Bonnie Jo Campbell has led a life like a tall tale.
The six-foot, blonde Michigander has worked for Ringling Brothers’ Circus, earned a black belt in Kouburyu karate, and, before devoting her efforts to fiction, received a master’s degree in mathematics. She has led bike tours across Russia, raised more than one horse, and, most recently, received a nomination for the National Book Award for American Salvage, her second collection of short stories.
Following the cue of her first collection (Women and Other Animals) and her debut novel (Q Road), American Salvage deals with a rural Michigan of methamphetamine, unemployment, and millennial paranoia. Campbell’s characters are larger-than-life scrabblers whose love, fear, and devotion is rendered achingly throughout her work.
While in Portland for a reading and a brief stop at Pacific University (where she teaches in the low-residency program), Campbell took a minute to chat with me about Michigan, the process of her writing, and what to do when your professor says you’re “everything that’s wrong with fiction today.”
Shane Danaher: I heard that shortly before American Salvage was published you were considering getting out of writing. Is that true?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: [Laughs] Well I think what I meant was that I was thinking that this whole writing thing wasn’t really working out as a lifestyle and that maybe I should be pushing the writing to the side a little and focus on teaching or, you know, earning a living.
SD: But then there was the National Book Award Nomination—congratulations on that…
BJC: And now I’m a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award too.
BJC: Yeah, for a little book from a little press it’s really something. [American Salvage] was not supposed to be the big book. This was sort of a labor of love. It’s a book that’s written kind of about my hometown and it’s line edited by one of my best friends and the cover photo was taken by a friend of mine and it’s printed in my home state, so this was going to be my sentimental piece.
SD: It’s just interesting when looking at your work because it seems sort of like Q Road would be the one to take off that way. But it was American Salvage.
BJC: Well my new novel, that I’m working on now, is sort of a prequel to Q Road so hopefully that will sort of boost Q Road up there.
SD: Well that kind of ties into something else I’ve been wanting to ask you, which is it seems like Michigan—Kalamazoo especially—is very important to your writing and I was wondering if you just write about it because that’s where you happen to be, or is there some “x-factor” about the area that inspires you?
BJC: It is the place where my “tribe” is [laughs]. I think I write best when I write about my tribe and I do believe that people are connected to places. I think maybe even more so in areas that are depressed, because if they weren’t connected to the land they would have just gone and gotten a job in Arizona, but I do think their being there is an important part of who they are and I couldn’t spell out what exactly about that place connects these people to it but I sort of accept it as a given that these people belong here.
SD: So did you grow up in Kalamazoo?
BJC: Yes, I grew up outside of there.
SD: And I know you’ve done a lot of traveling…
BJC: Yeah, I used to travel a lot. Now I just write [laughs]. That’s the thing, writing and traveling are in some ways mutually exclusive, for me anyways. Just because writing takes so much time and traveling takes so much time and I can never write when I travel. I tried to on the plane today, I did a little revising for just half an hour to prove to myself that I could, but that was it.
SD: How did you wind up teaching at Pacific University?
BJC: [Laughs] It’s funny, I just got a call. Actually, a friend of mine, Jack Driscol, teaches at Pacific and I guess the people there read my books and decided I was “okay.” But it’s a perfect fit for me. I don’t know why, I’m not a West Coast person but somehow the program is just perfect. I was worried that at a low residency program the students wouldn’t get all they would from a regular program but there’ a lot of camaraderie, these residencies are very intense, the students come together for ten days, twice a year, and the students get their choice of many faculty members and they get to interact with these faculty members in the bar or wherever. So I think it’s working out. Not that that’s a new discovery, but it’s new to me.
SD: Sounds great.
BJC: And it’s nice because I can do the work from home and I’m so attached to my part of the country it’s tough for me to get a job in a program anywhere near me so it’s nice because it allows me to be at home with my tribe and then still earn something of a living.
SD: I was curious about some mechanical aspects of your stories in American Salvage. I noticed that in the book you tend to stray away from more traditional “arc” narratives.
BJC: [Laughs] Do I do that? Am I breaking a rule?
SD: Oh no, not at all. I was curious about how that happened. Was it just a consequence of the way you think or was it a conscious decision?
BJC: You know, story is just such a mysterious thing and my students always talk about “craft” but what’s important to me is just what feels like a story, what feels like a beginning and an ending to me. I’m a person who thinks of writing as communication. I think less about craft and more about communication so what I’m thinking about is presenting characters and a situation to the reader to get across something that’s been interesting me, something that’s been obsessing me, and all I really think about is “how do I get this across?” So I don’t really think about the shape of a story, or at least in the beginning I don’t think about shape, but then if the story isn’t working as well as it could then I’ll study and maybe try to shape it in a more traditional way.
SD: So it doesn’t sound like you’re a big outliner.
BJC: [Laughs] No, no outlines. Not in the novel either, unfortunately, which makes it a lot harder to write. It just has to happen organically. And the problem with that, you know, is that sometimes I go off in the wrong direction before I come back, but I do find my way back to where the story should be.
SD: You’re kidding me. You don’t outline your novels?
BJC: [Laughs] It’s kind of a bit of work, but it just seems to work for me. Whenever I’ve tried to work from an outline it just winds up sounding a little artificial. And that’s the main thrust with my writing and what I work on most with my students on is feeling natural and feeling organic and making things feel like they couldn’t have been any other way.
BJC: It is, it’s related to the process of writing short stories. Most of what you do in higher mathematics is prove theorems and in proving a theorem you have to make a case for something and what you have to do with the proof itself is go through step by step and showing the reader of your proof absolutely that this is true. In a short story I’m trying to show something but I don’t have to show something to that standard of absolute proof and also seeming full and interesting, with mathematics you don’t necessarily have to show something that’s interesting to most people. So it’s an interesting challenge. I don’t have to prove an absolute truth in a story but I guess that “showing” is what I’m doing. I’m showing things, I’m showing something that happened and that feeling of the story, if it’s working, is that it’s flowing organically, that one thing is following from the next. Hopefully I’m making the stories more accessible than the mathematical proofs [laughs].
SD: With your stories would you say that you start from a character or an event or what usually sparks that?
BJC: It’s different in different stories. Usually what sparks me is a character in a tough situation and it usually turns out to be something that I’ve been thinking about and worrying about for a while. For example, the stories with methamphetamine in them, I’ve witnessed a lot of people in my community—in my tribe—becoming involved in methamphetamine in various ways and I find myself lying in bed at night worrying about it, trying to puzzle out various ways this was happening. So that’s where those stories came from, just thinking about kinds of characters that end up in these situations because of this meth. In my first collection [Women and Other Animals] there’s this story, the people in my family it’s their favorite story, it’s called “The Fishing Dog,” and it’s in the new novel oddly enough. It’s about a girl who comes to live in a river cabin with a kind rough man and that story was started just by the setting. Seeing this cabin, I just kept thinking about how it looks and where it sits on the river, trying to puzzle out who would be there, who would live in a place like this. So that was just started by the river. I’m always inspired by rivers.
The story in my first collection, “Smallest Man in the World,” was inspired just by the idea of beauty. I like to think about beautiful women and how being beautiful effects one’s life. The most important tool a writer has is her ability to be obsessed by things, so if one is a fiction writer then one has the luxury of then building that thing into something that is more meaningful than what I would have to work with if I were a nonfiction writer.
SD: You mentioned being obsessed with female beauty and before I picked up your work I heard someone or another refer to you as a “feminist author” and I was interested to find that in a lot of your stories your protagonists are men.
BJC: Most of the protagonists in Women and Other Animals are women and I wanted to respond, I wanted with my second collection to respond with these stories of men.
SD: What was challenging about that for you?
BJC: Much easier to write about men. They’re so much more simple than women [laughs]. Women can hardly take a step without being tortured and for some reason I found men much easier to draw as characters. I love men, and maybe because I’m seeing them from the outside I was able to have more fun seeing into their heads. And I figured I’d get it wrong and that people would call me on it, but so far not [laughs].
SD: Are most of your characters based on people who you know?
BJC: Usually they start from a nugget. Like I said, I usually obsess about a real life situation or a couple of real life situations that I might then put together to make a more rich and a more dramatic situation. But most of my characters start out from a nugget of reality because that’s kind of where I work best. I really admire people who can go from nothing. One of the only characters who I wrote from nothing was the Rachel character in Q Road, my protagonist, and she was an experiment to see if I could make a character out of mud basically, so that was interesting, but most of the characters I do are based on someone. And very few people recognize themselves so all you’ve got to do is give people a bad quality and it’s all, “That’s not me, he’s an asshole!” [laughs].
BJC: I’m not sure. I guess I just try to start with a situation that’s complex enough that the interaction between the character and the situation kind of requires a very complicated character already. It’s the interaction between the character and the other things in the story. I do try to make sure that I have something interesting happening in the story and once you get characters doing things it’s easier to find out what the characteristics of this person are that are going to make the drama move forward. I am very interested in making stories that move and don’t bog down. That’s the challenge, how to you make stories that move, especially when the material’s kind of depressing. My material’s kind of bleak in some ways. I find it very hopeful, but I do put my characters through hell.
SD: Another mechanical question I had about American Salvage was that I was curious about a couple instances where you told stories from multiple points of view. How was that process?
BJC: I love to write in the omniscient point of view and that’s how my novel is written, from that viewpoint. It forces you to have a larger understanding than just what the character understands. The first person or the third person limited just allows you to stay inside that one head and often that’s the pleasure of a story, that you are just able to stay inside that one point of view, only knowing and doing what that one character knows and does. But if you might want to say something about a community or you might want to say something philosophical or sociological—though I try to shy away from saying anything sociological—then those points of view can add up to more than just one person’s ideas. And I guess you’re just staking a claim out there that you’ve got something to say about the world and often when you’re playing God out there you hesitate to do it unless you really feel confident. So I don’t do that unless that’s how it comes to me from the beginning. I don’t dare go out on a limb with a story that just wants to be one person’s experience.
SD: I was curious about “The Letter Parade” [the monthly newsletter Campbell has maintained off and on since 1992]…
BJC: Oh, and I haven’t written one in so long! Are they fun though?
SD: Oh yeah, I really enjoyed them.
BJC: Well that’s how I learned to write, actually. When I started writing fiction I wasn’t very good. I tried writing in college, I wanted to write fiction and everything, and I had a writing teacher, Stern or Stein or something, at the University of Chicago, and he just said I wasn’t a very good writer. In fact he said I, “epitomized everything that was wrong with writing today.”
SD: You’re kidding me.
BJC: [Laughs] Yeah, I can’t believe he said that, I was just a sophomore. So he had said this and so I kind of just gave it up and said, “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to break my own heart all the time.” So what I would do is I would write something for my family and friends instead. So I’d write this little essay every month and I really enjoyed it. I knew who my audience was. I knew I’d have to write something that my family and friends would enjoy reading. I, you know, used humor. And I found that it was really pleasing to write these things because I’d get all this feedback like, “Oh, I really loved your last essay,” and I think I figured out how to write by writing those essays because I didn’t write fiction for fifteen years and I was just writing these essays once a month. I’ve cut back since I started writing fiction, I don’t write them quite as often, but giving myself a deadline was important and just forcing myself to just do the best job I could was important. I think that having The Letter Parade was pretty important to my development as a fiction writer.
SD: I know a lot of people who give up fiction just because it feels like they’re doing it in such a vacuum.
BJC: It’s hard to write good fiction as a young person. You get these young poets who just blow you away, but the fiction takes longer. There’s something about it, I don’t know if it’s world experience or what but there’s something about it. I probably shouldn’t say that, it probably takes a long time to figure out anything, but it takes a long time to figure out how to write well. And what do you do in the meantime? You either keep on or you give up or you find some way to use your writing to communicate with other people.
SD: It’s interesting, I know a lot of people either my age or a couple years younger or older—
BJC: How old are you?
SD: I’m twenty-three.
BJC: You’re a little baby!
SD: Yeah, I know, I’m a kid. But there are a lot of people I know who have a really great ability to use words but a point of view—and I’m no exception to this—but they have a point of view that just seems like it’s limited by their age.
BJC: Well exactly. They’re people who haven’t been “damaged enough” maybe, or haven’t had the right kind of damage [laughs]. But I think you just get smart. Hopefully if you’re a person who’s interested in the world you just get smarter as you go along if you keep paying attention and I think you go along and you try your best and then suddenly you make a leap forward and you find some success. I think for me one of the main things was writing about my tribe again. I was trying to write about other people. I was trying to write about other kinds of people and it wasn’t quite working; it wasn’t remarkable. It didn’t stand off the page and it didn’t stand out from anybody else’s writing. But then I realized that I really know this group of people who are a little bit different than most of the people being written about and then I realized, “Oh, maybe they’re worth writing about.”
SD: I feel like a similar thing has been said about a lot of people, but it really does seem like Michigan is the essential character in American Salvage.
BJC: Yeah, Michigan and these rural areas.
SD: How do you feel about Michigan right now? It seems like the state is really in a rough spot.
BJC: Well, it’s funny, I got interviewed by NPR—by Steve Inskeep—and he kept wanting me to talk about how bad it was in Michigan. You can find it online, it’s the worst interview ever, it’s horrible.
SD: Really? Steve Inskeep?
BJC: I laughed a lot during the interview and we talked for forty-five minutes but the piece he aired is just dry and dead. And anyway, he was more interested in the sociology than the literature and he just kept asking me, “Well, it couldn’t get any worse in Michigan, could it?” I’m like, “Well, we could get a chemical bomb dropped on us, we could get typhoid. Sure, it could get a lot worse.” I don’t know, people in Michigan are mostly employed, like eighty percent of them, and the traffic lights keep working and it’s not as dramatic as people feel like, it’s just a drag for people who are on the low end of things. It’s just a drag for a certain kind of person who wants to, say, work a manufacturing job when there are no more manufacturing jobs. There are a lot of people for whom, at this stage in the game, it’s hard to suddenly change their life and become part of the information age, or whatever it is we’re living in, and so, I think most people in Michigan are fine but for the purposes of the people in American Salvage I was interested in the people who weren’t keeping up.
SD: Are you writing poetry? I’ve heard conflicting rumors.
BJC: I won a contest last year and had a chapbook published by the Center For Book Arts in New York, and this was the first contest I ever entered—I don’t usually enter contests—and this was cool though because they only made one hundred copies of the book. It’s a little book art thing, and they’re letter pressed by hand and everything. There are only a hundred copies of this and they sell for like, seventy-five bucks a piece, so I don’t have to worry about anyone finding out I’m a poet [laughs]. The title’s good though, it’s called Love Letters to Sons of Bitches.