Thursday, January 25, 1996

An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell (my first author intervew)

An interview with Madison Smartt Bell, discussing his book All Souls’ Rising
Published January 25th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Rising Star
Madison Smartt Bell Leaves the Pack Behind

By Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon, $25.95

Any list of the most important contemporary American authors will undoubtedly include Madison Smartt Bell. The dark vision of Save Me, Joe Louis, the brilliant formalism of The Year of Silence, and the explorations of personal salvation in many of his other novels have assured him a place among today’s brightest young writers. But with his new book, All Souls’ Rising, everything has changed.

No longer simply a great American author, Bell has written a novel of staggering proportions, in one leap joining the ranks of the best novelists of our time.

All Souls’ Rising centers on a single player in history, François-Dominique Toussaint-Louverture, and builds a labyrinthine narrative around his role as the leader of Haiti’s 1791 slave uprising. Bell first became interested in Toussaint-Louverture while doing research on terrorism for his novel Waiting for the End of the World. “Any study of terrorism,” Bell told me in an interview, “inevitably leads back to the Haitian slave rebellion… because of the atrocity level.”

The more he researched, the more fascinated he became with Toussaint-Louverture, first because “the rebellion was the only successful slave revolt in history,” but ultimately “because Toussaint-Louverture’s life fit perfectly the form of classical tragedy.”

Educated, charismatic, and, above all, subtle, Toussaint-Louverture was a natural leader, and the novel chronicles his difficult ascent, focusing on the terrible choices he had to make in order to free his people. Initially chosen by plantation owners as a puppet leader of a bogus revolt, Toussaint-Louverture soon finds his loyalties torn between the slaves and the owners who offer him liberties in exchange for his services. Toussaint-Louverture must choose either to keep the slaves in check, thus helping the owners tighten controls, or to act as the wholehearted leader of the revolution.

As the novel progresses, the choice becomes an easy one, because the revolt soon grows far beyond his or the owners’ control, and Toussaint-Louverture is thrust into power.

As with Bell’s other novels, the range of characterization is impressive. While Toussaint-Louverture is the central character, the novel is built around him rather than solely upon him or his experiences. Bell creates a vast world of characters who circle the scene, at times colliding with each other as they try to make sense of what’s going on. There’s the free-thinking Doctor Hébert and his mulatto paramour, the sinister Monsignor Cigny and his mad wife, Isabel, a host of slave leaders, and, most significantly, a runaway slave named Riau.

The narrative jumps around from third to first person, and much of the novel is told in Riau’s voice, which Bell describes as the novel’s most difficult creation. Riau is so heartbreakingly believable that his astonishing and terrible deeds transcend right and wrong, taking the reader on a journey into the depths of love, hate, and survival.

All Souls’ Rising,” Bell says, “is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the life of Toussaint-Louverture.” Bell originally projected 4,000 pages of material for the whole cycle, but pared it down considerably, and after writing this first section, cut even more, leaving a modest 530 pages. With this in mind, it’s easier to see how a novel of this length can sustain such acute potency: It’s distilled.

Be warned: This novel is not for the squeamish. As the rebellion and counter-rebellions shift and escalate, so does the carnage. What’s even harder to handle is the intensity of the hatred (both personal and social) that this novel encompasses. At its most physically gruesome, the characters’ underlying motives and psychologies are even more horrifying.

In All Souls’ Rising, Bell’s prose is sharper than ever, and despite—or because of—the awesome terror it portrays, this novel is a beautiful creation. Lyrically, thematically, and structurally diverse, All Souls’ Rising carves itself into the reader.

—David Wiley

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