Bell has written six novels, many stories in 10 years


March 24, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Newness abounds these days in the life of novelist Madison Smartt Bell: new daffodils all over his Homeland neighborhood, new novel "Doctor Sleep" promising a new kind of sales success in the bookstores and a brand new little person in the household, who makes all other new things pale in comparison.

Little Celia, going on 2 months, may be but a tiny bundle, but she's the biggest thing right now in the lives of Mr. Bell, 33, and his wife, poet Elizabeth Spires. Ask him, for example, how becoming a father has affected his writing and he answers, quickly, absolutely, no question about it:

L "I've stopped. I quit. So far I've stopped writing fiction."

And since writing fiction has been the compelling force for the past 10 years of Madison Smartt Bell's life -- six novels and two collections of short stories in that period stand as eloquent testimony -- you know that fatherhood must be something compelling in its own right.

This break from writing is only temporary, Mr. Bell adds. He expects to get back to one of his two novels-in-progress any day now. And the respite has been partial; a baby in the house hasn't kept him from non-fiction writing and he's just now wrapping up a piece for Harper's magazine about true crime books.

Interesting juxtaposition, baby and true crime. The irony is certainly not lost on Mr. Bell, who chuckles as he tells of sweet, innocent newborn Celia sleeping on his chest while he read "Helter Skelter," the gory, anything-but-innocent story of the Manson murders.

And now, bouncing the baby between his lap and his shoulder, looking for a position that will make her happy, Mr. Bell reflects on how she has affected his life and will influence his writing.

"I'm sort of more interested in everything than I ever was before," he muses.

Writer-in-residence at Goucher College and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (positions his wife also holds), Mr.Bell found this new perspective on the world had an immediate effect on his teaching.

"I didn't expect this part of it, but I became more interested in my teaching; my teaching suddenly started to get better, even though I'm more tired and have less time to prepare," he says. "It's part of everything seeming a little bit new.

"That's one of the great things about being a child, that everything is full of novelty. Little children, babies, see things in their essence, in a way that we can't. You lose your ability as you grow up to see everything as if it were for the first time, to appreciate the novelty in the world. If you have one of these" -- he pats little Celia gently on the head -- "you can sort of parasitically enter into that experience again. And it's really nice."

Aside from teaching, this appreciation of the world's novelty is about to be applied to a novel about a traveling band of armed robbers. That's the work Mr. Bell intends to return to first; his other manuscript about a slave uprising in Haiti demands somewhat more research and concentration than he's able to devote right now.

And if armed robbers seem, well, maybe not the most appropriate thing for a new daddy to take up, consider the cast of junkies and drug dealers, abusive relatives and suicides, freaks and mental defectives and generally unattractive representatives of the underclasses who have populated Madison Smartt Bell's stories and novels so far.

Consider, indeed, the strange goings-on in "Doctor Sleep" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), which critics have called, a "vivid insomniac jag of a novel," "a strange raft of a novel that stays afloat by the triple forces of Bell's excellent writing, keen power of observation and a genuine thoughtfulness that both challenges and respects the reader's intelligence."

The novel features Adrian Strother, a young American expatriate in London, a recovering heroin addict supporting himself as a hypnotherapist, curing people of smoking, phobias and the like. In three teeming days, Adrian confronts a snake who has no appetite for his weekly rodent feed, a lover who deserts him for the umpteenth time, a wife and an ex-junkie buddy who unexpectedly reappear, two spiky-haired tattooed thugs pursuing him in London's seamier alleyways, an agoraphobic who turns out to be a sexually abused multiple personality and a serial murderer who plucks young girls from the streets. And he handles it all with no sleep -- for Doctor Sleep, who excels at putting other people into trances, is a hard-core insomniac, frustratingly unable to lose himself in the solace of dreams.

Whew! And all this in a decidedly literary framework, a context that provides not just action and quirky characters but philosophy and metaphysics as well.

It's a distinctive combination, one that has attracted the attention of critics and other literati since Mr. Bell published his first novel "The Washington Square Ensemble" in 1983, when he was just 25.

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