Knoxville literary magician pens his “Moby Dick”
by Rob Neufeld
Novelist David Madden grew up in a two-room shack in Knoxville and—after years soaking in the magic of that town; serving in the army; and studying at the University of Tennessee, San Francisco State, and Yale—has become one of the most accomplished literary writers in America.
For 25 years, he was Writer-in Residence at Louisiana State University; and for three years after that, the director of the creative writing program there.
He now lives in Black Mountain with his wife Robbie, near their son’s family. His tenth novel (and 39th book), “London Bridge in Plague and Fire,” has just been published, to great early acclaim.
Madden launches his book locally at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 7 p.m., Nov. 10. He speaks at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Nov. 12.
Madden’s writing career is marked by a distinctive devotion to the powers of dramatic and compassionate imagination. Each of his novels is different from the others, taking the form of its material. The following interview expands on that appreciation. A review of the novel appears in this column next week. Also visit www.davidmadden.net to see future author events.
Q: How was “London Bridge in Plague and Fire” born?
A: When I was 16, I saw Henry V with Laurence Olivier. The opening credits show ancient London Bridge, with all the houses and shops on it. About 50 years ago, I saw the movie again, and I was intrigued. I made a note, “ancient London Bridge would be a great setting for a musical.” …One day, I just decided to do it. Every night, just before leaving my study to go to bed, I devoted 10 to 20 minutes to listening to voices from the bridge, speaking about the bridge in very bizarre terms.
Q: What did that produce?
A: I ended up with 200 pages of unusable surrealistic feelings, thoughts, and voices derived from reading a single book—the best book, “Old London Bridge” by Gordon Home…I went to London and found that nobody that I talked to, including members of Parliament, knew who Peter de Colechurch, the architect of the bridge, was…When he built his bridge (completed in 1205), it was the first stone bridge in Europe since the Romans went back to Italy. The number of shops and houses made it unique...My inspiration was this feeling: what a marvelous, small community, and all those lives and merchants, and people working in shops that were at the most 12 feet wide, and houses at the most six stories high, but incredibly narrow, with views to the east and west.
Q: In addition to the architect’s voice, there’s also the poet, Daryl Braintree.
A: I created his voice and found that it was unclear when he was speaking in the narrative, and when I was speaking. So, I let it stand as ambiguous since I think the two of us merged in the various drafts…There are, by the way, ten huge drafts…I built the bridge with Peter de Colechurch in one version, and I called that, “London Bridge Rising.” Then there was “London Bridge Falling,” about plague and fire. Then, what I’ve done is collapse the two into the published novel, which is “London Bridge in Plague and Fire.” A fourth one was going to be a book of the poems only. They were called “London Bridge Nocturnes.”
Q: You’re like Herman Melville.
A: Yeah, it’s my “Moby Dick.” I have combined the essential elements of all the versions into one novel.
Q: There are lurid plots in your novel, based on history—such as the sacrifice of 13-year-old virgins to protect the bridge. How do you turn sensationalist material into Southern Gothic in literary ways?
A: I would say the influence on me is “Absalom, Absalom.” It’s interesting you should say Southern Gothic because it could be that only a Southerner could have written this seemingly un-Southern story. I’m a Southern writer who keeps writing outside the South.
Q: Your upcoming trip to Knoxville makes me think of how you mythologize your hometown in such books as your novel, “Bijou.” What is so rich about the place?
A: The look of Knoxville—its seven hills, like Rome—during the Civil War, there were batteries on all those hills. The bridges. By the way, about the origin of “London Bridge”—it was Gay Street Bridge in Knoxville. I used to go down there in a trembling sense of excitement (as a youth), and walk across it, skipping over the broken parts, which is right there in “London Bridge in Plague and Fire.” I could see the river below, where the pavement had been punched through, and look down on the life below, which was ancient Knoxville slums, and houseboats. Anything—cemeteries, old houses, Knoxville High School—I was the last graduating class—my own home, which was a shack. I was born in a two-room shack…I wrote a few passages of “London Bridge” on two or three visits to Gay Street Bridge when I couldn’t do it at home…(Then there’s) the geography (of Knoxville)—the mountains in the distance—that’s why I love Black Mountain and the Asheville area— because it’s like Knoxville. I’d be in Knoxville if it weren’t for my son being here.
David Madden launches his novel, “London Bridge in Plague and Fire,”
at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville. Call 254-6734.
See more of the interview on “The Read on WNC” at TheReadonWNC.ning.com.