‘So Far the Digital Revolution Has Not Done Much Good for Literary Writers’

‘All Souls’ Rising author Madison Smartt Bell on agents, early success, and teaching writing

This is the first in a regular series of interviews with working writers conducted by by the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, a writers’ retreat in Northern California. First up is Madison Smartt Bell, a writer of distinction and range best known for his award-winning historical trilogy set in revolution-era Haiti, starting with All Souls’ Rising. Of his more than a dozen works of fiction, he’s covered a wide range, taking on the sweep of history or having fun with a book like Anything Goes, a novel about small-time musicians summed up this way in a San Francisco Chronicle review: “What Bell has given us here is a story, like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, that uses the fun of a rock ‘n’ roll background to keep you turning the pages but stays with you, hauntingly and beautifully. It comes through with insight and a sense of discovery the reader can take as his own — and all without having any beer spilled on him.” Bell has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Johns Hopkins, and (currently) Goucher College, and has been nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award,.

The Wellstone Center in the Redwoods: Looking back on your earlier years as a writer, what were some experiences that were formative? Were there setbacks that forced you in some new direction?

Madison Smartt Bell: I had horrible difficulty getting started on my second published novel, Waiting For the End of the World. Over a year went by before I could find any footing in it. The problem turned out to be that, having published a first novel, I assumed I was a pro now and knew everything and couldn’t understand that I would have to learn new skills in order to write a book whose conception was completely different from the first in every way. Seems obvious! But it took me about eighteen months to figure it out. Once I did, I acquired a little humility (very little, but enough) which served me well in expanding my bag of tricks for future work.

I followed my first editor, Cork Smith, from Viking to Ticknor and Fields and then to Harcourt. So I had the unimaginable luxury, for a writer of my generation, of doing nine books with the same editor. I would hold manuscripts out of circulation when Cork was between jobs. Doctor Sleep sat in a box for a year, until he got a desk at Harcourt. But I got a better deal than I would have otherwise. I was just finishing All Souls’ Rising when Cork left Harcourt and publishing for good. That book started the most successful phase of my career so far, but no one would have predicted that. My agent, the great Jane Gelfman, thought I was crazy when I first described it to her, and it wasn’t an easy sell. At that time New York publishing was half what it was when I started in 1983 — with conglomeration and all that there were really only seven trade publishers still standing, and All Souls’ Rising was rejected by five of them. In the end I got the best possible deal, and the one Jane had wanted from the start, with Sonny Mehta and Dan Frank at Random House.

WCR: And All Souls’ Rising would go on to be nominated for some major awards. What were the early successes that helped move you along as a young writer?

Bell: It’s a little odd but I think on balance I have been fortunate never to have been overrated, having seen a good number of young American writers get seriously thrown off track by blasts of success for very early work. I have always got just enough reward to keep me and my publishers going to the next step — including being a finalist (but not a winner!) for the National Book Award and Pen/Faulkner in 1995. Nowadays, with midlist writers on the brink of extinction, it’s a little tougher, but still and all I have been able to reinvent myself two or three times with some success — most writers only get one shot, if that.

WCR: You mentioned your agent, the great Jane Gelfman, and she’s for sure a great agent. What are some of the qualities that make a great literary agent, embodied by Jane?

Bell: I’ve known Jane since 1981 and she has become a very close friend — she knows me, as a writer, at least as well as I know myself. But I’m not sure that kind of relationship is possible to form in the 21st century. I mean I hope so, but I wonder. In general I think a successful agent needs to know the best editors with power to purchase, know their taste and how to match that taste with her clients’ work. It’s a business of relationships so charm and social skill do count for a lot, and so does a pragmatic knowledge of the odds of publishing.

WCR: To follow up on that, with publishing in such flux, how do you see the role of literary agent continuing to evolve in the years ahead?

Bell: What’s been happening for the last ten or fifteen years is that the continuing contraction of traditional publishing has inspired a lot of ex-editors to become agents. That means in turn that many agents can now offer a very high level of editorial services to their clients. These collaborations can produce higher quality manuscripts for submission than ever before but the catch is that it’s now ten times as hard to place this good work. I’ve seen large investments of time and work with no return that way. I think it all may get better when traditional publishing and Amazon finish the battle of the titans they have underway, but so far the digital revolution has not done much good for literary writers, though it could, and should, and may still.

WCR: What advice do you give your students on the need for an agent?

Bell: Still gotta have one in most cases. Some genre writers can make a go of self-publishing but I don’t have many in that category. If a student of mine has a publishable book, I make introductions to agents — though the success rate is not what it was last century. See above.

WCR: Can writing be taught? Or are the good teachers of writing the ones who understand it’s more a case of encouraging, inspiring and directing, rather than teaching per se?

Bell: Well, yes, if that’s what you want. I mean Gordon Lish made good on his famous claim that he could make anyone into a writer; the catch was he made them all into the same writer. I think maybe some people do want that, but I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I think the role of a writing “teacher” (“counselor” might be a better word) is to facilitate people making themselves into writers.

WCR: Norman Mailer once remarked that if he were starting out again as a young writer, he’d choose filmimaking instead. If you were starting out now as a young writer, is there anything you’d do differently?

Bell: Ha. I actually started out as a film-maker. Circa 1979. That was when film was made on film, sixteen millimeter for people my speed. It was expensive and you needed a lot of help and collaboration. It dawned on me that I could get rid of all that overhead by realizing stories with a pencil and a piece of paper. So nowadays, if you have a big enough card in your happy-snapper, you can make a feature film. Tempting. Also, a lot people in this century seem to get their narrative entertainment from video games, and I think some of the people who write for those game are real writers.

WCR: At one point did you start to consider yourself a writer and identify yourself to others as a writer?

Bell: Well when I was about seven I convinced all my playmates I was crazy thanks to my habit of whispering dialogue tags (he said, she said) to anything anybody said. After that I went back in the closet till halfway through college, when I began to publish a few things. I always had the ambition to write and did some imaginative writing when it was encouraged in school, grades 1 through 6. It slept as an unrealized intention through high school. Princeton had a four year creative writing program but you had to apply to get into that, with a work sample. That requirement was probably only meant to screen out people taking it for a gut (the creative writing classes were all automatically pass-fail at that time), but I took it so seriously I left for a semester, worked a dumb day job and wrote a little portfolio of short stories. I took one workshop with George Garrett on my return and after that talked myself into independent studies, first a year with William Goyen and then with Stephen Koch. So I had a pretty low profile among undergrad writers at Princeton, was still somewhat aloof and fairly secretive, though I did publish a bit in the literary magazine and some people knew I had off-campus publications. You might say I was less interested in identifying myself as a writer than in creating a record that would let people do that on their own.

WCR: What do you like most about being a writer?

Bell: Flex time’s a great perk, if you make enough of a go of it, the ability to work at home or practically anywhere. And at the other end of the spectrum, it justifies my living a lot of my life in my imagination — something I am naturally inclined to do, and which I would probably be unable to stop doing even if my day job was statistician, nurse, race-car mechanic.

WCR: When you look back at steps forward you took as a writer — the craft of writing, the development of your talent, the investment of time into bringing along the various ancillary skills or abilities that help a writer be a writer — what are some of the important junctures that stand out for you? Teachers who had an influence?

Bell: I had one workshop with George Garrett as sophomore in Princeton and we became friends for life. He had a sort of hands-off attitude as a teacher. His method was to try to help people do what they were gonna do by understanding what that was through intelligent reading. He influenced me enormously as a teacher too. Richard Dillard, also a student of George’s, reinforced that for me when I worked with him as a grad student at Hollins. In between I spent most of my year with William Goyen writing a failed novella which was one of my worst efforts ever — not Goyen’s fault by any means. I was just too stubborn to give it up. I wrote one good story for him toward the end and I think we both felt liberated by that. I had a good year with Stephen Koch, writing an almost publishable novel which he tried to help me publish the following year when I was in New York. (No regrets there — this was not a book which needed to see print, in the end.) That too was the formation of a lifelong friendship.

WCR: Tell us, please, about two or three books you’re reading now, how you’re liking them and why.

Bell: I have two books open this week. Kalimantaan by Chris Godshalk is really a delicious experience, about a 19th century British settlement in Borneo — rather loosely founded on fact, in the manner of Conrad or Somerset Maugham, sorta, but with richer, deeper characterizations bolstered by an amazing knowledge of the indigenous peoples and their culture. I’m on my third reading of this book actually. It is immensely entertaining and also good for you.

And Douze Histoires de Plage et Une Noyade, a kind of high concept short story collection published in Montreal. I’m actually a contributor to it, thanks to running into a Quebecois writer, Michel Vezina, in a hotel bar in Port-au-Prince. It’s my first publication of fiction actually composed by me in French, so fun that way. The rest of the contributors are from the Montreal community I think — have only read half the book so far but it’s a lot of fun, with a pleasant noirish flavor…. There were a couple of prompts forever — spose to be a beach story, plus we all got the same photo of an empty beach on the New England coast. Then a batch of particular items were given, different for each story — I drew a can of Budweiser.

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