June 25, 2011
So how did you get where you are, Ms. Campbell? And why are you wearing a Carhartt coverall?
Thank you for coming to see me at my home in the swamp! Even as I am scrubbing mildew off a pair of leather boots with an old toothbrush, I am basking in the glow of my good literary fortune. And now I’ve been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. It’s a huge honor. Hey, pass me that muskrat that needs skinning. I like to think I’m in this beautiful place—with a new book coming out—because I work really hard, but plenty of people work hard. Hey, watch out, that shotgun is loaded! I’ve been writing about the characters and situations that interest me, and it turns out that these are characters and situations other people want to read about. What beautiful luck! Too bad about your car over there—it seems to be sinking into the mud.
How can I learn to skin a muskrat?
In chapter nineteen of my new novel, Once Upon a River, you’ll find a fictional character giving detailed instructions for skinning a muskrat.
So why did you switch from a sensible career in mathematics to one in the wooly world of creative writing?
In 1992, after a decade of frustration in my attempts to write fiction, I sharpened my pencils and finagled my way into a mathematics PhD program. It looked like a perfect refuge. In mathematics, there is a lot of certainty—when you’ve proven something, you’ve really proven it. Writing a story is a less rigorous, but more complicated and subtle business, and it’s hard to know whether or not you’ve shown what you wanted to show. In math, you generally know whether you’ve gotten it right or wrong. However, the mathematical language limits the kinds of conversation a writer can have with her reader. And I found myself desperate to communicate in a less precise way with a larger number of people, including knuckleheads. So I stashed my pocket protector, collected my master’s degree, and headed over to the dark side of the campus. I took a fiction-writing class with Jaimy Gordon, and I never looked back. Hey, why is that possum sniffing your shoe? Did you step in something? Go away, possum!
How do you keep warm?
Wood fire, fuel oil, chicken manure, reading novels, drinking wine, making love, reading short stories, heated arguments, biking uphill, Okinawan weapons training, putting a pan of something on the stove and then wandering away and forgetting about it.
What warms up your fiction?
In order to finish my stories, I need input from other people. In Once Upon a River, my editor, the goddess Jill Bialosky, used a pink pencil to suggest bone-achingly brilliant edits. My agent, Bill Clegg, is a wise critic for work in progress. My pal Heidi Bell, a freelance editor, suggested many word and sentence improvements. Writing is a solitary activity, but I rely on my writing friends and others (including my mom) to tell me where I may be hitting the wrong note or missing something altogether. I repay these kindnesses however I can, for example, by feeding and watering my mom’s barnyard fowl.
You used to travel the world. Do you miss it?
I used to run bicycle tours in Eastern Europe and Russia, though my company Goulash Tours, but now I mostly sit at a computer, and I never miss a meal. While waiting for my water to boil for tea, I often crack open black walnuts (collected in autumn) using a four-inch bench vise mounted on my kitchen counter. I eat the walnuts for breakfast, biting down carefully because of the shell fragments. In July there are black raspberries ripening on bushes, luring me away from my desk, and I have to bite down carefully on those as well, because of all the seeds. And every year I make five gallons of elderberry wine. Who has time to travel the world?
What’s up with the donkeys? The wild turkeys?
The asses Jack and Don Quixote eat well and endure wormings and having their feet trimmed a few times a year, but they don’t appreciate my literary success, which has cut way into donkey training time. I can ride Jack with a bit-less bridle, but before I can get the two of them to pull me in a cart or drag logs out of the woods, I have to build a training area, and the thought of digging post holes for a new corral makes me tired. In fact, I may write a sonnet about digging post holes instead of actually digging them. As for the wild turkeys, well, you can see a few of our local specimens getting too close in this video:
The many hunters around here tell me that wild turkeys are wily, that they avoid humans, but one of these guys drew blood on my husband. That yellow umbrella in the video didn’t work as a weapon; we now use a hockey stick.
Will you be moving to New York anytime soon?
Ha! Not likely. I do want to spend more time in Chicago, though. That two-and-a-half hour Amtrak ride from Kalamazoo to Chicago is the best place to hide out and read. I enjoy walking the streets of Chicago’s north side in search of all the bars I used to drink in with my Uncle Terry when I was underage. Also there’s a woman named Joann there who will cut my hair once in a while so I don’t look like Marcia Brady. My publicist Sheryl took me to Nordstrom’s where I got fitted for the right size bra. So many good things happen in Chicago. And I hear there’s a man there, he danced with his wife.
Most of the stories in your collection American Salvage are written from a man’s point of view. Isn’t it difficult to write across gender?
Yeah, right. As if it’s hard to know what men are thinking.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Get a trust fund. Or better yet, stay poor and have a lot of struggles and adventures that you can write about later. My best writing comes out of loving my subjects, so maybe you should try to love the other human beings around you, even the knuckleheads. Also, try not to take twenty-four years to write a story; that’s how long it took me to write “Bringing Belle Home,” one of the stories in American Salvage. And keep in mind that the worst crime in the writing universe is to be boring; so don’t be boring.