Jan/Feb 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

by Jarrett Kaufman

April, 2020

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the acclaimed novel, Once Upon a River. Her newest book of stories, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, was released by Norton in 2015. She was a 2009 National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her collection of stories, American Salvage, which won the Foreword Book of the Year award for short fiction. Campbell is also author of the novel, Q Road and the story collection Women & Other Animals. She's received the AWP Award for Short Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, and the Eudora Welty Prize. 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 teaches writing in the low residency program at Pacific University.


JK     Can you talk about your connection to the Midwest?

BJC     I grew up in Michigan, lived most of my life in the Midwest, love the Midwest. However, I've often thought the Midwest wasn't a helpful designation of place. The Midwest is made up of several distinct regions, and I've always felt like a Great Lakes States person. This is a very wet region, a place of lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, and swamps, and the fertility and muckiness of these places inspires me. There's something feminine about our landscapes—I'm very comfortable talking about mother nature in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Also, I'd make a case that watery landscapes put us in closer contact with our unconscious selves. 

JK     How would you describe your writing in relation to the Midwestern literary traditions?

BJC     That's something that other people will have to decide. I can say that I know the contemporary Midwest, or my own part of it, very well, and that is why I write about it. There was a time when the Midwest was the west, such as when Willa Cather was writing My Antonia. The Midwest I write about is a middle place with a kind of post-industrial identity crisis and maybe an inferiority complex, too, but it's also a place where people are geniuses and making what they need and surviving.

JK     Do you mind expanding upon the "post-industrial identity crisis" concept?

BJC     After WWII, men in our part of the Midwest could join the middle class and stay there by working a factory or machine-shop job. Often these jobs were soul sucking, but they provided a good living that allowed men to feel proud of how they lived. That has fallen apart, and many men have gotten lost in the shuffle between that old system and whatever it is that we have now, where most uneducated men will be poor. For women the situation is a little different, because women have not been as identified with their employment, but they've had a similar hardship, and the problems of men become the problems of the women around them. And then it's hard to be confident when you don't feel important to the community and society. A lot of the Midwestern rural noir writers are taking this on, such as Louise Erdrich, Frank Bill, Matt Bell, Donald Ray Pollock, Alan Heathcock, and Dean Kuipers.

JK     "Rural noir," is a popular term often used to describe a lot of Midwestern literature, including your own work. Do you agree with this categorization?

BJC     These labels are put on the work of some writers in order to help readers and critics understand the work, and if it helps, it is fine with me. I have enjoyed the term "rural noir" being applied to my stories. "Rural Noir" usually refers to work where people are in a limiting social and economic situation while being more or less trapped in their home place without any authorities to assist them. There is nobody to help them—authorities offer no assistance. It's working for me! There is still plenty of great Midwestern writing that focuses on other issues, fiction that explores family life and relationships in cities with the special problems of urban life, or that takes place in wholesome small towns where the social structures have not broken down. But there does seem to be a lot of noir coming out of the Midwest.

JK     American Salvage, in my opinion, reveals the dark underbelly of the Midwest, its decay, its splintering of small town communities—which most people from the region see and experience everyday—yet people not from or living in the Midwest largely appear to be unaware of. Do you believe it has to do with the sanitized "heartland" image that's plastered in magazines and portrayed in movies and TV?

BJC     The post-industrial Midwest does seem to have those problems you mention. However, I've heard from readers in Appalachia that the stories seem familiar to them as well. So maybe the issues I investigate don't fall neatly into a region, but affect also the southern areas. While our decay has to do with economic and industrial issues, the decay in the south has a different flavor that still has something to do with the civil war. Not sure.

JK     You've written three story collections, Women and OtherAnimals, Mothers Tell Your Daughters, and American Salvage. You've also written two novels as well, Q Road and Once Upon a River. What are you working on now?

BJC     I'm working on my third novel. It keeps changing as I write it, so I'm afraid I can't tell you much about it, except that it takes place in a swamp. 

JK     Finally, are there any Midwestern writers you think people need to read?

BJC     So many fiction writers are from the Midwest but aren't considered midwestern writers, such as Ray Bradbury, Edna Ferber (born in Kalamazoo), and Joyce Carol Oates. A good place to start for Michigan writing might be Jim Harrison's Brown Dog novellas. For some recent rural noir, you might try Melissa Fraterrigo's novel in stories, Glory Days or Kate Wisel's Driving in Cars With Homeless Men. If you like literary mysteries, read Karen Dionne's Marsh King's Daughter. For a kind of uncomfortable hilarity, try Andy Mozina's stories in Quality Snacks. Then finish it all off with some poetry by Diane Seuss.