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 Helter–Skelter-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.