Terra Leigh Bell is the latest author published by Babel/Salvage. In August of 2011, she began reading Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and translated by Tobias Smollett. The Smollett translation struck her as particularly beautiful, and after about six months of reading the book, a poem began to write itself in response to the strange beauty and melancholy whimsy of the novel. Beltenebros, or the Beautiful Obscure is the result. We chatted with her a while back. She lived in Seattle at the time of the interview but now resides in Portland, Oregon. Have a read.
Who are you and why are you here?
Oh, dear. Well, I’m an overeducated, uptight white lady. I’m obsessed with history and science and I like to write and make “artsy stuff” (please don’t call it Art). I have high levels of social anxiety but am also blessed with an oddly cheerful disposition.
I go back and forth on the “why I’m here.” Occasionally I go for the whole accident theory that scientists are so big on. Mostly I’m so horrified by how awful their writing is, though, that I think the Sufist explanation for existence existing is far more plausible: “I was a hidden treasure; I longed to be known and therefore I created creation.”
Let’s say you meet a person whose only sense was a sense of smell. What combination of scents would you use to describe Beltenebros to this person?
Frankincense, rosewood, and oakmoss. More rosewood than frankincense, though.
If Don Quixote were a contemporary character, what sort of profession might he have? Hobbies?
Well, since he obsesses over the past, I see him as a “hard-boiled detective” in the Dashiell Hammett tradition of noir. His main hobbies would be fixating on the opposite sex and telling everyone within shouting distance what’s wrong with the world, which is probably why we get along so well.
Aside from literary influences, what in life inspires and informs your writing? Music, visual arts, food, sciences?
The language and sights and sounds and physical presence of mass. (Yes, yes, that’s religion; I’m an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian.) Seriously, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more gorgeous and challenging and exotic and comforting than a good religious service. Preferably one with lots of incense and fancy robes and chanting.
You’re dead. Your life is being turned into a movie. Who’s making it (directing, writing, etc.), who’s starring in it, and is it sticking to the facts?
Carrie Anne Moss doing parkour in Portland, OR
I apologize in advance to whoever gets saddled with this. Please don’t stick to the facts; they’re intentionally very dull. First, resurrect Roald Dahl. He’s the screenwriter, and he’ll take it in a James Bond You Only Live Twice direction. Hopefully Sofia Coppola agrees to direct it, and Carrie-Ann Moss will star in it. We look nothing alike, and I can’t imagine her portraying my personality at all, but she’d be bad-ass at the action sequences. Oh, and lots of parkour.
What is your personal philosophy of literature or writing, if you have one? If you don’t have one, how do you make it through the day?
I believe in inspiration. I always know when I’m feeling inspired. It feels different at different times — sometimes it’s kind of fun and giddy and exciting, but sometimes it’s anxious and scared and on edge — but I follow it when it comes. When it isn’t coming, I read whatever I want and get lots of sleep and exercise, and it always comes back. I don’t write unless I’m feeling it.
Also, eat good food. It makes for better art.
What is your dream?
To do good work. To improve the quality of at least a few people’s lives and not detract from the quality of very many others’ (thought I reserve the right to have some fun). Also, I’d love it if my work could do that for people, too. I shoot for being less of a T.S. Eliot and more of a Richard Crashaw.