do it. I agree that Helter Skelter is a very good book, but it’s controversial among students of the case, in part because it allowed Bugliosi to considerably profit from the crimes he prosecuted, and also because of doubts as to the legitimacy of the Helter Skelter motive, which some think was greatly exaggerated or even invented by Bugliosi as a way of convicting Manson, along with his co-defendants, even though Manson who wasn’t present for any of the murders. I personally think Bugliosi was exaggerating the importance of the Helter Skelter motive, but, at the same time, I think Manson deserved his conviction. He may not have literally killed anyone, but he tied up some of the victims, and he did tell his girls, before sending them to Sharon Tate house, to do whatever Tex Watson told them to do, and he questioned them about the killings when they returned, asking if they had any remorse. That much, I think, is accepted by every student of the case as inarguable fact, yet there are some who don’t believe, as I do, that it puts blood on Manson’s hands. That it was phantom blood doesn’t make him less culpable of murder.

    If only, like MSB, I didn’t have to revise so goddamned much!

    • Jessica Blau says:

      If only we all didn’t have to revise so damned much!

      Thanks for this great and interesting comment, Duke. I haven’t read the Bugliosi book but plan on reading it soon. My interest in the Manson family is totally new, brought about by reading Madison’s book. I’d really like to hear what you think of THE COLOR OF NIGHT and how Bell portrays the relationships/psychology and, as you say, “shared madness” or the Mansons.

  13. Jessica's Mother says:

    Nice interview, Jessica. I’m ordering the book.

    • Irene Zion says:

      Dear Jessica’s Mother,
      I love your daughter.
      Everyone does.
      You did a great job with her.
      Congratulations!
      Irene Zion

  14. Jessica Blau says:

    Hey, Mama! Thanks for reading the interview. You’ll like the book. Your kind of thing.

  15. Alison Aucoin says:

    Wow, even this interview seemed bigger than life. Thanks!

  16. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for reading, Alison!

    Madison is a bit bigger than life. I was talking to him a few weeks back and I mentioned that my shoulder was hurting–tendonitis or something like that. He pulled my arm back, pushed down on my shoulder, did some quick contorting of the whole back/shoulder/arm area and, I’m not kidding, it was better. Hasn’t hurt since!

  17. Becca says:

    Good interview Sis – I am ordering two of his books.

  18. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I especially enjoyed the glimpse into his process. Many good wishes for success–for both of you!

  19. I cannot believe I get to be the first to congratulate Madison for having the stones to name his book after one of my all time favorite Jane March/Bruce Willis/Bruce Willis’ Hairpiece movies:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-9odZGDREc

  20. Jessica Blau says:

    Holy moly! Is it seriously a great film or is it bad good? Is there word for that? The film equivalent of jolie laide.

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