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A path through the darkness: An interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell not only writes great Michigan books, she knows a lot about great Michigan books, too.

Campbell's most recent book, the novel Once Upon a River, earned a profile in Poets and Writers Magazine and was listed on Newsweek's 10 Must-Read Summer Books.

It has received critical acclaim from the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Parade, NPR, and Booklist.

Her previous book, American Salvage, was a finalist for theNational Book Award.

Before coming into the studio, we had spoken about Michigan books, and to my surprise Campbell came into the studio with a big box full of books  - books either about the state or by Michigan writers.

We couldn't talk about all of them in the interview, so here's the list of books that Bonnie Jo Campbell brought:

  • How to Fly by Rachael Perry
  • Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss
  • Autopsy of an Engine by Lolita Hernandez
  • The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
  • Within the Lighted City by Lisa Lenzo
  • The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
  • Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle
  • Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema
  • The Legend of Sleeping Bear by Kathy-Jo Wargin
  • Eden Springs by Laura Kasischke
  • Laughing Whitefish by Robert Traver
  • Stitches by David Small
  • Of Woods and Other Things by Emma Pticher
  • Michigan's Eastern Massasauga--An Historic Distribution by Tom Beauvais
  • "Brown Dog" by Jim Harrison
  • "Wanting Only to be Heard" by Jack Driscoll
  • "The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit" by Michael Zadoorian

Campbell had a couple of other recommendations, though she didn't bring the books with her: 

  • The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake by Steve Amick
  • The Women Were Leaving the Men by Andy Mozina

We spoke in Michigan Radio's studios about why people are drawn to dark books and what the difference is between why Hemingway's characters hunt and why Campbell's characters hunt. And despite her protest, we think she sounded awfully sophisticated throughout the entire discussion.
http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/michigan/local-michigan-978708.mp3Bonnie Jo Campbell: I don’t know how to talk about books. I mean, I write them, but I don’t really know how to talk about them in a sophisticated way.

Brian Short: Do you think that’s the only way to engage in (a discussion about) books?

BJC: I don’t know.

BS: Well, how do you engage with them?

BJC: Like, if they’re fun and interesting. And yet some very depressing books can be very lively. Such as…(picks up book)

BS: David Small’s Stitches. Another Michigan writer. What do you think about Stitches?

BJC: I loved it but I don’t know if I can recommend it to everybody. I know my mom would hate it because it’s so dark. And it’s so scary to follow a kid’s path through the darkness. But it’s such a beautiful book, such a beautiful book.

I’m very close to my mom, who is a huge reader. She probably reads a book a day. And yet, often, she doesn’t want to read stories that go into a dark place. I wonder if that’s because she’s had hard times herself.  And she doesn’t see any need to recreationally go recreate a kind of misery, maybe.

BS: Bonnie Jo brought this wonderful box—

BJC: (laughs)

BS: This Starter shoe box full of Michigan books. So let’s just poke through, what do you have in there?

BJC: Already I’m thinking of the books I don’t have that I wish I had.

BS: (laughs)

BJC: When you invited me, Brian, to come here and talk about this, it was like a month ago, and I said, oh I’ll have all kinds of time to re-read everything that I love and to read some new books. And I think I managed to re-read one Michigan book. And that was Robert Traver’s Laughing Whitefish.

And I really love this book. I’d read it before when I was a lot younger. You know, he’s known for Anatomy of a Murder. It's (Laughing Whitefish) a story of a young, new lawyer who just can’t find himself in southern Michigan and has to travel up to northern Michigan to figure out who he is. He represents a young Indian woman in trying to get some justice for some money that had been owed to her deceased father.

And it’s just such a compelling story, and like so many Michigan stories this was about a guy going north to become manlier. (laughs) It’s a common theme in Michigan stories, started by Hemingway.

And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been re-reading some of the Nick Adams stories. And my god, is there a lot of fishing and hunting in there.

You know, I’m thinking of the “Big Two-Hearted River,” which I re-read while drinking a Two-Hearted Ale from Bell’s, is so much about proving something in the wilderness. But in that story and others, it seems as though his character is going to the wilderness to learn something about himself and to prove something about himself.

And in my story, my gal is going to nature to feed herself. She isn’t getting manlier, I don’t think.  She can be self-sufficient there and she doesn’t have to, I guess, deal with people who would take away her freedom.  Because she has the skillset she has, she can get by there. With a few stolen vegetables from gardens to add to it.

BS: So Margo (from Once Upon a River) is a character that you’ve written about before. I was wondering how you first encountered Margo?

BJC: Yeah, she’s my Nick Adams, isn’t she? Or my Brown Dog, from Jim Harrison.

Actually I didn’t know it was Margo when she first appeared. There’s a story from my first collection called the "Fishing Dog," and it has a young woman who lives with a big hairy man who drinks too much on the river. And she meets a nice dog who introduces her to a rather nice man who seems maybe nicer than the big hairy man.

And  then, I  later wrote a story about a girl who is molested by her uncle and gets a unique kind of revenge. And I discovered that those two might be the same girl.

BS: Why title the book Once Upon a River?

BJC: This was a hard book to title, actually.

BS: Was it?

BJC: I resisted. My agent came up with this title, Once Upon a River. I wanted to call the book, The Fishing Dog, or Margo Crane, because I thought it was the kind of book in which a character is mythologized like Paul Bunyan. Or, in a more contemporary book, like Martin Dressler. Those titles just didn’t seem to work and my agent came up with Once Upon a River. It took me a long time to warm up to it but what it did was give me license to stretch things a little bit farther than I would have.

But it’s hard! Titling a book is so hard. It’s a miracle every time you see, any time you pick up a book and it’s got a great title and a great cover, that’s a miracle. Doesn’t even matter what’s in it (laughs).