A FLOOD OF FICTION Bell has written six novels, many stories in 10 years


Newness abounds these days in the life of novelist Madison Smartt Bell: new daffodils all over his Homeland neighborhood, new novel "Doctor Sleep" promising a new kind of sales success in the bookstores and a brand new little person in the household, who makes all other new things pale in comparison.

Little Celia, going on 2 months, may be but a tiny bundle, but she's the biggest thing right now in the lives of Mr. Bell, 33, and his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires. Ask him, for example, how becoming a father has affected his writing and he answers, quickly, absolutely, no question about it:

L "I've stopped. I quit. So far I've stopped writing fiction."

And since writing fiction has been the compelling force for the past 10 years of Madison Smartt Bell's life -- six novels and two collections of short stories in that period stand as eloquent testimony -- you know that fatherhood must be something compelling in its own right.

This break from writing is only temporary, Mr. Bell adds. He expects to get back to one of his two novels-in-progress any day now. And the respite has been partial; a baby in the house hasn't kept him from non-fiction writing and he's just now wrapping up a piece for Harper's magazine about true crime books.

Interesting juxtaposition, baby and true crime. The irony is certainly not lost on Mr. Bell, who chuckles as he tells of sweet, innocent newborn Celia sleeping on his chest while he read "Helter Skelter," the gory, anything-but-innocent story of the Manson murders.

And now, bouncing the baby between his lap and his shoulder, looking for a position that will make her happy, Mr. Bell reflects on how she has affected his life and will influence his writing.

"I'm sort of more interested in everything than I ever was before," he muses.

Writer-in-residence at Goucher College and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (positions his wife also holds), Mr.Bell found this new perspective on the world had an immediate effect on his teaching.

"I didn't expect this part of it, but I became more interested in my teaching; my teaching suddenly started to get better, even though I'm more tired and have less time to prepare," he says. "It's part of everything seeming a little bit new.

"That's one of the great things about being a child, that everything is full of novelty. Little children, babies, see things in their essence, in a way that we can't. You lose your ability as you grow up to see everything as if it were for the first time, to appreciate the novelty in the world. If you have one of these" -- he pats little Celia gently on the head -- "you can sort of parasitically enter into that experience again. And it's really nice."

Aside from teaching, this appreciation of the world's novelty is about to be applied to a novel about a traveling band of armed robbers. That's the work Mr. Bell intends to return to first; his other manuscript about a slave uprising in Haiti demands somewhat more research and concentration than he's able to devote right now.

And if armed robbers seem, well, maybe not the most appropriate thing for a new daddy to take up, consider the cast of junkies and drug dealers, abusive relatives and suicides, freaks and mental defectives and generally unattractive representatives of the underclasses who have populated Madison Smartt Bell's stories and novels so far.

Consider, indeed, the strange goings-on in "Doctor Sleep" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), which critics have called, a "vivid insomniac jag of a novel," "a strange raft of a novel that stays afloat by the triple forces of Bell's excellent writing, keen power of observation and a genuine thoughtfulness that both challenges and respects the reader's intelligence."

The novel features Adrian Strother, a young American expatriate in London, a recovering heroin addict supporting himself as a hypnotherapist, curing people of smoking, phobias and the like. In three teeming days, Adrian confronts a snake who has no appetite for his weekly rodent feed, a lover who deserts him for the umpteenth time, a wife and an ex-junkie buddy who unexpectedly reappear, two spiky-haired tattooed thugs pursuing him in London's seamier alleyways, an agoraphobic who turns out to be a sexually abused multiple personality and a serial murderer who plucks young girls from the streets. And he handles it all with no sleep -- for Doctor Sleep, who excels at putting other people into trances, is a hard-core insomniac, frustratingly unable to lose himself in the solace of dreams.

Whew! And all this in a decidedly literary framework, a context that provides not just action and quirky characters but philosophy and metaphysics as well.

It's a distinctive combination, one that has attracted the attention of critics and other literati since Mr. Bell published his first novel "The Washington Square Ensemble" in 1983, when he was just 25.

From then on it was nearly a novel a year, a pace Mr. Bell has been able to keep up, he says, with "two things. I am fairly disciplined . . . and I have some God-given structural abilities, which means I don't have to rewrite and that saves me a lot of time."

There's been one more motivating factor: "That's how I earn my living. Until the last couple years, I was in the opposite position from most literary authors in that my real income came from the books, and the money I made from teaching was pin money. Now it's different, now I have a more serious commitment [to teaching] and better pay."

The critical attention his books have received, while not always totally positive, has almost universally acknowledged his power and skill as a writer and his role in the modern American literary landscape. "From the first, I was struck as much by his voice as by the story itself, and that's always a good sign," says his editor Cork Smith, now editor-in-chief at HBJ.

Cork Smith is virtually the only professional editor Madison Smartt Bell has had; they've been teamed since "Washington Square" and moved through three different publishers. "It's a very unusual voice, it's a very confident voice," he says of the way Mr. Bell writes. "If you're talking about serious fiction, that's really what you're looking for. Not, is this guy saying something new? but is he saying something in a new way?"

"I consider him one of the leading young American fiction writers," agrees Shannon Ravenel, who edited "Best American Short Stories" from 1977 to 1990 and chose stories written by Mr. Bell for the anthology in 1984, 1987, 1989 and 1990. "He's tremendously energetic and vigorous and productive."

Stephen Dixon, director of the Hopkins Writing Seminars, is more reserved in his assessment of Mr. Bell. "He's written a few really strong stories that will last, while his novels so far haven't quite reached the style or subject matter that quite suits them," he says.

Mr. Dixon offers his critique, he says, at least partly for the writer's own good. "I'm not going to join the bandwagon and say he's as good a writer as the critics say. I think that would be sort of harmful to him. I don't think he's found his story yet, mainly because he stays with the same type of character, the karate-kicking drug pusher. Madison's an interesting guy, but I don't think he's a formidable talent yet, except in the short stories."

Still, no one is denying that Madison Smartt Bell has achieved a noteworthy amount of production and attention for his still tender years. When his first book was published, he was not long out of Princeton and a creative writing master's program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va. He had wanted to be a fiction writer since he was a boy growing up on a farm in Williamson County, Tenn., outside of Nashville.

Young Madison was a farm boy, but no hick to be sure. His parents were both Vanderbilt University alumni who were friends of some of the school's illustrious writers: Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom.

"I was exposed to a lot of writers at an early age," he remembers. "My mother taught me to read before I started school. So reading was a big thing for me, always. I always thought it would be paradise to be the person who wrote the book."

After college he settled in a roach-infested slum neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and looked around for material to write about. Drugs have been a recurring theme.

"When I lived in New York, I was around a lot of drugs," he explains. "I've had some good friends who've been major addicts and fought their way out of it." But he responds with mock horror to a question about personal involvement with drugs. "Who me? No, never. I wouldn't do that."

He kept churning out the books, appreciating "that I tended to get much, much better reviews than sales. And it occurred to me after about the second book that strategically the ideal thing for me was to have my next book ready to show at the time the previous book came out, but before they understood the sales figures."

He moved to Baltimore six years ago when he married Ms. Spires, who was on the Goucher faculty. When she received the Amy Lowell TravellingPoetry Scholarship, they spent the fall of '86 and spring of '87 in London, where he sopped up impressions for "Doctor Sleep."

"Doctor Sleep" looks like it might be headed for a second printing, and Mr. Bell is hoping that sales this time will gain on reviews. "My sales performance has always been adequate," he says. "It would be nice if it were overwhelmingly better than adequate."

Movies are another potentially nice thing for him to think about. He did one original screenplay for Roger Corman about the San Francisco earthquake that hasn't been produced; another adapted from one of his novels is also unproduced. "I would certainly like to get into some of that movie money," he says matter-of-factly. "But I can't complain. If things don't get any worse, I'll be fairly happy."

Happy, of course, can be a relative thing. "The greed of artists for recognition is insatiable," Madison Smartt Bell says about himself and others. "Ten years ago I thought I would be happy forever if I could get one novel in print. And I am happy. But it could be better."

Celia puts happiness in yet another perspective, having managed without even trying "to make writing a little less of a priority," as her father puts it. "It's good. I like to relax and not push quite so hard."

And she may even open up new frontiers for writing. "Yeah, probably I'll write about children," Mr. Bell says. "But not yet. You don't become an expert in two months."

The Bell File


Born: Aug. 1, 1957, in Williamson county, Tenn.

Education: A.B., Princeton University, 1979; M.A. Hollins College, Family: Married since 1985 to Elizabeth Spires. Father of Celia aged 2 months.

Occupation: Writer, literary critic, teacher.

Academic positions: Writer-in-residence, Goucher College. Adjunct faculty, Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

Thoughts on true crime books: "You already know the climax, that's why you bought the book. So the only thing to be interested in is the nasty details of how they did it. It essentially is the same technique as pornography."

Thoughts on heroin: "In some ways it's not so bad. If you have clean equipment and reliable supplies and enough money to carry it, Heroin can be a reasonably benign drug."

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