Interview: Bonnie Jo Campbell
by Alissa Nielsen
Bonnie Jo Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm with her mother
and four siblings in a house her grandfather Herlihy built in the shape
of an H. She learned to castrate small pigs, milk Jersey cows, and to
make remarkable chocolate candy. When she left home for the
University of Chicago to study philosophy, her mother rented out her
room. She has since hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, scaled the
Swiss Alps on her bicycle, and traveled with the Ringling Bros and
Barnum & Bailey Circus selling snow cones. As president of Goulash
Tours Inc., she has organized and led adventure tours in Russia and the
Baltics, and all the way south to Romania and Bulgaria.
Silk Road: How would you define place?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: I define place in the simplest way imaginable. It's the space in which the drama unfolds. It
could be a room, a place beside a pond, the front seat of a pickup truck, or the tiny kitchen of a river cottage. It's
any place where human beings collide.
SR: Do you think of yourself as having a regional or geographic identity?
BJC: Sure, I do think of myself as a Michigan gal, born of the great lakes and our hills and flatlands, our farms,
factories, most of which are closed now, and our strip malls and our back yards. Just as Faulkner wrote about his
Yoknapatawpha county, I write about a fictionalized version of Kalamazoo County. I've got nothing against the
rest of the world, but I find that every kind of human animal shows its face in my county; every sort of human
interaction gets expressed in places like my place, and so I haven't had a good reason to be chased out of here. I
did write one story about Transylvania a few years back, just to prove to myself I could venture out if I wanted to,
but I expect that I could find even the vampires here in Kalamazoo if I looked hard enough.
And yet, I get nice letters from folks in West Virginia and Alabama and Southern Illinois saying that, in my
stories, I have captured the essence of their home towns. I think it's the case that if you focus on the particular,
and depict the particular honestly and intensely, you recreate the universal. I don't know how that works, but I'm
grateful that it does.
SR: I was wondering if you could talk more about place within context of "Women and Other Animals." The
setting is Michigan, but the circus provides a backdrop as well. Is there special significance to the circus theme?
I know you traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily circus, how did that influence these stories?
BJC: I guess I just liked the circus backdrop for some of the psychological dramas of the stories. In "Circus
Matinee" the story has three sites of action (like a circus with three rings), which are 1.) Big Joanie; 2.) the sales
manager and his girlfriend; 3.) the tiger. The circus is a place where everything is a show, where things are being
shown and made to seem bigger than life and more important, more extreme.
SR: How does the landscape change when you travel between fiction and nonfiction?
BJC: Oh, Lordy, fiction and nonfiction are so different for me. Often it's the same landscape, but the work of
reaching the reader is so different. For me, nonfiction is the easy stuff. Tell the truth as best I can and make it
interesting. Folks respect it because it's connected to something that actually happened. Fiction, though, that's
the hard part. I've got to write a thing that stands all on its own, disconnected from the actual world, and I've got
to try to get folks to care about folks that don't actually exist, who have never existed, folks created from my
imagination. It seems a miracle when I create a successful piece of fiction. It's like standing on water or in
mid-air on a tightrope. Look, no hands!
Visit Bonnie Jo Campbell's website at http://www.bonniejocampbell.com/
Her collection Women and Other Animals details the lives of
extraordinary females in rural and small town Michigan, and it won the
AWP prize for short fiction; her story "The Smallest Man in the World"
has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. Her novel Q Road investigates the
lives of a rural community where development pressures are bringing
unwelcome change in the character of the land. Her new short fiction
collection, American Salvage, was nominated for the National Book
Award, and consists of fourteen lush and rowdy stories of folks who
are struggling to make sense of the twenty-first century. She has
received her MA in mathematics and her MFA in writing from Western
Michigan University. She now lives with her husband and other animals
outside Kalamazoo, and she teaches writing in the low residency MFA
program at Pacific University.
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