Relationships Normally Beyond Our Knowing: An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell


Linear time doesn’t exist in Madison Smartt Bell’s new fever dream of a novel Behind the Moon, at least not for long. The fractured narrative centers on a young woman named Julie who falls into a deep Badlands cave while fleeing would-be rapists. In her liminal, un-, or semi-conscious state, she’s able to interact with the prehistoric paintings on the cave walls. Elsewhere, in interspersed sections, her mother—who gave her up for adoption years earlier—is lured to the hospital to which Julie has been transferred and where she remains in a coma. A shady shaman also steps in to help, or to attempt to. The novel works in disordered and mystical ways. It maintains a remarkable ability to surprise.

Bell is likely best known for his trilogy of historic novels about Toussaint L’ouverture and the Haitian revolution and the widely taught craft book Narrative Form: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, but it would be a mistake to snooze on his back catalog titles like Save Me, Joe Louis and Waiting for the End of the World. I find myself going back to his short stories every few weeks, especially those in Zero db and The Barking Man. Over the past three decades, Bell has proven capable of changing direction in his work, but a singular American voice resonates throughout his oeuvre. A. M. Homes has called Behind the Moon “a visceral, full-body primal experience.”

Bell cotaught (with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires) the one and only creative class I took as an undergraduate at Goucher College. In a letter at the end of the semester, he wrote to me, “We’ve already gone over most of these stories pretty thoroughly so I won’t go into them again except to admire your patience for painstaking revisions—much greater than mine as a student (or even now, sometimes).” I’m still an obsessive rewriter. Something I wrote in that class formed, many years later, the basis of my first published story, so to claim that Bell’s guidance and inspiration have been foundational to my own writing life would be a vast understatement. But that’s only part of the reason it was such a joy to exchange emails with him about Behind the Moon near the end of April. 

INTERVIEWER

Time functions very strangely—and wonderfully—in Behind the Moon. How did you come to this technique and what does it suggest about Julie’s plight?

BELL

Some time before I started writing the novel I had one of those dreams that reveals the meaning of life. Normally when you wake from a dream like that you retain only some phrase like “eighty-five-inch iron rebar!” which has somehow lost its numinosity, significance, et cetera. The man from Porlock has come and gone. However, from this dream I retained an image that still seemed to mean something, so I tried to draw it and find ways to use it as a template for future work. There’s an effort to describe it early in the book. “Would the blood smell attract the bear? But the bear was an illusion, it was painted on the wall, and then there was something else painted there, or not, something she saw now or had seen, a swirl of bright specks in spirals like a cyclone or the image of a broad-bladed, fleshy leaf, which bulged and rippled in the rising wind.”

Then, later on, some of that imagery gets adapted to stages of the shamanic journey and so on. But the meaning of the dream itself is still very difficult to express. In the novel, the idea was to use it as a sort of spatial representation of the way events relate to each other in time (a relationship normally beyond our knowing) and I think that was probably the origin of my idea of running a lot of alternative versions of the same (almost the same) sequence of events in the first movement of the book (and again in the last movement).

INTERVIEWER

Beyond dreams, you have discussed other kinds of inspirations that some people might consider unconventional—shamanism, demonic possession, hypnotism. How do stories find you? Does your fiction provide a way to better understand the slippages between real and the extra-real?

BELL

Can we say “spirit possession” instead? I prefer “daimon” to “demon” generally because the former spelling is more or less morally neutral, and can be positive on occasion. “Demonic possession” is apt to have a pejorative flavor in some contexts. My experience with spirit possession in Haiti changed my attitude toward artistic “inspiration.” I looked at the construction of the word and thought, Oh, right, a spirit comes into you and afterward speaks and acts through you for a while. In nonmystical discussions of pure creativity, this situation is often called a “flow state.” The great thing about Haitian culture is that it doesn’t dissociate spiritual and material events. Both are considered to be concrete elements of reality. In the First World, most of us have learned to compartmentalize the two experiences separately, which makes it far more difficult to have anything that feels like an authentic spiritual experience. By no means is this sort of thing unique to Haitian vodou—all or almost all religions have a component of possession in them somewhere. In Quaker meetings today, for example, it is formally understood that if you stand up to speak it is not you speaking at all but the Holy Spirit speaking through you (and if not, keep your mouth shut). There are shamanic practitioners around today in sort of New Age milieu. I did some cursory research into that, for writing Behind the Moon, and wasn’t much interested. It seems reconstructed from not much, like Wicca. (I wouldn’t doubt that some contemporary shamans and Wiccans are onto something real but for me it’s hard to tell them apart.) To find the kind of shamanism that presumably was practiced in those caves where the prehistoric paintings are you would have to leave the First World altogether, I think (and I know that statement lays me open to charges of exoticism). One of the areas in which the shamanic journey overlaps with spirit possession in vodou is that both free you, temporarily, from the tyranny of your ego, which most in the First World consider to be the whole self. Hypnotism I consider to be a mechanism for getting to an altered state where either spirit possession or a creative flow state (or some blend of the two!) can get underway. Religion is full of trance-inducing ritual and music, and a lot of those eccentric writer’s rituals we hear about have the same purpose, I believe.

And yes, I think a lot of my fiction tries to represent this kind of experience. For Behind the Moon it’s probably the main subject. Expressing the inexpressible is what we’re all about, right?

INTERVIEWER

What are your writing habits? Is there a meditative component to applying words to the page?

BELL

I try to spend the first three hours of the morning, Monday through Friday, writing on whatever project I have in hand. If it’s fiction I can often profit from a lucid dream state to fix the upcoming scene in my imagination before I get out of bed. There are a couple of religious observations I make first thing in the morning and ideally I move through those directly to composition. I used to handwrite all my fiction with a Rapidograph pen, an extremely finicky instrument that needed a lot of coaxing to get started, so that was my before-beginning writer’s ritual. I’m just as happy to have bypassed that. Somewhere in the middle of writing Devil’s Dream I shifted to composing directly on the keyboard for efficiency’s sake, I guess, and moved by increasing time pressure in other areas of my life. Also because the act of writing longhand (I have habitually terrible posture for that) was beginning to give me some nasty repetitive motion problems. Sometimes I think of going back to it for certain projects. But really the main point is to not let the physical aspect of the medium get in the way. I figured out in the 1980s that the flow state is essentially a light hypnotic trance and that writers and artists intuitively figure out their own auto-induction methods of getting there. For me, it’s easy. I’m a congenital daydreamer. My problem is more like being fully conscious of the “real world” when I need to be.

INTERVIEWER

What are your five favorite songs about the moon?

BELL

  • “The Moon will be Bleeding” (early American folk song, Hedy West version)
  • “Shoot the Moon” (Nora Jones)
  • “Blue Moon Revisited” (Cowboy Junkies)
  • “Yellow Moon” (Neville Brothers)
  • “Pink Moon” (Nick Drake)
  • “Moonlight on Vermont” (Captain Beefheart)
  • “Moondance” (Van Morrison)
  • “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (Bill Monroe)
  • “Nobody Wants to Go to the Moon Anymore” (Kelly Willis)

More than five, you say? I say they’re all good!

Andrew Ervin’s latest book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. He’s also the author of the novella collection Extraordinary Renditions and the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House. He lives in Philadelphia.

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