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Local author Madison Smartt Bell releases third short story collection

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The author Madison Smartt Bell's 16th work of fiction, a book of short stories called "Zig Zag Wanderer" is guaranteed to make the author absolutely no money whatsoever. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Not one blessed penny.

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Bell's previous 13 novels and two short story collections have been released by mainstream publishers and have been finalists for such prizes as the PEN/Faulkner and National Book awards. He is best known for his trilogy about the Haitian slave uprising of 1791.

The 56-year-old, who has taught creative writing at Goucher College since 1984, describes writing as "daydreaming with a pen in my hand."

"Zig Zag Wanderer," 18 stories written over the past two decades, was published Friday by the Concord Free Press. As its name implies, the publishing house gives its books away to anyone who requests a copy. No one — not the writers, the designers or the printers — gets paid.

In return, Concord asks only that the recipients make a donation either to a charity or to a person in need, and to eventually hand the book off to someone else in the hope of generating a second donation. As of Friday morning, the publishing house had generated $352,125 in donations over the past five years.

"They make a very nice book to give away," says Bell, who lives in the Cedarcroft neighborhood with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires.

"It comes with a moral obligation to commit a senseless act of beauty. They don't care how much you give, and they don't care who you give it to. You could give $1 to a homeless man on the street or $100,000 to a charitable organization."

Perhaps it's not true that Bell isn't receiving any form of payment for the story collection. Along with a big stack of books for his author reading Wednesday night at the Ivy Bookshop, Bell says, his publisher is sending along "a case of nice red wine."

Does it hurt to give away your hard work for free?

Not really. I'm not losing any money on the deal. I've had a book of short stories ready to go for quite some time, but for strategic reasons, my New York publishers thought it wasn't a good idea to put it out.

Mainstream publishing is in a huge amount of trouble. When I published my first book in 1983, there were 15 U.S. trade publishers in New York. Now, we're down to four. Short stories tend not to sell now as well as novels, which automatically creates reluctance to publish them.

This doesn't preclude the possibility of a mainstream publisher releasing "Zig Zag Wanderer" in the future, after a decent interval. Or, this book could be folded into a larger book. It's a win-win situation for me.

Several stories are set in Haiti and depict the extreme poverty in which people live. If our readers wanted to make a donation in the spirit of your collection, which charities would you recommend?

The need in Haiti is kind of endless. I give money myself to two good organizations: The Lambi Fund of Haiti, which promotes sustainable agricultural projects, and Fonkoze, which offers microfund and banking services to Haiti's rural poor. Both organizations primarily are controlled by Haitians, they're run in Haiti, and unlike a great many other organizations, if you give to those two places, your money will be used to help people who live there.

I love the design of the book in which half of the stories are labeled "from here," and are flipped upside down from the other nine, which are labeled "from there." It doesn't matter which half of the book you read first. How did that concept originate?

This is a group of stories that all respond in some way to pieces of music. Most of the titles in the collection come from songs. "Zig-Zag Wanderer" is the name of a song by Captain Beefheart.

The founder of Concord Free Press, Stona Fitch, is a friend of mine. Once we decided that "Zig Zag Wanderer" would make a good title for the whole collection, Stona had the idea of borrowing a print device of pulp fiction from the 1950s and 1960s in which two books are combined in the same package. One book would go one way, and you'd turn it over and find another book, not necessarily by the same author, going the other way. I thought it was a fantastic idea that played off on the title.

Music functions as a kind of counterpoint for these stories. In addition to being a much-published author, you're also a blues guitarist. What has playing music taught you about writing?

I write for the ear, for sound. The musicality and rhythm of language have always been very important to me.

I'm from Nashville, so I inevitably play a fretted instrument. I've played from the age of 11 on up. I've put out two records with my friend, the poet Wyn Cooper, who was writing for Sheryl Crow. Our first album, "Forty Words for Fear" came out in 2003 and "Postcards Out of the Blue" came out in 2008.

The records were produced by the drummer Jim Brock and Don Dixon, a great musician in his own right, though he's known primarily as the producer for R.E.M., among others. They took us to a whole new level musically.

We got amazing publicity. For our first record, I got a full-page interview in The New York Times. I couldn't get that kind of attention for one of my books if I tried.

But the records didn't really sell very well, and the little one-person record company that put out our first album died.

I'd like to do a third record. We certainly have enough songs. But, we'd need a label. We don't have enough money to put out a third one on our own.

Tell me about your Captain Beefheart obsession.

In the mid-1990s, I got obsessed with Captain Beefheart. I got enchanted with the music and began trying to learn the guitar parts only to realize that it was way way over my head. I couldn't do it. The tempos were too weird, and the chord progressions were too weird.

The music has a kind of controlled anarchy. For the first few listens, it's really abrasive. It takes patience to begin to hear the beauty of the songs. It's like going into a thicket of thorns. It's not easy to get inside, but once you're in it, you say, "OK, I like these thorns. I can sleep on these thorns."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"Zig Zag Wanderer" was released Friday by Concord Free Press. Free. 283 pages. Go to concordfreepress.com.

If you go

Madison Smartt Bell will read from "Zig Zag Wanderer" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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