Survival Is Not Guaranteed: The Millions Interviews Bonnie Jo Campbell

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The first time I saw Bonnie Jo Campbell, she stood in front of a bank of elevators on the 12th floor of Columbia College Chicago where I taught. It was late, after 10, but a group of students hemmed her in, laughing, asking questions, reluctant to leave. Her height and physical confidence captured my attention. Then I noticed the students’ faces. They were rapt. Enchanted. It very well could have been the fluorescent lights but — I’m telling you — their faces beamed.

“Great,” I thought, jabbing the elevator button a bit too hard, “another visiting writer.”

Then I read Women and Other Animals and I immediately understood what all the fuss was about.

Born and raised in Michigan, Campbell attended University of Chicago to study philosophy, traveled the world (including scaling the Swiss Alps on her bicycle), and even sold snow cones for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus.

During her time at University of Chicago, she became disillusioned with her major and eventually found her way to Western Michigan University’s writing program where Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon taught.

Since then, Campbell has published two novels, two short story collections, and a book of poetry. The 16 stories in her third and latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissect the tender, sometimes cruel, and often flawed relationships between women. These stories also capture the beauty and blemishes of small town life — its silences, its spaces, its struggles, its poverty. A mother on her deathbed admits to knowing her boyfriend abused her young daughter. A woman realizes she’d been raped while passed out at a party. An abused wife exacts revenge on her dying husband.

I caught up with Campbell electronically and over the phone to pick her brain about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

The Millions: It’s officially fall in Michigan. Will the colors turn soon?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: Though it’s only September, the leaves are starting to turn. My darling Christopher just hung up the hummingbird feeder full of sugar water and said, “This is the last time I’m going to fill this. They’re heading out.” Autumn is beautiful in my neighborhood, which has a lot of big sugar maples, but I’m going to miss much of it, since I’m heading out on a big book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

TM: Your short story collection American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Your body of work includes the short story collection Women and Other Animals, the novels Once Upon a River and Q Road, and the poetry collection Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. This latest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, dissects the richness of women’s relationships. What drew you to write this collection? How did your previous publications inform these stories?

BJC: Well, I never have set out to write a collection of stories. I’ve just written the stories I’ve felt compelled to write, and so far those have lumped themselves nicely into my three packages of stories. The stories of my first book, Women and Other Animals, were mostly about women and girls interacting with the natural world, mostly told from the female point of view. Then I found myself writing about men because I saw some interesting and awful situations occurring and re-occurring in my neck of the woods, and through writing I discovered the ways these individual situations reflected a larger problem in society. Many of these situations involved workplace issues and economic troubles. The stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters involve many struggling women, but the drama is less about economic troubles and more about troubles within the intense relationships these female characters have with other women, and with some men, too. Many of the women are still reeling from some kind of sexual violation. It’s worked kind of like magic each time — I fear my wandering mind has no cohesiveness, but then in all three of these situations, it turns out that I was creating bodies of work that belonged together.

I should mention that it wasn’t immediately clear what the theme or content of the collection was going to be at the time we sold the book, but gradually my agent Bill Clegg, my editor Jill Bialosky, and I sifted through the work I had and found what cohered. After that, I had to write a couple of new stories to bring it all together. Those final stories were the title story “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” and “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom.”

I think people will recognize me as the writer of all three of these works, but in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters I’ve experimented stylistically a little more than in the earlier collections. Many of the stories are traditional narratives, but I’ve included four pieces of flash fiction (250 to 300 words each) and several stories that read like rants by women who are at the end of their ropes.

TM: You write short stories, novels, poetry. You edit. You teach. You raise donkeys. How do all of these roles influence your writing?

BJC: Most writers are doing a lot of teaching, blurbing, contest-judging, reviewing for small presses, etc., but that’s because there’s so much work to be done to create more space and love in the world for reading and writing. The things I do outside the writing world are a great relief. I could spend hours a day in my garden, rather than the 10 minutes I get to spend. I want to hang out more with my donkeys. Sometimes I worry because it is the work outside of the writing world that gives the most life to my writing. Reading feeds it, too, but I need donkeys. And I need long bicycle rides. And I need to laugh my head off with my mom and sister at least once a week. Recently I needed to spend a whole evening with my husband installing red glowing eyes into a ceramic rabbit statue we found at a second hand store.

I’m a person who hates to give up any part of my life, but I have had to give up martial arts. For 10 years I studied Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art, and I earned a second degree black belt. I loved the people at the dojo, and I loved swinging sticks, nunchaku, sai, etc., but I found that I just didn’t have time for the commitment any more. On the bright side, I am able to handle my own security at literary events.

TM: Good to know. I can think of a few times when nunchaku would have come in handy at readings.

Tell me about the adventure tours you led and organized in Russia, the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria.

BJC: The bike tours were great, lots of adventure and fun. I use the past tense because I haven’t run a tour in over a decade. I’ve had to give up that kind of travel in order to have time to write, same as I had to give up martial arts. Our tours were long, like eight weeks or more, and we traversed many countries (e.g., one tour went Poland-Czech Republic-Slovakia-Hungry-Austria-Romania-Bulgaria), and by the end of the summer we were gods of the roads, tanned and muscular, ready for anything. Visiting those other countries was a joy, to find so much new in the world, and to see our own American lives from the eyes of others. Often our fancy bicycles and helmets and cycling clothes made us look like aliens to the rural citizens of those countries, so I got a chance to feel like a real foreigner.

Our tours were self-contained, which meant that every person carried his or her own luggage and tools, and preparing for the trips was an adventure in itself, figuring out just how little stuff we needed to live. Bicycling and keeping our bicycles going was our job. I’m a person who loves to eat and try new foods, so that was one of the highlights, learning about Czech beer and Bulgarian yogurt, and getting to eat all those extra calories I needed for climbing the Carpathian mountains. I’m still in touch with a lot of the folks who took our tours — not surprisingly, the kind of people who would sign up for these crazy tours were really great, easy-going folks — and we often talk about putting together another tour. But then they all go back to work, and I go back to writing.

TM: You captured the essence of one of those trips in “Children of Transylvania, 1983” Any good stories?

BJC: Once, a dozen people accidentally cycled across a Soviet military base located outside Olomouc, in what was then Czechoslovakia. In past years we’d ridden a particular road without incident, but one year there were war games going on, with tanks and armed soldiers. The group was put in jail, and then driven through the dark night to another jail. It was pretty scary, and I wasn’t even in the group that got captured. A few days later, the American tourists were delivered to the Austrian border and kicked out.

TM: Once Upon a River and a number of the stories in American Salvage focus on young women (teens transitioning to womanhood). A number of stories in this latest collection often focus on the minefield that teenage girls and their mothers must navigate. What draws you to these characters? These themes?

BJC: I’m just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie. I’ve got no daughters myself, but I’m close with my mom, my sister, and a heap of nieces and great-nieces. (And I miss my grandmother all the time). We all tell stories and watch over one another. The mother-daughter relationship feels particularly deep and profound, and sometimes fraught. I would never argue with anyone else, not even my husband, with the intensity I argue with my mom, and it’s fine. We are two very different people, but we’ve learned so much from one another — of course she has the upper hand, having raised me and all. Oh, and I’m starting to worry my dear mom is not going to live forever. I really hope she does live forever. 

TM: Same here. My mom is 93 and she lives with us so she’s such a big part of my life, of my husband’s and daughters’ lives. I can’t imagine not having her here.

BJC: Yup, I worry about my mom. She falls sometimes, and I go to her place and find her with bruises, and I think she isn’t eating enough of the right things. And I’m a worrier anyhow. When it comes to my beautiful little nieces, I worry about them being molested in some way, shape, or form — they seem so vulnerable. In the last few years it seems that the issue of molestation has become more nuanced. Maybe we used to see rape as something rare strangers did to one another. Then we began to accept that rape takes place even within families, even within romantic or marital relationships. Nowadays we are made aware of situations where a girl doesn’t know whether she’s been raped, either because she felt complicit in the molestation, or because she was drunk or drugged. Those situations really press us to explore what rape is all about, in a country where at least a quarter of all women will be raped in their lifetimes. In Detroit alone we’ve learned about more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits that are now showing that the city had dozens of serial rapists. Camera phones are capturing rapes that the victim is unaware of. And around the world, rape is a weapon of war. There’s lots to think and worry about on the subject, lots to write about.

And my own special challenge is that I want to write about rape without writing about women as victims. Readers will have to decide whether I’ve pulled this off.

TM: That “nuance” of rape is a huge part of this book. Like you said, these stories reflect how rape isn’t only a random event. It also happens in families, between relatives and friends – at parties while a woman is drunk, when a mother is caught in a no-win situation while trying to provide for her children.

Once Upon a River also started with a rape.

BJC: This collection is so new that I’m still figuring out what it is about, but many of these stores are about sexual violation and its after effects.

TM: Short story collections are on the rise. This is your third collection of short stories. What draws you to the short story form?

BJC: That’s just how most of my narratives work themselves out. If I can’t wrap up a story in 20 or 30 pages, then I’ve got a novel, and I’ll go ahead and write a novel, which is to say that my novels are failed short stories. Finishing a story is such a miracle that I’m relieved when I’ve got a short story. The novel is so much greater a commitment. I sometimes say that writing stories is like dating, while writing novels is like getting married. When you’re dating, you don’t have to share every damned thing, but a novel demands you show yourself entirely. Of course, a story sometimes later shows itself to be a part of a larger story, the way “Family Reunion” turned out to be the inspiration for Once Upon a River. One reason I might prefer the short story form is because it allows for experimentation. While a weird point of view or writing style can be delightful in a short story, it might not hold up over a whole novel.

TM: Tell me about your writing day, your routine.

BJC: I guess I haven’t had a solid routine for a while, because so many things in my life have been changing. My husband’s shift at work was changed from evenings to early mornings and back again, and then I was on a book deadline, and then I was teaching full-time-ish for a semester, and now I’m promoting a book. Oh, and my donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, got a terrible hoof fungus that required frequent lengthy soakings in oxyclosine — 90 minutes each hoof. I’m not complaining, but I’m saying these are things that get in a way of a schedule. I do long for a routine, and my perfect one would be: write for a few hours, exercise, lunch with the husband, errands and housekeeping stuff, dinner alone, and some more writing and reading and then a bit of hanging out with the husband. (I’m sounding a little dull here, but that’s what works for me.)

TM: I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that no other author interview includes the words hoof fungus. 

It always amazes me that people think writers live glamorous lives. When do they think we write?

BJC: In the movies people seem to do it in cafes and during brief spurts of depression. The hoof fungus is sometimes called “seedy toe.” Isn’t that a great name?

TM: There’s a recurring theme in your work of women being left behind or marginalized. Women in small towns might have it harder than women living in cities or suburbs because there might not be resources for job training, etc. So they start developing survival skills.  It seems like women have more opportunities than ever but many of the women in M,TYD have few options. Can you talk about how these changing times make for desperate characters, how opportunities dry up in the face of so many challenges?

BJC: Some of the women in my stories are doing all right jobwise, but struggle in a different realm, but as a rule I am interested in women for whom survival is not guaranteed. Maybe the protagonist of “Play House” is somewhat limited because she hasn’t sought out education and she is drawn to people who are not good for her. Oh, and she drinks too much, and that would be the root of her problems in the eyes of many. The young mother in “To You, As a Woman” has dug her own deep hole, and now she’s in the hole, and there’s nobody to help her — that story is a call for help from her fellow human beings.

In American Salvage, the men were often having difficulty transitioning to the new millennium, which requires workers to be more agile and educated. Many of my women characters are able to make this transition, but they get screwed up in their relationships instead. Some women go through life adjusting when necessary, but never seeing the grand possibilities before them. I think we all know women who make the same bad choices over and over, and I’m interested in why this happens. Maybe I’m even more interested in the cause-and-effect aspect of their situations, how bad decisions (about children, men, drugs, alcohol) lead to bad situations that offer no good options. Sometimes people ask me why I write about these kinds of problems, and I’ll say that the only problems that interest me are the ones that are difficult to solve — if a problem is easy to solve, there’s no point in writing a story about it. If a reader had a little more sympathy for such folks after reading my stories, I would be very happy.

TM: Place plays a major role in your work. In your novel Once Upon a River, place is a character in itself. This latest collection of short stories is set in small towns. But they’re not bucolic small towns. People work at Meijer to hang on to health care. Many deal with addiction. Almost all of them struggle to get by.

You never idealize small towns. They are rife with the problems and pitfalls of big cities (or maybe they are microcosms for the larger world). And, for some reason, they seem even colder than a big city.

BJC: Small town life is the life I’m most familiar with and it’s the place where I’ve been able to observe people most closely. I guess I write about small towns and the countryside because I want to write about the spaces between people. In the city people are piled on top of each other and so loneliness has a different form and feel. In my stories, people are alone both in an emotional sense and in a very practical sense. People in my stories can cry out (and they do sometimes) and nobody will hear them.

TM: Many of your characters have simply been left behind by technology and the global economy. This is particularly true in Michigan (but this collection could have been set anywhere in America). How does place influence your process?

BJC: Michigan is what I know. Michigan people are the people I understand, the people I want to understand better, and so I focus my attention there. I like to write about landscapes with which I am familiar so that I don’t have to do research to learn what is there. To some degree my characters reflect their landscape, and so I need to have that landscape handy, at my fingertips, embedded in my brain. And it turns out that whatever I need from the landscape, it appears, like magic. Just to set the story “Children of Transylvania” in the Romanian countryside, just to show I can write a story that takes place somewhere else. Now I’m back to Michigan. I think all readers and writers are aware of the mystery of place, that we access the universal truths only by focusing intensely on the particular. So I try to get at all of humanity by focusing right here at home.

TM: In an opinion piece by Barbara Ehrenreich in The Guardian America, Ehrenreich writes about how only the rich can afford to write about poverty in America. She says that she had a hard time convincing editors to let her write stories about people who lived in poverty:
It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and ’90s. I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch — paid for, of course, by a major publication — trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and Crème brûlée, “OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?” Then there was the editor of a nationwide, and quite liberal, magazine who responded to my pitch for a story involving blue-collar men by asking, “Hmm, but can they talk?”
After reading M,TYD, I thought, “I want every politician, every person who makes policy, every lawyer, every judge, every editor, to read this book because it will give them insight into how hard it is for many people to just get by.” Do you think that, because of this misguided perception about the working poor (and editors’ inability to get a handle on it), it makes it even more important for writers to see the working poor as something other than angelic or slovenly? To see all of the varying shades in between?

BJC: What a great quote. Boy, you’re opening up a can of worms with that! I’m a fiction writer, focusing on interesting characters in tough situations, so I have to be careful about claiming I’m speaking for the working poor, or for anyone other than myself. However, since I grew up as part of that group, it makes sense that I’m interested in their troubles. I was raised by my mom to never put myself above anybody else, and that helps me see the lives of everyone, including those at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to mention drug addicts and drunks, too, without prejudice.

To be honest, I don’t understand why everybody isn’t fascinated with how poor people get by. Every single day working poor people do the impossible. I have a niece with three kids, working for close to minimum wage, and her husband works the same, and every day is a struggle, with work and babysitting, but they find a way to get through it. The car breaks down, kids get sick, things in the house break and need to be replaced. For people with money, these are minor problems, but for poor people they can mean losing a job and having even less. My niece is lucky to have family members who can help — plenty of people don’t have anyone.

Well-off people with lots of resources feel the difficulties of their own lives, so it surprises me that they are willing to discount the profound and essential nature of the problems that others face. People without money have to be very resourceful and clever.

TM: What were some memorable past jobs?

BJC: I have worked a lot of wonderful jobs, as an egg candler, a typist (on a typewriter, before computers), a tour guide, a teacher, a security guard. I’ve sold scrap metal. Maybe the worst job I’ve ever worked was a restaurant called Schensil’s Cafeteria, run by an old woman named Mrs. Schensil, who resembled Homer’s boss on The Simpsons. The food was overcooked and over-breaded and we had to cut the pies into seven pieces. Not six or eight, but seven. There was lots of sour steam. I lied about my age to get the job. I said I was 16, when I was really 14.

TM: Can you tell me about growing up on your mother’s farm?

BJC: Growing up on a farm was great because of all the space and the spaces. I loved being able to be alone and to watch people from a distance. Our place had lots of barns and outbuildings, a wash house, tree houses, attics, grain bins. I loved being with animals of all kinds, smelling their breath, feeling their warmth. I loved milking the cow, something I started doing when I was 10. Fresh garden tomatoes have been part of my summers and falls, as have black cap raspberries and big overgrown zucchini squash. A bigger farm might’ve been very different because of pesticides and factory-farming practices. I didn’t love having to haul buckets of water when the lines froze, having to come home from kid parties to do chores, but it all seems fine in retrospect. I didn’t like it the few times we butchered our own livestock ourselves, but I wanted to eat the meat. When people did that work cleanly and surely and swiftly, it wasn’t bad, but a few times it was done sloppily.

TM: You have two donkeys named Don Quixote and Jack. Do you have other animals?

BJC: In addition to having donkeys, I care for a dozen chickens at my mom’s, and we have a cat who won’t tolerate other cats, unfortunately. I want to have a dog, miss having a dog, but I travel too much right now, and it wouldn’t make sense. Life with animals of all kinds is better than life without them — I think they’ve even done studies that show folks live longer if they live with animals, and so it makes sense that characters in my story can take comfort in animals or see reflections of themselves or others in those animals. I spend a lot of time watching wild animals, birds, and other critters.

TM: I love the way you weave animals into your work. In Q Road, you even have a talking cat. Most of your characters have a very practical approach to animals. What would Don Quixote and Jack say about this collection?

BJC: Jack and Don Quixote are gorgeous and smart, but they are not impressed by my writing career. I try to tell them about my awards and publications, but they just he-haw and chew on my jacket. There’s a funny picture I could share with you. Here’s what happened: a friend was interviewing me in the donkey pasture, and a gal was videotaping us, and while we were talking, Don Quixote was eating page after page of my book manuscript, which was sitting behind me on a bale of hay. We did a close up view of the photo and saw he was chewing the page containing the story “My Sister is in Pain.”

TM: You have this amazing ability to pair beauty with violence, to connect the intimate moments inside public moments. In “The Greatest Show on Earth,” there’s all of this beauty within that tough existence.
There was the long silver whip of the circus train stretched out on a side rail, heating up in the Arizona sun, and inside of a steel cabinet, two people inhaled each other’s breath and sweat.
You’ve said that Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor have influenced your work. In what ways have they influenced your work?

BJC: I know I’ve said this, but truthfully, I don’t know what work has influenced me. I’ll say instead that I feel a kinship with their work, and I hope they’ve influenced me. It’s funny that I’ve mostly chosen Southern writers, the writers who’ve been described as writing “Southern Grotesque.” I guess I see these writers as showing the bumps and bruises and warts of their characters in the most compelling ways. Michigan has a deep connection with the South, since so many Southerners came up to work in the auto plants after the Second World War, and I hung out with transplanted Southerners in my youth.

Nowadays when I get fan mail from somewhere other than Michigan, it’s usually from the south. Steinbeck’s a little different. I guess when I read Steinbeck I fell in love with the way he is a humanitarian, the way he loves his poor and down-and-out characters, especially his male characters — I’m a little conflicted nowadays about his female characters.

TM: I’m originally from Flint. There certainly were a lot of transplanted southerners working at GM…back in the day.

Who have you been reading lately?

BJC: I’m reading and rereading Flannery O’Connor. I can’t get enough of her, and I’ve been invited to talk about her at the Library of Congress in March, so I want to be fully immersed.

TM: I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor the first time I read her, when I was 18.

BJC: Lordy, I wish she’d lived longer. She died at age 39. As for contemporary books, let me give a shout out to Elizabeth McCracken’s latest book of stories, Thunderstruck, which is saturated with death but is bright and uplifting. Now I’m reading a beautiful book, Did You Ever Have a Family, by my agent Bill Clegg.

TM: Family, in all of its iterations, is a major theme in your work. How has your own family influenced your storytelling?

BJC: Yup, we’ve all got ‘em, families! I can’t get rid of mine, wouldn’t if I could. Each new generation of a family turns out to be a reaction against the last generation, and each one redeems the last at the same time. I grew up with hippie-type parents who were reacting to their parents. The set of grandparents I knew best were city folks who dressed and lived conservatively (though politically they were good liberals), and they just couldn’t understand why my mom wanted to milk a cow and butcher hogs, not to mention why she wanted to party all night whenever she got a chance. (My rebelling against my mother is a milder thing, too subtle and boring to get into here.)

I used to love listening to my grandfather and mother as dueling story tellers. My grandfather always wanted to tell a story about some cute little misunderstanding and how the reasonable people involved straightened it all out so everything was fine. My mother always wanted to tell the story of people drinking too much and dancing with lampshades on their heads, with somebody ending up in jail or at least asleep in the bathtub. My grandfather looked away from what was obnoxious and antisocial, while my mother enjoyed the hell out of all that. It was good for me to see how the different sensibilities created such different stories, and I had to come to understand my own sensibility, which is different from both of theirs. I loved hearing everybody argue about what really happened when Emil Wentland built a boat in his basement without having a door big enough for its removal.

TM: That sounds like a good one. I’d like to hear it some time.

You dedicated this book to your mother. In what ways — in writing and in life — has your mother influenced you?

BJC: That’s probably too big a question to get into here. Let’s meet later at the Old Dog Tavern, and I will tell you some stories. I can tell you that my mother knew what she wanted in life, and though she had only one usable arm — the other was badly damaged at birth — she used her body and her mind to create the life she wanted to lead. She had five kids of her own, and she took care of a dozen other kids who lived with us at various times. She reads a lot, and she takes an interest in other people and everything that goes on around her. She’s usually the smartest person in the room, wherever we go. Does she love my writing? No. Does she love me? Yes. In short, she’s just the kind of mother a writer needs.