In the title story from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s latest collection, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” the protagonist writes that “women get themselves hurt every day – men mess with girls in this life, they always have, always will – but there’s no sense making hard luck and misery your life’s work.”
If ever there were a sentence that embodies Campbell’s literary universe, that, dear readers, is it.
The Michigan writer’s 2009 short story collection, “American Salvage,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her novel “Once Upon a River” was recently named by Entertainment Weekly as the book that best captures the essence of her home state.
Campbell will visit Madison and Spring Green to promote her latest collection of stories, which has received generous buzz.
She spoke by phone with the State Journal recently about her upcoming trip, the manliness of her writing, and her unusual tour companion.
Q: Your new book is getting great publicity.
A: I know, I can’t believe it. I didn’t know anybody was going to care about it. It’s a book of stories.
Q: Does it feel different from when a novel comes out?
A: I’ve had three books of stories, and then I have had two novels. I’ve been caught up in that mythology that novels are more important. I think we’re breaking through that.
Q: How much, if any, of your writing is autobiographical?
A: I do pull a lot from my life, but I don’t pull any of my own experiences, if that makes sense. For example, I did travel with the circus, and I did sell snow cones, so that’s the backdrop for one of the stories, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But the protagonist in that story is someone who is completely different from me. She’s someone from a small town, who never had any of the advantages of education. I’m mostly an observer of other people. I just find myself a little dull. I’m way more interested in other people. I usually get my ideas from some kind of real-life situation that I’m worried about.
Q: So, you get story ideas from worst-case scenarios that you invent?
A: I can envision terrible scenarios.
Q: That comes through in your writing. You’re so much more good-humored than I was expecting.
A: It’s funny the role that humor plays in these stories. I hope that I’ve also put a lot of humor into this book, as well as a lot of nefarious trouble. As fiction writers, we always write about trouble because that’s what’s interesting, when things don’t work out well. I write about people at the lower economic strata, people who have a lot of trouble with their lives. If you think about the people who are in the worst situations, they are the ones who need a sense of humor the most. If you can’t laugh at the kinds of troubles that you have, you’re just going to crumple up and one day not get out of bed. I try to show the ways in which the characters who often take themselves very seriously also can be funny.
Q: It must be hard to find humor in some of the bleak situations you put your characters in.
A: I want to write in the gray area. I write about difficult things like molestations and rape, but I don’t mean for them to be clear-cut. If a situation is absolutely clear-cut, I have no interest in exploring it.
Q: The Guardian named you one of the top 10 writers of rural noir.
A: I was also named one of the top nine manly writers in America by a website called the Art of Manliness. I was the only gal who made the list. I think Larry Brown coined the term “country noir” some years ago, and now it’s sort of turned into “rural noir.” There was some TV show that kept talking about the rural juror, so I worry a little bit when I say rural noir that it sounds like rural juror. What show was that?
Q: That was “30 Rock.”
A: Well, I think you can safely say “country noir” if you want to avoid confusion.
Q: What does it mean?
A: It’s kind of a nice term. Most noir is a city phenomenon. If we have a vision of it in our heads, it’s a cityscape, at night, it’s been raining, and people are behaving very callously toward one another. It’s kind of nice that people are seeing a rural version of that. I think maybe the ultimate rural noir is Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” That’s the story where a traveling salesman takes a girl up into a hayloft and then steals her wooden leg. Flannery O’Connor is maybe our reigning queen of country noir.
Q: She could be considered a manly writer.
A: I’m traveling with her. I have a cardboard cutout of Flannery O’Connor, and since I’m driving to Madison, she’s coming with me. She’s kind of my literary mother.
Q: “Once Upon a River” was your last novel, yes?
A: Did you hear? Entertainment Weekly did this map of the U.S. of books, and they named “Once Upon a River” the most important Michigan book. It’s incredible.
Q: The main character from that book, Margo Crane, was born of a short story and became a novel. How do you know when that might happen? Are any of these characters in “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” destined for a novel?
A: You never know what these characters are going to do. They start out as aspects of your personality and then they become forces of nature in and of themselves. We’ll see. I love it when I have an opportunity and a desire to revisit characters later. It’s joyful. It’s like going back and finding old friends or family members that you’ve lost for awhile.
Q: Do you get mostly women at your readings?
A: No, not usually. I’ve made it one of my secret missions to write books about women that men will pick up. It really helped “Once Upon a River” to have a boat on the cover. Talking to book sellers, it’s kind of a well-known thing that most novels are sold to women. If I can bring my ferocious women into the world and have men read about them, then I’ve conquered a great taboo. I’ve accomplished something.