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A ‘Watery Life’

Campbell at her desk in the River Shack, where she writes everyday.
The many inspirations that flow through Bonnie Jo Campbell

“I’ve lived this watery life,” Bonnie Jo Campbell says, “always surrounded by water and drawn to water.”

Campbell walks around H House, a brown five-bedroom house with red window trim, shaped like an H and perched over Comstock Creek. It is where she grew up, surrounded by stately maples and old oaks, and, like the water around it, the house and her experiences growing up there have left an indelible mark on Campbell’s newest novel, The Waters, published this month by W.W. Norton.

“The house was built by my grandfather, Frank Herlihy — that’s why it is called the H House,” Campbell explains. “He worked in a construction company owned by my great-grandfather. My mother, Susanna, grew up here too. She loved this house.”

Campbell walks inside and points to a desk in the middle room of the house. “She died there at that desk, sitting in her chair, feet up on the desk. I almost feel like I’m carrying around my mom’s ghost when I’m here, superimposed over me.”

Campbell’s mother divorced her father when Campbell was 7 years old, and, like the ghost of her mother, the impressions of the women who gathered at H House around her mother have had their own ripple effect in Campbell’s new work.

“I’ve always been a watcher,” she says, resting her hand on the back of a couch in the room. “I hid behind the couch and watched and listened to the women of my mom’s generation, her friends. Women in that generation were under the thumb of men, imprisoned by motherhood. They were always pregnant, limited in their lives and tied to their husbands.”

Women and water

Set on an island in the fictional Great Massasauga Swamp — an area known as The Waters to nearby residents in the fictional town of Whiteheart, Michigan — Campbell’s new novel follows the family of strong, independent women who live on that island: Herself, a healer; the young and beautiful Rose Thorn; her 11-year-old daughter, nicknamed Donkey, who is a math prodigy; and others who move in and out of the household in a blend of fairy tale and realism.

The similar ambiance of H House and the house in The Waters is palpable.

“The women in my life are like water,” Campbell says. “They flowed in and out of H House. It was wonderful to grow up in this ever-changing community with all kinds of characters to observe. I didn’t judge — I just observed their strengths and their weaknesses. I saw that everyone struggles. Adults don’t have it figured out. I knew already as a kid to question what they did.”

The Waters was not Campbell’s first attempt to capture the flow of such a community on her pages. Years ago she had sold a novel to a publisher about a girl who loved math — Campbell herself earned a degree in mathematics — but she recalled it before it went to print.

“I just wasn’t happy with it,” she says. “It didn’t rise up singing.”

Campbell took that story years back into the past, writing the book that came before, a prequel of sorts, and asked questions of her characters: Why does the girl like math? Why is her mother so bedraggled?

“And that became The Waters,” she says. “It took me eight years to write The Waters. Now maybe I will go to the first book submitted and give it another look.”

Another of Campbell’s personal journeys made it into The Waters. The character of Rose Thorn suffers a diagnosis of breast cancer, just as the author has.

“Rose Thorn resisted treatment,” Campbell says. “She’s more in touch with her animal nature. I had two lumps found, and I did the whole treatment, then took the drugs for four-and-a-half years. I wrote The Waters while I was on them, but I found they turned my mind to mush and affected my memory, so I quit them six months early so that I could write. My mother had breast cancer at the same time that I did, but she refused treatment. That’s why cancer made it into the book.”

A morning routine

When it comes time to sit and write, Campbell first calls out to her father-and-son team of donkeys to feed them, rubs their velvety ears, then leaves them and H House. She and her husband — whom she refers to as Darling Christopher — share a home a few miles away, but when she writes, Campbell retreats to her own space. A few miles through the town of Comstock, a turn right, another turn, and she drives up to a 550-square-foot home she calls the River Shack. Forest green, the tiny house blends into its wooded surroundings and is, of course, perched next to water. Here, it is the Kalamazoo River.

Campbell writes every morning. It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend, a holiday, a vacation day — each day she sits at her writing table and laptop and tries to get in touch with her characters and their stories. She writes many, many drafts.

“Life is complicated, people are complicated, so my only hope (for writing time) is in the morning, when I can keep all that at bay,” she says. “I never miss a day. That habit is now ingrained.”

The first thing she does each day is write poetry. For many years, Campbell avoided poetry. Not her thing. But sometime around 2015, encouraged by a writer friend, she gave poetry a try and fell in love with the form.

“Now I write poetry every day,” Campbell says. “I play with language, then I turn to the novel. You can’t screw around when you are writing a novel. I probably have a poetry manuscript ready now, although my agent doesn’t seem interested in it. Essays are fun. There’s probably a memoir in my future. But fiction — fiction is playing God.”

Campbell is the author of the novels Once Upon a River, a national bestseller later made into a feature film, and Q Road. Her short-story collections include American Salvage, a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Women and Other Animals; and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Eudora Welty Prize, the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Mark Twain Award.

The Waters is her first novel with a waterproof cover. Actually, the only waterproof copy is one that Campbell created to submerge in water to photograph for her social media accounts.

Campbell smiles. “Nothing better than tromping around in the water. When I got the cover, I put it in the creek to photograph it.”

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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