An Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell
Words By Bonnie Jo Campbell, Interview by Dani Hedlund
There’s been a lot of talk about your book being all about female empowerment and an overall feminist text, but actually, your female characters are incredibly flawed. At times, they’re even more flawed than your male characters.
Sometimes people think I’m picking on the guys and I sort of feel like I don’t really cut anybody any slack. It’s really not a book against men. It’s really just about showing how when people make mistakes, they have these ramifications through their lives. If everyone behaved absolutely perfectly then maybe we’d avoid trouble—but maybe not even then.
How did you balance the line between writing your characters as flawed, but still sympathetic?
It’s hard. In stories like “Tell Yourself,” where the woman is kind of a drunk and a drug addict and she has kids, you read the story and are immediately very concerned about her children, and you’re kind of angry at her for not being a better mother. I hope that by bringing characters like this to the floor and giving readers the opportunity to live with them for a while, we can make them more sympathetic. But I know that there’s a risk of taking it too far so that a reader might just shake their head and say, “I don’t even want to read about this kind of person.” I’m sure that happens with some readers.
I’m really interested in how we all want to invent nice people in our human family, but I also want to write about the problematic people in all of our lives. For me, it’s important to remember that those people are still part of the human family, and even if they’re causing trouble, we have to find a way to work with them. The reason for writing stories is to explore that in a fictional way. I always hope that by presenting fictional versions of difficult relationships, people can look at the difficult relationships in their own lives (which maybe aren’t as extreme), and have a little more sympathy.
Reading the book, I found that your settings are kind of their own characters. They’re so rich and so lively and oftentimes very quirky and, of course, you have that Midwest focus. They’re so incredibly vivid. Can you talk to me about how you create the settings for your stories?
I rely mostly on landscapes that I know very well. I think we see that also with writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Their familiarity with landscape—with their own personal landscapes—gives them a really powerful tool. I feel like my knowledge of this place—this part of Michigan—is a really important tool for me, because I know everything that grows here, I know every animal that lives here, I know all the different kinds of people who are in the background. I consider people part of the setting.
I try, as writers do, to make the exterior world reflect the interior world. My intense familiarity with that exterior world allows me to reflect what’s going on inside a person. This collection is a little bit different because I had more domestic stories that took place inside rooms. But I still mostly rely on these very familiar places.
Of course, we all know that great magical mystery of fiction: that if one pays very, very close attention to the detail of any given place, it reflects the universal, somehow. It’s very mysterious. Our ability to use landscape is a really important tool, and somehow that’s really just a way to make a story feel universal.
It seems like you’ve let a lot of your personal experiences bleed into your stories. Which of your life experiences do you think were most influential in creating this collection?
I think growing up on a small farm with a single mother, really working hard with my hands and my body—I think that’s what informs this collection more than anything. I’ve always wanted to write circus stories because of my time in the circus. I’ve never been able to fathom a novel out of that, though, nor a whole collection of stories. There are two circus stories in my first collection and one here. I like to think the circus was influential, and it is, but I only spent maybe six months in the circus. So while I was interested in the circus, my soul was not drenched in it the way my soul was drenched in the life of the farm and rural spaces.
Sex is clearly very important in your stories. Can you talk to me about why you find that interesting?
It really is a collection that explores different gradations of sexual discomfort and sexual violation. I think that’s appropriate in a book that’s really trying to take on women’s issues. I’ve avoided it in the past because I was worried about being pushed aside as a woman who writes about rape, you know? But I found that I really did need to write about it. Rape and different types of violation are a part of most women’s lives.
For example, there’s one that’s as mild as in the first story, where a teenage boy suggests that a girl’s head would look better on somebody’s else’s body. That’s actually a sort of mild sexual violation, if you think about it. “I’d like to have sex with you but I wish you had a different body.” I wanted to explore the nooks and crannies of sexuality in that way. I have been sort of traumatized—as a lot of women have been—by news stories about young women who go to parties and don’t know what happened until the next day. I should say, we’re haunted by that idea. That we could get drunk and then somehow lose control and lose the right to control our own bodies. I think that needs to be explored.
Do you have an ideal reader in your mind when you write? The kind of person you really want to stumble upon these stories and be moved by them?
I guess it’s my friend Heidi, who I thank in the book. Whenever I write, I think about Heidi because she’s a very philosophical person, and she loves to read, and she is unflinching. She always faces every problem that comes her way and doesn’t shy away from it. She also has no patience for foolishness or literary mistakes.
Generally, though, I am interested in a literary reader who has the desire to stretch his or her mind a little bit. I really do write both for men and women. That’s been something I’ve kept in mind as I write. The men in my life are very important to me and I’m very close with men, and I feel like I can write from a man’s point of view as well as I can write from a woman’s. So it’s been important for me to feel like I can speak to men, and it’s very important for me to think that I might inform men a little bit about things they weren’t aware of. But it’s also about informing women—there are plenty of women who aren’t aware of these situations. I’ve had very generous responses from my male readers. But I do get men who shy away from even picking up the book.
I asked a male colleague to read some of your stories, though he was very reticent to read something that he calls, you know, female literature. But he really loved it.
I do think that I can be a little tough to read. Rather, I guess I want to write stories that do not give anyone a place to hide. I want to write stories where people really do have to face the complexity and the discomfort of these situations. Often when something’s really uncomfortable, as human beings, we just want to hide from it. I want us all to look at these situations. I don’t want us to play innocent and pretend that women all around us are not dealing with these difficult situations. And I want people to be open to communicating and thinking about that.
So my last question about the collection is actually about the closing story. It’s just outrageously uplifting. I spent the entire time smiling while reading it, and I was really curious about the decision to close a collection that has a lot of darkness in it with a story that has so much hope.
I actually see all my stories as being very hopeful. It can be difficult for a reader to come upon this material in which a protagonist has so much work to do before she can mend. My protagonists are often at the beginning of a journey of making themselves whole, recovering from extremely difficult situations. Because these are short stories, these women can’t come too far—you just wouldn’t believe it in such a short space. So I guess my vision of Suzanna in the last story is that she has gone through all these difficult situations and she is at a place now where she has done a lot of mending. The hope that we have for Suzanna is a hope that all the women in my collection can have.