Interview with Author Bonnie Jo Campbell

I first met Bonnie Jo Campbell when I was in graduate school at Pacific University, earning my MFA in Writing. Back then, I was still focused on creative nonfiction, and Bonnie Jo was soaring from the success of American Salvage. During one winter residency, along the snowy shores of the Pacific Ocean, Bonnie, myself, and two other graduate students (Robbie and Darla) discovered we all trained in martial arts. I remember well the hour or so we spent together, tucked into an unused meeting room of a hotel, practicing kata, trading kicks, and swapping dojo stories. In a few short years, Bonnie’s novel, Once Upon a River, would release to high acclaim and I’d hit the road for three years, building my career. It’s been such a pleasure to know her, even from afar, and admire her authenticity as a literary steward and crazy-smart teacher and writer. Here’s what Bonnie had to share with me during our interview as a part of Airstream Dispatches.

Katey Schultz: You and I have been in touch off and on for a decade, swapping bits here and there, as well as book tour ideas and writing updates. But I haven’t been able to check in with you in depth for quite a while. I’m privy to a little info about your bike rides, for example, and because you share yourself so authentically, I also know that you are one of the most driven, exacting, contemporary authors that I admire today. But for those who might not have met you, what can you tell us about your current projects and writing life routines?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: Katey, first let me say how much I admire your energy and creativity and sense of fun, as well as your writing as a solid artifact. You are an inspiration, and I apologize if I sound dreary here!

In this year of plagues (bedbugs, floods, breast cancer, equine foot fungus, etc), I continue to battle the forces that prevent me from writing, and I seem to be busy putting out fires many hours of the day. I generally have ended up writing a book every five years, so I told my oncologists that I had to live to a hundred years old, because that left time for me to write 9 more books—they said they’d do what they could. Whenever possible, I write in the morning and then attend to other matters in the afternoon; mostly I’m working on a big novel with a young narrator, but lately I’ve spent some time writing poetry—I even finally wrote a villanelle. My husband is an angel, and he leaves me alone until I’m ready for lunch, usually at about 1:30. Though I’ve been working on this novel for more than a decade, the story still interests me every day, and that probably means I’m doing all right, if progressing more slowly than I would like. Most days I feel that the novel becomes a little better every time I work on it, as though I’m dialing the story in a little clearer. This could be an illusion, but then so could this whole life be an illusion. Ideally I work about four hours a day, but right now it’s more like two hours. And I’ve recently had to let go of both my mainstays of alcohol and caffeine, so that’s required an adjustment!

KS: This next questions comes from several participants in Airstream Dispatches: “Do you have any advice about writing in 3rd person? I’m comfortable writing about fictional characters who experience things different than my own life experiences, but still veer toward 1st person when I write. How can I make the leap into 3rd?”

BJC: I’ve noticed that most writers have a go-to p.o.v. and verb tense. A lot of my writer friends automatically go to first person present and some of them have made writing careers employing (largely) that pairing—for them it creates immediacy and intensity. For myself, I tend toward third person past, which feels a little less personal and makes me feel that I am watching something unfold as well as experiencing it. This means that I start writing every story in third person with paste tense, and then if I feel it’s not working, then I change it up in subsequent drafts. An example from MTYD is “Playhouse.” I had that story in third person until about five minutes before publication when I hit the back of my head with my hand and said, “Duh! This character is an unreliable narrator who doesn’t know what’s happened to her.” She is desperately trying to explain away something she doesn’t understand, by continually underplaying how she feels, and just in the knick of time realized it belonged in first person. In the third person it was as though the narration was holding back critical information, which is a rotten trick for a literary narrator to do, creating a kind of artificial suspense, a form of melodrama. In first person, Janie sincerely struggles to understand.   Similarly, I have switched stories from first person at times into third person in order to be able to show a character from the outside and give a more rounded picture of the character. These are generalization, of course, because writers can manage all kinds of things with surprising points of view.

That said, you asked how to write more in third person. I’d suggest writing the story in first person, if that feels natural, and then when you revise, switch it to third person and see if it feels right—switching tense or point of view is not a bad plan for any story that doesn’t seem to be singing as clearly and brightly as you’d like it to sing. There’s nothing to lose, since you can always change it back. I would suggest doing it this way because you can keep the initial energy of the first draft, which may come more easily in first person, and then create (maybe) additional interest and complication in subsequent drafts. You will know more after you try it! And if you end up not liking third person after all, be assured that writers can build a career on first person narration—readers are very comfortable with it, and it may be because we all have read and loved a lot of memoirs in the last few decades, so you get to give the reader an addition illusion of truth-telling.

KS: And another, from a participant: “Your stories reflect a beautifully broad range of emotions–heartache, tenderness, and humor–sometimes all three in the same short story. How do you know you’ve nailed the emotion you want your readers to feel?”

BJC: Well, that’s a nice thing to say. I’m honored that you think I’m evoking the right amount of emotional reaction in readers. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t usually think in these terms. I’m usually focusing on getting the reader engaged in my narrator’s predicament, so I’m focusing on creating a general sort of empathy, creating a connection between the reader and the protagonist, who is usually very different from the reader. I go into my stories assuming the reader is not interested in an uneducated drug addicted mom or a lonely old farm lady—in real life, my readers would probably avoid my characters—so it is my job to make the introduction. But in putting the reader up close to the character, who is struggling, the reader is allowed to absorb those emotions without danger to self. So maybe I’m not sure what the reader ends up feeling exactly, but I want them to feel some version of love and/or caring, and I keep revising until I feel it happening. And my feeling is based on what I’ve learned about the human animal in my 56 years with my fellow human beings. I often mention to students that I worked for 24 years on one of my short stories (“Bringing Belle Home”), and I kept working because I could feel I wasn’t rousing empathy in my reader, but I kept on shaping the story and the characters, showing the characters in yet another light, until I felt my narration click into focus. And most likely there are still plenty of readers who would read the story and say they did not care about the characters, but I knew I’d gotten the story good enough to reach the readers I love best. This is a long way of saying, “Keep writing the story until it’s good enough.” And in the early days of the story, I shared it with others—good readers will tell you how they feel and that is very valuable information.

KS: Please share a “tiny moment” with us–that’s the phrase I use for a moment/experience/millisecond in time that has stayed lodged in your memory. This should be a true story–a flash nonfiction of your own. If you can, try to share what “before” or “after” were like for you, as you render this memorable moment and why you think it has stayed with you.

BJC: While I look at such moments in my character’s lives all the time, I’m not really sure I have a good one for you in real life. Generally it takes me a long time to digest an event—I’m a persevere-er and a ruminator, and I tend to just keep going no matter what happens and let things very slowly become clear, often over the course of years or decades. Maybe this explains why I work on certain stories for decades. There are things I’ve learned that changed my heart and mind in profound ways, about members of my family, but I’m not inclined to share those. I appreciate the importance of this in fiction, and I’ll give an example of one in my fiction: when my protagonist Margo Crane (in Once Upon a River) kills a man, she is changed. Before that, her life was hunting and fishing and making love with a nice man named Michael, and after this killing, she realizes she is different than Michael, who could never kill anyone, and she knows she can’t stay with him. Before the event, she is in a kind of paradise, and after she shoots her attacker in the chest, she is cast out of that place.   For myself, I might mention that when I learned I had probably had cancer, life changed, and then I learned I really did have cancer and it continued to change, and with surgery it changed more, and then with radiation it changed more and now that I’m on a nasty drug for ten years, it continues to change and will continue from now—I won’t know how except in retrospect. While I have to make change concrete and dramatic on the page in my fiction, in my own real life, change is more gradual and comes in fits and starts. Some writers try to capture this latter kind of change on the page (perhaps this is true of Karl Ove Knausgård in My Struggle), and it is challenging to keep such story lively; in my opinion Knausgård pulls it off.

KS: My students posted a lot of questions about how you conduct research or if the characters are based on people you know, etc. Can you talk about how you inhabit and portray your characters’ worlds so thoroughly? We’re interested in knowing what techniques you rely on when writing about a character or experience you’ve never personally known, AND, how that might differ from your approach to fictionalizing real life people or events you do know.

BJC: Again, thank you for your kind words about my stories. I love my characters. Let me say that from the get-go. And I ruminate a lot before I even really get started writing, and then I continue to ruminate as I write, feeling my way into what it is like to be my character experiencing her situation—in this way writing is kind of like acting. And I’m glad you use the word inhabit, because while I’m writing I AM my characters and their troubles are my troubles (after all, I gave them those troubles, and so if they don’t feel real, there is only myself to blame). There is really no difference at all for me in using characters based on real people and characters I’ve made up, because once I put a character in my story, I use only points of reference in the story to figure out what they do and how they feel; that is to say I don’t go back to the real life person as a reference while writing—often I avoid learning any more about the real-life situation because it will interfere with my story. At the very beginning, it might be easier starting with someone from real life, and I often do, but once I get going, it doesn’t matter, because all the decisions I make are based on how the character is moving through the fictional situations I’ve created for her. Most of my short stories are born from my ruminating about some real-life problem, but real life is rarely intense and forward-moving enough, and real people (who are so often of two minds about everything) rarely are satisfying as characters in stories. In order to make satisfying stories both situation and character need to be heated up and made urgent and propelled forward. In other words, if a character starts out real, he or she quickly becomes a work of fiction in my hands. And if you want to know how I know about the rough worlds that my characters travel in, be assured that I keep my eyes and ears and heart open as I travel through this life.

KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about book(s) that recently rocked your world, and why.

BJC: I just read Min Jin Lee’s epic novel, Pachinko, and indeed felt myself rocked. MJL covered so much territory, four generations of a Korean family that moved to Japan during a personally and historically tumultuous time. This book has everything, love and mystery, mothers and daughters making all kinds of difficult choices, and I learned tons about Korea, Koreans and the relationship with Japan, which remains very complicated today. The characters struggle in various ways, with moral issues, survival issues, poverty, with discrimination, and the novel ends in a difficult place, leaving the reader with the unease and compromise that real life always requires. The story has an old-fashioned feel to it, in the pace of the events, and also in the luxurious attention paid to its characters. It features multiple points of view, but it’s always easy to figure out who is who. There is suffering and joy in this book, and it feels very real and has resonated for years.

KS: Thank you so much, Bonnie. You are incredible!

Showing 3 comments
  • Judy Childs

    Thank you, Bonnie and Katey. Bonnie, your ability to pull me into your stories through your characters is so intense. I am with them. I react! I also notice how your characters may at first feel quite cold to me, but with your flame of intention, soon the barn is burning.

  • Lynn Lovegreen

    Great interview, thanks!

  • Kenneth Morford

    I went to college twice in my life, just to own a single bachelors degree. My second time through, I quietly passed into my fortieth birthday, bound and gagged by the paranoia over my obvious age difference. However, fate was kind to me, because I found myself a student in the pre-calc classroom of a sweet and wonderful grad student teacher name Bonnie Jo Campbell. As is the fancy of all men, I had to scrub away any hint of the mad crush I had on her, when I discovered she was married and hopelessly in love with her husband. So, I kept my thoughts to myself. Sigh. I had to focus on graduating and move on. She encouraged me to keep writing, keep studying math. How joyful this has been to witness her success! She is, and always will be, a sweet and wonderful inspiration.

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