Stateside Podcast: Bonnie Jo Campbell on her new novel
Audio coming soon.
In her new novel "The Waters," writer Bonnie Jo Campbell takes readers to a witchy wetland on the westside of Michigan. Stateside spoke with Campbell about the women of this community and what her writing process looks like.
The novel centers on the unruly women of the Zook family, who take on much of their community’s emotional and spiritual needs. Campbell sees this dynamic play out far beyond the pages of her book.
“In families, I think we're aware, often, if we're paying close attention, that one or a few women are doing the emotional work. … The emotional work doesn't always look like work to the people outside of what's going on, but it's very important,” Campbell said.
The women of the Zook family take on healing roles in every sense of the world, a role that Campbell views to be both aspirational and necessary in the “hyper masculinized society” that she sees today.
“I think we're feeling the need for a kind of feminine power to come in and help us negotiate society as it is right now,” Campbell said.
However, Campbell does not romanticize these healing roles. In “The Waters,” her characters explore the limitations of generosity; the compassion displayed by several of the female characters is met not with gratitude, but with suspicion.
“Maybe we have some idea from Hollywood that if we do the right thing we’ll be rewarded. But in real life, we often pay the price for doing the right thing — we pay a high price,” Campbell said.
Campbell also noted her efforts to create a story that can be read as both realistic and fantastical.
“You could say that this is a realistic, gritty story about women living in a natural environment that they love and feeling threatened by the people around them. But you could also say, this is a fairy tale about a witch who lives on an island and has three daughters, and that youngest is the most beautiful and foolish, and she must save them all. So I'm trying to do both,” Campbell said.
Campbell described herself as an “organic writer” who does not use an outline. She said she is very interested in how characters interact with landscape, and writes at a slow pace.
“There's a lot of plot in this book, but it feels to me that the plot rose out of the landscape and the characters inevitably, as though everything that happens is absolutely the thing that had to happen,” Campbell said.
She uses the plot in her stories to test her characters by bringing them into their full selves. She also aims to exemplify the intense intimacy of living in a small town through her characters, and particularly through Rose Thorn’s character arc and the community’s reaction to her. While this character is well liked, many people in the town also carry judgment for the decisions she makes for herself.
For Campbell, these kinds of complex characters point to the ever-present psychological element of writing fiction. Campbell said that Rose’s dynamic with the rest of the town reflects the projections that the town is putting on her, more than a true character judgment of Rose.
“These people in the community of Whiteheart want to consider themselves good Christians, so they need somewhere to focus the energy associated with the opposite of that. They can put all their stuff, all the wickedness onto Rose thorn and the other members of the family,” Campbell said.
Even as Campbell’s readership has grown, she has felt the frustration that many writers have with getting their work, particularly their first works, published. She said she knows the challenge of working with early drafts, and believes there’s space in the industry for everyone to “have success and have a readership.”
While her role as a writer has expanded into marketing and promoting her work, her love has remained with the writing process and talking about writing. As she is promoting her novel, she always appreciates the chance to go beyond an elevator pitch and talk more about the subtle aspects of the book.
“The more we can … talk about the work of writing, then I can feel like myself.”
GUEST ON THIS EPISODE:
- Bonnie Jo Campbell, writer; author of The Waters