NiteTalk: Madison Smartt Bell Talks Spirits and Inspiration

You know that little voice inside your head? The one that's supposed to guide you through life and keep you from goin' nuts? Well, imagine if that voice had a friend, and that friend showed up and told you one of the most horrific stories you've ever heard. That's what happened to Madison Smartt Bell. And he wrote it all down as The Color of Night.

Much is being made of your claim that The Color of Night was "dictated to [you] by daemons." How did that work exactly? I heard a voice and wrote down what it said. There's an element of that in all my books but the voice was unusually loud and clear in this case. And the experience was so powerful I just went with it.

Those same daemons still lurking about? Hope so! I'd have a hard time without them. When you spell it with an "a' it takes it a little closer to an angel. Tom Waits sang it, long time ago.  "If I exorcise my devils, why my angels may leave too."

What made you decide to mention them in the first place? Preemptive strike. Some people won't like a book that starts out with the narrator saying how pleased she is the Towers came down. So I felt a need to, you know, Explain, that it's her talking. Not me.

Did you have similar experiences with either Devil's Dream or any of your four Haiti books?
Not to the same extent. The [L'Ouverture] biography not at all really. That sticks to the facts 100 percent so far as I was able to learn what they were. And in a historical novel I try to be faithful to facts. So there's less room to let oneself go.

Didn't you also encounter some kinda severe stirring during one of your early trips to Haiti? I had the front end of a possession. I heard screams coming out my body from some other place. I wasn't in my body.  It's the scariest thing I've ever been through. I looked it up later; everybody says that. Yet most of them want to go back. I'm no exception.  If there'd been knowledgeable people at the time I most likely would have gone on to have one of the lwa seated in my head.

Did those kinds of episodes stop after you further immersed yourself in Haitian culture?
Not exactly. I didn't want them to stop. But after seeking a little mediation it all became more manageable. And in the end I didn't go as far with it as I might have and as I thought I wanted to.  There was something (a houngan told me this, before I knew it for myself) holding me back....

Your summoning of spirits, so to speak, goes back well before you even visited the nation, doesn't it? I believe inspiration means just what it says: A spirit comes into you.

Do you think that initial openness created a window which subsequent spirits could more readily pass through? Yes. I made myself susceptible. On purpose, though it was a mostly unconscious purpose.

This kinda talk makes some folks uncomfortable. What do you say to all the doubters out there?
Anybody who's not an out and out atheist has some point of contact with this stuff, because it's fundamental to human experience and all religions have it somewhere. Stateside fundamentalists think Haitian Vodou is Satanic but they don't say that about the Holy Spirit descending on Pentecostal congregations. I picked up a Gideon Bible in a hotel room recently, read a chunk of "The Book of Samuel" - all important events in that narrative are generated by the Spirit of the Lord descending on somebody.

If you need a "normative" explanation, you can say these things all come from the unconscious mind, or from the collective unconscious. The Color of Night can be read that way and still make perfect sense. For me, in the end, there's no difference.

Madison Smartt Bell reads from The Color of Night Saturday May 7, 7pm at Books and Books 265 Aragon Ave Coral Gables. For more information call 305-442-4408 or log on here.

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