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Book Talk: Madison Smartt Bell on gods and demons

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

Mae is a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, working amid the rattle of dice and whisper of cards, roaming the desert with a rifle in her time off.

When planes crash into the World Trade Center, she revels in the anarchy of the destruction. And she sees, in television footage, the face of an old lover, screaming as the towers fall.

"The Color of Night," by Madison Smartt Bell, follows Mae as 9/11 sends her back through a past shadowed by abuse and her years in a 1960s cult that commits a horrifying crime, and ultimately she tracks down her lover again.

Bell, a National Book Award finalist who has written extensively about Haiti, spoke with Reuters about his book and the origins of his compelling, if unusual, heroine.

Q: What was your intention with this book?

A: "It just popped into my head. I heard that voice talking to me and then I started writing it down. When you say my intentions, it's more like her intentions. I think she wants to make her case, that she's a divine being sort of walking around, having been purified and refined through suffering, and forged in the fire, she just walks through all the mundanity and ordinary suffering of mortal life. That's her position.

"Particularly if you sign in to her world view, she's extremely powerful and even if you don't, she's got a certain amount of power. And I think that's attractive."

Q: So you heard a voice and you went on from there?

A: "Without her voice, there'd be nothing. I'd done a project a long time before, maybe four or five years before, for a series of retelling contemporary myths... I wrote about 100 words worth of proposal. I had an idea that wasn't quite the same, but there was a little germ and some part of it stuck in my mind. I think it just came out of that, like a seed.

"It was an idea of setting a Dionysius/Orpheus myth in the atmosphere of 60s terrorism and having somebody remember it. Those elements were in it. But then I basically forgot it, and when it came back it had just simmered in my unconscious for four to five years and just kind of matured there without my thinking about it, really."

Q: Was it easy or hard to write?

A: "It was incredibly easy to write, and I felt -- and I still feel like -- it was the best thing I'd done in a long time. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the ease of composition. It was mostly just typed straight onto the keyboard with minimal revision. Like automatic writing."

Q: The use of 9/11 was unusual. What was behind that?

A: "It gave the other end of the story. The front end, chronologically, is all the other stuff that happened back in the 60s. It's all reawakened by 9/11. The device of having her see her old lover in 9/11 footage and the idea that she'd just been in suspended animation all that time in between... As if you could just turn her off. That event turns her back on."

Q: And because of who she is, her response to it would be different from a lot of people.

A: "Well, sure. Everybody in the United States thought it was really terrible. So did I... I didn't feel celebratory about it at all. Yet I knew a few people in this country who did. That stuck with me and that became part of it."

Q: You said this book came to you in Mae's voice. Where do you get your ideas -- was this typical?

A: "I've said with some seriousness that my work is dictated to me by demons, and I feel that that's true. There's two ways of looking at it. If you want to take a reductive view, and there's nothing here in the universe aside from us, then it comes from your unconscious mind. I sort of teach in those terms. But I actually believe that there's a lot more in the universe than just us, and whenever I have inspiration it means a spirit is trying to express itself through me, which takes a lot of the difficulty out of writing a book because you just have to do what you're told.

"A lot of times it's not that simple. With these long historical novels there's just a lot of work that you've got to do that's kind of laborious. But this book was easy, because there's just one voice and it was very strong, and it was very clear. And all I had to do was write it down."