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The Wag Chats with
Madison Smartt Bell

Novelist Madison Smartt Bell discusses the challenges of turning history into fiction and tells us why he thinks there is only a minority of novelists who do it well.

How did you come upon Toussaint Louverture's story? When did you realize you would need multiple volumes to tell his story satisfactorily?

Bell: I was doing general research on terrorism for an earlier novel (Waiting for the End of the World) while at the MacDowell Colony...so I was using the Peterborough (New Hampshire) public library. There was a chapter on the Haitian Revolution in a terrorism book I found there. I was curious, and the Peterborough library also had Ralph Korngold's Citizen Toussaint. This work is a bit dated but still probably the best biography of Toussaint in English. I saw at once that there was a great novel in the material and as far as I knew no one had written it. That was back in 1983.

As for as the multiple volume thing...I meant at first to write one book and had started on that basis (in 1990 or 91). By the time I had about a hundred pages, I realized it would be several thousand pages long—an unpublishable white elephant.

I had before me the example of George Garrett's brilliant Elizabethan trilogy. Garrett was a teacher of mine, and I had interviewed him later on with close concentration on writing historical novels, as I became more interested in my Haitian idea. [Editor's note: click here to read the interview.] I knew that George had more or less inadvertently written a trilogy. He cut about half of Death of the Fox out in order to publish it. Then wrote another book based on the outtakes—The Succession. Then had to cut out half of that book in order to publish and so found himself writing the third.

I figured I would suffer less if I admitted I was writing a trilogy right up front. I had written a novel before (The Year of Silence) where the formal goal was for each chapter to function (and be published) as an autonomous short story, as well as being part of a larger whole. The plan for the trilogy is similar—three autonomous novels that add up to a larger whole—and actually simpler in design than The Year of Silence, though a hell of a lot bigger too. My overarching title for the trilogy, by the way, is Four Hundred Years.

WAG: Toussaint's story is beautifully tragic in its arc, and it seems like an obvious subject for a novel.

Bell: Yes. I noticed that right away.

WAG: Were you surprised that another novelist hadn't already claimed Toussaint's story as his own?

Bell: At first. When I realized how complicated and difficult it was to tell that story at any reasonable length, I understood a little better. There are some other novels, though—one by a Soviet writer, Vinogradov. Another, Papa Toussaint, was first published on the Web by Richard Gillespie, who coincidentally lives here in Baltimore. Probably the best known is The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier. I look forward to reading some of these when I'm finally done with my own.

WAG: Could you elaborate a bit on the meaning of Master of the Crossroads' title? Clearly, Toussaint is himself at a crossroads in his career, just as Haiti is at a mid-point in its bid for independence. But you are equally clearly suggesting something much more complicated and compelling with the Vodou figures of Legba and Mait' Kalfou.

Bell: Well, I have a sort of mini-essay on this theme:

There are several different stories about how Toussaint Louverture, known during slavery time as Toussaint Bréda, came by his revolutionary surname. One story has it that French Commissioner Polverel, hearing of Toussaint's string of victories for the Spanish, exclaimed "Cet homme fait l'ouverture partout!" (That man makes an opening everywhere!). Another story goes that the nickname was applied because of a gap in Toussaint's front teeth, caused by a spent cannonball that struck him in the face. Others say he assumed the name deliberately for reasons of his own. The first time he is known to have used it is in his proclamation from Camp Turel, issued, probably not by coincidence, the same day as Sonthonax's proclamation of the abolition of slavery.

The proclamation from Camp Turel was intended to place Toussaint at the head of the struggle for general liberty of all African slaves in Saint Domingue. "L'ouverture" (opening) suggests that lunge for liberation. At a deeper level, the word also suggests the figure of Legba, the loa of Haitian Vodou who is keeper of the crossroads and who must be invoked, at the beginning of ceremonies, to open the passageway between the world of the living and the world inhabited by the spirits. Attibon Legba is a beneficent deity of crossroads, gates and passages. In the Petro rite, which is "hotter," more violent, more closely associated with the violence of revolution, Legba appears in the aspect of Mait' Kalfou—in French, Maître des Carrefours, or Master of the Crossroads. Kalfou, however, is a less benign figure than Attibon Legba, being capable, of guile, trickery, maleficence and the release of demonic forces.

Toussaint Louverture stands at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and the pre-Columbian Indian world, controlling the passageway from slavery to freedom, controlling even the pathway from feudal and monarchical systems to the new sort of society which the French and American Revolutions had just begun to invent. He is known to have been a devout Catholic, but in Haiti Catholicism is not inconsistent with the practice of Vodou. In writing this book, I have come to believe that Toussaint, as well as being the avatar of French Revolutionary ideology carried to its logical conclusion (equal rights for all human beings, not just whites), also embodied, even literally incarnated, both Attibon Legba and Mait' Kalfou.

WAG: The middle installment of a trilogy is often the most difficult to compose since it's denied both a freestanding beginning and end. Was that true of Master of the Crossroads?

Bell: Well, I had worked it out so that each novel has both a fresh beginning and definitive closure on the basis of what happens to the fictional characters. The real horror of writing Master of the Crossroads was the lack of a single clear dramatic arc in the historical material—and this situation was characteristic of the middleness of the historical story, one might say. There was a whole slough of political and military events that absolutely had to be covered, and binding them all together in a dramatic relationship was the hardest problem I had to solve.

The third volume, whose historical content can be summarized as "Haitian revolutionaries defeat Napoleon's armies," is going a whole lot easier in that respect.

WAG: You've said your intention is to publish the trilogy's final volume in 2004, the bicentennial anniversary of Haitian Independence. Five years passed between the first and second volumes, and four will pass between the second and third, if your schedule works out. In the world of contemporary publishing, that's a long time to wait. Are the books appearing so far apart simply because the research is so elaborate? Do you worry that other projects you'd like to pursue might slip away?

Bell: The books take a long time to write. My pattern thus far has been to publish a shorter novel with a more contemporary subject in between the volumes of the Haitian trilogy. Thus Ten Indians followed All Souls' Rising and Master of the Crossroads will be followed by a shorter novel already complete, currently titled Anything Goes, which Pantheon will publish in 2002. It's important for me to stay in touch with my own time in this way.

Also, I think that building an audience for the Haitian Revolutionary novels over what will finally be about a ten-year period isn't a bad way to go...seems to be working okay so far.

WAG: What is the greatest challenge you face in adapting history to fiction?

Bell: Failure of general knowledge. All background details are unknown. What did the minor character eat for lunch? How did she fasten her clothes? What were her clothes, anyway? What was the news of that day and how did the character learn it? Every last bit of this you have to go look up or else you simply don't know it. The huge fund of general knowledge you have about your own time disappears.

WAG: How well—or poorly—do you think historical fiction is being written today?

Bell: There's a minority of people who do it well—i.e., as something other than a fancy dress ball for characters who are no more than modern personalities in period costumes. George Garrett is way out in front of most of them, and I probably have learned most from him. I think Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian deserves a mention. William Vollmann is probably the most innovative in his approach to historical fiction, and I think what he has done is very significant. The Life and Times of Captain N by Douglas Glover is also a great historical novel less well-known than it should be. I would also include Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter, about the career of John Brown.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated novelist working today?

Bell: Probably the most underappreciated novelists are the ones who just can't get their books published at all. As a teaching writer, I know about lots of these! So I'll just pick (from lots of choices) one great book that (maddeningly) has never found a publisher: The Beating by Craig Bernardini.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted February 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Marion Ettinger

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of Master of the Crossroads, as well as eleven other works of fiction. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.



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