12-Bell Blues: An Interview with Novelist Madison Smartt Bell
A rolling stone gathers no moss, and neither does the writer Madison Smartt Bell. The author of 20 novels, including All Souls’ Rising (which was a finalist in 1995 for the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfeld-Wolf award for best book of the year addressing race), Bell is as prolific as he is unpredictable, and 2013-14 is no exception. In the spring, Bell’s novel Behind the Moon will be released by upstart publisher Dymaxicon, and this month, Concord Free Press will release Zig-Zag Wanderer, two decades of stories set in the United States, Haiti, and beyond, under an innovative publishing paradigm. This limited-edition collection will be given away for free (yes, you read that correctly). Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed Madison Smartt Bell about the crazy rhythms that run through his work.– Bell reads at the Ivy, Wednesday, December 11th at 7 p.m.–visit the store’s website for more information.
Jen Michalski: Wow, just an amazing range in this collection, of people, and places you’ve compiled in Zig-Zag Wanderer. And the musical references–Blondie, Leadbelly, REM, Suzanne Vega! You can definitely feel the range of ideas and writing. Some stories, like “Petrified Forest” and “Parallel Lines,” definitely feel like you could have included them in your first collection, Zero dB and Other Stories, which came out in 1987.
Madison Smartt Bell: Well, the unifying theme here is that most of the stories take their titles from songs and have something, however tangential, to do with music of one kind or another. Yes, Blondie, plus Petrified Forest and ZigZag Wanderer are all tangled up with my Captain Beefheart obsession… The stories were written over a very long period. My last collection came out in 1990. I used to write maybe five stories a year but lately it’s been more like one or two… or one. Opportunity knocked to bring the best of them out with Concord Free Press.
JM: I can definitely see that! The title of the collection and story, “Zig-Zag Wanderer,” comes from a song by Captain Beefheart about a homeless person who “zig-zags” around. Certainly, many characters in this collection, set in such disparate places such as London, Paris, New York, Baltimore, and Haiti, are displaced, looking for home, for understanding. But are you hinting at a greater theme here, about yourself, your work?
MSB: I had that story as the title story for many years. I think there’s some connection to my temperament in creating characters. I’m less interested than some in myself as a character, and more interested in what it might be like to be somebody else altogether. To that end, I like to zigzag as widely as I can.
JM: Who turned you on to Concord Free Press, and how did the idea for a collection evolve?
MSB: I met Stona Fitch a long time ago at a reunion of Princeton writers. We hit it off and I’ve followed his career since. The Concord concept, giving away limited-edition copies of books, is refreshingly original. Publishing’s in the middle of a tremendous paradigm shift right now, and I really want to try some different options.
JM: What advice do you have to writers (and even readers) in navigating this shift in paradigm? You were quoted in another interview about the parallels between the music and book industries, and how the digital age of music has decreased revenues for musicians because of pirating. Do you think, with e-books, that readers will feel they should pay less for writing as well? I guess you kind of kill that conversation all together by giving Zig-Zag Wanderer away for free.
MSB: Well… 2 days before my novel The Color of Night came out I got an e-mail offer to download it free to my phone. Once you put content into a medium that can be infinitely replicated without degradation, there will be piracy for sure. I’m a little surprised publishing didn’t proceed more cautiously, having seen what happened with music. Meanwhile, there is a vast cultural change going on, where a lot content distributors depend on people producing for free. I’m a mite uncomfortable with that, perhaps because I spent most of my life in the last century. I think it will work out somehow… hard to say exactly how. For the moment, I am keeping a finger in as many pies as I can find…. And that’s my best advice! Zig-Zag Wanderer is a limited edition, being given away for a specific charitable purpose. I’ll be interested to see what comes of that, in my case. Of course, two-thousand copies is about what the average book of stories might sell, anyway.
JM: Several of the stories have alternating narratives that literally collide, as in “Two Lives,” and the magnificent “Fall of Me,” about 9/11. What do alternating narratives accomplish for you, as a writer? (Given that some writers rarely, if ever, attempt them in short works.) Also, did this structure inform the innovative design of the book, in which nine stories are printed in one direction before the book is flipped up and over, revealing the other nine?
MSB: Thanks for the props for “Fall on Me” (music reference is the Cry Cry Cry recording of the REM song). I wrote it immediately after 9/11 and it’s the most painful writing experience I’ve ever had (most of my writing experience is very happy, I should say). Afterward, it seemed to me the story was kind of underrated and I’m glad it’s getting another shot. Converging narratives, as I’d call them, are used by Robert Stone a lot in his novels, e.g., A Flag for Sunrise. I know I’ve learned something from him there. It can make for efficiency in a short story that has to include a lot of disparate characters. The flipover feature of this book came from Stona and the Concord group. They get the credit (I think Stona was moved in that direction by the zig-zag title); I think it’s brilliant, design-wise and conceptually–author/publisher collaboration at its best.
JM: You have another book coming out in 2014—Behind the Moon—are you using one of these more innovative paradigms for publishing for that as well? Has the publishing landscape in the past 10-15 years changed your approach as a writer?
MSB: Yup. Behind the Moon is a novel just too weird for New York (even I eventually admitted that). So I am publishing it with a very new very small mostly digital west coast press called Dymaxicon, brainchild of my student from the 80s, Hillary Johnson, a brilliant and highly unusual writer in her own right. I’m hoping my book will draw them some attention as a publisher of literary fiction, and I’m talking to them about having a sort of imprint of my own there, to bring out some excellent books that have a hard time finding a home right now…..
JM: You are certainly a powerhouse. In addition to being a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and winning a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, you are also an extremely accomplished blues guitarist, playing in the band The Forgetters. Gravestones are notoriously small for inscriptions–if you could have writer or musician on yours, which would you choose?
MSB: Here lies one whose name was writ in water is my favorite epitaph I can remember. Saint Augustine, I think, has something good to say about the indifference of the dead to the opinions of the living. It’s mentioned toward the end of “A Record as Long as Your Arm,” a story by my old friend and teacher, the late George Garrett. If I ever get a tattoo, it will say “être humain.” Not sure how that would look on a tombstone, though. As for the music I play, I have a lot of fun, do some presentable performances, and have learned, from this practice, a good deal about musicality in language. I’ve played with enough great guitarists to know I’m not one of them…
JM: You say that you’re happy when you’re write–what is writing for you, or why do you write?
MSB: Highly structured daydreaming. And what could be more pleasant?
Don’t forget: Bell reads and signs copies of Zig-Zag Wanderer at the Ivy, Wednesday, December 11th at 7 p.m.–visit the store’s website for more information.