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Wisconsin Book Festival 2009: Bonnie Jo Campbell speaks

Novelist and short-story author Bonnie Jo Campbell is nobody to mess with. A student of the martial-arts disciplines of Kouburyu karate and kobudo, she stands six feet tall, has hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, ridden a bicycle over some of the highest and steepest passes in the Swiss Alps, and led adventure tours in Europe and Russia. A resident of Kalamazoo, she grew up on a small Michigan farm, has a master's degree in math, an MFA in creative writing, both a Pushcart and a Eudora Welty prize, and an aptitude for crafting hard narratives populated by people teetering on the edge.

Her new collection, American Salvage, traverses the bleak social and economic landscapes of rural Michigan, where methamphetamine labs are as common as unemployment. She appears at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival with Bich Minh Nguyen, author of the novel Short Girls, at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio. In anticipation of her presentation here, she talks about puffball mushrooms, getting to know her characters, things she hates -- and identifies a few other Wisconsin Book Festival presenters she might find intimidating despite her martial-arts training.

The Daily Page: Among the characters in American Salvage, which one did you find most difficult to get to know? Which was the hardest to let go of at the end of the story?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: While I'm writing, I more or less become my characters, working rather the way method actors work, so it was a little scary being William Slocum, Jr., in "King Cole's American Salvage," a guy who would hit a littler guy with a pipe a bunch of times and leave him in the snow for dead, just to get money for meth. I guess I never expected to find empathy, but there I was, feeling his desperation, seeing what he was up against. I say it was difficult, but the difficulty was in digesting what I'd just written. As for plain difficulty of writing, I'll confess that it took me 24 years to write Bringing Belle Home. It took me that long to figure out the relationship between the two lovers and what it might mean to a reader.

Some of your characters' identities are almost inseparable from their work. How does writing define you? And how does farm life define you?

I'm glad when people see the connection between my characters and their work. For a lot of my characters, losing their job is the crisis point that tips their lives into decline and trouble. Here in Michigan, we've been in a recession for a couple of decades -- you might say we're ahead of the curve on that one, leading the rest of the U.S. into the national recession. We've been dropping manufacturing and industrial jobs year after year after year, and there are folks whose identity is so connected to their work that they can't adjust to the new millennium. Some machine shop guys can't just put on a burger cap or sell insurance over the phone.

I don't have a real farm, just a little acreage with donkeys and chickens. But what defines my life is the seasons. I'm most myself when I'm loading hay or contemplating loading hay, when I'm picking grapes or elderberries to make wine or just eating mulberries off a tree or feeding them to my donkeys. (I'm de-stemming grapes in between answering these questions.) The last few days I've been out collecting black walnuts that my husband, and I will crack them open in our leisure time over the next six months. I'm keeping my eye open for a giant puffball mushroom to eat. Most years I get a giant puffball and cook it every imaginable way over the course of a week or two, but I haven't found one this year and there's a frost-freeze warning tonight. If I didn't run around so much, I would probably have a milk cow or milk goat, because I love the routine of daily chores as well. One of the best parts of my day is when I run errands, the bank, the post office, the local grocery store.

As someone who took a master's degree in math before taking your MFA in creative writing, how would you describe American Salvage in a mathematical statement or equation?

The reason I left mathematics was because I couldn't tell the complicated, messy, ambiguous stories that I wanted to tell. Mathematics demands exactness and rewards simplicity and clear lines of argument, while I want to blur the edges, switch directions, and use rules to pick my characters' teeth with. My stories contain truths that contradict one other. Maybe if I understood String Theory, there might be some way to express some of this, but the English language short story can do work that no other form can do, and I love working within it.

How, when and where do you prefer to write?

I get up in the morning without an alarm clock, and I sit at my computer beside a big window and I write until noon. That might be four hours or two hours. I live a blessed existence.

To whom or what do you ascribe your writing impulse?

It's such a mystery why we write. I ascribe it to a mental illness -- why else would we want so badly to write even in those times when we have nothing to say.

The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Courage." How do you define courage? What is the most courageous thing you've ever done or seen? And who or what might test the limits of your courage?

When I got married, I felt quite courageous. Hardly anybody I knew had a happy marriage, and the whole enterprise felt like folly, even as I was standing there before the magistrate pouring my heart into the business. We hedged our bets, didn't tell anyone, bought our rings at the pawn shop. Luckily I chose the right guy, and we've been happy for 22 years.

If courage is doing things that scare me, then I am courageous as hell. I was scared to bike Nufenen Pass when I was 17. I'm scared of flying even now. Every time I sit down to write a story, it's a brave act, especially since it sometimes takes several decades for me to finish a story. All writers know it takes courage to send out a story to a magazine in hopes of getting published.

As a six-foot student of both Kouburyu karate and kobudo, are there any presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival you find intimidating?

I've dropped out of karate, but I've got my nidan (second-degree black belt) in kobudo, so if Lorrie Moore comes after me, I'll grab a weapon. I expect that Michael Perry would be hard to take now that he's been wrassling pigs and chickens for the last few years, and he's got that "Farmer Snort" nose-blowing method down -- I'll wear safety glasses for that bout. And while I might take Lynda Barry in a first round, she'd just have to draw a caricature of me with my gigantic head cysts and chapped lips and squinty eyes to win in the end.

Back around the turn of the century, you wrote up a list of the things you hate, including ice dams, telephones, being cold, changing plans, wet wood, sledding, George W. Bush, house-cleaning, snow, having a cold, wasting food, movie distribution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the years since, which three new things you've encountered might you add to that list?

Methamphetamine, rape (especially as an act of war), and our neighbors letting their cats out to eat the birds at our feeders.

You also once forswore the writing of poetry. Now you've got a poetry collection out: Love Letters to Sons of Bitches. What changed your mind? And how has writing poetry affected your prose?

I didn't mean to start writing poetry. It came as a kind of midlife crisis, and now I'm deep into the love affair. I found I was bursting to write things that I just couldn't express in the stories I was writing: fragments, images and odd postures and attitudes that I might not have wanted to sustain through an entire story. Messing with my little darlings is so much fun, and I never get tired of tinkering. Sonnets are my favorite currently, though I just discovered a form featuring pairs of lines ending with the same words. It's a guilty pleasure, though, since I really ought to be putting in the time on my prose. Though it may be slowing me down, writing poetry is great for the quality, if not the quantity, of my prose-it reminds me to focus on every word.

In terms of a sense of accomplishment, how does winning a Pushcart or a Eudora Welty Prize compare to biking in the Swiss Alps or leading adventure tours in Russia and Europe?

Actually having won a Pushcart Prize gives me the same kind of warm fuzzy feeling that I get from remembering biking over the highest pass in Switzerland. I think, well, I may accomplish nothing else, but nobody can take away from me that I did it. When I used to spend my time writing mathematical proofs, it was all cerebral, but when I write stories, it's something I do with my whole body, my brain and my muscles, so writing and riding my bike (a Cannondale touring bike) feel somewhat similar.

The stories in American Salvage suggest you've got experience handling guns, hunting, basic automotive mechanics and other commonplace aspects of the hard, true life in rural Michigan. So in striving for that kind of verisimilitude, what's the closest you've been to a meth lab -- or meth itself?

When I was a kid, if I'm not mistaken, there was a lower-powered meth around that we took as pills, and it seemed like little more than mega-caffeine. Of course it might not have been meth at all. However, I have neither snorted nor shot up the new, real, meth. People very close to me have shared their experiences with me, however, and I have seen again and again the ravages meth has wrought. My brother lived right across the street from a meth lab, and the smell of sulfur wafted in his windows. My sister lives a half a block away from a recently discovered "meth cave" here in Kalamazoo, a 10 foot by 10 foot by five foot hole in the ground. A nearby farmer had a whole herd of cattle die from fumes because somebody stealing his anhydrous ammonia left the cap off. That was heart-wrenching. I also read a blog entry from a guy who was shooting up meth for the first time and describing everything.

Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the story titled "The Solutions to Brian's Problem," and did its structure arrive with its concept?

I got a phone call from someone close to me in a situation similar to the one depicted in the story, and this person asked, "What should I do?" and I sympathized with and tried to comfort this person. However, after the phone call, I started enumerating the possibilities, and I found none of them comforting. Because of there being a kid involved, the situation was so painful that I needed the structure of a list to distance myself from it -- often when we are feeling emotional about a decision, we are told to make a list. That's also why I used the second person. The second person voice is sometimes simply a first person voice pushed to an arm's length.

Some of your stories and passages can be pretty unblinking, and it's easy to imagine more sensitive readers having to put American Salvage down on occasion, stand up, walk away from it to regain their composure, and later return to the narrative. As you were writing these stories, how did you cope with the most intense narratives?

For the reader, the difficult material comes on hard, all at once, but for the writer it happens slowly, gradually. The difficult material reveals itself over hundreds of hours of work. One important job of the writer is to look, and keep looking, and keep looking even after she thinks she knows what she sees, in order to see what she's missed. I have always found it cathartic to discover what lies within or beneath a situation. What discourages and distresses me is seeing pain and suffering and bad behavior and not understanding it or seeing the humanity in it. By continuing to discover what is at the core of a distressing situation, by discovering the heart of a character, I come to find a situation more bearable. Writers write about what they can't stop thinking about.

I understand that the stories are difficult for some. Mary Whalen, the gal who took the photograph for the book's cover, could not read the book. She read as much as she could from all the stories, and then when she couldn't go on, she went out and took the perfect cover photo. customers who bought American Salvage also purchased novels and story collections by the likes of Aleksandar Hemon, Dan Chaon, Benjamin Percy and Charles Baxter. Aside from your own earlier volumes, what single book might you suggest as a complement to American Salvage?

I want my readers to have just read Lynda Barry's Cruddy because then they won't think my situations quite as bleak as they might otherwise. That book was so well written, and it just broke my heart.

What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?

I just read David Long's novel Inhabited World. It's a quiet, reflective story told from the point of view of a ghost, and it manages to matter desperately.

What are your expectations for your Wisconsin Book Festival appearance?

Madison is such a great city and such a literary city. I'm looking forward to spending a few days with all the cool people there. I hope to get Michael Perry, Lynda Barry and Lorrie Moore to sign my books. As for my presentation, I'm always happy to meet new writers and to be helpful. With that in mind, I promise to answer questions honestly rather than trying to come up with answers that sound good. My husband is the clever one. I'm the sincere one, sometimes overly sincere.

How can your festival audience best prepare to get the most out of your appearance here?

They should go out and shoot a few rounds of ammunition into the side of a hill, and then have a Two-Hearted Ale from Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo. Or any beer, I guess. I'll have some temporary tattoos and refrigerator magnets to give away.

What do you always carry with you?

Swiss army knife with corkscrew, chapstick, library card for three different libraries, tiny photo of my two donkeys.

Why do you live where you live?

I am a homebody, and the longer I know a place the more I love it, and so I don't know if I can ever leave my home, unless it's to move into the house I grew up in.

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