Scientists' Nightstand: Madison Smartt Bell
Novelist Madison Smartt Bell is professor of English and director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College in Maryland. His most recent book is a nonfiction biography of pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution (W. W. Norton, 2005).
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in Tennessee and educated at Princeton University and Hollins College (earning an M.A. in creative writing at the latter). I lived in New York City in the early '80s and published my first few books during that time. Then I married and moved to Baltimore. With my wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, I direct the creative writing program and run the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College. I have published something over a dozen books of fiction by my best count, including a trilogy of novels about the Haitian Revolution: All Souls' Rising (Pantheon, 1995), Master of the Crossroads (2000) and The Stone That the Builder Refused (2004). The Lavoisier book was my first biography. Right now I am finishing a similarly short biography of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L'Ouverture.
What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?
I have just read a couple of novels by Katharine Weber, who will be teaching as a visitor at Goucher next year—The Little Women (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003) and The Music Lesson (Crown, 1998). I am currently rereading her first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (Crown, 1995), which I liked very much when it was first published. I'm also reading a story collection and an episodic novel (Climbing the God Tree, Helicon, 1998), by Jaimee Wriston Colbert, for a peer review—she was student of mine back in the day, and I have always liked her work. I'm just beginning a book on Nantucket by the late Frank Conroy, who was a good friend of mine (Time and Tide, Crown, 2004). I am also constantly reading and rereading material for the Toussaint biography, including, at the moment, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, by David Geggus (Indiana University Press, 2002); M. L. E. Moreau de Saint-Méry's account of the topography and history of Saint-Domingue from the late 1790s (Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l'isle Saint-Domingue, Société Française d'Histoire d'Outre-mer, 1984); and Toussaint's Clause, by Gordon Brown (University Press of Mississippi, 2005), a specialized work about Toussaint's relations with the U.S. and its presidents Jefferson and John Adams. I'm also reading a French book, Vodou! (Autrement, 2003), by the Haitian novelist Louis-Philippe Dalembert; The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad (Little, Brown, 2003); a New Testament in Haitian creole; and A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 2005).
When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Any time and all the time, but generally lying down, unless I am eating or waiting somewhere.
Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
A partial list: Dostoevsky, Carolyn Chute, Cormac McCarthy, George Garrett, Alasdair Gray, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Penn Warren.
What are the best books you've ever read? Explain.
The Solid Mandala, by Patrick White (Viking, 1966); Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather (1931); A Flag for Sunrise, by Robert Stone (Knopf, 1981); Fathers and Crows, by William Vollmann (Viking, 1992); Kalimantan, by C. S. Godshalk (Henry Holt, 1998); ... and many, many more.
What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
There is no single book. I think Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865), which I have read several times, had a large influence on the writing of my Haitian Revolution trilogy, though I didn't become conscious of it until late in the day.
Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
Pride of Carthage, by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday, 2005); De Tocqueville's book on the United States (Journey to America, 1831); and The Eye of the Storm, by Patrick White (Viking, 1973).
Are there any science books you have found particularly useful, or that you would recommend for nonscientists?
Heh ... I don't really read a lot in this area, and the reading I did for the Lavoisier project was pretty specialized. ... Probably the most general work I read, quite a good one, was Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball (by Trevor Harvey Levere, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Rather more specialized are Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry, by William R. Newman and Lawrence M. Principe (University of Chicago Press, 2002), and Marco Beretta's The Enlightenment of Matter: The Definition of Chemistry from Agricola to Lavoisier (Science History Publications, 1993)—the latter a really brilliant work and quite pleasant reading, despite its indubitably specialized quality.
You're known principally as a novelist. What challenges did you find in writing a biography of Lavoisier?
My virtually perfect ignorance of chemistry was a challenge, one might say. I confessed that to James Atlas and Jesse Cohen when they first approached me about the book, and they claimed not to be bothered. Their theory was that the other work I had done around the edges of the French Revolution (which overlaps considerably with events in Haiti at the same time), plus my knowledge of French, would give me an edge. I think they were right, and that I was up to the job, but I was most comfortable presenting Lavoisier in his social, historical and political contexts and his work in the context of the history of science and the history of ideas. The purely chemical issues were difficult for me to grasp, although I think I did grasp them well enough to present them accurately.