By Zoe Zolbrod
Most of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s characters live where she does, in Comstock Township, a southern Michigan region that the New York Times says she depicts as “part dump, part wilderness and part farmland.” Her first book, the story collection Women and Other Animals, was published in 1999, but Campbell didn’t register on my radar until a decade later, when I read the rave reviews for her collection American Salvage (Wayne State Press, 2009). The descriptions of stories set in small towns and rural areas where the nature of work was changing in a post-industrial era reminded me of the places I grew up and went to college, in western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio. At the time, seeing such places depicted in fiction, was a relative rarity – and, in fact, it still is.
American Salvage was nominated for a National Book Award, and Campbell’s next book, the novel Once Upon a River (W. W. Norton, 2011), was widely praised as well. In it, teenaged Margo Crane fends for herself along the Stark River after a sexual assault, and the resulting family conflict leaves her without a trusted guardian. Margo is a preternaturally skilled hunter and naturalist, but those abilities alone aren’t enough. To survive, she takes up with series of older men, and Campbell deftly reveals the mix of necessity, curiosity, and desire that fuels her relationships with them.
Campbell’s most recent collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (W. W. Norton, 2015), continues to explore themes of sexual violence, gender relations, and economic and emotional survival in places where the jobs to be had often require driving around in trucks or working in big box or convenience stores. Animals continue to play a role as well. The characters in these stories tend chickens, raise donkeys, study slugs, and in a couple cases are inclined to see in their pets similarities to their exes. Campbell’s juxtaposition of the animal world with the human provides both insight into and relief from the weight of her other topics: poverty, addiction, abandonment, and the legacy of child sexual abuse.
I recently went to hear Campbell read at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois, where the writer Rebecca Makkai engaged her in conversation. We spoke for a bit after the event, and I followed up with her via email.
BELT: As you noted at the book talk, you set almost all your work in Comstock Township. You said that you look around in your little town and see every imaginable thing, and that your deep knowledge of that place is one of your best tools.
But it’s not like you never get out. Rebecca let it drop that you worked for the circus, and you mentioned that you hitchhiked across the country. When did you do these things, and in what spirit? Was it like: I need to get out of Dodge? Was there any specific desire to do something that’s especially unusual for girls or women to do? Or something else? And what brought you back to your hometown stomping grounds?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: I’m both a homebody and an adventurer. As a kid, my mom told me I should take advantage of every opportunity, and so I traveled any time I could. We were poor, so it took some creativity to find ways of traveling — for example, I hitchhiked a lot. I led my first adventure bicycle tour in Eastern Europe when I was only seventeen years old, even though I was terrified. In fact, I’ve been scared of all my great adventures, alternately having fun and worrying about my safety, wondering what was I thinking? And I remember once a friend of the family saying, “I thought you’d be the one who stuck around home,” and maybe that was the first time I’d thought that was even an option, to not be an adventurer in the world. Truth is, I’ve always longed to stay home safe and sound and cozy even as I’ve hungered for adventure, felt obligated to have adventures, to not let any exciting part of life pass me by. In no small part, it was my knowledge that a writer needed material that kept me doing outlandish activities. As time went by, however, I found that my opportunities were multitudinous, and there was only one of me, and so I’ve gradually had to let parts of my life fall away. I no longer travel with the circus, nor do I organize and lead bicycle tours. I studied Kobudo, an Okinawan martial art, for ten years, but I had to let that go as well, because I needed to make time to write and to read and teach. I do not miss traveling; my dream now is to write more stories.
BELT: This collection is very thematically coherent. The stories examine from many angles the relationships between mothers and daughters, often dealing with the specter of sexual violence or exploitation. I had a powerful response to them because they hit so close to my own issues — I was sexually abused as a child, and those memories came to the fore once I became a parent, and in a particularly acute way once my daughter reached the age I had been. I hadn’t expected to have difficulty with the material. Truthfully, at earlier points in my life I identified with the attitude of the mom in the title story who thinks it’s ridiculous that her adult daughter, who’s created a much easier life for herself than her mother had, still “worries an old thing that got done to her” by one of her mom’s boyfriends.
But I’m at a different point in my life now. I’m aware of how common child sexual abuse and rape are, but instead of thinking that makes it not worth getting upset over, I think it makes it something we should talk about more. In fact, sometimes I get impatient when certain stories or shows don’t acknowledge the sexual violence that seems to be obvious. Yet despite my desire to hear more about the topic, and how riveted I was by these stories, there were points at which they became hard for me to read. Was it ever hard for you to engage in the material? Or did you write with any particular conviction that these types of stories must be told? Or worries that they would be difficult or off-putting for readers?
[blocktext align=”right”]I generally write from curiosity and from my worries — if ever I’m writing from a high-horse stance, it doesn’t go well. I have to come at writing humbly, with hopes that I can understand a situation through paying careful attention.[/blocktext]Campbell: You’ve just distilled something essential about these situations and expressed it more clearly and straightforwardly than I ever could. I’ll start by saying that we should address this difficult material as best we can. Everyone is going to have a different tolerance for hearing about potentially violent and sexual material. Some folks won’t want to address it at all, won’t even want to acknowledge it, and I guess these stories aren’t for them. You ask if I have difficulty writing the material. Well, no. I have little difficulty writing the material, because by the time I’m writing about it, it’s been something swirling around in my head for years, and to write it is to finally make some sense of it. I’m a slow writer, and though I have occasionally been able to write a story in less than a year, it’s only because I’ve been grappling with material for a long time. Writing, revising this difficult material in order to get it right, feels cathartic. I’ve written a few stories that feel eccentric, peculiar, nonessential and so I have not included those stories. So indeed there are stories I might share with a smaller audience, say, my close friends, and not with all readers. As for writing from any convictions that stories must be told? I guess I don’t approach it that way. I generally write from curiosity and from my worries — if ever I’m writing from a high-horse stance, it doesn’t go well. I have to come at writing humbly, with hopes that I can understand a situation through paying careful attention.
BELT: One quote early on struck me. In “Tell Yourself,” the narrator says “girls are different now too, Look at how your daughter says no to you all the time, as you would never have said to your mother for fear of being slapped.” The narrator hopes this will help her daughter protect herself in ways the narrator wasn’t able to protect herself at a young age. Yet in the story “Somewhere Warm,” with the intractable teen Isabel who makes many of her own problems, we see a somewhat less optimistic take on how the new generation might pan out. From your perch in Comstock, can you offer us any generalizations about how young people are dealing with sexual predation and life in general? What are the strengths and weaknesses of teenagers and people in their twenties, especially those growing up in the small towns and rural areas of the Rust Belt?
Campbell: I’m writing stories about particular characters acting and reacting to particular situations, and I can’t make generalizations about how young people are dealing with sex and sexual issues today. As I observe the folks around me, I see lots of kids making good decisions and some making bad decisions. It is part of the nature of fiction that writers observe more closely those people who make bad decisions, because it means there is more to write about. And keep in mind that fiction writers like myself are often writing from a sensibility affected as much by the past as by the present. In rural areas, kids might be more or less savvy than their urban counterparts, but as far as I’ve observed, some elements of all populations make poor decisions. As a rule, I avoid making generalizations, and I choose to make particularizations! (Is that a word?) If you’re asking if I worry about kids today, especially about girls, the answer is yes, I worry!
BELT: “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” is the last story, and I love how it sounds a well-earned happy, hopeful note about growing older and about relationships between men and women after a lot of rough stuff on the subject. You mentioned that it and the title story were the two that you wrote specifically for this collection, which had otherwise emerged slowly and unselfconsciously over a period of many years, so I’m guessing its generosity on these points is purposeful. Am I right? And can you please explain how Pawpaws came to grow in Michigan? Can their existence tell us anything about the ways the region you write about fits into the global picture?
Campbell: The two stories that I wrote last were the title story and the story “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom.” I wrote a version of “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” many years ago, as an attempt to write a story in the essayistic humorous style of A Prairie Home Companion. I wrote another humorous story called “Molly’s Bed,” about a woman with a big bed waking up with a man. Very late in the game, as I was finessing this collection, it occurred to me to put the two stories together and sew up the edges, and so my Frankenstein was born. Despite its genesis, and though none of the details are true, this story comes closer to being a true story than any of the other stories do. “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” explores my mother’s experience with starting romance later in life, after anyone thought she would find love. In fact, her boyfriend introduced our family to the pawpaw fruit, and this has changed our lives — personally, I can’t live without the fruit now and I have all kinds of secret groves where I seek the fruits out. Unfortunately this gentleman died a few years ago, died in my mother’s living room, of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. You won’t be surprised to hear that it is my mother’s favorite story from the collection. I put the story last, figuring that it would show how a woman could make it through a lot of difficulty and move on to some happier situation.
As for the fruit of the tree… though the pawpaw is mostly a southern fruit, the trees have reached up into Michigan, and the pawpaw line, the line above which pawpaws have not grown, passes right through Kalamazoo County. I could take you to the line, a few miles north of where I live. In Michigan, the pawpaw tree grows best under the protection of bigger trees, a situation that seems kind of sweet and ripe for metaphor. I visited a writing festival in Athens, Ohio, a few years ago and found out that there is a pawpaw festival in that county every September; the writing festival was in May, unfortunately, so there were no tropical fruits there.
Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the forthcoming memoir The Telling (Curbside Splendor, 2016) and the novel Currency (Other Voices Books, 2010), which was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is now the Sunday co-editor. She gradated from Oberlin College and received an M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers. Born in Western Pennsylvania, she now lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.
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