Madison Smartt Bell was born on August 1, 1957, in Franklin, Tennessee. He was educated at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and at Princeton University, where he won awards for fiction writing and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1979, he graduated summa cum laude. He then spent a year in New York working at various jobs and doing research and writing for the Franklin Library. From 1979 to 1984, Bell was a director of a film production company, the 185 Corporation.
After a year’s study at Hollins College, Bell received his master’s degree in English and creative writing in 1981. Back in New York, he continued working for the Franklin Library and also for the Berkeley Publishing Corporation. His first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, was published in 1983.
The following year, Bell moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and became an assistant professor of English at Goucher College, a position he held until 1986. In 1985, he married the poet Elizabeth Spires. After a year as a lecturer at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Bell returned to Goucher as writer-in-residence in 1988. He has also taught graduate writing seminars at The Johns Hopkins University.