Madison Smartt Bell Interview
November 4, 2009
the author of Devil's Dream
We were fortunate to host Madison Smartt Bell on the blog November 4, 2009. His novel Devil's Dream is about the remarkable Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
How many horses did Forrest have shot from under him during the Civil War?
At the end of the war, Forrest told a "Northern writer," named McAlister, "I have lost 29 horses in the war, and killed a man each time. The other day I was a horse ahead, but at Selma they surrounded me, and I killed two, jumped my horse over a one-horse wagon, and got away."
Devil's Dream moves both forward and backward in time from the beginning of the Civil War. What led you to use this structure?
The first idea was to control the length - I didn't want the manuscript over 450 pages. But I wanted to cover Forrest's whole career in the war and I saw it could easily swell up on me if I went straight through.
Thus I wrote half about of the chapters - episodes I knew I wanted to have - with little regard for where they would be placed in the book. Each of them was however classed as belonging to one out of four narrative lines to be braided together in the completed work. When I had about half I spread them all out on the floor and played a big game of solitaire with them, which resulted in a tentative order of presentation. The rest of the chapters were slotted into that order as I wrote them - though I did shuffle things around a few more times and after a conversation with the editor, Dan Frank, wrote nine new episodes and folded them in.
This approach helped keep the story from feeling too heavy, I think, and also allowed me to offer episodes in thematic relationship to each other instead of having the sequence be controlled by time. An objection to the clock-and-calendar-bound idea of time is made by some characters in the book. I also felt that this style of presentation reinforced the feeling of inevitability.
Was the clairvoyant soldier Henri inspired by a real person?
Probably not. A man told me that Forrest's personal bodyguard, all black, was captained by a son of Toussaint Louverture (leader of the Haitian Revolution, about whom I have written several books) named Henri. Though Forrest did have some black members of his troop (Jerry, and people like Benjamin, did exist), I found no support for this story about Louverture's son among them, or any other Haitian. But I loved the irony of it and thought it was fair to use it in a work of fiction.
Review of Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
See listing for Devil's Dream at Powell's Books
See listing for Devil's Dream at Amazon.com
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