Editor’s note: This lively conversation between controversial novelist Don De Grazia and American Book Award winner Bonnie Jo Campbell was originally twice the length that appears here, and the unedited version was just as hilarious. As much as we hated to lose any of the…well, to use De Grazia’s and Campbell’s own word, “alchemy” between these two writers—much less any freakishly wise comments by Campbell’s Uncle Terry Herlihy, who was also in attendance—the decision was ultimately made to shorten their dialogue for digestibility. Their meeting (and drinking) took place at the legendary Chicago establishment, Miller’s Pub, on 7/24/12.—Gina Frangello
The Rumpus: Here we are, Bonnie….
Bonnie Jo Campbell: Hey, here we are, Don.
Rumpus: I always consider you a Michigander and at the same time, a Chicagoan. You’re a University of Chicago girl…
Campbell: Yep, and thank you for saying “Michigander” because there’s some prissy people who are saying “Michiganian” these days.
Rumpus: Whenever I’m out with friends from Michigan, I put a glass in the middle of the table like this, and say that Chicago is like the corn silo and Michiganders are all like the field mice…
Campbell: And they like to scamper into the city!
Rumpus: …and they really like that, which is why I always say it… Well, as you know, I teach writing and lit classes over at Columbia College Chicago, and I have to say you were one of the most popular Visiting Writers we’ve ever had.
Campbell: That’s a fine, fine university, Columbia College. It was a pleasure.
Rumpus: In our Critical Reading & Writing classes, the students are told to do reports on individual authors and so many would choose you. And invariably in those reports they would cite some article that said: “When she was a young adolescent, she’d visit her Uncle Terry in Chicago, and he would show her the grittier side of the city…” Happily, we have Uncle Terry with us here today, and since readers have this perverse desire to learn personal things about authors that they probably shouldn’t know, we have Terry here to help satisfy this.
Campbell: And you know what? He’ll keep me honest. If I try to lie to you, he’ll call me on it.
Terry Herlihy: So here I am.
Rumpus: So Terry and Bonnie, you guys are from the same town in Michigan—is that correct?
Campbell: Both of us were born in Comstock, Michigan.
Rumpus: Did she show any signs as a child of being exceptional or weird or anything like that?
Campbell: Weird yeah, being five-foot-ten at fourteen years old was a little bit scary.
Rumpus: Oh, is that right? Bonnie, did you know early in life that you wanted to be a writer? I know that you sort of took a different route. You studied philosophy at University of Chicago, and math at Western Michigan University, where you also took a creative writing course. As a kid, were you an avid reader or writer of any sort?
Campbell: I wanted to write from about the time I was about fourteen, because I loved writing for the school newspaper. I liked to report and interview people, but I really liked to write columns, funny columns. I later wrote columns for a little zine of my own, and it was called The Letter Parade. I keep finding those essays kicking around. The truth is I tried to write for years and I wasn’t very good. Nobody tells young writers it’s okay if you’re not very good, you’ll get better. So I just thought I’m not very good, so I should try to do every other thing besides writing. That’s how I ended up being a hitchhiker, a world traveler, and a mathematician.
Rumpus: And a former circus worker….
Campbell: Yes, a circus worker, and a philosopher. I tried to do all these other things instead of writing. In fact, when I finally realized I was really going to write, when I was about thirty-four, I was working on my Ph.D. in Mathematics. I was just about to earn my Master’s along the way, but I knew something was wrong because I found myself crying all the time.
Rumpus: Well I certainly would cry all the time if that was the degree I was pursuing. But why did you decide, at that point, to take a creative writing class?
Campbell: Well, I told my Ph.D. Advisor, Dr. Art White, that I was unhappy and I couldn’t figure out what was the matter. And he told me to go take a writing course. And I didn’t even know that one could learn to write in writing courses. Like, I thought that you had to learn to write by yourself and if you couldn’t do it, then you were out of luck. So he said, “You go over across the campus to the other tall building and sign up for a 500-level class with one of those fiction writers.” And the two fiction writers there were Stu Dybek and Jaimy Gordon.
Campbell: They were pretty good options. So I ended up taking a class with Jaimy Gordon, and she manhandled my writing and turned me around, and she pointed me in the direction of the MFA program. So I finished up my Master’s in math and never looked back.
Rumpus: So you’re a woman of letters and you had an eclectic array of jobs. It’s almost become a joke—when an author publishes a book, they ask you all the different jobs you had. When I published American Skin, they put bouncer and factory worker in my bio, but they left out cold-call telemarketer…Vitamin World kiosk operator…
Campbell: Vitamin World kiosk operator?
Rumpus: At the mall, I worked at Vitamin World.
Campbell: Sounds healthy.
Rumpus: One of the less exciting jobs I had. Whatever the case, it’s become kind of a joke, but, you know, a writer having led a somewhat varied life prior to becoming a writer is interesting to readers. Do you think it also helps the writer?
Campbell: Oh yeah, yeah, sure, it helps just to have done a few different things. I worked probably fewer jobs than most people, or fewer real soul-killing jobs than other people. I’ve been a typist, a typesetter, a keyliner, cappuccino-maker. I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I think back when I was kind of a crappy writer, I really did know my time was better spent working and having adventures and seeing the world.
Rumpus: So you came to Chicago and hung out with Terry.
Herlihy: Yeah, when she was at U of C [University of Chicago], her grandparents lived in Hyde Park and she got free room and board. That was after she went out to California for her first year.
Cambell: That was a mistake, I guess, going out to California. They have these things called guidance counselors in high school. They drink a lot of herbal tea.
Rumpus: I was vaguely aware of them, before I was kicked out.
Campbell: I didn’t actually figure out how to get guidance, so I just decided to go to school at University of Southern California because they sent me a glossy brochure. I applied and got accepted and flew out there.
Herlihy: Bonnie is hardly your typical USC type of co-ed at all, so I wasn’t at all surprised when she showed up back in Hyde Park.
Campbell: There were a lot of beautiful, thin people out there driving nice cars. It was a whole different experience being in L.A.
Rumpus: Is there a central moment that comes back to you?
Campbell: I lived in Watts, though not the roughest part. I just showed up out there without a clue where I should be or what I should do. But somehow they found me some scholarship money and financial aid. Thank goodness. Luckily I found an apartment with five other women. Maybe a central moment was hearing my thin, blonde sorority roommate throw up in the bathtub, and realizing she was doing it on purpose. After a year, it was great to get out of L.A. and return to Hyde Park. Since my grandparents lived in Hyde Park, I had been coming there since I was a tyke. My mother had five children, so anytime she could send one away with my grandparents, she would. It was great to be so close to the Museum of Science and Industry, back when you could just walk up the front stairs. Don’t you hate that you can’t walk up the front stairs anymore? You have to walk all around to the back and enter through the basement and pay fifteen dollars or something like that. And back then you could go in for just ten minutes, and gaze at the sliced-up human bodies and the airplanes hanging from the ceiling. When I was in high school, I figured out that Uncle Terry was a lot more fun than my grandparents. So I would come and work in Chicago at the family construction company, and I would run errands and microfilm documents. That was one of my jobs, putting documents on microfilm. There was an endless pile of records going back to the 1950s. Then in the evening, I would hang out with Uncle Terry.
Rumpus: And what would that consist of, generally speaking, hanging out with Uncle Terry?
Campbell: Oh, mostly fixing things and going to the bar. He had to work on his building in Wicker Park. I clearly remember Terry melting lead on the stove.
Campbell: Uncle Terry was repairing the plumbing—the sewer, I guess—and he was melting a little pan of lead on the stove. That seemed like a wondrous thing!
Herlihy: I’d been melting lead since I was five years old. I used to make sinkers with my dad.
Campbell: I’d watch him pour lead into the joints in the iron pipe.
Rumpus: So after a wondrous day of melting lead on the stove, you guys would hit the taverns?
Campbell: Yeah, it was great. I learned so much.
Rumpus: Such as?
Campbell: I don’t know—what did we learn at those bars, Terry? They were all really fun. I think I really enjoyed a bar called B.L.U.E.S. There was a puppet master named Dunning who hung out there, and talked with me about worldly things. B.L.U.E.S. was a blues bar owned by Terry’s buddy.
Campbell: Yeah, Gilmore. He borrowed money from Terry to buy the bar or keep the bar going, so Terry got to drink for free there for a long time.
Herlihy: He paid me back eleven years later.
Campbell: Because he wanted to stop giving you free drinks!
Herlihy: And I didn’t charge him interest.
Rumpus: So Terry, Bonnie mentioned to me…I think you’re probably the only person I’ve ever met in real life that owns an island. Is that right?
Herlihy: I own an island, yes. It’s similar to places she writes about in her river book. It’s in Michigan, on the St. Joe River about seven miles up the river from Lake Michigan.
Rumpus: You’re referring, of course, to Once Upon a River, a bestseller, set there on the river in Michigan. As someone who grew up in Michigan and is totally familiar with Michigan river life, what were your impressions of the book?
Campbell: Did you read my book? Thank you, Terry!
Herlihy: Of course I read your book. I think the river parts are pretty accurate to what was going on. You got a nice feel for it, and I liked your character Margo, and the people around Margo are very, very, very much like the people around the St. Joe—people I would play cards with on Friday night at the farmhouse. But your river and that old river I grew up on are very different. Back then there were a lot of carp in the river. We used to take our food garbage and stuff it in a paper bag and a-throw it off the bridge, and hundreds of carp would come up the river and eat it. The river was teeming with crayfish then, but you see one or two crayfish nowadays and two or three frogs. As little kids on a farm you worked. Me and Tom Filwock, our job was to take the tractor and the spray tank down to the river to fill it with water, and we’d have a fifty-pound bag of green stuff to put in it—strychnine and arsenic, for spraying the cherries. If any of the green stuff splashed out of it into the river, then downstream the fish and minnows would float up. You weren’t supposed to spray the cherries less than ten days before they’re going to be picked.
Rumpus: I’m sorry to see how river culture has diminished.
Herlihy: I’m afraid things aren’t the same.
Rumpus: Bonnie, do you have a lot of film people interested in Once Upon a River?
Campbell: There’s been a lot of interest by new filmmakers and one well-known guy. Have you heard of this German director Uli Edel? He directed Last Exit to Brooklyn. He sounded interested, but nothing’s happened.
Rumpus: Well, it’s obviously very cinematic in addition to being very literary. It would be a great movie.
Campbell: Of course, I told him he’d have to do it in Michigan. He told me all the problems they would have filming in a river, how they’d have to build platforms under the water. If you have someone falling out of the boat, you’d have to drag the boat up the river and film the same scene ten times, every time, dragging the boat exactly where it was up the river.
Rumpus: With Once Upon A River, you’ve reached a new level of success and a much broader audience. How has your life changed? How has your writing life changed?
Campbell: Whenever I run into somebody who’s read my book, I’m surprised. I used to figure that I’d have to give a copy of my book to everybody I met, so that they would read it. But now sometimes they’ve already bought a copy themselves, and maybe they’ve even read it. Weirdly the writing experience has not really changed that much except it used to be that I was busy because I had to work a couple of jobs to earn money, so I didn’t have time to write. Now I do different work, teaching and running around visiting universities and bookstores, and that prevents me from writing. But it’s nice to be wanted as a writer.
Rumpus: While your writing time is taken up coming to old-time Chicago bars and having conversations…
Campbell: Hey, time is never wasted coming to an old man bar. This is a very classy old man bar, much higher ceilings than the old man bars in Kalamazoo.
Rumpus: At one point, this is where the beautiful people of Chicago would meet and celebrity-spot, as you can see there on the wall…Jimmy Durante is shaking hands…
Campbell: I’m going to have to take some photos of us with the photos of famous people.
Rumpus: And Terry, since we have you here, how has Bonnie changed? Has she turned insufferable in her success?
Campbell: I’m very sophisticated now, right Terry?
Herlihy: Well, she hasn’t changed very much. Maybe she has somehow, but I can see through all that crap. This is the same blithering idiot that can lose her way getting off the train in Union Station.
Campbell: Well, there are two different bars in Union Station. And I don’t know where my keys are even now. That hasn’t changed.
Herlihy: Yeah, loan her a set of keys and five minutes later, she’ll say the keys are somewhere, she can’t find them.
Rumpus: That’s unusual behavior for a writer.
Campbell: Yeah, right. Can’t remember a damn thing. That’s why I have to be a fiction writer, because I can’t remember what just happened or where I went last week or what movie I just watched with my husband. I’m better off just making things up.
Herlihy: The keys aren’t a big issue because the front door of her house has never been locked; the car keys or keys to any vehicle have always been in the ignition.
Campbell: That’s Michigan.
Rumpus: I have a Michigander friend who goes on and on about that fact…in some small town where she’s from, no one locks their doors, everyone keeps their car keys in the ignition.
Campbell: Then you know where they are. Finding them is never a problem.
Rumpus: You had the juxtaposition of the idyllic pastoral Michigan life and…
Campbell: The junkyard? That’s where I live, a junkyard in a neighborhood of junkyards. We have three tractors from the 1940s and ’50s, several old pickup trucks, and a pile of scrap metal.
Rumpus: And some living things, too…donkeys?
Campbell: Some donkeys, yes. Donkeys make life better.
Rumpus: Are you a lifelong donkey fan? Or is this a more recent thing?
Campbell: I grew up with donkeys, as well as horses, but I’m more interested in donkeys now. Donkeys are the most misunderstood and abused animals around the world. I think we need to do some historical restitution, and so I just want to treat donkeys really well, provide them a good life. My donkeys are Jack and Don Quixote. They’re very smart, very cautious. Much of what people consider stubbornness in donkeys is actually cautiousness.
Rumpus: Would you consider writing a contemporary American Au Hasard Balthazar-style donkey novel?
Campbell: I have considered a donkey novel. There are donkeys in my new novel, which I call my math novel: math and donkeys.
Rumpus: I don’t think you should tell very many people that you’re calling your next novel your “math novel.”
Campbell: Do you think they’ll be afraid? Does it help if the working title of it is Math Slut?
Rumpus: Oh, okay, all right, as long as “slut” is in the title…that totally makes up for the inclusion of math.
Campbell: Most people would be afraid of one of those words, but not the other.
Rumpus: That really creates a kind of dissonance…and I’m not completely opposed to the image that conjures up…slide rules…
Herlihy: Girls with slide rules sounds fun.
Campbell: How funny you two are!
Herlihy: I have to admit that I can’t stand a lot of that crap from feminist writers. I’m sorry. I read Doris Lessing, about those cats. I tried to read the book by the woman who put her head in the oven, but I knew if I read it, I’d do the same thing. The Bell Jar, that’s it.
Campbell: Hey, I’m a feminist writer!
Herlihy: Africa and cats—every kind of nuts cat story you can imagine.
Campbell: We need the donkeys along with the cats to make it quality literature.
Herlihy: But I did like Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. It was a lot sexier than Shades of Grey.
Rumpus: When I was a little kid, Call of the Wild was my favorite book
Herlihy: I loved that book.
Campbell: I didn’t read it. I love Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with the Donkeys. That’s a good one, except that the author was continually beating that poor donkey. Everybody thought that was the way to treat a donkey. But we can choose to be more civilized now.
Rumpus: I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes about how smart donkeys are.
Campbell: Very smart, very cautious.
Herlihy: Who was the donkey in Quixote? Was that his sidekick who rode a donkey?
Campbell: Yes, that was Sancho Panza on the donkey! I finally just read Don Quixote. It was so good. I mean it’s a long novel, and I hesitated to even start it for a long time, but it’s a riot. It was good until you get to the last couple of lines, where it says, Oh, Don Quixote was a fool and everybody should obey the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church rocks, so don’t burn me or my manuscript. Other than that it’s a beautiful story. And you know Sancho Panza loves the donkey he rides, and when he comes home after his first adventures with Don Quixote, his wife rushes up to him and then throws her arms around the donkey and says, “How are you?” And suddenly the name of the donkey just slipped my mind. What was the name of the donkey? Oh, it was Dapple. Dapple the donkey.
Rumpus: If I could bring this back to a more literary focus, have you guys ever YouTubed “animal friendships?” You should. There’s one with a kitten and a crow.
Campbell: No, I haven’t. Should I?
Rumpus: If you go to the You Tube and put “lion reunion” in the search engine, you won’t be disappointed. But the kitten and the crow is on a par.
Campbell: Have you seen the video of the cat and the dolphin? The cat is petting the dolphin, and then the dolphin pets the cat with its nose. It about makes you cry, it’s so sweet. And speaking of animal videos, I hope you’ve seen my animal video. The way you get to it is, you put into You Tube “turkeys attack author.” I had four turkeys fall in love with me for a few months.
Campbell: And they attacked me and my husband, and my car.
Rumpus: Where are we, first of all?
Campbell: At home. Right at home, my house.
Rumpus: Your turkeys? Are you in the barnyard?
Campbell: No these were wild turkeys. They would attack me going out to the mailbox, trying to get into the car. They were looking in the window at us, pecking at the storm window. I had to carry a hockey stick when I wanted to leave the house.
Rumpus: So you emerge from the house with a hockey stick and what happens next?
Campbell: They come at me and they flap their wings and peck me. At first we didn’t think they were serious, but they drew blood on my husband.
Rumpus: How? With their beaks or something?
Campbell: Their spurs, on their feet, and maybe their beaks could draw blood, too.
Rumpus: Oh my god.
Campbell: And then they threw themselves against the car while I was in it! They threw their shoulders at the side panels of the car.
Rumpus: Why were they after you?
Campbell: I don’t know if it was love or maybe a territorial thing.
Rumpus: Is there something you’re leaving out, did you have some ambiguous feelings?
Campbell: No, I swear I wasn’t teasing them—I had no designs on these turkeys, it was a purely platonic relationship!
Herlihy: I’m sure you were teasing them!
Campbell: I might have been giving mixed signals in turkey body language.
Rumpus: You have to be more careful.
Campbell: Yeah, I was probably giving them the wrong idea. And after I got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, they would run and chase me maybe 300 yards down our dirt road. And if I let them catch up, they threw themselves against the car again.
Rumpus: You said “would” as if this was a common occurrence…did you think about shooting them or anything?
Campbell: Where I live you’re not supposed to shoot a firearm within a quarter mile of a dwelling.
Rumpus: So you’re expected to be brutally attacked by turkeys?
Campbell: I could have just grabbed them one at a time around the neck and twisted their heads. But I actually found the situation hilarious and maybe even magical. Once I got the hockey stick, I felt like I could hold my own. But there was always that last minute, where I had to pull my leg inside the car, when I couldn’t use the hockey stick, and sometimes one of them would peck my shoe.
Rumpus: Well there’s some context that needs to be mentioned here, for readers who aren’t aware, that you have a black belt in some wooden-sword-wielding martial art.
Campbell:Yes, I have a second-degree black belt in Okinawan kobudo weapons training.
Rumpus: It’s not like some woman just randomly grabbed a hockey stick, it’s a Master…now I feel sorry for the turkeys.
Campbell: Well they kept coming back for more, you know.
Herlihy: Maybe this is like something from mythology, Leda and the Swan.
Campbell: It would make sense that the Michigan version of Leda and the Swan would involve a turkey.
Rumpus: I’m not going to make fun of Michiganders anymore. The more we talk, the more I realize how dangerous a place Michigan actually is. I’ll take my chances in Chicago.
Herlihy: Geese are territorial, too. I remember in Michigan some geese pecking the bumper of my 1943 Buick.
Rumpus: When I was a kid, a goose bit my ass and chased me.
Herlihy: Was that a Michi-gander?
Rumpus: Michi-gander, yeah. So, is it premature to ask what’s next for Bonnie Jo Campbell after the amazing success of Once Upon a River?
Campbell: Well, maybe it’s Math Slut. We’ll see. I’m just sharing it right now with my first group of readers.
Rumpus: So what can you say it’s about? Besides math and a slut?
Campbell: Well, I can say it’s about two sisters. One wants to be a mathematician, and the other wants to save the farm, the family farm. There’s a little opposition there.
Rumpus: Okay. So these are actually personifications of the two sides of Bonnie Jo Campbell?
Campbell: I don’t know. I hope not. Oh Lordy, that would explain why I’m having such a hard time with it. That’s the problem isn’t it? Turns out our stories come from deep inside us. I’ve had to face the terrible realization recently that that the issues I have with my stories are actually my own personality problems. I don’t like to face it, but it’s true. But I’d better not tell my students that the trouble in their stories is their own mental issues.
Rumpus: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. What do you think, Terry?
Herlihy: There’s some strange things in life. I grew up on this island, and there’s another wooded island across the river. My sisters’ names are Susy and Joanna, and so were the sisters in that family on the other island. Those other sisters, Susy and Joanna inherit the property, and have the surveyors divide it into two pieces, because the two can’t live together. This story across the river has just started. No idea where this story is going to end up. The river keeps meandering, keeps generating stories.
Rumpus: Meanders. I once used “Restored Meanders” as the working title for a book. I’ve since scrapped the title, but I had read a little article in the Tribune about a guy who was talking about river meanders and how so many of them had disappeared…because of the advent of industrialization, or whatever. His goal was to restore all the meanders. I thought the concept of restored meanders was so quixotic.
Campbell: That’s very lovely. I’m thinking these are little streams that connect to ditches? I could jump on board with that. I live in a swampy neighborhood where they have let the drainage go to hell. Nothing drains the way it’s supposed to so there’s standing water, and mosquitoes breed and multiply. So I’m all about restoring meanders.
Rumpus: On a similarly quixotic note, you are actually making a career out of writing fiction…
Campbell: However, I may be trying to finish my poetry manuscript very soon. I have a chapbook that won an award called Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. But I have enough poems to make an entire book out of it with that same title.
Rumpus: Love Letters to Sons of Bitches—a companion piece to Math Slut. I love it.
Campbell: It’s a sweet chapbook made by the New York City Center for Book Arts. It’s on handmade paper, printed on a letter press, so it’s an art book, and there are only a hundred copies, but I’d like to have a regular old book that you could mark up and drop in the bathtub.
Rumpus: Whenever I talk to fellow writers, I try to ask, with genuine tone of child-like wonder: do you think fiction writing is going to survive as a legitimate medium?
Campbell: I think it will survive, though the readership is shrinking. People seem to want to read more nonfiction than fiction. The booksellers tell you that nonfiction’s selling better. What’s up with that? Do people really want the truth?
Rumpus: Well, five million readers of Fifty Shades of Grey can’t be wrong. It’s not only fiction, it’s fan fiction.
Herlihy: It’s not even any good, and there’s two more books after the first. No man’s every going to read that book—it took a hundred fifty pages for the guy to get a blowjob.
Campbell: Has any man bought this book? Eighty percent of all novels are bought by women, or so I’ve heard.
Rumpus: Has the male readership been lost? What can I do to reclaim it? I would actually defer to our avid reader over here, our avid male reader—Terry?
Campbell: Terry, how can we bring the novel back? Haven’t you been reading a lot of bad science fiction?
Herlihy: I’m an avid reader of The New York Times.
Rumpus: When Once Upon a River came out, I heard the female main character shoots lots of guns. So I said to myself, “Awesome! I’m going to read this.” Did you attract a lot of male readers?
Campbell: I performed a miracle by writing the story of sixteen-year-old girl that men like to read for the right reasons. I think the secret might be that she doesn’t talk. But Terry, how can we get more men to read? What kind of novels do men want to read?
Herlihy: I don’t know many men who like to read. I read that great skinhead book you wrote, Don. I loaned it to a guy who knew more about skinheads than I did, and he loved it. So maybe the solution is more skinhead novels. On a serious point, you guys can address serious issues better in fiction than any nonfiction or medium therein. Fiction takes the subject to a level where it can be talked about.
Rumpus: I think one of the things Bonnie’s doing so successfully is she is bringing the realities of the America that exists outside the cities to city people.
Herlihy: That’s a good point.
Rumpus: I had a student, a very feminine, sweet girl. She’s from Missouri, and she wrote a journal entry in class about how her family reunion happens around Thanksgiving and their tradition is that her uncle goes out in the morning and hides pumpkins in the trees and all the kids—boys and girls—will go outside early in the morning, and get their shotguns and shoot them out of the trees.
Campbell: It doesn’t happen in Lincoln Park?
Rumpus: It probably should. But there’s a real disconnect between the urban literati and the bulk of America that lives outside of that. And you do a great job of bridging the gap.
Campbell: Thank you, Don! My brothers never read fiction. One of them reads news magazines and newspapers, the other two mostly instruction manuals. But they do read my fiction and they really like it. Or they tell me they do, anyhow. I’m very glad about that.
Rumpus: I know I talked to you before about books that might have been an influence, and you mentioned Huckleberry Finn. And, I believe, The Odyssey, right?
Campbell: You know my problem? I was never a big reader as a kid. My imagination wasn’t captured by books very often. It was captured more often by boys and partying and riding horses. Until I got to college, I guess. After I left University of Southern California and got to University of Chicago, I took a literature class. I don’t remember what it was really called, but the students called it “Trashy Fiction from the ’30s.” So I got to read Steinbeck, and I got to read Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and I thought, “These are my people!”
Rumpus: Okay, all right. The great American novelists, eh?
Campbell: Well, the sort of seedy side of the great American novelists…Tobacco Road. The Faulkner novels were Light in August and that crazy one, Sanctuary. I think that Faulkner saw the success of Tobacco Road and said, “I can do that,” and he wrote Sanctuary. It’s stuck in my mind all these years, that book. I don’t remember which Steinbeck we read, Of Mice and Men, maybe. Or Grapes of Wrath. Suddenly I realized there were some real humanitarian writers who were interested in the down and out.
Herlihy: Didn’t Erskine Caldwell also write God’s Little Acre?
Campbell: Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve read that. In Tobacco Road, people have no money. These people who can’t feed their kids, they all use snuff tobacco and buy that instead of buying food. Somebody has scraped together enough money to get this car, a Model T. They’re all so excited about the new car, and they run the Model T all over town until they run out of oil and destroy the engine. So they have nothing, and the kids still don’t get fed. And they don’t even have snuff tobacco after a while. Heartbreaking stuff.
Herlihy: That’s how I ended up with an island. My father bought a Model T for my mother’s sister Jane, and she gave them the title for an island in the river.
Rumpus: How did they get the island?
Herlihy: Well, I don’t know if you have room for this. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a wheeler-dealer. Real estate. And he had a brewery in Milwaukee and Prohibition was coming on. And some guy with an orange grove in Florida said, “Wow. You have a brewery in Milwaukee and Prohibition is coming—you should make a fortune!” And my grandfather said, “You know what? I’d rather sell oranges.” And then the guy said, “I tell you what: I’ll swap.” So they did this swap and he was short a few dollars and some change, so the guy said, “Here, take this island.” And then my grandfather gave it to my aunt Jane.
Campbell: There’s a writerly connection here. William Blair’s sheep ranch in Wyoming has become a writers colony, Ucross Foundation or something like that. It was called The Big Red.
Herlihy: Some writers might appreciate that my parents were friends with Bob Adrey. I was just looking at twenty or thirty years of letters from him. You know, back then everybody wrote a letter every week. He wrote about how everybody was trying to avoid getting drafted. People would do anything. My dad had a third kid, me, so he wouldn’t get drafted.
Campbell: Robert Ardrey was a playwright and he wrote a couple of books that were big in their time. African Genesis was one, and the other was called The Social Contract. He wrote all kinds of plays, and he adapted novels to screen. He did the apocalypse one, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and The Three Musketeers.
Herlihy: On my eighth birthday I was in California, and I spent time with Elia Kazan, the guy who wrote America, America, because he was staying with Ardrey. Obviously writing is in my genes.
Campbell: I’ll have another wine. You want one, Terry?
Herlihy: Another round.
Rumpus: I was just talking to some of the students at Columbia who took your workshop…
Campbell: Oh good. Did they like it?
Rumpus: Rave reviews, rave reviews. They said you had some interesting form-based exercises.
Campbell: Because I was only meeting with the class a few times, I thought I had to do something a little different. In a regular class I don’t focus on the form, but I think that focus is helpful for brainstorming and coming up with ideas quickly, especially with autobiographical material. I ask them to think about a story that is, in essence, a list of things. We spent the whole first class looking at modular stories, which are stories that are made up of chunks of writing, little stories, so that they’re not usually driven by a chronological narrative, but the pieces fit together to make [it] more meaning than you might expect. So you might write a story about all the cars you’ve owned and you think you’re just describing seven cars, and somehow you find yourself writing about where you were at the time you drove the car and who you loved. Often these modular stories turn out to be more revealing than you expect, because you are distracting yourself from the content. You trick yourself into writing a meaningful story. And in my book American Salvage, the story that’s like that is “The Solution to Brian’s Problem,” where the guy just lists seven ways to get away from his drug-addicted wife. And somehow that makes a story.
Rumpus: Terry do you think you could write a story called “Seven Instances of Bonnie Jo Losing Her Keys?”
Herlihy: What she’s describing is alchemy: the alchemy of story-creating. Like an alchemist, you’re repeating the same experiment hoping for a new story. In the middle ages, the alchemists were trying to turn their lump of lead into gold. They were convinced some divine intervention would come. So they repeated the same exact experiment over and over, hoping for something to happen.
Campbell: I love that, the writer as alchemist. Of course it’s also the definition of insanity.
Herlihy: Of course, they never really repeated the same experiment. They were introducing weird shit into their labs. Flies were flying around. A guy would come into the lab with tuberculosis.
Campbell: A guy coming in with tuberculosis? Terry, you’re brilliant. That could be the title of our donkey novel: Donkey Alchemy.
Rumpus: Well, I have to say, when you conjured up the image of him melting lead, I was thinking, Wow, this guy is a genuine alchemist.
Campbell: And he was drinking beer, Old Style, while he was melting lead, and that was the magic combination.
Rumpus: Well, I think we have some scintillating stuff here.
Campbell: Let me pay this check.
Rumpus: No. Let’s all throw down. We’ll buy Uncle Terry’s.