A Walker In Charm City

Author, Goucher professor takes to his feet to produce a book about his adopted home town

Q&A -- Madison Smartt Bell

November 11, 2007|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Madison Smartt Bell does not consider himself a Baltimorean. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

"I feel like that would be an extravagant claim," the acclaimed novelist says, his Tennessee roots evident in his accent.

"I've been here 20 years and that's not that long," Bell says. "In terms of people I consider Baltimoreans, that would be people who were born here and whose parents were born here, too. I'm a Tennessean in that sense."

But Bell has become quite fond of Baltimore since moving here in the mid-1980s to join his wife, Elizabeth Spires, a poet. They are both on the English faculty of Goucher College, where they direct the Kratz Center for Creative Writing.

Bell has continued to publish a stream of books, including a well-received trilogy on the story of Haiti, the country founded by a slave revolution.

"I thought I was finished with fiction after that," he says. He turned his attention to biography, writing a lenghty one of Toussaint Louverture, the slave who led the revolution in Haiti, and a short one on the 18th-century French scientist Antoine Lavoisier.

Searching for another project, he found a series called Crown Journeys, short books on walks around cities and places by well-known authors: Frank Conroy on Nantucket, Kinky Friedman on Austin, Texas, James MacPherson on Gettysburg.

Haiti was already taken by Edwige Danticat. But Bell had a few other ideas -- "wacky places," he says -- he proposed to Crown. They came back with their own idea -- Baltimore.

"That had not occurred to me," Bell says. "But obviously it was the obvious thing."

The result is Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore, which is actually four walks through Baltimore, different routes that tell something of this city.

"It's a nice place," Bell says of this city that is now his home. "You are not always watching your back like in some cities. It seems kind of relaxing."

Bell has since returned to fiction. He is working on a novel about a fellow Tennessean, the Confederate cavalry officer Nathan Bedford Forrest. Since this was part of a series, did you have to follow any sort of template in writing Charm City?

They give you the subtitle -- .. a walk through wherever -- and that's about it. The books in the series are all very different. The hook is literary writers, mostly fiction writers, writing about a place that they know well. They told me it had to be a certain length. I don't think they really said anything much more than that.

But I did read a couple in the series and what I saw was that while they were in no way guides to wherever it was, they did convey something about the history of the place, and some information about places to go, things to do, places to eat.

But there was nothing like you have to have a certain number of nightspots or restaurants or anything like that. Charm City has four major chapters, each a different walk, along Greenmount Ave., Charles St. and in Fells Point and Dickeyville. How did you choose these routes?

I live in Cedarcroft, not far from York Rd., so one of the first things I thought of was to walk down York until it turns into Greenmount and follow it down to Gardel's, a dance club near the Inner Harbor which is a friendly place to me. I knew the route from driving it, basically what you would pass, the good, the bad and the in-between of the city. I thought it would be great if I survived it. And I realized I would be passing the house of a colleague at Goucher, Eric Singer, so I asked him to go with me.

After that, I thought of asking friends who knew certain areas well to walk with me there. Laura Lippman became my guide for Dickeyville, where she lived as a child. Glen Moomau, a blues musician, took me around Fells Point where he lives, as well as Highlandtown and Canton. And I walked along Charles St. with my neighbor Jack Heyrman, whose mother was a Latrobe, descendant of Baltimore mayors and architects and such. That was an opportunity to get in his whole life in Baltimore, which covers the whole of the waterfront, as well as all the Latrobe stuff he knew about.

I was going to write one other chapter about walking the length of Roland Ave. with Allison Dickenson, who founded the Paper, Rock, Scissors Gallery on the Avenue in Hampden. But I never asked the computer to tell me how many words I had written. I was using a mental formula of how many words were on the page and I was wrong by 25 percent. So before I even got to the Roland Ave. chapter, I was over my word count.

The publisher wouldn't let me go any longer because they needed all the books in the series to be the same size, to have a certain uniformity. . Was there anything you found particularly fascinating and different about Baltimore that you were trying to convey in this book?

I had been on jury duty slightly before working on this book, as an alternate, and sat through this whole trial, a cop shooting. It was one especially squared-off neighborhood and it made me realize what a box some people are really in -- in this city that we share.

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