Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

IMG_79Interview: 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