By Michelle Sinclair, for The Fourth River
Bonnie Jo Campbell sat down with me in the Boardroom of the Gatehouse on a snowy February evening to discuss books, her farm, and the significance of natural landscapes in writing. Bonnie Jo Campbell is the best-selling author of several novels and short story collections replete with unflinching examinations of rural life in Michigan. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories: Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, released in 2015. Her novel Once Upon a River and her short story collection American Salvage were both finalists for the National Book Award in fiction. She is the author of the novel, Q Road, as well as the collection Women & Other Animals, which won the AWP Prize for short fiction. Bonnie Jo Campbell teaches fiction in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and her donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote.
Bonnie Jo Campbell read at Chatham University as part of the Words Without Walls reading series, which is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Foundation. She also visited Sojourner House, a center providing inpatient residential treatment to addicted mothers and their children.
The Fourth River: You write about rural life in Michigan. Can you tell us a little about your farm, your home? I saw your donkeys in a video –
Bonnie Jo Campbell : Isn’t that a great video? That’s where I grew up. It’s my mom’s farm. I actually live three miles away, in the woods, and I have ten acres and we’ve got chickens. My mother keeps my donkeys to make sure I visit her. But I grew up on a farm, grew up drinking raw milk. I had the lifestyle of killing your own food, you know.
TFR: You include a lot of those details in your stories, including one about castrating pigs and a donkey?
BJC: Poor guy.
TFR: Did you do those things?
BJC: Yeah. I didn’t do the castration myself, but held the donkey while somebody else castrated him. I started a hashtag on Twitter called “Castration Nation” and then realized what that really meant, so I didn’t follow up on it. Somebody said they wanted me for President, because I could castrate pigs, and I said “Yay, Castration Nation,” and then I thought – no – better not go with that.
TFR: Maybe not the best slogan.
BJC: No. [laughter]
TFR: Chatham University focuses on nature and place-based writing, so we’re interested in how place affects an author’s vision of the world. You grew up on a farm, but at some point in your life you took time to travel – through North America and parts of Europe – and I wonder how that affected your perspective of your home. Did travel give you a different way of looking at your work, or the rural way of life?
BJC: When I was younger I thought I was supposed to write about really interesting, exciting things like people in Chicago and Europe. After I went to those places, it turned out I was more interested in what went on in my part of the world. I think going other places does give you that outside view, and I think most writers feel like that’s pretty important. I’m really interested in the place where I grew up, because when I’m writing I want to take place for granted.
When I’m writing a story, I can just be the character, look around, and know what’s there because I know the landscape so well. I know what’s on the farm, I know what’s in the woods, I know what’s on the river; I know that landscape so that I can pluck whatever details I need from it with no trouble.
If I was writing from a place I didn’t know as well, I’d have to base it on research, and maybe that would make for a slightly less organic story.
Although, I wrote that story about Romania just to prove I’m capable of writing outside of Michigan. I don’t feel obligated to write about other places because I’m telling universal stories, but the tools I use to write those stories include the landscape of Michigan. We all have our toolbox of things we can use to tell the kinds of stories we want. I find the landscape of Michigan is an important tool for me.
TFR: When you begin a story, do you always start with a setting?
BJC: Sometimes I start with a setting, more often I start with a character. Most often what inspires a story for me is to imagine an interesting character in a tough situation, so if I have that, then I probably have a story. I mean, I still have work to do, but I probably have a story.
I’m not one of those people with a drawer full of unpublished, unfinished stories. Most of my stories are published because I don’t embark upon a story unless I’m really, really interested in the situation.
I don’t do well when I have to write from a prompt, or free write. I just want to write about what I really care about, because it’s my way of exploring those things. Then I usually give whatever it takes to finish a story. There’s a story in American Salvage that I worked on for twenty-four years. I am willing to give a story as much time as it needs.
TFR: So you know you have a story before you even start writing?
BJC: I know that I have something or I wouldn’t start writing. I may not know what it is – it may be a poem. I have some stories that I’ve turned into poems and I have some poems I’ve turned into stories. It’s been really important for me to write other genres outside of fiction. I feel like fiction is the most important thing for me and for the world, as art. Truth in writing is important too – it’s how we learn about the world. But for me, fiction is the most important thing.
Early on I wrote a lot of nonfiction and from some of those stories I then wrote fictional stories. I exhausted the truth of events and then found there was more I wanted to say.
Now it sometimes happens with poems that I write a poem because I have some material, and I don’t know the beginning, middle or end. The nice thing about a poem is that you can write it without a narrative. Sometimes after I’ve written the poem, a narrative forms. Then I know I have a story.
TFR: You expand it, then?
BJC: Yes, of course it’s a whole different animal. A poem is about language and about exploring one moment; but for me if can sometimes inspire a story. There are poems folded in this book in some of the short shorts, as well as in the title story (Mothers, Tell your Daughters). It was inspired by a series of poems. It’s fun to write that way. I’ll go anywhere to get the right kind of inspiration.
TFR: I had to write down a quote from the title story, which I just loved. I wanted to mention it later, but now I wonder if this was inspired by a poem:
“All the men added together made the solid world – they were the marbles in the jar, and the women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes.”
BJC: Isn’t that brutal? I’m going to read some from that section tonight. It’s a bit damning, but it was really fun to write from her voice, because she doesn’t mind damning the whole world if she has to. She’s so tough, this woman.
TFR: You’ve written many stories that touch on modern anxieties of parenthood – motherhood in particular – in Mothers,Tell Your Daughters. They’re juxtaposed against an older generation that maybe didn’t articulate these fears. You have this older generation of women who are so tough, yet we can all recognize them. We know women like that.
BJC: And they’re a dying breed. I worry a little about that. Nobody can be that strong anymore.
TFR: Yes, it feels like the end of an era, in your stories. You get a real sense that a chapter is closing, that people are changing.
BJC: I think so too. Who’s going to drown the kittens? Those women could drown kittens. Can you drown kittens?
TFR: I can’t drown kittens.
BJC: I can’t drown kittens either.
TFR: But one thing –
BJC: I’m kind of on the border, maybe if I had to drown kittens I could. But I don’t want to.
TFR: Something that differentiates the older generation from the younger generation, in your stories, is their language. The younger generation can talk about their fears and anxieties, whereas the older generation just gets on with it.
BJC: They just boss you around and tell you what to do. [laughter]
TFR: I find it so interesting that you’ve pinpointed that as one of the main differences – the old way of life colliding with the new.
BJC: It’s funny because those old women did talk about things. Very practical things. The things they consider nonsense: the sensitive feelings that a young woman would feel, the old woman might say What’s the problem? You’re fine, everyone’s fine, there’s a lot of work to do…
So the challenge for that story was to find a balance. We know the daughter – the women’s studies major. We know her, because she’s us. Some people hated the old woman, but I wanted them both get to have an equal say. I wanted to show equal respect for these situations.
TFR: It’s a clash of generations – not really right or wrong…
BJC: Yeah, but it was hard to get that balance right. You’re in workshop so you know the pressure, when you hear other voices trying to help you with your stories. This was a story I had to write very quickly, in about five or six months, because I had a deadline. I’ve written other stories that took twenty years.
I sought out help while writing this story from anybody I could, and I got a lot of really bad advice. That’s hard because I want to give my smart friends credit, but a lot of them wanted the daughter to be more present. They wanted dialogue. At first I had it so she was speaking some of this aloud and everybody said “give us more of the daughter, we want to see the daughter, we want to see the back and forth,” and it took me a while to puzzle out that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I feel like we know her already. The one we don’t know, the one who is precious because she’s going to be gone soon, is the old woman. So I actually had one very smart person, a very smart writer, tell me “don’t put this in there. Don’t put the story in the collection.” I don’t know what he thought, he thought this was a violation story of some kind, and it was strange to get these very strong reactions from people. I felt like you can seek help with your writing but in the end you have to be the tough one who has to figure out what to do.
I’m sure this happens in workshop: that you get advice and you want to be respectful of it, but you have to sit quietly in a room and figure out your vision.
TFR: The fact that you start with characters, and you think so deeply about the character before you start the story –
BJC: Often I suddenly realize: I’ve got a story. I’ve been thinking about a situation in real life, or a neighbor, and suddenly I realize – I’ve been thinking about this, I wonder what’s going on? Real life isn’t dramatic enough, so what’s the situation that would dramatize this character? The character is the most interesting, then the situation they end up in has to dramatize whatever is their internal conflict. Hopefully that’s how it works and – as you know – it doesn’t always work out easily. Give me a couple decades and I’ll figure it out!
TFR: But you create such complex characters. They’re flawed and compassionate. Sometimes they’re naive, but they defy pity –
BJC: Yeah, that’s the main thing. I was terrified when I wrote Once Upon a River. It’s about a young woman who’s raped and has to make her way in the wilderness. She has no home or family – her uncle rapes her – and she’s a pariah in the family. How do you write that without making her a victim? Once you’ve make victimhood the main aspect of your character, your character becomes passive. She’s a victim of forces acting upon her, so you don’t want to take away her being a victim, but you don’t want that to be a major mover.
Look at Huck Finn, he was a victim too. Huck Finn was abandoned, he had no parents, people abused him, but nobody goes into Huck Finn and says oh, poor Huck. I think we have a tendency to see women as victims.
TFR: Which story was the most difficult to write, either on a craft level or on an emotional level, and are there any subjects you wouldn’t ever touch?
BJC: The minute I think of a subject I wouldn’t touch, I’ll be touching it! I can’t keep my hands off things. Let’s see, the most difficult was Bringing Belle Home – that’s the one that took me 24 years. I just couldn’t figure out the sensibility. I’ve written so few stories in my life, that was a story I started when I was young, and I’d share it with people and they’d say: these people are awful, why do you want to write about these people? But they’re not awful. You don’t want them as friends maybe, but they’re human beings, they’re part of the human family.
I want people to see the human family is so big and so strange and includes so many different kinds of people. Literature is one way to bring people in to see that – they say literature makes you more compassionate. But that story was difficult because of the sensibility, so it wasn’t tricky craft-wise, except that when I started the story I didn’t know how to write. I mean, I didn’t know as much about writing as I did when I finished it.
The story To You as a Woman was very hard to write. I was afraid everybody was going to hate that character, and writing it in the second person was a hostile act on my part, I think. The other one that starts out in the second person is Daughters of the Animal Kingdom. That was a blast to write. That was the fastest story I ever wrote. The first section is in second person because I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to pull people in. I know a lot of people don’t like second person but I just felt like these women are at the end of their rope.
Even the title story is a second person story. She’s talking to her daughter. It has an audience. But To You As A Woman was difficult because it is asking a lot of the reader – to embrace a drug addict who’s neglecting her children. I wanted to dramatize all the terrible things that happen. I wanted to say: look how hard it is for this person. She is doing her best. I know it’s not good enough, I know she’s not coming through, but she’s doing her best. This is her world and these are her anxieties, so that’s why I kept it short.
If you’re going to do something experimental, it’s probably good to keep it as short as it can be. That’s why The Solutions to Brian’s Problem is very short.
TFR: Do you have time to write now?
BJC: I don’t get a lot done. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters came out in October. I’m really working hard, but it’s hard to make the time and it’s a tough one right now. It’s demanding something different of me, which is good.
TFR: Don’t you also want to bask a little after a book comes out?
BJC: I don’t dare! I don’t dare sit back on my heels even for a minute. I had a period of not writing well before this, probably because my novel came out. In all of our lives it’s a struggle to make time to write, and we all have different reasons. Some people are moms, and have a hard time making time to write because it feels like pulling away from obligations that are very real. I have a very complicated family who needs me a lot – and with that whole “earning a living thing” –
TFR: It gets in the way –
BJC: Yeah, so I’m struggling to write like everybody else. I’m not as poor as I used to be. That’s nice. You struggle for so long and you’re dirt poor, and suddenly you’re not dirt poor. But I’ve been surprised that the struggle still feels the same. It just feels like I can now drink a ten dollar bottle of wine on Saturday, instead of a four dollar bottle.
TFR: Has this affected your writing?
BJC: I tell people I’m writing about these people because I live with these people. I’m not slumming, not coming out of my ivory tower. People like the characters in my stories – I see them every day, I do stuff with them; I scrap out metal and hang out with people at the local diner. Some people have said to me – now you have success, you can’t relate anymore, your writing’s going to change. I don’t know what that means, but I hope my writing changes anyway. I hope I’m always growing as a writer. I don’t think I’ll stop having an interest in people who struggle, because struggle is the essence of fiction for me.
In my new novel there are some more magical elements, or elements that are potentially magical, and that’s new for me. I’ve always been very strictly realist, never veering from the realist project so it’ll be interesting to see if this works out.
TFR: Dogs, snails, roosters and hens are some of the animals that feature in your writing, as metaphors for our human relationships and lives, including the story Daughters of the Animal Kingdom –
BJC: And my first book is called Women and Other Animals. That was all about animals and place.
TFR: Right, there is a strong sense of place. Do you call yourself a “nature writer?” How do you perceive genre and the way it can classify work?
BJC: It’s a fun project how to figure out how to group writers. As long as we’re not limiting people, I don’t mind defining people. We’re trying to create classroom experiences. We’re trying to create ways of seeing writing.
Sometimes writers chafe at being called regional writers. I don’t mind someone identifying me with a region. It gives a way of comparison, so one might read other Michigan writers and see things in common. Then they could compare me to Southern writers and see these differences. So I don’t know, I probably will always be interested in the natural world because I find that it’s so rich. It reflects characters. I’m interested in placing characters in natural landscapes – it seems to me to be the richest place.
Other writers work very differently. Other writers find urban landscapes to be enriching. I was speaking at a function and I went out on a limb and I said: knowledge and evidence of the natural world is possibly essential in fiction, and the loss of knowledge of the natural world is going to be a problem going forward. The kinds of things we pay attention to, such as cell phones and apps and social media, could give rise to a different kind of fiction.
Maybe I couldn’t write the kind of fiction that I do without reference to the natural world. A few people called me on it, said I was being prejudiced. I’ll stick with saying for me, the writing does have to reflect to some extent, the natural world. You can think of a lot of writing that doesn’t. Kafka’s writing does not reflect the natural world – it often has to do with alienation.
TFR: Right, focusing on the individual in society.
BJC: Yes, but you could still do that using nature or not. Even some of our best writers like George Saunders – a lot of his writing is about alienation. I’ll have to think about how much nature is in his writing, because his project is different too.
TFR: Alienation could even come from social media and a disassociation from nature – kids getting nature deficit disorder – that’s considered a side-effect of this lack of exposure to nature.
BJC: And even our bodies are reacting. Kids aren’t getting the microbes they need. Maybe that’s an analogy. Maybe that’s a metaphor for what we’re not getting in our literary life.
I was griping because somebody was referring to a small blue bird and I thought for Christ’s sake just call it what it is, but they were saying but the guy wouldn’t know what it was, but it’s like just call it… it’s only one of three birds, just let the guy know what kind of bird it is. It’s such a silly thing but it made me angry. I don’t know why. A lot of times, as writers, we learn by writing these landscapes. We learn the names of things we didn’t know.
TFR: There is something to be said for actually knowing where you are in a place.
BJC: I don’t know if I’m going out on a limb by saying it seems like there’s something essential there. Maybe moving away from knowledge – writing where the landscape is not integral – that could become a different kind of writing, I don’t know.
TFR: You touch a lot on the sandwich generation: people dealing with children as well as ageing parents. Do you think there’s a gap in the literature about this subject?
BJC: I think people are not writing about older ladies. They’re not writing about these old farm women. I taught a course about it once, and it was really hard to find enough work – “Contemporary, literary, rural writing by women.” I found there was not as much (literature) as you would think. This was fiction. There was nothing from Hispanic communities. Some Native American, but nothing from the point of view of farm workers. Think of those stories. Isn’t that heartbreaking?
TFR: Not even in translation?
BJC: They don’t have the time to write. They’re not educated. I think you need to have that next generation. The daughters of these farm women telling their mothers’ stories. So maybe we’ll start seeing some of it, but I think it’s interesting to see where the gaps are – who are the populations we’re not hearing from.
TFR: It’s interesting you say that the daughters need to tell the stories. The protagonist in Mothers, Tell your Daughters would probably not have told her story. It took you, another generation, to go back and tell her story. My mother and grandmother would not have exposed themselves like that.
BJC: Yes, we have to do it. A lot of people enjoy historical fiction because they get some of that, but very little historical fiction really cuts to the real feelings. So often it’s about the costumes. They leave out the body lice – the gritty stuff.
TFR: We know how difficult it must be to live and work on a farm; especially once we read your stories and we see how much work is involved. It’s easy for us to romanticize the past, the rural life, and nature. What inspired you to be so honest and write these gritty stories?
BJC: Who knows why we write the stories we do? I think we write from our sensibility. I’m a person who looks hard at a thing and doesn’t look away, and that’s not true of anybody else in my family. They just want to look and grab what they need, but I’m not like that. I want to look and always have. From the time I was a kid, I can remember studying people. I didn’t write as a kid and I wasn’t a big reader. I just wanted to be around people and I wanted to keep listening until I understood something.
I think that desire to make sense of people has just always driven me. I love to talk to people, and I’m not satisfied with a romanticized version of anybody. In some ways it’s easier if you look at someone and take your first impression. But, boy, is it interesting when you see the contradictions within people.
I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t a reader as a kid, because most writers are avid readers and I always struggled with reading. I think I maybe have attention deficit disorder or something, and that makes reading a challenge. Even now I can only read maybe four, five pages and I need to take a break. I do read. But my source material is the real world. There are a lot of writers whose inspiration comes from reading – my initial inspiration comes from people and observing them.
TFR: I think that comes back to the empathy that we see in your writing. Even if you base your characters on the people around you –
BJC: Yeah, and none of them are real, although a couple of them come close. For the story My Sister Is In Pain – in fact my sister is in pain – so I had to check with her, is it ok if I write this? But real life is not quite hot enough. You’ve got to heat it up.
Michelle Sinclair is a fiction student in Chatham’s MFA program.