Bonnie Jo CampbellChampion of the Rust Belt
An American original.
With her own roots deep in the soil that her characters live and die on, Michigan's Bonnie Jo Campbell writes with an authority impossible to fake. Despite a broad array of endeavors into which she channeled her energy when she was younger—getting degrees in both math and philosophy; owning a company that ran bicycle tours through eastern Europe; traveling with the circus—writing was a constant in her life, but something she felt she could never make a living at. When it took hold, her focus brought her back to her home state, and to the struggles of the blue-collar families who live there. Her first novel, Q Road, looked at family and tradition, and the challenges of farm life. It also introduced Margo Crane, a character who reappeared in Campbell's powerhouse collection of short stories, American Salvage, and her epic second novel, Once Upon a River. A hallmark of Campbell's writing is her willingness to put her characters, both good and bad, through the ringer while maintaining genuine compassion for them. Whether she's writing about farmers, meth addicts, ministers, or a dying boar hog, Campbell speaks in an engaged voice that expresses her artistic concerns and values, as well as her love for nature, animals, and rural living. Tough, funny, and refreshingly sincere, Bonnie Jo Campbell is an American original.
Critical Questions for Bonnie Jo Campbell (from our 7/2011 newsletter)
Once Upon a River is Michigan native Bonnie Jo Campbell's best book to date. A lyrical, action-packed, modern folk tale that—for a welcome change—has a young girl as its focus, it also happens to be one of the best books of this year. As in all of her work, Campbell's prose is lyrical, fearless, wise and knowingly funny. I've been a fan for a while now and was thrilled to have a chance to ask her about her work and her process. —Damian Van Denburgh, Senior Books Editor
CM: Margo Crane, the heroine of Once Upon a River, and Johnny, a figure of attraction and potential danger for Margo, appeared in your first novel, Q Road. Did you know when you were writing that book that you wanted to continue their story in a later novel?
BJC: Thank you for taking an interest in my new novel! Gosh, it all looks so clear in retrospect, what I was doing, but back then I honestly had no idea I was going to have any more to do with Margo Crane. She played a minor part in my novel Q Road, and I thought I had dispensed with her. However, people kept asking me about her. It was mostly men asking, wanting to know how that tough woman had ended up living on that boat in the Kalamazoo River and what happened to her after she disappeared from the scene. And if readers are interested in a thing, that's a signal that it just might be worth writing about.
The pacing of Once Upon a River is relentless. I read the book in two sittings and felt sorry to see it end. What was the experience like for you writing it? Did it come quickly?
I sure wish it had come quickly. Because of work I had done in a couple of short stories, I started out with a vision of Margo at home with her family, and I had her later becoming obsessed with a man who had a nice dog. And I knew where she ended up, living on the Kalamazoo River. Finding her way to and from these points took a lot of dreaming, figuring, meandering and thinking.
For such an action-packed book, it's quite lean. Do you edit your work heavily, and do you think that any of the material you removed might have a life in any of your other works?
I'll take "lean" as a compliment. I do like to keep a story as clean as possible, and I had help in doing that from my editor Jill Bialosky and my agent Bill Clegg. Initially I did have more to say about some of the secondary characters—Smoke, Luanne—and maybe I had to write that to understand the characters more thoroughly, but in the final draft it seemed wise to keep the focus on Margo. After all, she was the character I was trying to mythologize here.
Living inside of Margo for the duration of writing Once Upon a River must have been intense. Now that the book is out, have you been able to let her go?
In a way I am happy to move on, but I think I've internalized Margo, and I've learned a lot from her quiet nature. I've always been a person interested in wild foods, and now I find I can't live without my black walnuts, berries, and mushrooms. I've discovered ramps in my woods. However, by the end of the book, I was a little tired of all the critter killing.
Pain and injury crop up in a number of stories in American Salvage. You have a knack for getting inside a character's physical experience and recording it with what feels like remarkable accuracy. How much of this comes from your own experience?
It's interesting that you've asked this question, because I have been pondering the nature of pain in the same way I long considered the nature of physical beauty. Like most people who've reached my age, I've observed folks in pain of various kinds, from illness and from accident and even intentional infliction, and I'd say that it's the psychological pain that trumps all that. As an aside, I used to be a kind of wimp about pain, but after studying martial arts for ten years, I've grown able to differentiate between pain that merely alarms and pain that signals serious damage. I avoid pain, but I'm not as much afraid of it.
In addition to writing novels and short stories, you also write poetry. What does poetry offer you that prose doesn't?
You're reminding me of how much I'm missing writing poetry. My poetry tends to be narrative and isn't fundamentally different than my prose, but I can pare things down even further in poetry than in prose, and that thrills me. Also I can work through a poem (and possibly finish a poem) in a reasonable amount of time, say, a month or two. My stories all take years to finish and get right. I'm a writer who likes to work on a number of projects concurrently. Also, writing poetry feels a little wicked, like I'm having an affair, betraying my long-time marriage to prose writing.
Though the term seems to be a point of contention these days, do you consider yourself a feminist?
Lordy, yes! I want equal pay for equal work. I want equal consideration and attention for the work of women writers and men writers. A gal would have to be a knucklehead or a scaredy cat to not be a feminist.
You've mentioned Faulkner as an influence, particularly with regard to his focus on a fictional county as a kind of frame for his work. Michigan seems to provide you with a similar source. Can you describe your relationship to it?
I hope Faulkner has had some influence on me. (I think we never really know who influences us, though we can know who we admire and love.) When I realized his stories were taking place mostly in one county in Mississippi, it gave me permission to set a variety of stories right here at my own home place, Kalamazoo County. Faulkner's most famous quote is from his Nobel Prize banquet speech, in which he said that we should write about, "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." Well, we've got plenty of conflict in our hearts around here; I'm not going to run out of material.
Margo's experiences handling and firing rifles are faithfully captured in your writing. Are you as handy with them as Margo?
Margo's the real deal, born to shoot a gun, the way Annie Oakley was born to shoot. I like to plink targets with friends and family, but I've no interest in shooting creatures unless it's necessary, and I don't have any particular natural talent in the sport. When I shoot more, and shoot more thoughtfully, I do get better, so there's hope for me.
Your website is a rich resource for other writers, loaded with advice and encouragement. Where do you find inspiration?
I'm so glad when people tell me that my website is helpful. As a new writer, I struggled to figure out about writing and publishing, both of which seemed so mysterious. I have managed to get a better sense of some aspects of this business, and I'm more than happy to share if I can. You ask where I get inspiration; I get it from the people I encounter, always, and that's where I get my joy and my sorrow, too.