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Local Writer Spotlight: Madison Smartt Bell

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Photo Credit: Caryn Coyle

Photo Credit: Caryn Coyle

By Caryn Coyle

Madison Smartt Bell lives on a quiet, tree lined Baltimore street. It is much like the street on which his character, Mike Devlin, resides in his novel, “Ten Indians” (1996). The only novel Bell has placed in Baltimore, “Ten Indians” is the story of Devlin, a children’s psychologist who opens a Tae Kwon Do school for students who turn out to be drug dealers. Devlin’s martial arts school is located on a street where:

“Bright bitter sunlight poured from the cloudless sky over McDonogh Street, the slope rising up the hulk of the Hopkins hospital a few blocks to the south. Shadows of the eastside row houses stretched darkly across the littered pavement to the western sidewalk … ” — “Ten Indians”

In “Ten Indians,” Bell accurately describes two worlds within Baltimore. “The best way to get to know a city is to walk its streets,” he said. Bell’s “Charm City, A Walk through Baltimore” (2007) covers the easily recognizable and the not so well know parts of the city. In Fells Point, he walks to “the corner where Broadway runs into Brown’s Wharf, a long dock thrusting into the harbor.” Bell cites:

“In 1793, a French fleet hove into Fells Point, crammed to the gunwales with colonists escaping a slave revolution in Saint – Domingue (today’s Haiti). Among them was another ship’s carpenter, Joseph Despeaux, and a parcel of non-revolutionary shipbuilding slaves. Despeaux started a shipyard in Fells Point and set about building a style of swift merchant ship that would soon become known as the Baltimore clipper…” — “Charm City”

Bell, who has written an acclaimed trilogy of the “Haitian Revolution: All Souls Rising” (1995), which won a PEN/Faulkner Award and was a National Book Finalist, “Master of the Crossroads” (2000) and “The Stone That the Builder Refused” (2004), believes that “Haiti is the center of the universe.” His thirteenth novel, “Devil’s Dream” (2009), a page turner about Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest, is narrated in part by Henri, a Haitian. He is currently working on a biography of Jean-Jacques Dessalines who called himself the emperor of Haiti. Bell’s new work will be a companion piece to his “Toussaint Louverture, A Biography” (2007).

Bell, a Nashville native, has lived in Baltimore for 25  years. He moved here when he met his wife, the poet, Elizabeth Spires. Bell holds the Goucher College Chair of Distinguished Achievement and is the recipient of the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a five-year grant that allows writers the opportunity to devote their time to writing. Among his many other awards are a Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, a Maryland Author Award, a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and many more.

“I like it here,” Bell said. “I’ve lived in London and Paris and New York City. Baltimore is an intermediate place between the south and the north. It is a cross between a southern town – with blended aspects of Nashville – and an East Coast city.”

Bell’s latest novel, “The Color of Night,” (2011) which he wrote while he was working on “Devil’s Dream,” is a departure for him. In the foreword, he explains:

“I have always said that my work is dictated to me by daemons. People probably think that’s a figure of speech; maybe this book will prove it literal. Surely it is the most vicious and appalling story ever to pass through my hand to the page…”

“The Color of Night” is the story of Mae, a blackjack dealer with a violent past. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Bell’s rich, vivid prose depicts a 1960s cult in which Mae was a member. With short, thoughtful chapters, the novel revives Mae’s experiences. None of them, thankfully, take place in Baltimore.

Along with his book on Dessalines, Bell is also writing a novel “about real zombies as they actually exist.” For more about Madison Smartt Bell, click here.

Caryn Coyle lives in Baltimore. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (2010) from City Lit Press.

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