Bonnie Jo Campbell: Interview

Monday, July 30, 2012

Let me first clarify that I hate writing introductions to interviews. This is supposed to be the part where I rehash the awards and honors and praise that the interviewee has received, in order to provide some sort of context . . . or maybe to impress you into reading the interview, I’m not quite sure. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If I don’t know what awards this person has won, why on earth would I want to read an interview with her?” And you would be right, because only awards can validate a person’s credibility as an artist.

Well, lucky for us, Bonnie Jo Campbell has already garnered some pretty rad praise for her fiction. If you want to read about that praise, you can go here, here, here, or here. Or you can google something relevant and create your own adventure! I will mention, though, that she may be one of the only recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship who knows how to castrate a pig.*

I recently met Bonnie Jo Campbell in Chicago to discuss, among other things, the circus, sex, underground bunkers, and point-of-view nazis . . . but not circus-themed underground sex bunkers filled with p.o.v. nazis.

*Apparently the Guggenheim Fellowship has been around since 1925, which leads me to believe that at least a few of the earlier winners may have also known how to castrate a pig, unless I’m just generalizing in a way that offends people who were around in 1925, in which case I apologize, but nevertheless we might say that Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of the only recent fellows to possess such a skill.

 TQ: Can you talk a little bit about your own personal history with the city of Chicago?

BJC: My great-grandfather Frank Herlihy started a construction company, which built, among other things, Lower Wacker Drive, in the 1930s. He and his cronies drank bootleg whiskey and the women wore furs. My grandfather, also named Frank Herlihy, continued to run the company until the 1990s. My grandmother Betty Herlihy was in the Chicago League of Women Voters and fought to save the lakefront from development. They lived in Hyde Park, and so I lived with them while I went to the University of Chicago. My fabulous Uncle Terry lives on the North Side. He was maybe the first gringo to buy a house in Wicker Park in about 1976—he bought a three-flat with a two-story coach house for about $28,000. I was fourteen then, and when I went to stay with him, gang members roamed the streets and shot out the lights all the time. He still lives there. I’ve always loved being downtown especially. I used to work at the construction company office at Dearborn and Van Buren, and I remember the gentlemen’s hotels down there, where war veterans used to sit smoking in the open windows, watching the street. Most recently, this spring, I was visiting writer at Columbia College.

TQ: Everybody is always quick to label things, and you’ve been lumped into that sort of “recession-era” fiction group as of late. Why does interest in reading about the working class peak in tough economic times?

BJC: I think people have always been writing about the working class, but the spotlight points at various writers at various times. Somebody recently suggested that what we envision as the working class is the white working class, and we are suddenly seeing changes, seeing more color, and I’m thinking about the implications of that. We often look fondly at things as they’re passing away, so maybe that’s part of it, that we’re losing a particular version of the working class.

I figure some of the interest in American Salvage came about because I was writing about a recession in Michigan that maybe started ten years before it started everywhere else. Or maybe it started forty years ago, in 1970 when the auto plants started closing. Generally, fiction writers tend to be writing about material that’s somewhere in the past, and it takes a long time for us to digest things. In any case, my work about what has been happening in Michigan for a while suddenly seemed relevant to what was going on everywhere. Unfortunately it seems my state isn’t going to be leading the pack out of the recession.

TQ: It’s almost voyeuristic in a way, in that people who don’t know anything about that lifestyle are able to peer in and witness this deterioration. In terms of responses to a book like American Salvage, have you found that working-class people are responding to it and reading it, or is it more the critics and literary folks who are seeing this and appreciating that it’s being written about?

BJC: It’s hard to know for sure who is reading a book like American Salvage. First of all, it’s a book of short stories, and nobody reads short stories. And almost nobody reads literary fiction either, so most book buyers are either students of writing, writers, faculty of writing, critics, or upper-middle-class women in book clubs . . . so those are your groups. I don’t know that we can say that the book was received in any way by working-class people, except that I did make sure that my brothers read it, and they told me that they really liked it, or at least that I wasn’t full of shit, so that was a relief. This was a book about men, so I worried that maybe I was going out on a limb. On the other hand, I know plenty of men. I’ve been married to one for twenty-five years.

TQ: There’s a lot of sex in your books. Sometimes it is liberating, but often it can be violating for your characters. How do you think sexuality plays into what you are writing?

BJC: I think it’s as important an element as, say, eating. I’m a realist writer, and so I am trying to trace, through the lives of my characters, what really happens between humans and in the individual human psyche. I want to look honestly at whatever event is unfolding, whether it is the making of a meal or the making of a bed, so to speak. I think what people remark on in the sex scenes, especially in Once Upon a River, is that they are very frank. These scenes are very plainly rendered. I really like writing about sex because in any sexual encounter there is a lot going on. As writers we are always looking for what our characters desire, and with a sex scene there’s a lot of desire.

In many relationships there’s a power struggle going on, or there’s at least an unevenness of power, and in a sex scene it’s easier than elsewhere to track that—in sex, somebody is probably on top. I’m often disappointed in the sex scenes in a book. A lot of great writers will take us to the beginning of a sex scene and then give us some white space and resume the storytelling when it’s over, leaving us to puzzle about what just happened there. And I don’t mean exactly which limbs were tangled with which other limbs; what I mean is, how did the characters change as a result of that encounter? I think we are all familiar with the sitcom version of sex, which is where one member of the couple runs up the stairs giggling and the other runs up after that person and then the scene changes. On the other hand, I really hate sex scenes where we get lots of details about body parts.

TQ: You’ve said that you’re currently working on a “math novel.” How does the language of mathematics translate to fiction? As a writer, how do you make something like mathematics accessible to the general reader?

BJC: Well, we’ll see if I succeed. I’m working very hard at it. I’m very democratic by nature in the sense that I believe that all the interesting things should be accessible to everybody, but that is problematic with a field like mathematics. There is plenty of mathematics that you can’t understand until you’ve studied a particular subfield for ten years. I think I’ll try presenting some basic principles and ideas that are nifty. But mostly the book is about a character who studies math, so most important for me is to make sure I’ve got her mind-set right as a mathematician. Most of the characters in the book are not mathematicians, so even my math gal won’t be speaking with the math tongue.

TQ: Can you describe your first efforts at publication?

BJC: It’s such a struggle, this publishing business. It seems like we’re struggling to learn how to write and at the same time having to devise a publishing strategy. And just saying that clunky phrase, “publishing strategy,” is exactly the way it feels compared to being engaged in the creative act of writing. So I did what other people have done in that I tried to get a look at a lot of magazines and see what they were like, to get an idea of what they might be looking for. I tried to get in better magazines first and then tried the next tier and then the one below that. My very first published story was in a little magazine called Kiosk at the University of Pennsylvania–Pittsburgh, and it was a magazine that I hadn’t seen before but I had read about it. In a pre-Internet world, it was hard to find the magazines sometimes or even the information about their existence. This was before I had joined a writers’ program, back when I was in my math PhD program. At that time I was trying to understand the publishing thing without a community of writers, and that made it even more of a challenge. I used to buy the book Writer’s Market every year back then. We didn’t have Duotrope.

I sent stories out and got rejections, and then one time I got one back saying, “We like this and we’d like to see it again if you want to make some changes.” I’d never gotten a nice rejection like that, and it was one of the first stories I’d ever worked hard on, a story called “Sleeping Sickness” that ended up in my first collection. I revised it for about six months, worked on it every day, and every day it got a little better. And somehow I didn’t feel frustrated. Before that I hadn’t realized how much time a story could take for me, and I hadn’t realized it was fine to take as much time as you needed. I might mention here that I have one story in American Salvage that took twenty-four years to write. So that was my first published story.

And I think maybe my next story miraculously ended up in Story Magazine, where they paid me real money. I had initially sent something else to them, a story about a girl who turns into a gorilla, and while they rejected that they asked to see more work. I sent them “Circus Matinee” and they took it. I think my third published story was one that I wrote in a class with Stu Dybek, and he brought the story to the attention of the editor of the Alaska Quarterly Review. So those are three very different experiences—shooting in the dark, shooting for the top, and then having somebody help me.

I sent out work a lot, and before I won the AWP award I had a between 1 and 2 percent acceptance rate. I’d sent out a hundred times and had maybe one or two acceptances. Then once I knew the collection was going to get published by the University of Massachusetts Press as a prizewinner, I contacted some editors of magazines I wanted to be in, and I sent them notes saying that my collection had been accepted and would they like to see all of the stories that are unpublished. So I ended up getting all but one of those stories published in magazines. For most of us, learning what we have to learn about the publishing business is very daunting. On my website I have an essay that offers some help for writers trying to publish, but it might be getting out of date at this point.

TQ: Were there any writers that influenced you early on?

BJC: I wish I could say there were, but I don’t remember a single writer when I was young. They never stuck until I was in college, and I was never even that big of a reader when I was a kid; I was more interested in listening to real-life people tell stories. But I read all the Nancy Drew books because my mom had them, and I did read whatever I came across. I did love my English classes in high school, but the particular authors didn’t necessarily stick with me, except maybe Shakespeare. But then at University of Chicago I took a course that was nicknamed “Trashy Fiction from the 30s,” so I got to read Steinbeck and Faulkner and it really did rock my world. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was such a dirty, realistic book, and I still get heartbroken at the thought of somebody getting a new Model T and then just running it until it runs out of oil and gas and is destroyed. That little bit of plot works as a metaphor for so many aspects of people’s lives.

TQ: As a teacher of fiction, do you see common things that emerging writers struggle with in their own work?

BJC: In fiction writing there is plenty to struggle with. I always say that fiction writers have to have the ability of language that poets have and the love of the truth that the nonfiction writer has. Then they have to have something more, a lot more sometimes, to make what they’ve just written meaningful. There are so many things to look at in a student story. It usually takes me about three hours to look at a graduate student’s story. I’m sort of a slow reader in that sense, and in every other sense too. But I really do want to understand every student story that I look at, on its own terms.

There are lots of issues with language in the writing classroom. People have very different feelings about how important it is to, say, use standard English versus a more causal English that most people use when they speak. I try not to get too bogged down in that, but I do point out to students when they are using like in the casual way; they are free to do it, but I want them to know that there are other options. The business of a story critique is to help the writer see the story through a reader’s eyes in hopes of helping the author make it the best possible story it can be. Some stories get there more quickly than others. Some stories need a lot of work on character, or they need to be more believable. A lot of stories need something more in order to keep the reader’s attention, and the writer has to figure out what more there can be. I’m very aware of audience when I’m writing, or at least after I’ve got a first draft I am. I don’t want students to kowtow to the audience, but to remember that the reader is busy and has a lot of choices for how to spend free time. All of us writers want to make our stories compelling. For my own work, I imagine I’m cooking a meal for the reader, and I want the reader to enjoy it to the utmost.

TQ: It seems common in workshops to talk craft, craft, craft, but rarely does anybody ask “Who the hell would want to read this?”

BJC: Yeah, reaching the reader is just as important as any craft issue. I’d rather read a badly written story than a boring story. I love hearing stories told aloud, and those often aren’t delivered in the ideal language. Maybe we talk about craft because it’s easier to talk about. I figure that’s why we talk about point of view so much. I don’t know if you are familiar with the point-of-view nazis. . . .

TQ: Oh yes.

BJC: . . . who are determined to strictly enforce a very consistent p.o.v. Well, if we look back at our favorite writers from the past and present, we find all sorts of violations of point of view.

TQ: There’s the ongoing debate about MFA programs and whether they are a positive or negative thing. Do you think MFA programs pose any dangers to emerging writers?

BJC: For me, the MFA program was the perfect solution to my problem. I worked on my own for twenty years, and I didn’t even know there were MFA programs. It was actually my mathematics PhD adviser, Art White, who told me to go take a class in writing. I signed up for a class with Jaimy Gordon, and I never looked back. It was like a bolt of lightning had struck me when I realized that I could learn aspects of writing from teachers and classmates. I was thirty-five when I entered the program, and I learned so much more quickly than I could have learned on my own. Maybe the most important thing is that it makes people become part of a community of writers. Also, it helped that Jaimy Gordon liked my work right away and told me so. I’m a person who benefits from a bit of confidence.

I hear about the danger of people’s stories becoming more alike, but that doesn’t seem like a real problem. Maybe during those few years spent in the program some people influence one another, but afterward every writer goes out into the world and develops his or her own style. I guess the readership will tell if a certain kind of story is going to stand the test of time or if it will be interesting to a large number of people. I do get a little shocked at the sheer number of MFA students and graduates. The number of programs and students increases every year. I especially worry about people taking out student loans.

I’m a very practical person, and so when I was going through the MFA program I made sure that I was also covering all my bases as far as making a living. I’m certified to teach mathematics in the secondary schools in Michigan and also to teach philosophy, and I made sure also to get a certification to teach English. I never assumed that I would be able to make a living in writing, and I always hope that MFA students are keeping their eyes open for other ways to make money. There’s such a large number of wonderful writers and wonderful stories out there right now that any publisher has his or her pick. It’s really wonderful for the state of literature to have so many good writers out there, but it can be very frustrating for those who are creating something that’s a little askew from what the publishers want. I believe there is a readership for most writers who are really working hard to make their stories as good as they can be. There are uncountable venues to show their work if you count online publishing, and that’s a wonderful thing for readers who like something different from the mainstream. We are all lucky in that we can generally find work we like.

TQ: I’m curious to know a little more about your experiences with the circus, particularly where they took you geographically and how they shaped your views of the country and the people.

BJC: I joined the circus when I was hitchhiking with a boyfriend to LA. He was going to fly from LA to New Zealand, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. We got to Phoenix and I saw the posters and billboards for the circus. So I told this boyfriend I was going to join the circus, and he said, no you’re not, and so I did. We traveled to Tucson and then to LA and then all the way up the coast to Seattle, and then we started working our way back. I made it to Salt Lake City, and then I ended up going back to college after that.

It was fun. I hadn’t spent much time on the West Coast, and I loved the idea that in the circus we got to live on a train. I was selling snow cones. I wasn’t a performer exactly, but I was a damn good snow cone saleswoman. The other snow cone sellers were a bunch of rough, tattooed, scarred, toothless guys. And so I sold a lot of snow cones because I looked like the girl next door. I actually made a good amount of money traveling with them.

The circus is very socially stratified, and one can understand its social hierarchy just by looking at the train. At the very front, all the bosses have their train cars with big stately rooms and bars and fancy bathrooms. And then as you move along the train, you have the stars of the circus—the ringmaster may have a half a car. Below that you have the troops, the acrobats and trapeze artists. After that you have the other performers, and then the clowns, and then the showgirls, and beneath the showgirls is the pie car where everybody eats, so that’s kind of in the middle. After that you have the vendors, which is what I was. Those people take up about three cars. Below them are the people who take care of the animals; they’re called the ring stock. The elephant people were the highest level of ring stock folks, then the tiger people, and then the camels and horses and goats. And then at the very end of the train are the actual animals.

I traveled with them for about five months, and then after that I worked for them at odd times, when they would come into town, wherever I happened to be living. It was fun to be connected to them. They were a kind of rough bunch—you know, a troubled working-class bunch. I think of them as very similar to the kinds of characters I write about. And I do plan to write more about the circus after I finish my math novel.

TQ: I’ve heard you mention that you were fascinated by the whole Y2K phenomenon and the people who bought into it, and I think that goes along with the whole notion of survivalism that you often write about. It’s interesting, because you look at a character like Margo Crane in Once Upon a River, and people love to read about her, but if they encountered her on the street she would probably freak them out.

BJC: I think survivalism is a very American thing. I think many of the fringe interests, whether it’s Ron Paul’s politics or whether it’s a sort of back-to-nature thing—a lot of strains of American thought go to survival, especially for rural folks.

And survival, in all its forms, is one of my main themes. I am interested in characters whose survival is at risk. A few people give me a hard time for always writing about poor and distraught people, but in my family and my community it was always a point of pride to call someone a survivor. And then there is that more extreme element of survivor types, people who are going to dig underground and build their shelters, and that phenomenon is stronger than ever. I was trying to write another story recently about a guy building a bunker, and there was plenty of information online out there telling us just how to do it.

TQ: If you had to build an underground bunker to ride out the end of civilization, what would you put in it?

BJC: I would have to have a lot of rice and beans in there and dried vegetables and fruits, and water, and a lot of books, and some way to light a match. But I don’t know what other special comfort things I would have. I’m pretty practical and basic, but I have very cold feet and hands, so I would have to have a good supply of gloves and socks. I would enjoy having spare time, and maybe I’d finally have a chance to reread all of Dickens. And writing materials. Maybe I’d become very devoted to a political cause, such as trying to figure out how to close the gap between the rich and the poor. If I thought I’d never emerge into society again, I think I’d study mathematics in my bunker.

Photo © Chris Magson