This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit.
Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement — because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable.
To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me — a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives.
Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother — I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me — but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book — crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize…that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”
Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk — impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight:
I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.
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This was the year I lived in a log cabin in the redwoods and then — suddenly, crudely — I didn’t.
This year I moved back to San Francisco after moving away just a year earlier, just for a minute, a break, just for some air, and when I returned I found I didn’t love you anymore, SF.
This was the year I found wrinkles around my mouth and eyes, the year of three more tattoos because fuck it, I mean we’re all going to die/become climate chaos refugees anyway, I mean did you notice how crazy the weather was this year?
2015: It was the year of cooking more. Of jazz. It was the year of bupropion, the year of boot camps, the year I sold my first nonfiction book and didn’t finish my first novel. The year my friends all bought houses and I didn’t. A year of trying to be more like an adult, and a year of understanding how I never will be.
In the cabin, books felt realer. The woodstove replaced the TV. I started doing things like baking cookies and hanging bird feeders and sleeping all night. My partner and I stopped going out much, and when we did it was always to a dive bar and always for hamburgers. But we were lonely. We missed our friends. And so I read with friendship in mind, searching for female companionship in a way that I haven’t since junior high school. Most of the novels I read and loved this year were also books I was revisiting. I loved these books because they are at heart about women, about “little” lives, and about what it means to become oneself.
I re-read Colette’s Claudine at School; Colette was a self-mythologizer of Greek proportions, and all us lady writers today could learn a thing or two from her swagger.
I binge-read every E.M. Forster novel, and realized how key turns in each book hinge on women; characters who may be small in deed or acknowledgment but whose impact looms large. (In my head, I call them Forster’s Girls, as though they’re some sort of Pink Lady-like posse, which is probably a terrible thing to think?) Cousin Charlotte in A Room with a View; idealist Helen Schlagel in Howards End; terrified, terrible Adele Quested in A Passage to India. These women fuck shit up, for good or bad, in part because they cannot help but yield to their true selves.
For the first time, I read Department of Speculation (Jenny Offill) and The Folded Clock (Heidi Julavits) and Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) — books with small interiors but tremendous landscapes, each about women struggling in some way with what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, domestication.
On the wilder side of the spectrum, I read Get In Trouble over and over again and I still have no idea how the fuck Kelly Link does it.
I got to know some new heroes a bit better in sequels — Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl and Katie Coyle’s Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle — and I felt grateful for women younger than I being stronger than I am. Then I invited over The Girls from Corona del Mar (Rufi Thorpe) and the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, girls who maybe aren’t heroes but maybe I like them better that way.
Finally, I read Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I remembered how the best stories are edged with grief.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle writes in defense of sentimentality: “Nostalgia, which evokes sentimentality, belongs exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage.”
When I moved back to San Francisco this year, I did so for the fifth time in two decades. This time, though, there is a new sentimentality attached to my interactions with the city. It’s neither pure regret nor Vaseline-lensed nostalgia; more like a backwards-facing gaze, a constant awareness of what Ruefle might call the city’s “accumulation.” When I walk around this town, I can’t see it clearly, I’m so clouded with visions of lives I have lived here, things I did or didn’t do, and — most urgently — what isn’t here anymore. When I look at San Francisco now, my eye’s camera loops a constant montage of how it used to be. Jobs and apartments, lovers and friendships and grocery stores, the behavior of the clouds. How we used to be, it and me inside it. Every intersection stores a memory, and every time I cross one I have the surprising feeling that I don’t belong to this place anymore. It’s surprising mainly because I hadn’t realized I felt like I belonged.
Along with my nostalgia, I’ve been regressing into analog entertainments, to coloring books and piano lessons and young adult classics I haven’t enjoyed since girlhood. These diversions comfort me because they still feel like me. Undisrupted me. Who I was in all the thens and who I am now are not the same, as my city is not the same, but we are still ourselves.
I’m told this is a pretty typical sensation for a person to have in her 40th year of life. I’m told San Francisco is changing, has changed, will always be a city of change, so get over it. I’m in the midst of reading Ada Calhoun’s St. Mark’s Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street and so I’m thinking about how yes, cities change. Culture proceeds. Sentiments accumulate. However, not all change is good change. That there are cycles of boom and bust on a particular parcel of land doesn’t render irrelevant the wrongs done in service of those cycles. The disappearance of my San Francisco is a big deal, to me.
4. Those Who Leave
Like everyone else, I mainlined Elena Ferrante this year, reading all four books in her epic and important Neapolitan series. After I finished The Story of the Lost Child, I was at a loss. What could I possibly read next, what act could follow Ferrante’s? I loved her so much, so unironically. I wanted to stay close to her characters, Elena and Lina. I had an inspiration: I would re-read Little Women, the novel that, in My Brilliant Friend, inspires the girls to become readers and writers, to push beyond the usual boundaries of their neighborhood and their gender.
Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869; it follows the four daughters of the March family, each of whom embodies a neat archetype. The Marches are poor, or at least Gentlewomen In Classic Literature Poor — the girls all have jobs as teenagers, but the family still has a maid. And they are literate and progressive and loving; they do all right for themselves.
I read Little Women obsessively as a girl. I even had the book-on-tape (an actual cassette). This time around, it was a bit harder for me to roll with all the moralism. Each escapade of each sister always ends in a tidy lesson, usually summarized by their wise, perfect Marmee and immediately grokked by all the girls. Despite such antiquated conventions, Alcott’s writing shines through. Little Women is a YA page-turner, each short chapter leading addictively to the next, tears and all. Ferrante and Alcott have that in common, as well as the driving principle behind their work: I can sense in both these authors’ bracing rhapsodies an assertion of value, a celebration of the delicate plainness of la vie quotidien.
I was a Jo, I was always a Jo. Most American girls were, I think (and “most” includes Louisa May Alcott herself). Jo March is rebellious and defiant of gender norms, passionate and tortured in her writing; she is smarter and more useful than the people she loves, but still devoted to them. Mostly, she incapable of being anyone but herself.
But upon this re-read, the first in probably 25 years, it’s Amy March who is a revelation to me. Amy is the baby, the blonde, the sibling antagonist to Jo’s heroine. Amy is not as good and pure as pitiful, one-note Beth, nor as docile as Meg. She wants to be an artist, a genius artist, although she would also settle for having enough money to devote herself to just working really hard at her art, genius or no. When I was a girl, Amy struck me as a snob, shallow and insipid. Her destruction of Jo’s book manuscript (spoilers!) seemed unforgiveable — oddly, far more so than a similar act in Ferrante’s epic.
Now, however, Amy’s character has stretched and grown with age. There is something about a woman who, deep inside the drab gray of Civil War-era New England, desires elegance and then goes out and acquires it. Not the false elegance of fancy clothes and leisurely French carriage rides (although Amy gets those, too) but the elegance of good character. Throughout the book, Amy is trying to be — to become — a better person. She fails a lot and gets lucky a lot, but at least she tries. At the end, Amy gets the boy — the boy who as a girl I furiously wanted for Jo. But Amy gets the boy only because she demands the boy be worthy of her, something none of her sisters ever bothered to do.
Unlike her sisters, Amy has experience with and exists within the larger world as well as within her family. As she wishes and wills and learns and, yes, works herself into intelligence and grace, Amy stands increasingly apart from her family. She is the only character in Little Women who actually evolves.
I wonder if Elena Greco, Ferrante’s main character/cipher, imagined herself to be Jo. She’s not; she’s Amy, the one at a slight remove from all the rest, the one who leaves the swaddle of family and habit for the bigger life she knows exists out there. Elena struggles to choose art over home. Like Amy, she is always strong-willed but never too brutally so (well, mostly never). If Elena is Ferrante’s Amy, then Lina must be her Jo. Like Jo, Lina stays even when she could go. She is hot-headed enough to destroy her own chances for transformation; as Jo did, Lina chooses her community over her own brilliance, her art. And, like Jo, she is impeccably, immovably, tragically herself. Elena wears masks, she code switches, she travels between two worlds and learns to speak fluently the languages of her different existences. But Lina, although she may be at times swayed by men or money or work or tragedy, is incapable of camouflage. She does not become; she is.
When you leave and then come back, you get new eyes. In San Francisco this time, I’ve uncovered a type of grief that I do not perhaps yet fully understand. A place becomes a home without you realizing it; when it stops being so, it’s sometimes equally difficult to know. Over the course of decades, people become themselves, without note. It’s only when we look back that we see the shape we’ve taken, see its shadows and imprints. In returning to the stories that have shaped us, we see too how we have been mis-formed, which parts of us have been cast in coppery truths and which have failed to adhere.
And so to the tidy moral: My reading list this year was about growing up, I guess; about how, be we little or epic, we become.
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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.