Madison Smartt Bell ’79 reflects on the intersection of music and words

Courtesy Madison Smartt Bell '79

Midway through his 2002 novel about touring musicians, Anything Goes,Madison Smartt Bell ’79 asked his friend, poet Wyn Cooper, to write song lyrics that his characters might compose. Those songs not only ended up in the novel, they were the beginning of a collaboration that today has Cooper writing the lyrics and Bell writing the music, playing guitar, and performing lead vocals for their recording duo, Bell & Cooper. Their first CD, Forty Words for Fear, was issued in 2003. The pair recently released their second album, Postcards Out of the Blue, which features acoustic guitar and blues rock. Bell, who has written 12 novels, includingAll Souls Rising and Soldier’s Joy, and is working on a historical novel about the Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.

How does making music complement your writing life? 

Music for me is like play. The big complaint of writers is that they don’t have anything physical to play with. You don’t have clay, you don’t have paint, you don’t have anything you can put your hands on. So playing music is physical between your ear and your hands. You are amusing yourself with this instrument that reports directly back to your senses. It’s a different mode of being because it doesn’t involve any abstract thought. So music is down time for me from doing the abstract work of writing. 

Music, in the sense of sound, is a part of my writing, because I always write for the ear. It’s my instinct. A lot of people write for the eye, but I write for sound. Sound determines every word that I choose and how I put words together. I unconsciously count syllables. There’s a musical intention in most of my prose. I hear the words in my head — it’s as if I’m taking dictation. I’m listening to something  — and obviously there’s part of my brain that’s making it happen — and I write it down. 

How is the process of creating music different from creating a novel? 

The difference is that all of the songwriting that I’ve done has been collaborative. So that is pretty unusual for me — to have to negotiate what’s to be done. Fiction writers generally work alone. Sometimes it’s very easy and we get it almost right away. ... And lately there have been other songs that have been incredibly difficult to do. We just finished one that took many tries to get the right lyrics and the right feel. Collaboration is an inherent thing in music. Any time you have more than one instrument you’ve got to have some harmonization and cooperation among other people. It’s one of the reasons why the musician’s world is rather more supportive than a writer’s world. There’s less jealousy and jockeying for position. Musicians are more inclined to help and support each other, because on a day-to-day basis they have to do that or they have discord. Most writers go through the world doing everything they can to advance their interests at the expense of everybody else working in the same medium. Not me, of course.