I discovered Bonnie Jo Campbell’s first novel, Q Road, shortly after leaving my teens. Like Rachel Crane, the teenage protagonist of Q Road, I lived on a farm, worked with animals, threw hay bales, found relics of the First Nations’ peoples who had come before while walking in the fields, and watched prefab housing and subdivisions encroach upon the countryside. Before her novel, I had never read a novel about a woman like myself. Rachel Crane and I inhabited the same world, where beauty and freedom coexisted along poverty, desperation to survive, and violence. I was suddenly not alone on my small farm and in my experience of the surrounding farm community.
Campbell has been hailed by the Guardian as one of the top ten writers of “rural noir.” Defined as fiction that delves into the dark side of American country life, other “rural noir” writers listed were James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The West Coast and Southern settings of these classics are now deeply engrained in the American literary landscape, but Campbell’s stories exist in a section of the US that few writers explore and even fewer reside in: the rural Midwest.
Her characters live on farms, hunt local wildlife, leave school without a backward glance, drink to escape or enable personal demons, and use every skill and resource they can command to survive. Her Midwesterners don’t have a lot of options and failure (or bad luck) of any sort can set off an avalanche of disasters that can bury a person alive.
Campbell has written two novels and three story collections. American Salvage, her second short story collection, was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction and the Guardian’s pick for Top 10 Rural Noir. Once Upon a River, a prequel to Q Road, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is Campbell’s newest short story collection. It centers on the lives gritty women who manage life as best they can and hang on with everything they’ve got. Campbell currently teaches at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University and lives in a little township near Kalamazoo, Michigan, about three miles from where she grew up.
The following interview was conducted over a series of emails exchanges.
The Rumpus: Let’s start by talking about where you live, as setting plays such a large role in your writing. You grew up in Michigan and have set most of your stories there. Tell me about what’s gone into your decision to remain in the Midwest and write from the Midwestern perspective.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: Indeed, I grew up in Michigan. I lived in Los Angeles for a year, then in Chicago for three years, Boston for three years, and Milwaukee for a year. Then I returned to Michigan. I married a guy from Boston, and all it took to lure him to the Midwest was to tell him about all the free parking spots.
I like living near my family, and near the people I understand the best. The landscape of Michigan speaks to me, and the humility and humor of the people here makes sense. It just feels right to live here, in a place where I don’t dare put on airs. When I tell my family and local friends I’m a National Book Award finalist, they say, fine, sounds okay to us.
Oh, and while I lived elsewhere, I didn’t write as well. Living here helps me write authentically and honestly.
Rumpus: A major character in your stories is the natural world. It’s a setting, of course, but it’s also this disinterested character that looms over the human characters and aids or thwarts them. Do you see Nature as the greatest character you’ve ever written about?
Campbell: Oh, gosh, that sounds good to me. I love investigating the natural world, and I find a lot of truths there, truths about survival and beauty—nature continually surprises me (amazing how clever a woodchuck is, amazing how plants roots can break up concrete, amazing how delicious the thimbleberry is!). Mostly the natural landscapes work as a sounding board for my characters, so they can understand themselves, and it acts as a mirror in which we readers see ourselves. The natural world is the place into which all my characters have to situate themselves in order to be who they really are, and that makes my rural fiction feel different from a lot of urban fiction.
We know that we need to explore desire in fiction—many say that the only way a story exists is that a character feels a strong desire—and nature is the place where creatures act on their desires in the most pure way imaginable, so maybe nature also works as a metaphor for whatever emotional troubles my characters have to negotiate. I’m interested in my characters as survivors, and maybe that works best when the old-fashioned notion of humans surviving in wilderness is not too far away.
Rumpus: All the women in your 2015 short story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, are definitely survivors! These women are made of steel but that’s a prerequisite in your stories and not an option (which is largely true to life too). Do you have a favorite story or character in your new book?
Campbell: No favorites. Mothers aren’t allowed to have favorite children! I do remain intensely interested in some of my characters. For a young woman, I’m interested in Janie, the protagonist of “Playhouse,” because I’m still pondering how she is going to make her life better with her limited set of life tools. She will survive, that is for sure, but will she thrive? I hope so. Maybe she’ll come back in another story. And I’m still dwelling on the mother character in the title story. She is so tough, and her toughness has limited her evolution to some degree. The very toughness that allowed her to survive difficult situations has robbed her of some of life’s joys. At the end of such a hard-won life, she cannot not allow herself any regrets.
Rumpus: Janie, the protagonist in “Playhouse,” is a young woman who slowly, and to her horror, discovers that she was gang raped while drunk at her brother’s party. Your exploration of her pain and confusion in discovering what happened marks this as one of the best fictional stories I’ve ever read about trauma. What inspired this story? Do you view it as a vindication for those who are unable to speak out?
Campbell: Janie is in a tough spot because of who she is. Many aspects of the situation make reporting it nearly impossible—she has difficulty formulating her complaint, for starters, and the nature of her pain confuses her greatly. For me it wasn’t the reporting that was of interest, but her desire to figure out what happened and how she felt about it. She drinks and was drunk during the incident, and so that is her most basic problem, not remembering. But the fact that she doubts herself and has no self-confidence compounds the problem. Even after she is pretty sure she was a victim of a molestation, she doesn’t want to upset her brother with the news for fear of losing his affection. I was inspired initially to write a brother-sister story, but this was just around the time that we were hearing about several college- and high-school-age molestations of this variety occurring, and I realized that for me the greatest horror was in the not knowing. And let me suggest it is entirely possible that the young men involved in her molestation are not bad guys, that they didn’t even realize they were behaving criminally, that they thought it was all a fun, if slightly wicked, time they were all having. Maybe their story is another one I can someday tell.
Rumpus: One of my favorite stories is “My Dog Roscoe.” Sarah, the married and pregnant protagonist, believes that her deceased ex-fiancé has been reincarnated as a stray dog that she’s taken in: “He would finally love me the way should’ve loved me before, absolutely and without deviation.” How did this delightful idea of a cheating ex being reincarnated as a dog come to you?
Campbell: This was a super fun story to write. There was one night when I noticed my dog Re-bar staring at me in a knowing way. We expect our dogs to admire and adore us, but I imagined I was seeing something else more profound than admiration. And it occurred to me suddenly that my dog might know too much about me, since he watched me in my private moments. And I should say that I am a big fan of the Robert Olen Butler story, “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot.” I was so nervous about stealing from ROB that I sent him the book to read before publishing it; he was so kind to me that he blurbed the book. And we humans always want to find new ways of communicating with the dead!
Rumpus: In “Playhouse” and other stories, you bring a laser-sharp focus to how women are economically and emotionally dependent on men. This dependence can result in unchecked sexual violence perpetrated by men onto women and/or their children. There’s no easy way out for these women as they are dependent upon their abusers. Your characters respond in different ways to these impossible situations: some check out, some fight, but all do the best they can. Do you feel these women are unsung heroes or do you see them more as enablers in the cycle of abuse?
Campbell: These women are enablers, victims, and heroes all at the same time. Like all of us are in less dramatic ways. We do good for ourselves and others when we can, but we all have weaknesses and fall prey to the troubles to which we are susceptible. The great thing about fiction is that I don’t have to settle on an answer to any troubling question, or even a solution. I hope that my stories serve as explorations and help show readers how and why real-life women don’t always make the “correct” decisions in the face of economic and sexual troubles. We all screw up, but the women I write about don’t have back-up plans or money in the back or resources to fix what they have broken. Many of the bad decisions my characters make seem even worse because they affect children. I hope these difficult situations seem worthy of rumination to my readers.
Rumpus: A great example of an enabler, victim, and hero all at the same time is the mother in your title story. “Women get themselves hurt every day—men mess with girls in this life, they always have, always will—but there’s no sense making hard luck and misery your life’s work,” she reflects while looking back on her life. What draws you to explore a woman like that?
Campbell: What doesn’t? Everything about that woman is fascinating: her strength, her weakness, her desire for men, her unwillingness to feel sorry for herself, her unwillingness to accept anyone else’s pity. She’s a freaking mountain! She’s absolutely the character she is. So we can understand how her mind works, while also understanding why the people around her find her so difficult.
Rumpus: There’s compassion in your stories but a lot of violence, too. How do you prepare yourself to explore the trauma your stories examine? Is there a price you pay to go there?
Campbell: Any of us who listen to the news or listen to stories our neighbors tell are accustomed to violence. We have to decide then to ignore the violence and create a gentler world in our fiction, or to heighten the violence through the use of point-of-view in order to explore it and gain some insight and understanding. Since I’m living with the violence and trouble in my brain, it’s kind of a relief to write about it, to get it on paper, to put it in context, to find meaning in it.
Rumpus: In American Salvage, the stories were predominantly about men but this new collection centers on the ladies’ perspective. How do you see Mothers, Tell Your Daughters in relation to American Salvage?
Campbell: My first collection Women & Other Animals was about women and girls living in more or less isolated rural situations. And so I thought of American Salvage as being the male-oriented response to that book. (I’m not sure if anyone was actually asking for a male response, but I was asking myself the question, “Well what about the men?”) W&OA took on issues of loneliness and family relationships, but I mostly avoided dealing with problems of sexual violation; in this book, nearly every story addresses some kind of confusing sexual situation. I was just saying to someone that for this reason (the strange sexual stuff), Mothers, Tell Your Daughters will never be chosen as a community reads book, but it was just chosen as the 2016 Great Lakes, Great Reads work of adult fiction. Maybe the world is ready for these stories after all. As an aside, I’ll confess that I find the stories from the male point of view easier to write; I have my ideas about why this is the case, but I’m still thinking about it.
Rumpus: I would love to see Janie from “Playhouse” in another story. Her “limited set of life tools” gives her so much possibility for growth and she’s a brave and tough woman too. Margo, the kickass protagonist of your novel Once Upon a River, grew out of a short story in an earlier short story collection, American Salvage. Do you think there’s the same potential for a novel in Janie’s story?
Campbell: Writing more about Janie would be great. I like her honesty and humility, her love for her brother and niece. Because Janie has not got a liberal arts education, she will have to make meaning of her life in a way that is different from most of us, and yet she is closer to being like us than some of my other characters, like Margo Crane, who is a true child of the wilderness. So far I’ve not gotten any ideas about expanding her story, but maybe she’ll be appearing in a novel one of these days.
Rumpus: Any inkling if you’ll be starting another novel? And if so, do you think you’ll continue to explore the Kalamazoo River as you have in Once Upon a River and Q Road?
Campbell: Well, it’s kind of a secret, but my darling Christopher and I are negotiating the purchase of a small piece of river property with a run-down hovel on it. This might tell you that the river is indeed flowing through my heart. I’ll let you know how it turns out. In Q Road we learn that Margo Crane has run away, and I have some ideas about where she might have run to. Stay tuned for that as well!
Rumpus: And finally, what does a normal writing day look like for you? Please tell me it involves petting your donkeys during breaks.
Campbell: My normal writing day involves three hours of actual writing, before noon, and the rest is just feeding the writing. There is teaching (so I can afford to write), travel to be planned and executed. There are dozens of emails daily, gardening, lots of dishes (where do all these dishes come from?), daily family emergencies, and, of course, the petting of the donkeys. The smell of donkeys is heavenly, and their he-honking is the sweetest music. I feel calm just thinking about them.
Author Photograph © Chris Magson.