In Conversation with Madison Smartt Bell


Best known for his trilogy of novels set during the Haitian Revolution, Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 22 books, including three collections of short stories, two biographies, 15 novels, and the fiction writing textbook Narrative Design. Bell’s books have been published in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark, Holland, Brazil and Japan. Welter Online Managing Editor Stephen Hollaway sat down with him for a conversation about Baltimore and life after Baltimore.

Stephen:  We’re here with Madison Smartt Bell, novelist and a teacher at Goucher College and we’re here to talk about Baltimore. So first of all, how tell me how you wound up in Baltimore. I remember reading in the Charm City book that it was kind of accidental, but you were glad that you found someplace that was neither south nor north, kind of border area. Is that still true for you?

Madison: Well, I actually have family that that live on Gibson Island, and I’d been here when I was a kid to get my allergies inspected at Johns Hopkins. So I had that much knowledge of the place which I’d forgotten by the time I got out of college. I lived in New York for several years in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, before gentrification.

In Williamsburg, because of a police crackdown inspired by some real estate brokers on the Lower East side of Manhattan, a lot of dangerous drug trade moved across the river. It became unsafe on the street in the way that I hadn’t been there before. It was just kind of exhausting to live there. I met my wife who was living here and had a job. I was portable.

I didn’t have a teaching job or anything at that time. I was living on advances from novels.  My neighborhood in New York was not very suitable for her even to visit.  I couldn’t let her go out by herself there. And so I moved down here and I got a job with Goucher and then we got married and eventually raised a child here and it’s been good.

Stephen:  When we lived in the Manhattan back in the mid-eighties, it was pretty scary. We lived at 162, where everybody came over the bridge to buy crack

Madison: But in those days, there was nowhere safe in New York, right? I mean, some neighborhoods were safer than others.

Stephen:  Anyway, you’re in Baltimore now, like 1984. Is that when it was?

Madison: I can’t remember, because I was commuting for a year from Williamsburg to teach my one class at Goucher. My other little job was teaching at the 92nd Street Y. So I think that was probably 1983, 1984 that I actually moved here into Remington, basically, a little below Hampden.

Beth had a house, a row house on Cresmont Avenue, which runs down to the Paper Moon Diner. Very close to the Hopkins campus, which is why she was there, because she’d been a student at Hopkins fairly recently, and was also doing some teaching there. It was way bigger than I was used to. There were three tiny bedrooms upstairs, so we each had a little office. It was just incredible luxury. I’d been typing either in my bedroom [in New York, or our in a shared space of the apartment, and] I had roommates there.

Stephen:  It’s certainly cheaper than New York.

Madison: Yeah. At that time, it [Baltimore] was cheaper and it was way safer [than New York]. Not sure if it’s safer now. New York became infinitely safer. It totally changed between Giuliani and Bloomberg and regrettably, stop and frisk. For the beneficiaries of white supremacy, that program worked pretty well.

When New York was dangerous, it was somewhat dangerous everywhere. You could get mugged anywhere in New York, maybe more likely if you’re in a bad neighborhood, but you could get mugged on the Upper East Side and people were very aware of that. Very fearful.

In Baltimore, it has never been that way there. It’s this strange checkerboard where people stay in their lanes.

Stephen:  I want to touch on your Charm City book that was 2007, right, that you published Charm City: Walking through Baltimore. I haven’t read every page of it, but I read a bunch of it. It’s interesting because there’s lots of historical stuff and odd things about different neighborhoods and even favorite places to eat and stuff like that. But overall, I’d say it’s kind of a positive book about Baltimore, right?

Madison: Yeah, yeah.

Stephen:  Certainly not an exposé or anything.

Madison:  If you walk a mile in Baltimore, you’re going to find funny stories, sad stories, and a few embarrassing stories. They just are there, you know? This was a series Crown was doing where they had literary writers write about place. You could take any approach that you wanted to. But the subtitle for [every book in] the series was “A Walk through Blank.” So I thought, OK, well, I’ll just be literal-minded and I’ll take walks that are in some way or other significant, and I’ll do them in the company of people who can tell me stuff I don’t know.

Stephen:  Do you still live in that neighborhood just inside the city limits?

Madison:  We’re in Baltimore City by like a hundred yards.

Stephen: I want to ask you what you think, if anything, has changed about Baltimore since you wrote the book.  Is there anything that would be different if you wrote it in 2021?

Madison: You know, the really honest answer is I don’t think I know because

I kind of run on rails here I’ve lived here a long time and I tend to have a group of friends. I have a certain social life that doesn’t change all that much. And I’ve been in the same job.

For the rest of the work I do, I do it sitting at my desk.  So I’ve become a creature of habit.

From the moment I moved here, I was all of a sudden living a kind of middle-class life where in New York I hadn’t been. I was like a semi street person there. For the first couple of years, I lived there I was really, really, broke until I sold my first novel. I’m wondering if I was going to make rent and stuff like that. I spent a huge amount of time on the street. I would walk places to save money. And it was it was free entertainment. I didn’t go to the movies much because it was expensive, I didn’t go to shows much. So I spent a lot of time on the street and that just sort of happened naturally.

            When it came to the book about Baltimore, I kind of wanted to get the sort of neighborhood I was living in—and also some of the downtown areas. So I deliberately walked areas that I would otherwise not go to for research purposes, which felt very weird.

Stephen: Do you imagine you’ll stay here for the duration or at least until you retire?

Madison: Well, until I retire–it’s going to be at the end of next year.

Stephen: Oh, that’s soon. Oh, wow.

Madison:  I’m sixty five in August, so I’ll make it to sixty-six.

Stephen:  Do you [and Beth] talk about what you’ll do in retirement?

Madison: Well, I still own the farm where I grew up in Tennessee, so I would like to be there part time. Beth is more interested in being somewhere else. But where so I think we would sell what we have in Baltimore and buy something somewhere else. And we really both like it in Maine yet don’t necessarily want to be there in the winter. We really both like it in Key West.  But, you know, you don’t want to be there in the summer. The pandemic drained a lot of the appeal out of New York.

Stephen:  A lot of things will change when you stop having to go to the office or anything.

Madison:  I don’t think I’ll have that hard of a time with it, particularly after we all got sort of decentralized. Where I teach, I teach half time, I have a contractually reduced load. In the pandemic, I wasn’t there at all. My actual in-person teaching could get done one day a week. I really try not to go out there otherwise

Stephen: How much time are you able to devote to writing?

Madison:  Half, I would say. I’ve been moonlighting as a literary agent lately, so that’s basically accounted for another half of my time. Being an agent right now is totally a mug’s game. But you can spend as much time as you want to. It’s a bottomless pit.

Stephen:  Do you have your own novels planned out in the future?

Madison:  My last book books were nonfiction about Robert Stone. I think when I retire, I will have some extra time and I’ll probably look for some kind of nonfiction projects. I could still write fiction, but nobody wants to publish it. I’ve been working as an agent. It’s enabled me to understand this in a much broader way. But nobody wants middle aged White male writers from the 20th century right now.

I don’t feel unhappy about this. I had a great run. For somebody who almost never had a profitable book, I got away with a lot. I got to do a lot of stuff and publish well, fabulously well, published prominently way more than most people. So I have no complaints.

I think the last novel that I published, there was a blogger in his review saying, “Goddamn it, there’s so many people. There’s so many of us people our age. You can’t break in, you know, and Madison Smartt Goddamn Bell gets to publish another book.” [I thought] Well, this review is probably not going to be favorable.

I know this from being in the, you know, being in the factory that trains people like this guy, which, if you want to say it’s managed at all, it’s been managed irresponsibly in terms of sending people out into the economy. And yeah, you know what? You have a point. You really do have a point. I know.

I mean, I would prefer not to, you know, get my arm hair singed off by your dragon’s breath. But nevertheless, I kind of get it. And, you know, I sort of feel for the guy. So, yeah, I think I’ll stand down. I can do another biography or maybe think of some other kind of writing I always wanted to do.

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