"The marsh, the mire, the Void, is always there, immediate and terrifying. It is a splendid place for schooling the spirit. It is America." Though Theodore Roethke was referring to Saginaw, I can't help but apply the sentiment to Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection of stories, American Salvage. Readers of the book, which is set just beyond the edges of Kalamazoo, Michigan, are constantly aware of their literary surroundings, as Campbell escorts them to the ends of ghostly two-tracks.
Yet, the setting alone is not what makes Campbell's work stand out; rather, it is the "schooling" of her characters' spirits that gives American Salvage its universality. The heartache, scramble, and cloudy grace of her characters are notable in their off-road Americanism—as if all anyone ever really needed was to sit themselves on the tailgate and watch a shed burn itself to the ground.
I sat down with Bonnie—sadly not on the tailgate of her truck—and we talked about place, character, and emotional proofs.
Jeremy Benson: First, I guess some congratulations are in order. You're a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and next week you'll officially receive the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award from SVSU!
Bonnie Jo Campbell: It means a lot to be honored with a Michigan award such as the Stuart and Vernice Gross award, as well as being a finalist for the national and international awards. It means a lot to me that my work speaks to Michiganders.
JB: Second, you're a student of Karate?
BJC: I currently study Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art. I used to study Karate, but got tired of doing all those push-ups in class.
JB: And you've also studied mathematics?
BJC: I love mathematics. It's very certain. You know what you're doing. Some people say there's evidence of mathematical thinking in my stories. And, though I'm not so certain about all that, I did defend to a few hundred people just the other day that a short story is a lot like a mathematical proof.
JB: What was your argument?
BJC: In both cases, you're trying to show something, to make your best case that something is true. In mathematics you're trying to prove a statement is mathematically true using inscrutable rules of mathematical logic. In a short story, you're showing an emotional truth using one believable sentence after another. And in both math and short stories, the proof shouldn’t have much extra. Mathematicians are always looking for an "elegant" proof. I’m looking for a beautiful story.
JB: The stories of American Salvage take place primarily in Kalamazoo and southwestern Michigan: a lot of critics and guides to writing fiction suggest that setting is or should be another character in a story. Is that how you see your stories' setting?
BJC: No, I don't see it as a character, but I see it as critical. For most of the stories in this collection, I decided to make a backdrop that is a very familiar place. For instance, there's a pond in many of my stories, so I used the pond I knew from Comstock [Michigan]. I wanted to not have to think about place and setting, so I could concentrate on the characters and their situations and relationships to other people. It was kind of nice not needing to make up everything in the story, though I had to make up many elements of setting in order to make the stories work. But with a lot of them I could rely on an actual place.
JB: You're originally from Comstock; after traveling as a vendor with the circus and through Eastern Europe, you decided to return to Kalamazoo. Why?
BJC: I wanted to live someplace where I could borrow a ladder. Who's going to have a ladder to borrow in a big city? And I've always liked my family, and I like this place. I found my writing goes better here than anywhere else. Right now I'm writing about people who are a lot like the people who live in this place. So it's good to be around them.
JB: Would you say people define a place, or that a place defines the people?
BJC: I think both. People are different in different places, and yet people will write to me from West Virginia saying, "You got it right! these characters are just like my family."
There's something about being in a town of the size I'm writing about that people can relate to. I also write a lot about blue collar, working class people. So there's a lot of shared experience people can relate to across regions.
JB: When did you write the stories collected in American Salvage? I ask because there seems to be a recurring obsession with the year 2000.
BJC: To me the whole Y2K thing was such a crazy business. So many people in Michigan and around the world were losing their minds about the world ending on December 31, 1999 at 11:59 p.m. It seemed like such a crazy phenomenon. But on January 1, 2000 at 12:01, everyone had mass amnesia and forgot about it. Except me, the writer, of course. I just thought it was interesting how people behaved when they thought they were facing the end of civilization as they knew it. It was kind of a stand-in for the information age. The stories in the book are about people who are very much not prepared for the twenty-first century. There are no computers in the book. There's one cell phone—the junk dealer has a cell phone. These characters are living lives from a previous century. These are people who can fix their own things, they can build things, but they are having difficulty adjusting to what is coming next. These are people living anachronistic lives, including the last story about the farmer.
JB: Are you someone who can 'fix your own things?'
BJC: I know how to fix some stuff. I'm not as good as my brothers or my husband. Or my mom, she can fix some, or get some guy to do it for her. I can fix my own stuff food-wise. I collect berries; right now I'm sitting on a bushel of black walnuts. And I make wine, elderberry and blackberry. So I figure I can feed my husband, and he can fix the stuff.
But I have been working on these stories for a long time. There's one story, "Bringing Belle Home," which I worked on for 24 years. But most of the stories were written in the last ten or twelve years.
JB: Which of your characters do you relate to most?
BJC: They are all me, every one of them. I relate to every one of them a hundred percent. For better or worse, there's a lot of me ...
JB: Do you have characters you return to over and over?
BJC: The characters are very particular to each situation and story. The novel I'm working on right now is about a character who appeared just briefly in my first novel. So I decided to investigate her. But usually after investigating a character in one story, I'm not inclined to go back to that character.
It's a shame, because people seem to make a better living with recurring characters. If you have a mystery series, then you need a character who sticks around.
JB: Why do you suppose they are 'one story stands'? Especially in light of the given: "They are all me."
BJC: Some reviewers have said that my stories have the impact of novels, but maybe that's just hyperbole. I guess that once I put a given character through the tough situation I've created for him or her, I need to give that character a rest. Stories are about trouble, and I hate to trouble anyone too much.
JB: To me American Salvage is full of powerful women, or women who are the empowering force for the male characters.
BJC: There are a lot fewer women in this book than men. My first books, the novel Q Road and the short story collection Women and Other Animals were mostly all about women. American Salvage is mostly about men and machines, though a lot of the stories are about men dealing with women or women having to deal with men. It ends up showing a complicated power dynamic.
JB: Is that an intended political statement or just a fact of humanity?
BJC: I don't really have any particular political bent for these stories. I'm just interested in looking at individuals who end up in difficult situations and then analyzing those situations. And though these stories don't come from actual situations, they are fictionalized versions, so I can step back and study them. And like in the mathematic proofs I mentioned, I have tried to make my case that the situations seem realistic. And if the story is good, then I know I've done my job right. Sometimes it's hard to talk about fiction without turning it into sociology. But we really have to think about fiction as art. And we just hope it's a painting we can look at.
JB: Are the seeds for your stories more often a character or a situation? In other words, do you first write a character and then put him/her in a place, or is there more often a particular idea/problem/proof you want to work out, and later the characters involved come to life?
BJC: Good question. I don't usually start writing until I have both a character and a situation, but one or the other may appear in my head before the other. My head is all full of stray characters, places situations, ironies, passions, heartaches, phrases, and sounds, and when enough of those things clump together, then I know I have the start of a story. And then I just hope like hell that I can keep it going far enough that I create a story with a beginning, middle and end. Or at least an end. For sure a story has to have an end.
JB: Do you fight with the characters over the direction of a story?
BJC: I'm willing to go wherever my characters need to go. Occasionally I'll discover that my story seems to go in a direction that is different from what I wish could happen, and so I'll resist the natural flow of the story for a little while, but I always give in to creating the better story.
JB: You also write poetry, and your manuscript "Love Letters for Sons of Bitches" won the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Competition.
BJC: Yeah, it was a letterpress-printed chapbook; that was fun. Kim Addonizio, the judge, is a wild woman poet, and she selected the winner, so that was fun. I got to go to New York and read. But they only printed 100 copies. It's kind of a collector's book.
It says on my website that I never write poetry. I need a webmaster who can change that ...
JB: Do you approach poetry differently than a story?
BJC: The poetry comes … it's kind of an urge. It's more like drawing a picture. My first drafts are just this little ball of connected observations and feelings. Often they don't amount to much, but sometimes they do. In poetry I'm more interested in coming up with interesting language. In a short story you have to think, "this happens, then this happens, then ..." There's a causality which isn't often found in poetry.
But I write a lot of fictional poetry, which people find disconcerting. I write a lot of sexy poems, and people think that I'm the woman in them. But I'm sad to say that I'm not that exciting.
Fiction is my spouse; I'm married to it. But poetry is my affairs. And they're so short! Lately, I just write sonnets. If it's longer than a sonnet, I tell myself, then I should be writing a story.
JB: How frequently does that happen—a poem expands beyond a sonnet's boundary? Do the resulting stories contrast in content or style to your other work?
BJC: The prose pieces I've adapted from poems are different from my usual stories. The language in these pieces is more dense and strange, and often they are funnier and less linear. For example I have a three part piece about fruitcake and infidelity, and it makes connections that came to me through the process I use for poems.
Bonnie Jo Campbell will read at Delta College on April 13 at 7 p.m. in Room F010 and at SVSU on April 14 at 3:00 p.m. in the Roberta Allen Reading Room on the fourth floor of the Zanhow Library, where she will be presented with the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Literature.