Madison Smartt Bell   photo of Madison Smartt Bell  


My new novel, Anything Goes got started as a dream, the same way the opening of the novel begins (though in the book it's somebody else that dreams it), and the dream itself got started by a lot of other circumstances: nearly ten years ago I had a grant and a year off from my teaching job, but it wasn't convenient to go anywhere, so instead I bought a Les Paul. I grew up near Nashville, and played guitar and banjo since my early teens, mostly bluegrass and country blues. I'd always wanted to learn to play lead guitar, and this year seemed like a good time to do it, so I spent a lot of hours hacking along to records until I had picked up the basics. Nirvana was big then, and I had a copy of Nevermind, but it bugged me that I couldn't figure out the chord progression to "Lithium" by ear—so much so that I went out and bought the book to it. Then I saw that the music, brutally simple and dumb as it might sound, was actually a good deal more complicated than I'd imagined it to be.

Then Kurt Cobain showed up in one of my dreams, and explained to me how to play the song, and when I woke up I thought it might be the start of something, so I wrote a short story called "Never Mind," and when I read it over it seemed like it might be a jumping off place for a novel, so I began to write on that, in between things, and mostly just to amuse myself at first. It was a novel without much more of a plan than its characters have, which is to play music from roadhouse to roadhouse up and down the eastern seaboard, following good weather.

Elsewhere, my old friend from the Hollins M.A. program, Wyn Cooper, had washed up in Vermont. He had left a Ph.D. program, for various compelling reasons, without getting the degree, and what he had to show for many years of education was a slender volume of verses called The Country of Here Below, which was published by a very small press in an edition of a few hundred copies, most of which had disappeared from view by the time I am talking, when Wyn moved to North Bennington and started working as a bartender in a place then called The Villager.

Meanwhile, in Pasadena, a gang of studio musicians and producer had a sort of songwriting collective that got together on Tuesday nights, and one of them brought in a young woman who could sing, so pretty soon they found themselves making the first Sheryl Crow album. According to the most popular version of the tale, they had a nice tune with no words to it, and somebody decided to send out for a bunch of poetry books, and, somewhat against probability, they netted a copy of The Country of Here Below in their haul. They wrote a chorus for a poem of Wyn's called "Fun," and recorded it as "All I Wanna Do," which became the song which no one with electricity could escape during 1994 and 95.

As a result, Wyn was able to move around to the other side of the bar (recently reborn as "The Pig") and become a customer. He also experienced a meteoric metamorphosis from not terrifically well-known poet to very successful song-writer. In the next year or so he wrote a good many songs with different members of the Tuesday Night Music Club crew, and with other musicians too, (David Broza, for instance). One way or another, though, he found himself going through a dry spell in 1996 or 97, with his musical co-writers preoccupied with other projects.

Meanwhile I had floated through about half of this novel, and when Wyn told me what kind of loose ends he was at, I proposed to him that I'd send him what I had. If the spirit moved him he might write some songs such as the characters in the book might write. If it worked I would get to use the song lyrics in the book and he would have some new songs.

As an afterthought, I also said that I might have a shot at setting the lyrics to music myself, if there turned out to be any lyrics. I didn't really know if I would be able to do this since I had never done anything like it before. But as it happened it worked pretty well. A couple of years later we had about a dozen songs, including two ("On Eight-Mile" and "Forty Words for Fear") that I cannibalized from pre-existing poems by Wyn. (Both poems are found in his most recent collection, The Way Back.)

Now, the words to these songs are a hundred percent by Wyn and the text of the novel is a hundred percent by me. We both stayed within these natural boundaries. But the interesting thing is that the novel—most of the last three chapters—began to reshape itself around the content of the song lyrics. I put whatever ingenuity I could muster into integrating songs I especially liked ("On Eight-Mile," especially) into the plot and got some good results. In one case I asked Wyn to write me a song with a particular title, which became "Room Full of Tears." I didn't know exactly why I wanted this at the time I asked for it—it was just a notion that came to me while riding around in the car. But there turned out to be a spot in the novel just right for that song when I got there.

It has been an interesting ride, and I think the destination has turned out to be something we both sort of knew about already: a touch of the arbitrary is a stimulating thing for any kind of writer, like the proverbial grain of sand is inspirational to the oyster. How it all started was with me lobbing a scratchy little projectile of the arbitrary over the net between Wyn's craft universe and mine. He hit it back, and we got a pretty good rally going, and this book and these songs are what came of it.

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  Copyright ©2002, Madison Smartt Bell  
Photo credit: Marion Ettlinger