Trawling the River of Words: An Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

 by Alicia L. Conroy

It’s only been a baker’s dozen years from the publication of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first stories to her fourth book and second novel, Once Upon A River (W. W. Norton, $25.95), released this past July to glowing reviews. In between, there have been great ups and downs. Her first story collection, Women & Other Animals, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1999, followed by the novel Q Road in 2002. Then came a period of rejections. Throughout, Campbell consistently worked on her contemporary realist fiction, which usually explores the hard side of blue-collar and small-town life, often set in her native western Michigan. Such stories make up the 2009 collection American Salvage, which was a finalist for the both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I first met Campbell in 1999, and I know that she’s often made the choice to live frugally and teach part-time in order to have more time to write, and that she works hard at it. The recent national recognition has journalists scrambling to codify her as if she’s a flyover oddity—a small-town Midwesterner who both Tweets and knows her way around a barnyard, a tall blonde who drops lines from Voltaire but can’t name a designer shoe label on a bet. Accordingly, a photo accompanying a recent feature in Poets & Writers magazine showed Campbell toting her Marlin rifle, but she’s more likely to be found composing on her computer or tending to family, friends, and her vegetables. We spoke by phone in early August.

Alicia Conroy: It’s been a good time for Kalamazoo writers, with both you and your former professor Jaimy Gordon being named finalists for the National Book Awards recently (Gordon won in 2010.) What was that like for you?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: It has been a good time for Kalamazoo—we’re chock full of great poets, too, and the year I was nominated, David Small, who lives just outside Kalamazoo was a finalist for the NBA in the young adult category. Jaimy Gordon is brilliant; we’re going to meet at a bookstore in Petoskey, Michigan, and interview each other.

AC: You worked on the new novel, Once Upon a River, as well as another novel, Math Slut, which was rejected the first time out, and I was wondering about the sequence.

BC: I always work on a lot of things at once, so I have several halfway-finished novels, as well as another story collection and a book of essays. American Salvage—I worked on those stories for the last ten years, and of course I have other stories that didn’t fit in the collection. One of those stories from the collection, “Family Reunion,” is the genesis story for this new novel. Actually, there is a portion of the novel that comes from the “The Fishing Dog” [in Women & Other Animals], which I wrote in my first workshop ever, with Jaimy Gordon in 1996, so I guess you could say I ‘ve been working on this novel a long time.

AC: The novel’s main character, Margo, is mentioned briefly in your 2002 novel Q Road as the mother of its main character, so I wondered if that led you right into this one.

BC: Actually, I had no intention of writing anything else about Margo Crane, and then people started asking, “How’d she get there? How’d she end up living on that boat?” It’s fun to get feedback like that, and it’s not a bad idea, to listen to your readers, to find out what they might like to read about. I finally hit myself on the side of the head and said, “Oh, people would like to read about how a woman would end up living in a very non-traditional way on the Kalamazoo River—let me think about this.” Then I realized that a character that had appeared in two different stories might in fact be the same character; that was very exciting.

AC: In “The Fishing Dog” and “Family Reunion”—

BC: Right. The way I write is so unmoored, shall we say, very organic, and I don’t usually know where I’m going next, so it was a luxury to have these touchstones: To tell myself, I know where she ends up, I know where she starts, and then I have one point in the middle.

AC: The novel focuses on the teenage Margo, who is cut off from her family and subsisting on the land on her own. Today, more and more Americans live in cities and exurbs than they ever have. Margo has all these nature lore skills and the ability to hunt and fish, and that’s probably very exotic to a lot of urban readers, but for readers who share those skills, really refreshing and familiar to see. What led you to the kind of character who is so tied to the land and those sorts of skills?

BC: Going back to what inspires one to write a novel, in this case I knew I wanted to write about the river. In the Midwest, rivers are places where there is still a lot of nature. The lakes are really built up, at least in Michigan; most lakes are used recreationally here and are full of Jet Skis and have mowed lawns right down to the edge. But it’s not true of rivers. The river always seems a fertile, rich place to me, a place where creatures are slithering in and out, water bugs are dancing on top of the water. I wanted to create a way to explore that. Margo is really an embodiment of a river—if the river became human, it might be like Margo.

AC: Of course, in some of the ancient goddess-worship religions, water was associated with female goddesses and spirits. Margo’s grandpa calls her “Sprite.”

BC: I did read some things about Diana the huntress. I wanted to see what folks of the ages were saying about the female hunter. I re-read Huckleberry Finn a few times, and you know what I thought? I was thinking, there’s not enough river in this book. So I was trying to see just how much river I could cram into my story. I re-read The Odyssey, because I was thinking of my book as an odyssey. Odysseus had his battles, and Margo has her relationships, and as a former young woman, I am aware that relationships are the battles you have. Also, I’m very interested in Annie Oakley [the trick shooter], and I wanted to find a way to incorporate her into a story.

All that stuff kind of came together, and Michigan is a state that’s chock full of people who do know the wilderness: hunters, and people who fish. And it’s filled with nature-loving oddballs.

AC: You mentioned Huck Finn, and reviewers have made that comparison. Margo is a teenager, and her river journey is her rite of passage, but at first she doesn’t seem very independent; in fact, she seems very acquiescent to the males around her. There is an early incident in which she’s pondering her own culpability, and you write, “it had been gnawing at her, and Margo had been forming her objection.” Toward the end, we finally see her try out what it means to say no. Was that something that evolved or that you had to work toward?

BC: It seemed realistic. I mean, I remember being a teenage girl, and I am concerned about the teenage girls around me, wishing they would look out for themselves a little more when it comes to men. So I was interested in seeing how Margo might find a way to be less vulnerable to men, which is hard because she’s filled with desire for men. Finding a way to say no even if you want to say yes is a challenge for many of us.

Everybody from Jane Austen to Mark Twain to Joyce Carol Oates has written about people who are about sixteen years old. I think this might be the most interesting age to write about, because young people are capable of the biggest change. They’re capable of becoming either good or bad people, and they can also become lost in a profound way. Who else was that age? Candide, probably. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

AC: And of course you mentioned Annie Oakley, who was a teenager when she was trying to support the family.

BC: Yes, but there’s a lot that we don’t know about Annie Oakley. She had a public life, and the public stories of her are what have survived. They really did send her off to live with strangers when she was twelve. The only reason she was allowed to return home was because she was able to support her family with her hunting and trapping.

AC: You mentioned The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Annie Oakley. Were there any other touchstones for you on this book?

BC: This is really a novel of education, and I wanted it also to be a true American adventure tale. Most of our adventure stories are about boys, and I was interested in how a story about a girl might be different. I was really trying to make Margo’s experiences plausible, but at the same time, I didn’t want the reader to feel sorry for Margo. I didn’t want her to seem like a victim. One thing that really interested me about Huckleberry Finn is that we never felt sorry for Huck while we’re reading. We’re interested in what he is going to do next, how he is going to get out of this situation. I learned from that, and also from Candide and Pippi Longstocking. I didn’t want to write a story about a victim; I wanted to write a story about a creative and capable person.

AC: A lot of reviewers have commented on the brutality or unflinching realism when there are moments of violence or tragedy in your stories and novels. They don’t seem to comment as much on the compassion that you have for these sometimes dysfunctional people. You don’t get very judgmental, even when they do horrible things. I’m thinking of a story you based on a real-life assault in which you give the assailants their say. I wanted to ask you about that observation.

BC: Well, thank you for saying that, because I very much intend not to be judgmental. It’s important. I sometimes remind young writers that while they’re judging the people around them, they’re probably not learning anything new worth writing about. Most of us can’t draw characters as richly if we’ve already judged them. We’ve all seen stories that don’t work because the bad guys are so very bad that they’re no longer interesting.

AC: Because they lack complexity.

BC: Exactly. A lot of reviewers comment that my characters are brutal, but I’d bet if we took a tally of the characters in Once Upon a River, they come out weighted on the good-hearted side. Paul is bad, and Cal is probably pretty bad, but most of the other characters have some redeeming qualities. Maybe I’ve made the bad ones so vivid that they overshadow the others. Maybe it’s because readers are paying the most attention when I’m putting Margo in tough situations. That’s what I do [laughs]—invent characters and then cause lots of trouble for them.

AC: This is a leading question, but do you think those comments have any relation to the fact that you’re a woman taking this stark, clear-eyed view of difficult or brutal things, a stance that more often has been the purview of male writers?

BC: I don’t know. Do you think it has? My agent did call me a “dirty realist” and I took it as a compliment. There’s supposedly a website where you put your text in and it tells if a man or woman wrote it. It’s such a funny idea. I don’t think I’m making up for being female by being tough.

AC: Oh, I didn’t mean that. I just wonder if some readers think that when Cormac McCarthy shows some pitiless depiction of violence, he’s just being realistic, but if a woman is doing the same, it’s somehow startling. Kind of like when The Art of Manliness blog named you as the only woman on the list of “Nine Writers Carrying the Torch for Men’s Fiction.”

BC: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I get treated differently from the guys or not. I really write the way I do because I’m the person I am, I think. I’m a person who can look at a situation long and hard, and then I keep looking, and then I keep looking. That’s probably a personality trait, to not turn away from a thing. We have to be careful about making judgments about writers by their stories, but we definitely can’t escape who we are in our writing.

AC: Journalists and reviewers like to highlight your own physical skills and the woodsy aspects of your bio; they mention your donkeys, your black belt in kobudo martial arts, and so forth. I know you were a 4-H kid and have your own store of woodlore; were you also a hunter before you started doing research for the book?

BC: No, I don’t really want to hunt anything unless I have to. I don’t know if it’s just a Michigan thing, but a lot of us think about what might happen if society collapses, and I like to think I could feed myself. I shoot a little bit, at targets, and I’m not particularly good, but I did a lot of research. I do know now how I could become good.

AC: So you already knew how to handle a gun?

BC: I knew how to shoot a rifle and a shotgun. I shared an early draft of this novel with my friend Gary, who’s a competition shooter, and he reported back that he didn’t believe that Margo was as good a shot as I said she was. He and I started a conversation about it. He gave me a ton of notes, and he took me shooting a few times, even tried the shots I had Margo doing in the book. It helped me see what really good shooting is like and how it would feel to be Margo, who worked hard and did have some natural ability. And it turns out that what it takes to shoot well is not so different than what it takes to write well: it involves a lot of time and commitment, and a high tolerance for frustration. Really good shooters are a different animal because they’ve committed themselves wholly to the endeavor.

AC: You always seem to have some short stories in the pipeline, which gave you the material for your story collection American Salvage, published in a Michigan writers series by a university press. As a finalist for the NBA and NBCC awards, that book put you on the map for some people, maybe making it easier for this novel to get out there. That’s sort of an interesting tribute to perseverance, and not the way it always works on the business side of things.

BC: I do think perseverance is what this writing career is about. My first book was published by a university press, and my first novel was published by Simon & Schuster. Then my agent didn’t want to represent the next ones, and American Salvage was sent out unagented. I was feeling very insecure about my writing and about whether I would produce anything anyone wanted to read. Maybe in some ways that was liberating, even though it was distressing, because not having any big ideas about success then gave me free rein to write whatever I wanted. Those are very personal stories that all could have taken place within ten miles of my home. A lot of them are based on true events, and they’re exactly the stories I wanted to write at the time. I wasn’t under any illusion that I was writing to make money or get published. I wanted to write stories about situations that concerned me and distressed me. How lovely is it that that book captured the imagination of readers!? And YES, as luck had it, once it was chosen as a National Book Award finalist, it was easier to sell my next book.

AC: In a way, writing the stories that came from the heart, even while you were struggling with the bigger projects, sort of got the results we all hope for; if you trust in the work, then maybe someone will notice and good things will happen.

BC: It is how you hope it will happen, in an ideal world. Look, I’m living in an ideal world! [laughs]

AC: What have you read recently that you love or admire?

BC: I loved Pinckney Benedict’s new book of stories, Miracle Boy. There’s a new hashtag on Twitter called #ruralnoir, and I think Pinckney Benedict is the essence of rural noir. I love a new collection by this Canadian fiction writer, Alexander MacLeod, he’s so good. I love Jaimy Gordon’s new book, Lord of Misrule, and am re-reading it right now for the interview. I can’t get enough of Margaret Atwood, who is just so damn smart. And I loved Ben Percy’s The Wilding, which fell into my hands right when I needed a novel set in the wilderness.

AC: What are the questions you’re sick of, and what do people never ask that you wish they would?

BC: I sort of hate when people ask me who my influences are, because I don’t know, and I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing. I’d like to think they are Faulkner and Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor. But my influences are probably my mom, who spins stories that are outrageous, and my grandfather, who tells stories about how civilized human beings can be. We’ve always had dueling stories in my family. Different people would have different versions of the same story, so I was always interested in getting at the root of that.

AC: And questions you wish people would ask?

BC: Interviewers always bring up the hunting and shooting, but they don’t bring in the wild foods thing, and I’m obsessed with wild foods, and anything I can grow.

AC: True, wild foods are in the book! Also, I’ve never seen anyone mention anything about you making pie or jelly or candy. You like to make candy.

BC: That stuff I love doing. Those are the pleasurable things that girls of my generation did with our mothers or grandmothers: putting up preserves, knowing the difference between the varieties of apples—which ones make good pies and which ones make good applesauce.

AC: What’s next for you?

BC: As I said, I always have things in progress. I’m trying to finish up a novel about a washed-up alcoholic writer who is forced to rent a room to her biggest fan. And I’m writing a ghost story that might be a novella. In non-literary projects, I’m always wanting to train my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote. But whenever I’m doing farm work, I feel a little decadent, and like I should probably be reading or writing instead.

Click here to purchase Once Upon A River at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Q Road at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase American Salvage at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011