TURN OF EVENTS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In this sun-splashed attic in suburban Baltimore, an 18th-century Haiti slave revolt was forged and fought. Tens of thousands were indiscriminately slaughtered; women raped, children mutilated. Plantations were burned and their owners were beheaded.

It was a massacre of epic proportions and obscenity, arising from a complex maelstrom of race, caste and imperialism - and all of it spilled from the mind of a Southern-born white novelist while he was sitting in this peaceful attic office - as distant in time, space and character from Haiti's nightmare as might be imagined.

Now, 2,000 pages and three volumes later, Madison Smartt Bell is finally letting go of the sliver of history that preoccupied his intellectual life for 20 years. He started it when he was 27.

Sitting at the desk where he constructed the rich, sweeping story, Bell admits he's not sure what to do now that his project is done.

"Actually, I might quit," he says, tilting back in his swiveling desk chair. "I might not write fiction anymore."

Quit?

The word hangs heavily in the attic, a small room lined with bookshelves and decorated with brightly colored photographs and paintings from Haiti.

"Whenever I say this everybody laughs," Bell adds. "But that's the most candid thing I can tell you right now - I just don't feel the desire to plunge into some new work of fiction."

Ten years ago, Bell took a break from the contemporary urban novels that had established his literary reputation and plunged wholly into the Haitian Revolution: the period from 1791 to 1804, when half a million slaves in what was then a French colony rose up against their white owners.

It was an unlikely subject for a Tennessee-born Princeton graduate who had never stepped foot in Haiti. (He finally traveled there in 1995, right before publication of the first novel in the series.) But something about the rebellion and its enlightened leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture, seized him.

A self-educated former slave, Toussaint emerged as the official leader of the rebellion in 1801, when he proclaimed himself governor and called for an end to slavery. Although the rebellion was ultimately quashed by Napoleon, Toussaint - a cunning warrior and diplomat - brought peace to Haiti for five years.

"To me, Toussaint was 200 years ahead of his time in conceiving a solution to the race question - which was the creation of a society in which all races could cooperate," says Bell. "It didn't stick, but if it had, I think it would have served as an example to us today."

Because Bell could not visit Haiti - which was then in the throes of another violent coup - Bell traveled to Dominica, a tiny island with a landscape similar to the Haiti of the 18th century. He also combed archives at home and abroad to piece together any account of the period he could find.

Bell surrounded Toussaint with a colossal, fascinating cast of fictional characters, but he took great pains to fold his imagined world into the real-life history of Haiti and the slave revolt leader.

"Everything that I portrayed about Toussaint in the novel is something I could document or reasonably conjecture," he says.

The first volume of his trilogy, All Soul's Rising, begins with the rebellion's outbreak and ends with the burning of Cap Francais, the capital of the French colony then called Saint Domingue.

The book was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and established what Bell calls his "second career," the writer of historical fiction.

"Madison discovered with the trilogy that he has a great gift for writing historical fiction as well as contemporary," said Dan Frank, an editor at Pantheon who has worked with Bell for the past nine years. "He's able to work in both these areas with considerable mastery - and that's not at all typical."

Two volumes later (Master of the Crossroads was published in 2002 and The Stone That the Builder Refused in November), Bell can now reflect on just how great a challenge he had set for himself - particularly at a time when literary critics were mourning the death of the novel.

"It wasn't easy," Bell says. "I was writing a massive, 19th-century novel in the 21st century - which is not a moment in history that supports huge, long historical novels very well."

At the same time, Bell was churning out the occasional contemporary novel - a feat only an extraordinarily prolific author could achieve.

Prodigious output

Since the publication of his first book in 1983, Bell's output has been staggering: 12 novels (including the Haitian trilogy), four works of nonfiction, two collections of short stories and dozens of nonfiction works for literary journals, newspapers and magazines. He has also taught fiction the past 20 years at Goucher College, where he now heads the school's Katz Center for Creative Writing.

Somewhere in between, Bell has also dabbled in music. In 2003, he and poet Wyn Cooper released a blues album - Forty Words of Fear - with the legendary bassist and record producer Don Dixon.

"To be honest, I'm kind of exhausted," says Bell. "I don't feel I have half the energy I did 10 years ago."

Which is why, for the first time in his professional writing life, Bell is taking a hiatus.

In January, he and his wife - the esteemed poet Elizabeth Spires - are moving with their teenage daughter to Paris for four months. The sabbatical will be free of tight deadlines, public appearances and mornings spent filling the cream-colored pages of his notebooks with the stories he says spring from his unconscious mind.

He is a tall, sleepy-eyed man with hunched shoulders and a slightly rumpled appearance, but Bell is far from laconic. By his own admission, he is a writer who creates oppressive deadlines for himself and often overbooks his own schedule.

Easy-going

Bell - who moved from New York to Baltimore in 1985 - speaks with a dusky Southern drawl. When he runs a hand through his longish, brown hair, he leaves it standing on end. He is unhurried in conversation and affable, but he also is sometimes enigmatic - easily distracted by his own train of thought.

Bell admits to being a daydreamer, but Spires calls him a "terrifically disciplined" writer who spends several hours of his mornings at work - often on more than one manuscript at a time.

"I always have things going on more than one burner," says Bell, who can recall only one dry spell, a nine month period after the completion of his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, about a band of heroin dealers in New York.

"I was depressed and had great difficulty writing anything," he recalls. "It was a really miserable experience and I didn't want to go through it again, so since then I've always overlapped projects."

When it comes to his writing style, Bell's approach is no less demanding.

At a time when he could have continued writing gritty urban novels, Bell instead embarked on his Haitian trilogy. The impetus, he said, was the fear that he would begin to repeat himself, that he would become one of those popular authors (he mentions Robert Penn Warren) who - once they find a successful formula - assume an assembly-line approach to writing.

"Success is a dangerous thing because it leaves you with nothing to do," Bell says. "I wanted to avoid that step."

While Bell bemoans that some reviewers have called the cast of characters in the Haitian trilogy difficult to follow, he says he is content with how the trilogy has been received.

"I'd just like people to read the books," he says. "I mean, of course I'd like them to be as successful as possible, but on the other hand, where they are now is not half bad."

'Best Book of 2004'

The Knight-Ridder syndicate recently selected The Stone as its "Best Book of 2004," and a number of reviewers have praised Bell's ability to vividly render such a complex piece of history, comparing the trilogy to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

All of which raises the question: Can someone who has carved out a successful - albeit exhausting - writing life really contemplate abandoning it?

Even to Spires, it's an unlikely proposition.

"A lot of writers have periods where they wander - waiting for the next thing to hit them," she said. "Since I've known Madison, I've never seen him not write."

When pressed, Bell admits that while he is seriously considering a permanent break, he is still at work. Most recently, he completed a short biography of a French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, and is now "burning through" a short biography of Toussaint.

Oh, and there are also the three "sort-of" ideas Bell has for future novels.

"I work out aspects of stories or characters when I'm driving or mowing the grass - anything where my head is not particularly occupied," he says.

It's a skill that awes (and occasionally annoys) the young writers Bell mentors.

"What's inspiring about Madison is the ease with which he describes his writing, and the fact that he does not really revise," said Matthew Olshan, a Baltimore novelist who met Bell in 1996. "To a young writer who agonizes over revisions, that's a shocking comment about the process."

Encouraging words

Although they cannot emulate him, Bell's students call him an encouraging teacher with a benevolent approach to editing.

"He's the greatest teacher I've ever had," said James Alonso, 33, a former student. "Nothing he says is really negative, and nothing is really positive, either. It's just 'Here is what I think,' and he cares about every single word."

Bell has mentored a number of successful young writers including Jenn Crowell (who, at Bell's urging, published her first critically acclaimed novel at age 18) and short-story writer John McManus.

Despite the achievements of his former students, Bell knows that for most aspiring novelists, a career in fiction does not come easily.

"I work with dozens and dozens of extremely talented beginning writers who, statistically, are not even going to have one [writing] career," he says.

In Paris, Bell and his family will rent an apartment in the Latin Quarter, a neighborhood once home to writers including Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller.

Maybe Paris will inspire Bell's sort-of ideas. Maybe it won't. In any case, Bell does not appear to be agonizing over what's next.

"I do hope the real desire to write will regenerate," Bell said. "Actually, I think it will."

Madison Smartt Bell

Born: Aug. 1, 1957, in Nashville, Tenn.

Age: 47

Work: Teaches creative writing at Goucher College

Favorite authors: Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, Carolyn Chute, William Vollman

An article in yesterday's Today section about Madison Smartt Bell misspelled the name of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College, which the author heads.An article in the Jan. 4 Today section about author Madison Smartt Bell and his trilogy of novels about Haiti incorrectly stated that Napoleon "quashed" the revolution in 1802. In fact, the invasion of Haiti by Napoleon's forces failed, and the island declared its independence on Jan. 1, 1804.The Sun regrets the errors.
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