Interview hosted by Clayton Crook.
For my Creative Writers and Publishing Class, I was given an assignment to interview an author about their experience with their path to publication. Ever since my sophomore year, stories from American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell had been selected for us to read and study. This summer, after reading the entire short story collection, I fell in love with the book and its uniquely compelling stories. When I emailed Bonnie with my questions, she was happy to respond.
Bonnie Jo Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm with her mother and four siblings in a house her grandfather Herlihy built in the shape of an H. She learned to castrate small pigs, milk Jersey cows, and when she was snowed in with chocolate, butter, and vanilla, to make remarkable chocolate candy. Her critically-acclaimed short fiction collection American Salvage, which consists of fourteen lush and rowdy stories of folks who are struggling to make sense of the twenty-first century, was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction. She now lives with her husband and other animals outside Kalamazoo, and she teaches writing in the low residency program at Pacific University. Find her works, blog, and more of her writing tips at http://bonniejocampbell.com/
CC: What was your first publication?
BJC: So many firsts! I was the editor of my high school newspaper and wrote a personal essay type column every month. My first published fiction was in 1987 when I lived in Boston—the magazine was the now-defunct Oak Square (I think that was the name), and the story was “Tinny Marie,” which ended up in my first collection more than a decade later. My second published story was in 1994, “Sleeping Sickness,” and that also ended up in that collection, Women & Other Animals.
CC: What can you tell me about your path to publication; has it evolved over your career?
BJC: Women & Other Animals was my MFA project and I continued to work on it for a year. Then I entered the AWP Short Fiction contest; that was a great way to have a first book published, because it got some attention right out of the gate. Luckily, I had a novel underway, so when the collection got attention, I was able to get an agent for the novel and had it published by Scribner.
Unfortunately this agent didn’t like the work I created after that, and so I didn’t get anything else published until she and I parted ways. Then I had to start over again, with American Salvage, published by Wayne State University Press (1000 copies), but it made a surprise splash by becoming a finalist for a National Book Award. After that I had an easier time with publishing.
CC: On your website, your author biography says that you grew up on a farm in Comstock, Michigan, where much of American Salvage could have taken place. There’s no doubt that this has influenced your work very strongly. There are a lot of themes in this short story collection, including farm life, the beauty and struggles of romantic relationships, relationships between men and women, religion, bigotry, drug addiction, working class struggles, dysfunctional families, and the Y2K scare. Some of the characters in these stories demonstrate an extensive knowledge of car mechanics, wildlife, hunting, and nature. What kind of research went into creating the world of this short story collection? Did much of it come from influence from your own life?
BJC: What I need to write in a story is an interesting character in a tough situation. Most of the stories in American Salvage were instigated by something that happened in real life. By that I mean that I was inspired to write a story because I’d been ruminating about some problem I’d read about or seen my neighbors suffering, or even about some kind of gossip or neighborhood lore. The character might have started out as a real person, or a composite of a number of people, but usually by the time I’d created a story that had enough drama and forward-driving force, the character had been changed so radically that nobody would recognize him or her.
For every single story, though, in order to create just the right situation for the character, I needed to do a lot of research. I know a little about a lot of things, but I’m not an expert about fixing cars, shooting, washing machine repair, or the junkyard business, so I have to spend a lot of time with people who do know, asking questions. I also read, and I even watched YouTube videos. I watched a lot of videos of skinning muskrats as I described my character Margo Crane doing the same in my novel Once Upon a River. I don’t do research in advance—I just write the stories and figure out what I need to know to make them better, and then I find it out.
CC: A few aspects about your stories in American Salvage that I noticed are especially strong are the extraordinarily compelling and revealing endings (sometimes delivered with just a single sentence), the strong metaphorical juxtapositions (often carried out by your endings), your use of the third person omniscient point of view to make the stories seem even more realistic and believable, the occasional use of future tense for a more compelling effect (and even to speed up time), and paragraphs that approach prose poetry in apt description. What is your writing process like? Have you always written in this way, or is this style unique to American Salvage?
BJC: I don’t really know what my fiction writing style is, but I’ve written the same way from the time I started. I get an urge to explore and share a situation that seems interesting to me, and then I do everything and anything I can to serve the story, make it compelling, and make a connection with my reader. My go-to writing style (in the most general sense) is third person past tense, and that is usually how I start stories, but if I realize my narrator is doing something tricky with their telling, I’ll change the narration to first person and let them be a less reliable narrator. Writing in third person is a joy, but I only do it when I feel absolutely confident in what I am saying, so that not only does the narrator think it’s true, but it feels true in a more profound universal sense.
I’ve always been cautious of flashbacks, and the same goes double for flash-forwards, but if they’re used judiciously, they do work in a way that simply cannot be accomplished in the as-you-go narration. My stories all take me years to write (for example, the story “Bringing Belle Home” took 24 years to finish), and I just try to be patient and give the stories all the time they need. One very good story is worth a hundred mediocre stories.
CC: Who are some of your biggest influences or favorite writers?
BJC: My mother and my grandfather (R.I.P.) are both incredible story tellers with very different sensibilities, and so from a young age, I saw how stories and versions of events and ways of telling them could battle with one another. Reading Steinbeck in college was like a bolt of lightning because that was the first time I’d read stories about poor people who were fully fleshed out, poor people who were true protagonists and not just somebody to feel sorry for. Next came Flannery O’Connor—I learned that things can get a little rough in short stories. That woman is brutal.
Now I learn bits and pieces from everyone I read. Reading Jeannette Winterston’s memoir this year really shook me up in a good way. Kathleen Dunn’s Geek Love teaches me something new every time I read it. And George Saunders shows me that anything is possible. Jaimy Gordon and Kellie Wells continue to teach me about language, and also the poet Diane Seuss is cracking the world open like an egg, and I am always eager to see what hatches.
CC: What made you want to write, and when did you start writing?
BJC: The desire to write is a mental illness, and I’ve been afflicted since I was about fourteen. Maybe because I found many things fascinating in life and I wanted to find a way to think carefully about those situations and people and then share them with other people. Because I knew that writing was a competitive, tough business and because I lacked confidence in my abilities, or most of my life I tried to do other things. I majored in Philosophy, ran bicycle tours in Russia and Eastern Europe, and went into a PhD program in mathematics. All the while, though, I kept writing, and finally, after decades, I got better at it. I hope to continue getting better.