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Interview: Bonnie Jo Campbell


Artist in Residence Bonnie Jo Campbell sat down with Arkana staffers who managed to control their fangirl excitement long enough to ask some exigent questions.

They received more than a few unexpected responses. No animals—including humans—were harmed while conducting this interview. Thanks to Bonnie Jo Campbell for her candid, radiant responses.

Arkana: Can you talk a little bit about landscape writing? Do you believe landscape is character?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: That’s what I would say. Characters are who they are because of the landscape they inhabit. I don’t know if that’s true in real life, but it is definitely true in my fiction—that people are who they are because of where they are and what they’re made of. That’s one of the ways in which fiction works.

It’s probably not true for other writers, and often not in nonfiction. Other people might write about the displaced city person who is trying to make his or her way in a rural landscape. That’s a fun dynamic that gets explored in television comedies, people going back to the earth. But for the kind of fiction I write, characters have risen out of the landscape as though they’ve grown from the elements of that place. In my novel Q Road, which explores land development issues, I wanted to invent a character that made me ask myself, “What would she be like if she grew out of the ground in Kalamazoo, Michigan? What would she be like?” And then I did something similar with Margo Crane in Once Upon a River. I said, “What would she be like if she were the river embodied as a human being? What would she be like?” I knew it would be a she.

A: That’s beautiful and poetic. As a follow-up question, do you write poetry? Does it appeal to you?

BJC: Yeah, I write poetry now, almost every day. I warm up by writing poetry. I don’t know if I can tell the poets that—that it’s just my warm up, for when I’m getting to the serious stuff, you know, the fiction [laughter].

I used to have on my website that I never, ever write poetry, and that was true for years. I didn’t get poetry, I thought it was snooty. But, I had a poet friend, Susan Ramsey, who kept saying, “Oh, that’s a good first line,” every time I’d open my mouth. She said, “You’ve gotta try it.” And I said, “Damn it, I’ll give it a try.” [laughter]. So I took a masterclass in poetry with Diane Seuss, who lives in Kalamazoo, and during this class I discovered a lot that I wanted to express that I hadn’t been able to fit into story shape. A lot that didn’t have a beginning, middle, and end.

Then, the crazy thing is I wrote hundreds of poems. I couldn’t stop. I wrote a poem every day, and it was a great break from writing fiction. Also an inspiration for my fiction somehow. I’ve come to rely on reading and writing poetry to limber me up. For those of us who are prose writers, poetry gets us out of ideas and into words, tangled up in words.

A: Considering that, in your fiction, characters grow from the place they inhabit, do you find that the place you inhabit affects the way you write, or the way words come to you?

BJC: I have to assume it does. I grew up on a tiny farm outside of Kalamazoo. Then I moved away. I moved to Chicago, lived in Boston, lived in LA, lived in Milwaukee, and in all these places, I was trying to write, but it wasn’t really working—until I moved back to Kalamazoo, and then all of a sudden I could write.

I was back to hanging around the kind of people who I wanted to write about. I’m lucky that my own people inspire me—my own community. The thing about writing about your own place is that you know what kind of trees grow there. You’re not going to call something a live oak if you’re in Kalamazoo, because you know that you have white oaks and burr oaks and swamp oaks—you don’t have live oaks. Knowing your landscape means you mentally traverse it and see a thousand things and pick out of it just what you need.

A: Your characters are often engaged in struggle. Whether it’s with some sort of class constraint or personal relationship, or their own perception, there’s always a visible conflict that they always interact with, whether or not they acknowledge it.

BJC: What I need to have in my head when I write a story is an interesting character—a character I want to spend time with—and a very, very difficult situation. A situation to which there is no solution. If I have a situation in life where there’s a solution, then I’m just going to solve it. I need a problem that has no solution, and that’s when I can start writing.

That’s good criteria for people who are pitching around for what to write about next. Often in workshops, people will choose something that’s a little too easy—you can see who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, what they should do to overcome their obstacles. If you can see through that, then it could be made a little more complex or difficult. But, not everybody wants to read that type of story. I mean, my mother would say, “I don’t want to read about those people.”

A: Speaking of mothers, can we ask about the perspectives of mothers and daughters in your prose?

BJC: Yeah, what about those mothers and daughters? And now my new novel is just a mess of mother and daughter trouble. It seems to me a powerful, yet slippery relationship, always in flux. Right now I’m watching my mother age, watching how illness and regret and joy and desire work differently in an eighty year old woman, as compared to myself, a fifty-six year old woman. I haven’t read enough about the relationship as I see it unfolding in families around me. First of all, there’s often a weird sexual dynamic, because as a mother grows old and is not sexually attractive anymore, there’s this problem—an unsolvable problem—of the mother envying the sexuality or sexual attractiveness or sensuality of the daughter. And that sexuality stands in for a wider variety of characteristics, of course, maybe even is a stand-in for the life force itself.

And especially where I come from in the farm world, mothers are very hard on their daughters. Much harder than they are on their sons. There are expectations on the part of both mother and daughter, and it’s not even clear what the expectation is. Mothers want their sons to get good jobs and to be handsome, rugged men that fix things for them. For daughters, it’s more complex than that. Mothers and daughters often want to be friends, but things get in the way.

There’s probably no more intense relationship than a mother/daughter relationship just because the daughter grows up under the mother’s eye, under her care, and under her conversation, and has a different relationship to the mother’s physical body than the sons do. Maybe I’m saying this because I’m reading a lot of Jungian philosophy, but the mother’s body is a very profound presence for a daughter. We all feel it when we see our mothers, when they’re not well or when they’re being mean, or when they’re frail, or when they’re powerful. We love nothing better than to see our mothers while they’re powerful, even though that can be terrifying, especially to a young girl.

There’s a lot going on in mother/daughter relationships, but it’s not something that society wants to explore in a realistic, nuanced way. Popular culture oversimplifies these relationships as good and supportive ones or else poisonous ones—rarely is it so limited to one extreme. I guess The Golden Girls gave it a try. They had the mother and the daughter in there, and that was kind of interesting, but they had to end with a laugh. Having cancer reminds me there’s only so much time before I die, so I gotta get at this. I have this hypermaternal thing happening in my new novel, with a grandmother, a daughter, and a granddaughter, and I hope this is something folks want to read.

A: How does the censorship and self-censorship that your characters face, especially in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, relate to survival—doing something difficult just to keep on going?

BJC: The reason I write about this group of people is not just because I know them, but also because there’s a lot at stake for these women. Their very survival is at stake. Most people we meet in real life—if we surround ourselves with well-adjusted people—they have shitty things happen to them, but they’ll probably be okay. My characters might not be okay.

These farm women had to be tough, because if they were soft they couldn’t do what they had to do. I mean you had to drown the fucking kittens. People think you’re mean if you drown kittens now—they don’t understand that you had to drown the kittens, because there were all these kittens, and every year more kittens, and what are you going to do? You can’t run a farm that way. So you just had to be tough enough to keep the farm going.

A: The way you’re talking about these farm women reminds me of Larry McMurtry describing his grandmother. He says that his father never forgave his wife, Larry McMurtry’s mother, for having an easier life than his mother had had.

BJC: Right—she didn’t work that hard. She had it easy. Isn’t that something, how we take this weird pride in roughing it. The worst thing an American country kid can be is a wimp. I don’t know if you guys grew up in those kinds of families, where the worst thing you can do is be sensitive. That means if you’re the writer in the family, you’re automatically kind of suspect.

My mom was not born into farming. She chose it. As a kid, she just decided she was going to be a farmer. My grandfather ran a construction company and my granny was a woman who did good works in the community. My mom hung out on the nearby farms, learning about livestock and gardening instead of focusing on her studies or the home life.

A: Do you think that they’re tough on their daughters—or tougher on their daughters than their sons—because they know how tough life is going to be for their daughters?

BJC: I think there’s something to that: the idea that you will be crushed if you aren’t tough enough. Of course, we all know how patriarchy works. In the guise of making you tough and helping you, your women role models teach you to perpetuate the system. Have you guys ever read this book by Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean? It’s probably the best example of how ranching women can be crushed beneath the weight of that lifestyle. There’s a lot of interesting Western writing about really heavy stuff about farming and ranching.

A: Your work is very relatable to people in different regions across the United States, such as the Midwest, the West, and the South. How do you think we manage to share a sense of identity in such disparate places and still call it America, and still know what that means?

BJC: I consider myself an American writer, first and foremost. In fact I wrote Once Upon a River to be Americana, meaning to pull out all the stops. It’s about a river, it’s about Annie Oakley, it’s got guns, it’s about freedom. All my writing focuses on the hardscrabble aspects of this young country where not everybody will make it, even though many of my readers are upper middle class white women (because that’s who buys books). My white upper middle class readers are probably less American than my characters in the sense that they could go to England and probably be at home. Whereas the people I write about could only come from this place.

Finding the commonalities in these Western and Southern stories would be fun to explore. The thing is, in the Midwest, a lot of people came up from the South, and a lot of people from the West came from the South, too. Maybe the South is the key.

My favorite writers, when I first figured out I wanted to write, were Steinbeck and Faulkner. First of all, because I hadn’t read The Sound and the Fury yet. If I’d tried to read that first, I would have said, “They’re just fucking nuts, these Southerners.” What I realized from Steinbeck and Faulkner was that I could write about poor people. I could write sympathetically about poor people, and people who are kinda knuckleheads. Then I discovered Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, and then my brain exploded. And by the way, I love The Sound and the Fury—it’s easier to understand with an exploded brain.

I have mixed feelings these days about old Flannery, even though I traveled with her. I got a cardboard cut out of her, life-sized, and I carried her from town to town, and you can see some of her exploits on my Facebook page, “Travels with Flannery.” It was so fun introducing her to everyone, and I got invited to talk about her at the Library of Congress, so I got to go to DC and talk about Flannery. But I read so much Flannery that I actually started seeing things… I mean, she was racist, of course. She was of her time. Do you know that she refused to see James Baldwin when he came to Georgia? She said it would upset the church people. It would upset her mother. She wouldn’t see him.

That’s another mother and daughter relationship. All those stories she has with the mother and daughter, I get tingly when I think about it. Flannery’s so mean, because she felt like God’s just going to sort it out. For her it was like you have to basically kill people to make them see the light, and she wasn’t afraid to do it. She had a strange kind of Catholicism. The Catholics claim her as their own, but she’s an odd sort of Christian.

The Carson McCullers that I love is Ballad of the Sad Cafe Carson McCullers. That’s what I want—give me more of that.

I love Eudora Welty, too. I like “Why I Live at the P.O.,” which you’re not supposed to like. She was ashamed she wrote that, but, anyway, that showed me I could also write with a sense of humor about poor people, and that’s helpful.

My influences were the Southern crew because they were in rural environments, and they were showing us life connected to the land. Maybe a lot more interesting than Pride and Prejudice, for instance. I never could relate, because in Pride and Prejudice, we’re hearing a conversation in a well-appointed drawing room, and suddenly they’ve got tea. Everybody’s drinking tea, where’d the fucking tea come from? If one of those women, and men too, would just go out and dig a damn hole. Dig a ditch. Do something. They’re just sitting around.

A: So it’s those holes in the story of a landscape that you’re exploring?

BJC: It’s funny, because you read through those types of stories in high school and you don’t wonder what they aren’t showing, because your teachers act like it’s all normal, and a lot of people growing up thinking literary stories are about upper class people. A lot of our realizations as writers are suddenly waking up and saying, “Oh, you can do that. Oh, we can write about that.” Most importantly, we wake up to the possibility of writing about the kind of people we know best. The Southerners taught us something about that, maybe because Southern society was more rigid. The writer had the job of dissecting and criticizing it. Southern writers start out with a stronger sense of what it is they are commenting on. We Midwestern fiction writers have taken longer to figure out the structures we want to analyze and criticize.

A: You mentioned Jungian philosophy. What else are you reading right now?

BJC: I finally read Underground Railroad, which was great. I put it off because there was so much hype surrounding it; I was afraid I was going be disappointed. But no, it’s just that good. I also just read the autobiography of Jeanette Winterson, which is really great if you love Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. But I’m reading way too much Jungian philosophy. I’ve got this great quote—I probably have it in my pocket somewhere—but Jung said, “As a Swiss I am an inveterate democrat, yet I recognize that nature is aristocratic.” Isn’t that nice?

Bonnie Jo Campbell is an American novelist and short story writer. Her most recent work is Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, published with W.W. Norton and Company. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ontario Review, Story, The Kenyon Review, Witness, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, and Utne Reader. She has won a Pushcart Prize for her story “The Smallest Man in the World,” the 1998 Associated Writing Programs Award for short fiction (for Women & Other Animals), and the 2009 Eudora Welty Prize from Southern Review for “The Inventor, 1972.” Campbell teaches fiction at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, in the low-residency MFA program, and lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus and has organized adventure bicycle tours in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Image Credit: “Women of the 13th,” Silvia La Rote
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