An Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

by Jill Schepmann


Bonnie Jo Campbell (pronounced camp-bell) is the author of two novels, Once Upon a River, and Q Road, as well as two collections of short stories, American Salvage, which was a National Book Award Finalist in 2009, and Women and Other Animals, the recipient of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1999. Bonnie and her husband live outside Kalamazoo, MI, where they have two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon. In her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, she studied philosophy, and later earned an MA in mathematics and an MFA in creative writing from Western Michigan University.

On a recent visit to Nashville, Bonnie Jo Campbell chatted with me over some iced tea after an informal conversation with the rest of Vanderbilt’s MFA fiction crew. Below is an edited version of that interview.

Interviewer: I read that you sometimes take a lot of time revising your stories. For example, “Bringing Belle Home” in American Salvage was one that you worked on for about 25 years. Why did it take so long?

Campbell: Okay, well, that story took a while, it was maybe the second story I ever wrote in my life. The first story that I managed to write ended up in my first collection, and it was called “Tinny Marie,” and it came from an idea about a girl and her mother at the dump, and I wrote it quickly and it went pretty well. So I thought, oh, that’s what it’s going to be like to write stories. So I wrote this next story (“Bringing Belle Home”), and it didn’t go as well, it didn’t feel all right, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it good. I kept trying to write it, though. My whole early life with writing was me getting serious about writing for a while and then saying, forget it, I can’t do it, it’s too hard, it’s too competitive, and then coming back around to writing again. So every time I came back around, I would pick up this story again and revise it. A few times I had an opportunity to be in a group with other writers, and I’d bring in that story, and people would ask me, “Why do you want to write about these awful people?” And so I had to ask myself, Why do I want to write about these awful people? And I thought, well, I don’t think they are awful. These are human beings who matter as much as any other human beings, and so I gradually gained confidence in this story that for some reason I felt compelled to tell. When it came to the point where I was putting together my second collection, it seemed that the story was a good fit, so I knew it was time to finally finish the darned thing, and so I put the pedal to the metal. It belonged in American Salvage because that collection was about troubled men, and this was a story about an alcoholic man in love with a drug-addicted woman.

Interviewer: It’s like you had the house to put the story in.

Campbell: But why couldn’t I have figured it out five years before? I guess I didn’t know enough about what I was trying to do with the story. I didn’t know myself well enough as a writer. I didn’t know the subject well enough. After I wrote a lot more stories, some of them about addiction, I finally knew enough to write this story.

But it brings up questions that writers have to grapple with. When, if ever, should you give up on a piece? I think there’s danger in continuing to work on a thing, especially something long, like a novel, because it might not deserve all that attention, and maybe in the meanwhile, you could have written something new and better. I know people who’ve worked on nothing but one novel for twenty years.  But you know, I’ve been married to a guy for twenty-five years, and I haven’t given up on him (laughs).

Interviewer: While we’re talking about American Salvage, I wanted to ask about structure. The first story, “Trespasser,” I’ve read that that was kind of based on “Goldlilocks and the Three Bears.”

Campbell: I didn’t start with that idea. Weirdly enough, I wrote that story without seeing the parallel to the folk tale, but in going back to it, I saw (with a little help from my friend Alicia Conroy), it was all there, and so I revised with that in mind. For example, I gave the trespasser blond hair, while originally I had seen her as a brunette. And I think that is what made that story work, the fact that that the folk tale was in there. But you know, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is inside all of us, so it was in me when I was writing the first draft, whether I was aware of it or not. When we write, we’re always accessing unconscious stuff, thank goodness. And then once you realize you’ve incorporated something like that, it gives you something new to play with, something to riff off of. I knew that Goldilocks was a story that has mattered to people (laughs), and so I thought it would be smart to work with it.

Interviewer: Do you have other stories involving fairy tales? People have labeled your stories as gritty realism or dirty realism. So I wonder how fairy tales relate to that categorization for you?

Campbell: There’s a story in my first collection (Women and Other Animals) called “Shotgun Wedding,” a story about two sisters. The visual that inspired the story for me was a beautiful, virginal girl shutting her eyes and sleeping while her tougher and more wordly sister watched her sleep. And so I was thinking of “Sleeping Beauty.” And I do have a couple of other stories where I messed around with fairy tales, or where I kept the fairy tales or folk songs or mythological tales in my peripheral vision as references for the stories.

I don’t know that I think of myself as particularly gritty. I wonder if it’s just that I’m interested in difficult subject matter, or in people who seem gritty, or people who seem grubby compared to, I guess, middle class society (laughs). And fairy tales and tough realism do seem to me to go together naturally—fairy tales have traditionally been brutal stories, full of killings and maimings, betrayal and revenge.

Interviewer: That makes me think of “The Trespasser” again, where the daughter who comes home “inhales the scent of the crime” (multiple rapes of a young girl during a wild meth party) and realizes that she has been in the presence of these people before – in convenience stores, in the hallway at school. It just feels like that was such a great way to introduce the whole collection, because it’s like you were telling us that we are going to spend time with these “hard living” characters. It felt like kind of a gateway story in that way.

Campbell: Yeah. It’s the only story that has wealthier characters in it. I’m perfectly aware that most of my readers are going to be middle class people or upper middle class people, educated people anyhow. Because mostly that’s who buys books, I figured I needed to start the collection with a story that introduced those readers to the rougher sorts of folks whose lives I explore.

Interviewer: So. Do you think about your readership when you’re writing these stories? It seems like in fiction, people don’t like to talk about politics. They don’t want to feel like there’s a big message in a story or get beat over the head with anything. But there’s something about reading your stories, especially in this collection, after sitting with them for a while, digesting them, that does feel very political.

Campbell: Not overtly, I hope, but probably in a very… essential way, my work is political. I’m trying to think what I can say here. Because I had studied with Jaimy Gordon, somebody once asked her in an interview what her and my stories had in common. She said something very nice. She said something like that I don’t hold myself above any character that I create. And that’s exactly how I mean to write. I honestly don’t feel superior to anybody, not a drug-addicted street person. Not a Wall Street banker. Not anybody. I love being able to investigate human beings freely, without judgment. It’s one of the great pleasures of writing.

Fortunately, readers are happy to read stories in which very different lives are made real and even familiar.  Reading about the neighborhoods and neighbors in my stories is much safer and more comfortable than visiting them, I guess.

Interviewer: I read another interview that with your mom, sometimes she’s given you story “germs.” I saw something about “Boar Taint” in American Salvage, how once she had gone to a house that had no electricity and all the lights were out, and that’s where the story started for you.

Campbell: You know, she says she doesn’t remember telling me that. I need to ask her again.  Yeah, my mom is a very interesting person who I return to again and again in my fiction as well as in real life—I live three miles from her. She’s a person who didn’t follow the rules of how she was supposed to live. She was supposed to go to college, but she didn’t want to go to college. She wanted to stay home with her horses. She wanted to be a farmer, and so she learned what she could from the old farmers. She came of age in the hippie days, when people were looking at alternative ways of living, and she lived the life she wanted to live

She’s also a very tough person. There’s a character I based on her in my first collection, a woman who scalds her leg in a canning accident and gets an infection and refuses to go to the doctor, and so has to have her leg chopped off. And this woman won’t take any sympathy from anybody, and she belittles her daughter for not eating meat (laughs). Everyone who meets my mom remembers her and thinks fondly of her, probably because she’s so true to herself. I think it helps a writer to have a very interesting mother. Maybe the same thing could be true of fathers for some writers, but for most of us writer gals, our mothers give us a lot to think about (laughs). It’s good to have a complicated relationship with a mother, but also it’s good to have a complicated mother, someone smart who embodies a lot of different elements.

There are plenty of elements of my life, plenty of interesting people, places, and things, that I just don’t write about. Like, for example, I studied martial arts for a decade, but I’ve never written a martial arts story or a story about a Sensei, though my Sensei is a smart, interesting guy. Some people, stories, and experiences grab hold of our imagination with enough vigor that we have to write about them, and others that would seem to be just as compelling don’t. The creative imagination is mysterious.

Interviewer: You said earlier that you were kind of wondering about writing more stories about Michigan. Do you think you will go other places in your writing? You’ve mentioned travel. I guess, what role does travel play in your writing?

Campbell: I think it doesn’t play any concrete role on the page. Maybe my youthful travel experiences taught me to be the observer and affected my sensibility. As a citizen of the world, it’s good to see different things, to visit strange places and to be a stranger, but those foreign elements don’t really show up on my pages. I prefer to be very intimately connected to the things I write about. And that’s why almost every story I write is set in some place I know really well. That way I get my landscape for free, along with all the stuff in it. Once I wrote a story that took place in Romania, but that’s only because I had been there five times on that same stretch of Romanian road, and I felt like I really knew the place. Truth is, I really need to write those circus stories I’ve been meaning to write—that will get me out of town, and my work out of Michigan.

Interviewer: I wondered at what point do you know if you’re dealing with a novel versus just a story. You have some characters who have appeared in a novel and then in a story or vice versa. When do you feel like you decide?

Campbell: I would say that you just know. I would say that, but then I’d be lying, I just tried to send my agent a short novel, and he said, “No, pare it down, it’s a short story” (laughs). He said, “Chop off the beginning and the end. The middle is really good.” And after he said it, I had to admit that the middle was what I started with, and maybe the rest was unnecessary. I’m still thinking about it.

I guess if you’re hoping to write a novel, you’re looking for a pleasing narrative arc. You’re looking for a beginning, middle and end that are big enough and worthy enough for a novel. But I’ll admit that both my published novels have elements of the short story in them, because I do look for ways to break up the novel and make it more manageable. Once Upon a River is episodic in the sense that Huck Finn and the Odyssey are episodic.  Q Road switches point of view among the different chapters, so it amounts to the telling of multiple stories. I probably figured that out by reading As I Lay Dying. And of course the notion of breaking a story into chapters at all is a way to make it manageable.

Some people generalize, saying that a short story takes place in a shorter period of time, but that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of novels that take place in one day, or short stories that stretch on for years. It boils down to figuring out the size of the story you want to tell, and it can be as hard as every other decision you’ve got to make as a writer.

Interviewer: Now, you wrote Q Road after Women and Other Animals, correct?

Campbell: Yeah.

Interviewer: Was Women and Other Animals basically your thesis then?

Campbell: It was. And Q Road was the novel I wrote in a panic because I’d graduated with files full of short stories, and I didn’t know whether or not I’d be able to write a novel. I wrote the first draft in sixty days.

Interviewer: Wow. That’s amazing – sixty days for a draft!

Campbell: I can’t imagine doing that now. I should go back and look at that draft, see how different it is from the finished novel. I did come up with most of the characters in that first version. However, the main character, the most important character of that book, the sixteen-year-old girl who marries the farmer, she wasn’t even in that version.

Interviewer: And that’s Rachel Crane, right?

Campbell: Yes. It’s the daughter of the Margo Crane of Once Upon a River.

Interviewer: When did you know then you were going to go then to tell the mother’s story (who became a character in “Family Reunion” from American Salvage, and ultimately Margo Crane in Once Upon a River)?

Campbell: It took years. I guess the seeds were planted by readers who asked me about Margo Crane. She’s a small part of Q Road. She appears briefly, does something terrible, and then disappears. And people were asking me about her. At the time, when I was fielding questions, it never occurred to me that I was going to write a novel about Margo Crane. I guess it took me a while to understand that people would be interested in a woman who hunted and fished and was very beautiful and lived on a houseboat, but their interest gradually seeped into my brain and made me wonder if maybe there was something to tell. And then when I realized that it could be this same character that appeared in two other stories I’d written, then that was a gift. A gift I had given myself.

Interviewer: Yeah! It worked out. It was like the collective consciousness was guiding you to think about it.

Campbell: Now it seems obvious, but the story didn’t come easily. I didn’t know for a long time whether or not I had a novel, didn’t know it for sure until I had a full draft. But once I did have a draft, a few readers told me that it seemed like an especially marketable story. Of course as a writer in the thick of a story, you aren’t thinking about marketable or non-marketable because there’s too much else to think about, and you don’t want to go down that road. But those votes of confidence were helpful to me when I was putting the thing together.

Interviewer: I was curious about Annie Oakley (who is referenced in Once Upon a River). Where did your obsession with her start? At what point did that come in the story?

Campbell: That wasn’t initially part of any of the three stories that inspired the novel, but I have been obsessed with Annie Oakley for a while. I have a circus poster of Annie Oakley on the wall above where I write, so I’m looking at her all the time. I’m interested in her because she’s so good at something. Just imagine how wonderful it would be to be that good at something. World class good. For her, it was shooting, but for us it might be knitting, or it could be writing or horseback riding. She wasn’t even trained to shoot, but figured it out herself. I’m also interested in the circus aspect of her life. She traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and that made her life very public. And I think that publicity makes it more difficult for us to ever really know anything about her, anything beyond the official story. If nothing had been written about her for the public, it’s very possible that the truth may have been easier to find. There might have been family records or community records. But the big Annie Oakley story has overwhelmed all that.

Her story is such a fabulous American story, a rags to riches story. And tragic, too. Her dad died, and she was sent away to live with strangers who abused her. Some people have made the case that she was sexually abused. And other people have refuted those claims, angrily. Annie called those people she lived with the Wolves.

I love Annie Oakley’s face. She’s got a kind of cross-eyed look to her, and I always wonder if that’s part of why she shoots so well. And her expression has always seemed very melancholy to me. She loved kids, but didn’t have any. And she really loved animals too, even when she was shooting apples off their heads.

Interviewer: So many parallels with Margo then too.

Campbell: It was nice to give Margo somebody who she could want to emulate, someone who could be a hero to her, a woman especially.

Interviewer: I wondered about writing about Margo. You have talked about how writing is lonely, and having the feedback of others feels like they’re in the room with you. With this story, Margo’s basically alone much of the novel. How was that for you? How long did it take for you to write this?

Campbell: It probably took four or five years all together, and I was not confident that I could pull it off. I learned from feedback on other stories that it can be boring to just be in some character’s head. I’ve learned that things liven up when characters get to interact with one another. So I was afraid that by paying close attention to Margo’s thoughts I would be boring readers. I had to think about that in every scene. Also, I had to be careful that Margo didn’t become self-pitying. She’s often in a tough situation, but if she had been filled with self-pity, it would have been less fun to read her story. I wanted readers to feel they were part of an adventure.

It helped to keep Margo in motion on the river. I usually write too much and then have to cut it back, and I solved a lot of potential problems by cutting unnecessary phrases and sentences. But there were other scenes where I felt like I had to add richness and mystery. Even at the very end of the process, after it was in page proofs, I was adding sentences to the scene in which she leaves home the first time and heads up the river.

As I revised, I kept telling my friends how I was never going to write a story about an introspective person again. All extroverts from here on out! (laughs)

Interviewer: Did you feel like you had to distance yourself from people when you were writing that, or more that you had to bring people in because it was so much of her alone?

Campbell: I learned a lot from Margo. As I wrote, I kept asking myself, What would Margo do, really?  Because I wanted to write a realistic novel about a beautiful homeless sixteen-year-old sharpshooter. Even now, though, when I’m making up my mind about something in real life, I sometimes ask myself, What would Margo do?

I don’t know if it was any more lonely writing that novel (Once Upon a River) than anything else. It was sometimes very peaceful being in her head. I share some qualities with Margo in that I’m slow to make a decision, and I always want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll agonize for a long time over something that other people wouldn’t. But I’m not peaceful the way she is. (laughs)

It’s funny. Somebody recently wrote a commentary saying, “Finally somebody sticks up for the introspective person.” It is a problem for shy and introspective kids, when  teachers and parents think they’re stupid or stubborn because they have to think through a situation before speaking.

I hope I got Margo’s character right. I think I did. I worry because I was finishing that novel in a hurry, in a bit of a panic, in fact, because my editor wanted it finished sooner than I thought I could do it. My solution was to briefly turn off my brain and say, of course I will do this, no problem.

Interviewer: Deadlines.

Campbell: I know! (laughs) We love ‘em and we hate ‘em.

Interviewer: They kill us but they’re necessary.

Cambell:: One nice thing was that my editor, Jill Bialosky, loved Margo. I think she even felt protective of Margo, and there was one scene where she actually wrote in on the page, “Do you really have to put her through this?” (laughs)

Interviewer: I always like to ask people about this. When you were a kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?

Campbell: I didn’t know. I think I lacked imagination as a kid. I was a great observer of people, but didn’t think much about myself. As a teenager I wanted to be a journalist.  I used to admire Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant, and I was editor of my school paper.

Later, I was going to be a math teacher, and I even got certified to teach math in the secondary schools. I love math, and I took comfort in all the certainty of math. The problem with math is that it’s such a precise language and reaches so few people, and in the end I wanted something less exact. I wanted something more ambiguous, and I wanted to reach a larger audience.

Interviewer: Do you feel like with your poetry that taps into the same thing that drew you to math? Trying to get that exact thing?

Campbell: Maybe it does. I’m thinking on my feet here. Or in my chair, anyhow. Writing a poem feels like fiddling around and toying with the parts, and that’s how it feels when you’re trying to prove a mathematical theorem. Writing stories doesn’t feel that way to me—it feels more like building a house or a shed or at least a sand castle, something with a foundation that can support a structure that has to stand up. Of course that fiddling around and making things just right is a part of writing fiction as well, but that comes after a lot of the other work is done

In math, right and wrong are more clearly defined, and you usually know when you’ve gotten it (snap), when you have proved your theorem. And unless you’ve made some logical error, then you are probably done. There can be a role for editing, of course: sometimes after you’ve proven a conjecture, you may want to go back and refine the proof, make it more efficient, more elegant.

But with poetry, you may well think you’ve got it (laughs), and the next day you see you were mistaken. I love that feeling of messing around with the poems, and it feels a little wicked. For me, it’s like having an affair away from fiction. Even though I compose on the computer, I feel very physical about poems, as though I’m playing with toys or puzzle pieces.

Interviewer: It’s more tangible instead of something bigger…

Campbell: Charles Baxter says that for writing fiction, you need to have a managerial soul. Have you read that great book of essays by Charles Baxter called Burning Down the House?

Interviewer: Oh yeah…

Campbell: There’s one essay, “Rhyming Action,” that contrasts poets and fiction writers, and it’s very funny. It says that at the party the poets are dancing, while the fiction writers are hunkered in their corners trying to puzzle out what comes next, what is plausible. Isn’t that terrible? Poets are thinking, what’s possible, and we fiction writers are thinking, what’s plausible? (laughs) Of course that’s a terrible generalization, and I surely hope it’s not true.

Interviewer: Before we go, since you’re sitting here in Nashville, I guess I have one more question about the south. You’ve been published a lot in Southern Review, and your landscape in Michigan feels kind of like a similar landscape, a troubled landscape, you know, after the collapse of industry, to the landscape here in the south. Could you talk about that a bit?

Campbell: I think Michigan has a lot in common with the south, maybe because I grew up hanging out with kids from Kentucky and Tennessee. A lot of their parents had come up to work at the auto manufacturing plants—we had a big GM plant in my hometown. Also, we’ve got a lot of guns in Michigan, and we feel strongly about them. Somebody told me that the original “hillbillies,” and that phrase, came from Michigan.

Interviewer: Oh really?

Campbell: I should probably look that up. Michigan hillbillies.

And Michigan in a weird way is not like the rest of the Midwest. Most of the Midwest is crossover territory. You don’t go to Michigan unless you want to go to Michigan.

Interviewer: Yeah. I’ve never been to Michigan. No offense…

Campbell: Well, you don’t go through Michigan to get to anywhere else, except maybe parts of Canada. It’s a peninsula. It’s two peninsulas. Whereas Ohio, everybody’s been to Ohio because you’re driving across it to go east to west or north to south. So there’s something about us being out of the way. And I think that’s the feeling in some parts of the south, that you’re out of the way, you’re in your holler, you’re in an out-of-the-way place. I’m just talking off the top of my head, but there might be something in common there.

And maybe there’s something in common, too, in our physical landscapes. We’re very wet in Michigan. You’ve heard they call Minnesota “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” well, we have at least 100,000 lakes in Michigan. And we’re criss-crossed with rivers. I personally live on the edge of a swamp.

Interviewer: And your coastline…

Campbell: We have more coastline than anybody except Alaska. But beyond the landscape, I feel a kinship with southern writers who are interested in presenting maybe even their unattractive elements to the reader. The southern grotesque, as presented by Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, is a genre that appeals to me.

I’m always trying to figure out how to look at physical and psychological disfigurement, and social disconnection. Another similarity between a lot of Michigan writers and southern writers is that we write about rural spaces.

Yeah, there’s some connection there.


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