Craft, Chaos, & Enlightenment: Madison Smartt Bell’s New Novel

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An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell about his new novel Behind the Moon by Maya Alexandri

Madison Smartt Bell writes like he is possessed – which, conveniently, he consistently claims, explaining that his work is dictated to him by daemons. The effect on the reader is a kind of possession-by-proxy: the loss of self in a story so powerfully conjured that it escapes the page and takes you hostage for the pell-mell sprint to freedom. In scenes like Claudine’s confession to Père Bonne-Chance in All Souls’ Rising, and D——-’s seduction of Mae in The Color of Night, Bell has written some of the most arresting and stimulating verbal legerdemain in contemporary fiction.

Bell’s talent for channeling the forces that demand pagan worship into the service of literature is manifest in his new novel, Behind the Moon, which charts a mother, Marissa, and her daughter, Julie, on a shamanic journey initiated when Julie tumbles into the shaft of a cave adorned with prehistoric paintings.

Madison Smartt Bell is a National Book Award-nominated novelist, best known for his epic trilogy about the brilliant Haitian Revolution general, Toussaint Louverture: All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone the Builder Refused. Bell is also the Co-Director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College, where he is a much-loved Professor of English. Bell is the recipient of the Lillian Smith Award (1989), the Maryland Author Award (1996), and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2008-2013).

Bell’s novels have been fertile inspiration for other media. His novel, Dr. Sleep, was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes. His novel, Anything Goes, was the point of departure for the album, Forty Words For Fear, featuring songs co-written by Bell and poet Wyn Cooper. Bell and Cooper’s follow-up album is Postcards Out of the Blue. In addition to writing music, Bell is also a singer and guitarist on these albums.  

I met up with Bell at Baltimore’s famed Owl Bar to find out more about this captivating and original new book.

MA:  What is Behind the Moon about?

MSB:  A universal experience: trying to reach your unreachable daughter. Everybody has this experience, they just don’t have it in such a flamboyant way as Marissa and Julie do – in terms of separating from their children and not being able to know their children. Children disappearing – not permanently, but for a long time, painfully and difficultly – is a feature of parents’ lives. Particularly, I think, for mothers and daughters: there’s a moment where your daughter just disappears. If you’re lucky, she reappears later. That is a thing that the book is about: a mother-daughter separation as a normal process, even though it’s presented in this flamboyantly exotic way.

What got you started writing Behind the Moon?

A lot of this was just as if I were recording my own dream – a dream I had probably twelve years ago. And it was one of those dreams where it reveals to you the meaning of life and your whole experience in the world, and you see it, and you grasp it, and you wake up, and rush to write it down, and you look at your notebook afterwards, and it says, “moo goo gai pan.” Except this dream, I was able to retain some of it in a sensible fashion. What I was able to retain was this form. And it was a form that looked like a leaf. It was more 3D than that. It was a kind of spear-blade bevel thing, but it was organic. It existed in four dimensions, and it had the meaning of life embedded in it. I had the dream, and for days and weeks afterwards, I thought: this is how I’m going to spend the rest of my life, trying to do an artistic rendition of this revelation.  In fact, the book started that way. The book started with me trying to construct a story that would be that: it would have these four dimensions.

What’s the fourth dimension in Behind the Moon?

Chaos theory is a fundamental in the book. In physics and math, chaos theory isn’t chaotic at all. It just looks that way. The equations are hard to write. But they describe the origin of organization, in terms of fractals, Mandelbrot sets – this is something that goes on in the world by itself and almost outside of our ability to observe it. And it yet it defines everything.  

In the book, chaos is defined as, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” Different initial conditions, different outcome.  

Yes. A lot of the book is about alternate versions of everything, so there are a lot of parallel story lines that contradict each other, and lots of the book is constructed that way, where you get umpteen versions of the same or similar events, and then there are trance experiences which are mirroring. I think there’s some theorizing about this – the consequences of every possible choice actually exist somewhere, and you – being an architect of your own being, you have to make one choice at every intersection because our consciousness doesn’t have the power to – except for extraordinary moments of interpenetration between these different strands – to contain and mention all of them at once – you can’t.  

How did prehistoric cave painting and shamanism get added to the mix of mother-daughter separation and meaning-of-life dreams in four dimensions?

I started with not much – I think a very vague idea that was based on an article by Judith Thurman, “First Impressions,” in The New Yorker about those caves, those most recently discovered caves in France, the Chauvet caves. I think different people’s guesswork about prehistoric shamanistic culture interested me a lot. It connected with experience and research I’d done in the area of Haitian Vodou, and I thought, I’d like to learn more about that.

Photo by Jackson Willis

You explicitly make the connection between shamanism and Vodou in the opening quotes from Mimerose Beaubrun’s book, Nan Domi, and Jean Clottes’ and David Lewis-Williams’ book, The Shamans of Prehistory.

The novel is trying to get at the nature of the original religious experiences for prehistoric man, which is very challenging. There’s a theory that those experiences are still there in the older parts of the brain, the back of the brain stem. I believe that. There are even today cultures where a lot of unconscious process is shared, which is very weird to us in the first world. If that happens, it’s a frightening, supernatural event. But for a lot of people on the planet, that’s normal. And I think that’s an older aspect of what it is to be human, and one that we can still access. You know, really sort of primordial experiences.

Can you describe them?

When I started doing the shamanistic research part, there’s visual phenomena that occur at different stages – LSD experiences apparently give you this, I haven’t been there personally – I can’t remember all the stages, but there is a stage where there’s a fracturing of the visual field. That’s in the experience, and then after that, things start to declare themselves more coherently, so you get apparitions afterwards. After everything has dissolved in this primal soup of the psyche, then things coalesce out of it that are godheads, if you will, or things that are available in the culture of the person having the experience. Most of what’s reported in the book as dream is stages of shamanic journey. 

Marissa has an explicit encounter with a shaman, who sends her on her journey.

That’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole thing. Claude, Marissa’s religious counselor, has just died and she’s really upset, and she decides to go pursue this no-show client, who – this completely idiotic mission, and she ends up nowhere, and this shamanistic figure comes out – that image of that guy appearing – I just really liked that.

 It’s a beautiful passage: “Marissa said, Why?  You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. … Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.” The literary, poetic momentum of everything that follows that scene is powerful.

It came out of nowhere.  I had no idea I was going to write that.

Photo by Jackson Willis

Although Marissa and Julie are on the shamanic journey, they are often depicted in spiritual connection with a third character, usually Jamal, Julie’s classmate, but sometimes the third character is Ultimo, an ambiguous, possibly dangerous character. The trinity of Marissa, Julie and a third character invokes a concept from Haitian Vodou, les trois marassa. Can you talk a bit about that?

Les trois marassa is a very hard concept to understand. It’s a stage of possession. The way I understand it is that the partition happens in the psyche, where elements divide, and there’s a vacating of – the horse metaphor – the saddle is left empty for the spirit to occupy.  The marassa imagery represents the process. Images I’ve seen show it sort of like a Ven diagram where there’s three things that are splitting up. You start with the original vessel of the self, the whole person, and then it separates into three, the lwa (godhead), the zani (spirit), and the ego goes off over here and basically disappears for a while.  Also, it’s just occurring to me. I remember thinking from time to time, why did I choose the name, “Marissa,” for this person? It’s not particularly appropriate, nor is it a name that I like. But it’s one syllable off from “marassa.” It’s one letter off. I didn’t know that ’til now.  

Ultimo, who is a shaman, but also a criminal, makes another reference to Haitian Vodou, when he explains himself by saying, “Naturally, I work with both hands.” What does that expression mean?

That’s straight out of Haitian Vodou. The right hand is divine, the healing charitable dimension. The left hand is where you sell your services to people who want – there are three things: to harm your enemies, get money and power, and make people love you who don’t. That’s all the left hand. And it’s deeply damaging to the people who undertake it. But that’s what people will pay for. They don’t normally want to pay for the benign services. “Naturally” doesn’t mean that it’s natural, it means it’s necessary. Because you have to – Ultimo has to buy dog food for his dogs, and gas for his Humvee. His path to enlightenment is kind of crooked, maybe extremely crooked.  

Julie embarks on her shamanic journey while in a coma, but we, the readers, see her subjective experience of that time, which involves her participating in a prehistoric society. Can you expand a bit about her experience?  

The two convergence threads of the book – one is the “Julie” thread, it all just happens to her, she doesn’t bring any intention to it much. One of the things that I wanted to do was have her in this parallel universe as a prehistoric person herself, but I could never get that to work. Every time I kept pushing in that direction, I would think, Ok, I’m writing The Clan of the Cave Bear. This is not my goal. So I ended up making those elements be very abstract and sort of capable of being excused or explained as hallucinations. I did all this stuff to try to get myself to be able to create that world, including re-reading the Laurens van der Post books about the San people, who according to him, are the earliest human beings who are still around in the 20th century. Julie’s experience on the other side, in that parallel universe, the world of prehistoric human beings, is just always in the process of me trying to work it out, which I don’t feel like I’ve completed yet.

You said, “two convergence threads”?

And then Marissa, who is Julie’s biological mother, has got a real spiritual practice – not a wholly successful one – but she’s been training herself, as best she can, to mediate these altered state experiences for herself. In fact, she probably was seeking to have the experiences. That seed of her narrative is planted in more realistic soil.  There’s an intelligible story of origin for that character: the small town Catholic girl who – it’s implied that she does some idealistic venturing around the world, having given up a baby for adoption because she’s a Catholic, she didn’t want to abort it, done her best to forget about it, and then in her thirties – because she’s very young when has this baby – and she’s in the midst of this other stuff and has a shock because of the death of her religious counselor, the idea of the child she gave away appears, but meanwhile she’s been spending her time trying – she’s not really a nun, but she’s sort of a civilian nun. That’s where her life is.  It’s very small, but also kind of concentrated.

The idea of a person with antlers plays a role in the convergence of these two story threads. Can you talk a bit about the antlered person? Where did that idea come from?

One of the few fragmentary images on which a lot of these theories of prehistoric shamanism are based is The Sorcerer, in Cave Trois-Frères in Ariège – I had that in the front of my brain for a long time, this image: what does it mean for the story I’m trying tell? And then I thought about possession experiences as I’ve had them directly, and as they’ve been reported by others, with the idea of a tree exploding in your brain and sprouting out stuff that you don’t have any control over – yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s like that, and I thought maybe this picture is a picture of that.  

A depiction of the moment of possession?

Again, I think, the task for us in the first world – the project of maturation is to build an integrated self and defend it. First you build it, you construct it, you make it a sort of citadel and defend it for the rest of your life. Your ethics, and your honor, and your everything comes from this process. If you want a super positive example, you can take Martin Luther King, who I think is a personality like that. If you want an example to avoid, it’s the current president of the United States, whose personality can be explained in this way without difficulty. Well, you know what? That’s not the only option. I have been in cultures where “being” is not necessarily about being that kind of self – you know, clearly defined, tightly integrated.  

In one interpretation, you start the book with the dominance of that kind of “tightly integrated” self.  The first two sentences are: “The eye was on her first.  The first thing she knew.”  

You want to make a pun out of that “eye” / “I”.  That works. I surely was not conscious of that in the writing, except in a way – I don’t think I’d ever worked it out, but one of the things that I’m playing with in that opening passage is this line that comes from the sixties drug culture, I think, “The eye you see with is the one who sees you back.” And there’s an anecdote about scientists doing some kind of monkey experiment, and they look in the peephole, and what they see in the peephole is the eye of the monkey looking through the peephole at them. I got that from some Robert Stone text. But he probably got it from the Ken Kesey cult to begin with, I would guess. But that was a line he really loved, and it was important to his work, in very different ways than how I’ve used it.

The monkey looking at the scientists is a nice segue into asking about the “animal persons” that appear in the cave paintings and Julie’s shamanic journey.

Animal persons – that’s in Native American lore. That goes back to the origin. In the first coming to consciousness of human beings around the world, the interdependency with these animal persons, these other persons who were different by their nature, but, basically, in the beginning you have to eat them, that’s what you need them for. That’s the first understanding of sacrifice. I think it’s clear from the vestiges that persist – there was a very early idea that killing for food was a sacred act that involved the sacrifice of a person, from that – that’s Christianity’s origin. This fellow being dies so that you can live. You are the author of the act, and you have to acknowledge it. That’s what a lot of cave painting is about, I think.  

Photo by Jackson Willis

In Behind the Moon, you depict a mother and daughter, multiple characters from other cultures, prehistoric people, and also animals, and you render them all with respect and dignity.  How are you achieving such breadth with your characterizations?  

This is something I wish I could teach the students a little bit better. Some of – a lot of – the students automatically know how to do this. There’s a moment, it’s a craft issue, but also an artistic issue, where you have to escape from your own design and just be in the world that you’re trying to make – be the person, forgetting that it’s your own invention. When I can’t respond to a lot of your questions about how this stuff was planned, there’s a part of me that planned it, I know, but the execution – I was not operating on the planning level, I was living inside the character.

Now that it’s published, how do you feel about this book?

When I was first getting to know Bob Stone – he had moved here to teach at Hopkins, and I invited him out for a drink. So we went down to Fell’s Point and heard some music and this and that, and he got – for some reason – to tell me a story about when he was in the Navy, he’d been attacked by a homosexual predator on the ship.

And it was, like, it wasn’t totally serious because there were witnesses, it was – he described bad ships as running like prisons – he was expected to fight it off, he just had to fulfill the expectation, that was how he presented it. So they were all sleeping on these bunks that were supported by chains – shelves that fold out – so he detached the bunk chain and beat the guy off with the bunk chain. And I said, “Oh, that’s the –” because in his first novel, the pathetic heroine having helplessly ended up in jail and despairing for no good reason actually hangs herself with one of these bunk chains.

I said, “Oh that’s the bunk chain that Georgette hangs herself with, isn’t it?” He looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about because he didn’t, in fact. He’d forgotten it. And then he remembered. And then he said – this is what I always remember – “Oh.  So you actually can be free.”  


Maya Alexandri is the author of the novel The Celebration Husband and numerous short stories. She is based in Baltimore and is one of the collaborators behind the Amplified Cactus performance series.

Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell was published by City Lights and available at The Ivy Bookshop.


Madison will be reading from Behind the Moon at the Starts Here! reading series on Saturday, 13 May, 7:30 p.m., at Bird in Hand, 11 E. 33d Street.
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