It’s a treat to get to visit with author Bonnie Jo Campbell on her screened porch. The award-winning author, who shares a Kalamazoo Township home “in the swamp” with her husband, Chris Magson, speaks thoughtfully and with humility and humor on a range of topics, including green tea, bicycling, dishwashing, the entertainment provided by the former prison inmates living in the transitional housing next door and the similarity between a mathematical proof and a short story.
But the most compelling story Campbell offers is how she has again and again “failed to give up writing.”
Good thing. Campbell’s highly anticipated third short-story collection and fifth book, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, comes out this month from W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. The book comes several years after Campbell crashed onto the literary up-and-comers scene when her short-story collection American Salvage was nominated for a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009. Her 2011 novel, Once Upon a River, was a national bestseller and received wide media acclaim, and Campbell was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year.
“Getting the recognition made me feel confident that I was doing something that the literary establishment cared about,” Campbell says of receiving the Guggenheim. But Campbell admits she’s had enough experience with obscurity not to count on fame.
“I feel like exactly the same person, poised for success or failure, either one,” she says. “You work really hard and you do your best and try to write a compelling story, and sometimes the world takes an interest and sometimes the world does not take an interest.”
Campbell notes that award-winning books are not necessarily the same ones that people will care about and keep reading years later. “People may reward you for what you’re writing now, but it doesn’t mean that what you’re writing is going to turn out to matter in the whole larger scheme of things. And vice versa. Just because you don’t get accolades doesn’t mean that what you’re writing is not important. The important thing is to keep on writing.
“I guess all you can do is just keep trusting yourself that it’s worth doing.”
It took Campbell a long time to learn this. The 53-year-old has been writing since childhood but thinks that the praise she received from adults then did not serve her well.
“I thought that in order to be a writer I had to be brilliant, and nobody taught me otherwise. People would say things like ‘You’re so talented,’ (so) when I didn’t write well, then it looked like I didn’t have talent for writing and therefore couldn’t be a writer,” she says. “What really was helpful was figuring out at about age 35 that it really was just about hard work and putting in the time and being analytical in editing and revision, and being open to any advice that people were kind enough to give me.”
Before that, Campbell spent years struggling with competing feelings — the urge to write versus frustration and disappointment with writing as an impractical endeavor. “I really did try not to be a writer,” she says, but the need to write kept pulling her back.
She loved the “whole enterprise” of working on her high school newspaper and found it very collaborative, but she says, “I found that doing anything else beyond writing for the school newspaper was very competitive. And it was very difficult to create work and share it in any practical way, and so I just kind of gave up on it.”
She tried taking a writing class while in college at the University of Chicago, but the professor told her that her work “epitomized all that was wrong with writing today,” and she abandoned the craft again.
Later Campbell created a newsletter for family and friends, which she kept up for almost 20 years. But after trying and failing to get her essays published elsewhere, she set aside a writing career in favor of another longtime interest: becoming a math teacher.
Campbell earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Western Michigan University in 1992 and was working on a Ph.D. in math when, she says, she “just started writing again.”
“I couldn’t stop writing, and I found that when I was doing mathematics I was very sad.”
When her Ph.D. advisor, Arthur White (now retired), suggested she take a writing class, she enrolled in an upper-level course taught by WMU English professor Jaimy Gordon (also now retired).
“And once I got a little instruction in writing, it just was like a miracle,” she says. “I found out there’s stuff you learn and you learn to do it better, and I took off from there.”
Campbell then entered WMU’s Master of Fine Arts creative writing program and although this meant dropping math, she says, “Art White said that I was a success because he got me where I needed to go.”
Campbell’s first book, Women and Other Animals, contained stories she wrote in the MFA program and won the Associated Writing Programs award for short fiction in 1999. Shortly afterward, in 2002, her first novel,Q Road, was published by Scribner.
Following this initial success, however, Campbell struggled for several years to find a publisher for her next manuscript. “I was going to forsake writing before American Salvage was a hit because it just seemed that the world was not really interested in my writing. My agent had dumped me, and nobody in New York seemed to have any interest. So I thought I would just relegate the writing more to part time.”
She was planning to go back to teaching math “because math is easier to teach because I know what’s right and wrong,” when her fortunes changed again with the publication of American Salvage by Wayne State University Press and the subsequent accolades for the book.
Dispelling ‘the mystique of writing’
Although Campbell has not returned to a math classroom, she is still teaching. She has taught writing in various settings, including at her alma mater WMU and as a faculty member of the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon for the past five years.
Finding enough time for her own writing while teaching is a challenge, and when Campbell is unable to fit in writing time — such as when she taught full time at WMU last year or during the 10-day residency at Pacific University each semester — she misses it. But she is well aware of the value of instruction and feedback for her own writing and is eager to share what she has learned with other writers and to dispel “the mystique of writing.”
“I want to let people know that writing is mostly just hard work, that almost all writers write bad things and then make them better, and it’s OK to write things that aren’t so great, and it’s OK if you don’t feel smart, and there really isn’t anything mysterious or magical about writing, that you just do it because it’s the creative work that you do.”
Campbell says she has come to her own understanding of the cliché “Write what you know.” “It turns out that having an understanding of what that meant for me was crucial,” she says. “(I learned) I should write about the kinds of people that I know or the kinds of people that I was thinking about on a daily basis.”
‘Failed short stories’
Campbell, who grew up on a farm in Comstock with her mother and four siblings, had initially tried to write about people from Chicago. They “seemed way more interesting to me than people from boring old Comstock,” she says, “until I learned to see that people from Comstock were actually very interesting.” Now much of her work, including both Q Road and Once Upon a River, is set in and around Kalamazoo.
“Some people write about other worlds,” she says. “I am very interested in this world, very interested in things that happen around me where I see people getting into trouble and people having trouble thrust upon them. I take an interest, and I wonder how it’s going to work out, and then it gets my imagination going and I think about more complicated situations that would be worth writing about.”
Campbell’s characters deal with a variety of real-life problems, including poverty, violence, addiction and illness. In Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, she says, “Motherhood and daughterhood and sisterhood (are) the propelling forces for these characters. The trouble was caused by those relationships among mothers and daughters and sisters, and aunts and grandmothers, too.”
Many of these characters have done things that appear inexcusable to a casual observer, but the stories reveal, often through the voice of a character defending herself, how circumstances have led to these actions, and the reader is forced to reconsider the difficult choices these women have made.
While Campbell’s subject matter is usually serious, she weaves in an element of humor. “Humor is desperately important to me, in life and in my work,” she says. “Humor makes a difficult life bearable, and it also makes tough material tolerable for the reader. And the truth is that no matter how tough life gets, life is also funny and surprising.”
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is part of a two-book deal Campbell has inked with Norton. She is currently at work on the second book, a novel she says is “about a young woman who loves mathematics but is having difficulty making the rest of her life make so much sense.”
One of the biggest challenges in writing this novel, Campbell says, is “bringing the reader along with me when I try to address some mathematical material in a deeper way, to say, ‘Look, you can get this. You can see this.’ I love mathematics, and I want my reader to see the beauty of it without feeling alienated.”
Campbell admits she would rather be writing short stories because she is “a slow writer who revises many, many times” and finds the complexity involved in writing a novel a trial.
“I always try to write a short story, and if I fail, then I have to write a novel. Usually I start from a character who interests me who is in a very difficult situation, and that’s enough to propel me forward. And if I get propelled forward enough, then I have a short story. But if, instead, it just gets more and more complicated as I go, then I may have to write a novel.
“Those novels are just failed short stories.”
‘A lot of writing goals’
In addition to fiction, Campbell has written interview pieces, essays and poems that have appeared in various publications, and she has published a limited-edition poetry chapbook, Love Letters to Sons of Bitches.
“I like to write poetry,” she says, “and it’s something I can do when I’m working on a novel and it’s giving me trouble. It seems an honorable way to waste time.” It also complements her fiction writing. “Poetry is helpful because it makes us pay attention to every word, and there are some stories in (Mothers, Tell Your Daughters) that began as poems, that were inspired by the language of poems.”
Campbell has many other writing projects in mind, including writing down her mother’s stories and interviewing the ex-cons next door about their experiences in prison. “Life is too short. I have to eat really healthy and exercise. I have to live a long time because I have a lot of writing goals, and it’s the only way I’m going to make them.”