Bonnie Jo Campbell, the author of Q Road and Women and Other Animals, is a strapping highland lass with yellow hair, red cheeks, strong arms, and a sunny disposition. She claims to be forty, but casual observers would be forgiven for subtracting a decade or two from their estimation. I interviewed her several times in October, 2002. The first meeting took place on the fourth, at her house in Kalamazoo, the directions to which read in part, "Turn onto the dirt road. Slow down if you donít want to take out the underside of your car." Surrounded by trees, the one-story home is off-brown with violently red trim, while the interior resembles the lodge of a summer camp. The rooms are spare, the walls hung with framed photographs. Bonnie proudly displays a mosaic map of Michigan she built into the wall behind the wood-burning stove.
She writes in a spacious, well-lit room, and grumbles that she will never again buy a bookcase that doesnít reach to the ceiling. The walls are lined with books; several tables and a file cabinet are covered with important papers and two cat beds. Bonnie offers me a copy of her newsletter and a handful of matchbooks advertising Q Road. She explains that itís cheap and easy to get personalized matchbooks off the Internet. She keeps holding the box out until, one by one, Iíve taken a half-dozen.
Her beloved husband Christopher has been reinforcing their new screen porch to deter raccoons. We all take a casual lunch of sandwiches and mile-high lemon meringue pie, after which the interview is conducted inside the screen porch, while a heavy storm drowns the city. Christopher worries that the roof might leak, but only the sound of falling water penetrates the sturdy addition. Bonnie and I both jump when a heavy branch crashes onto the roof, but the metal ceiling is not even dented. Although the walls are nothing but mesh, the porch feels cozy and protected.
MONICA FRIEDMAN: Some men seemed intimidated by your universe or label it "womenís fiction," meaning a place where women are victims and men are aggressors. In Q Road it seems that men are often the victims. Is this a deliberate reversal?
BONNIE JO CAMPBELL: Oh I donít think itís a reversal. Iím always shocked when people talk about women being victimized. What I expect to be called on is the fact that the men are so innocent. I think the men I write about are harmless or ineffectual, and presented too simply, whereas women in my stories seem to be pretty complex. I donít see women as victims. Bad things happen to them, but I donít see them as victims and certainly they donít act like victims and none of them would ever call themselves victims.
MF: Did you see this article in the New York Times about weak women heroines? ["A new book featuring another spineless woman" Tamar Lewin October 6, 2002]
BJC: Yeah. She canít honestly be lamenting the lack of capable women in contemporary literature. I mean, contemporary literature is chock full of strong women. The problem is the movies. Super popular books with drippy female characters are somehow all tied up with movies. In real life America Iíve found men are plenty interested in big, powerful women. I speak from personal experience. I should tell you that a half dozen male readers have written telling me that they find Rachel [who insists on swearing in every sentence and carrying a gun wherever she goes] their ideal woman. Iím not kidding. I love American men.
MF: Some of the other characters in this bookóElaine, who is desperately awaiting the arrival of alien colonists, or Nicole, the blushing bride with delusions of homicideóverge on the bizarre, and yet their thoughts and emotions are not beyond the realm of possibility. Do you know any of these people?
BJC: I like to think that all my characters start out based on someone, because my imagination needs a seed. Fortunately, no one has ever recognized themselves. I donít think these characters are surreal. I am curious about this alien thing. I was trying to puzzle out, what is it in human beings thatís making people want to see aliens? Maybe itís this complete lack of being in touch with the earth. Aliens are as far removed from the earth as possible. So I started thinking, maybe thatís at the heart of it, when people get torn from their roots.
I think that every married woman can sympathize with the homicidal bride. Think about those poor brides who worked for a year on their wedding ceremony and made everything just perfect. And then what? Theyíre married to some guy who probably smells. Theyíre stuck with this guy for all eternity and itís nothing like the wedding. But, Nicoleís redeemed in the end and I actually came around to really liking her.
MF: What about George, whose family has been working the same Kalamazoo farmland for a hundred and fifty years?
BJC: I wondered what it would be like if you were the one farmer who had somehow retained the family memory of what happened here, what crimes had been committed. How would that affect you today as a farmer? I think for the most part, people donít remember. Those stories have been lost. There was a lot of shame involved, or people just didnít care when they chucked the Indians out. But I thought, "Is there any way you and your family can be redeemed if you remember?"
With Rachel, I was interested in a character who just sprang up out of the earth. She had always been here, and she knew from the beginning that she liked the earth. And the funny thing is that all these reviewers are saying, "Itís because of her Potawatomi roots that she loved the earth." But no, she loved it way before she even knew she had any connection. I donít buy much into this theory that youíre inherently any way because of some genetic structure. I guess I believe in the nurture over the nature, I wondered if there was a way that any Potawatomi could reclaim a piece of land. She doesnít really love farming, though. Itís her influence from her mother; she sees hunting and trapping as more natural, but by the end sheís seeing the merits of the farm, and George has to accept that things canít stay the same, that you canít pay the bills on a buck seventy-five for a bushel of corn.
MF: Kalamazoo straddles urban, suburban, and rural landscapes, but in the American collective unconscious, this is just a small Midwestern town with a funny-sounding name. If Q Road says one thing about the land around Kalamazoo, what is it?
BJC: Life is rich here, just like itís rich in other places. I think people leave the Midwest in hordes thinking about how horrible life would be in Kalamazoo. But the funny thing is Iíve lived all kinds of places and I found I never could write. I lived in Boston and Chicago and LA and strangely I couldnít write stories. I didnít know what a story was. And then somehow, when I came back here, all of the sudden I could write. So Iím kind of happy about that. I had to come home, because I wrote essays when I lived elsewhere but I never could figure stories out. I had been working on that since I was in college and took my first writing class, probably 1982 or í83, trying to figure out how to write a story. I just couldnít get it, and then suddenly it happened. A little help from Jaimy Gordon maybe. Although I did write my first story before I took her class. I wasnít even going to let myself take a writing class until I could write one story because I thought, "I have! to know how to do this. If I canít figure out how to do this I have to go be a math teacher and spend my whole life doing mathematics." So I was desperate, in other words.
MF: D o you think writers need more self-confidence than other people?
BJC: Writing requires you to have two completely opposite ways of feeling about yourself: incredible confidence and ultimate humility. You have to believe you have something valuable to say and you have to believe it strongly enough to give up all kinds of other good things like restaurant meals, seeing how you're broke, and romps with your husband, seeing how you're starved for time. You have to have enough confidence to inflict your writing and your writing life on others. And then you have to also be completely open to criticism from yourself and others, and to the likelihood that what you have worked so hard to write is not good enough. Maybe all writers are basically bi-polaróotherwise we wouldn't be able to embody both of these extremes.
MF: You worked with Ringling Brothers (as a Sno Cone vendor). Are you going to write a circus novel?
BJC: Actually, yeah, about Rachelís mother. You have to be careful with something like the circus material. Itís really cool, but I have to figure out which story needs this material so Iím not just dumping circus stuff in. In fact, I did write an entire circus novel when I was in college. Very short, like a hundred and fifty pages or something. This was in the days before word processors. I wrote it on a typewriter, so itís amazing that I even got it out. I wonít be too self-critical. But the nice thing is I recorded it, so I can go back and find specifics about what it was like in the circus. Not that sometimes it isnít better just to make stuff up, but maybe that will help remind me of some things.
MF: How else do you feed your muse?
BJC: Chocolate, of course. And life. I have to make sure that I donít get caught up in being a writer. My family is important. I go home a lot and chat with my mom, and the rest of my family. I used to do everything that I could think of. Anybody who gave me an opportunity to do something, I would do it. Whatever crazy thing it was. Now I donít do that because I figure I need time to write, but I try to go if somebody invites me to do something wacky. Jaimy Gordon invited me to tour a closed down mental institution, and I thought, "Why not? When am I going to get to do this again?" I just make sure to do things with interesting people as much as I can. The writer thing can become incestuous. If you only hang out with writers, then youíre all kind of doing the same thing and youíre all looking at life through this lens instead of living it. I try not to write stories about writers. I like to be friends with the kind of people I write about: just kind of low-life! types, or poor people, people who are out of the spotlight. Iíve always liked low lifes. Iíve always liked to go to the kind of bars where people get into fights.
MF: How do you write?
BJC: However it works. I get up and eat breakfast and just write, and sometimes I write a lot, and sometimes I donít write much, and sometimes I edit and edit and edit. I donít really have any particular way. Any way that I can get inspired to write, I do.
MF: You just get up and do it first thing in the morning.
BJC: Yeah, because the problem is that if I wait to do it, then the day becomes more complicated and people call and they have problems and I feel bad. You hear the news, you hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then you wonder, "How could this possibly matter when this is going on?" I think the day sort of becomes dirtier as it goes on and itís a little easier to write early on when the day is clean.
MF: Do you do any kind of freewriting?
BJC: I never really did freewriting. I always thought, well, if Iím writing something, I ought to be writing something. I shouldnít just be playing around. I probably ought to get over that. Maybe in the next decade Iíll become more playful with writing, because I see how much good those writing exercises can do for people. At Bowling Green, where the workshop is four hours long, we did do some of those, but when somebody tells me to do some kind of particular thing, thatís the only time I freeze up, although in general I donít have anything like writerís block. Iíve seen really good stories that were born of those little writing exercises. So I do believe in them for other people, but I havenít done much. And I have never really done journal writing or anything. Whenever I try to do a journal, all I end up with are lists of things to do. I do have a hard cover journal and all it is is lists of things to do, and the sit-com moment of the day, so I can remember how funny l! ife is in case I get depressed.
MF: Whatís the sit-com moment of the day?
BJC: If you search through every day, something really funny happens. You just have to look for it and itís a very lightening moment when you realize how funny life is. If youíre wandering around thinking about how dreary life is itís hard to make yourself get to that funny thing, but you can do it.
MF: Can you share a sit-com moment of the day?
BJC: I could tell you about the chickens. I love the chickens. I went to my momís house and there are four big fat roosters strutting around her yard, just the coolest roosters you ever saw. And apparently some guy who was going to jail brought these roosters over, so my mom could take care of them while he was in jail. He showed up while I was over there and he started telling me that the black rooster played the piano. It knew how to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb." He bought it this little tiny grand piano and he taught the chicken to play with its beak. He swears. And then he went to jail so we couldnít get any proof. But these chickens, I call them, "the brothers", and they are so beautiful. They protect each other. When a dog is there theyíll get in formation and protect each other. Animals are an inspiration.