What’s all the fuss?
Whoopee & Zoinks & Zowie & Zonkeys for everyone! What a joyful thing to have a new book coming out in 2015. Every book born is a miracle, but mine has a fabulous cover by which you can judge it, and inside are about two hundred and fifty pages of stories that I worked really hard on with much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. And WW Norton is sending me to far-flung cities to make the case that folks should read it. For your information a zonkey is a zebra-donkey hybrid.
So, another book of stories, your third. Flannery O’Connor only had two.
Did I mention that I’ve got a life-size cut out of Flannery O’Connor for my book release party—it’s a picture of her looking very grumpy. Today (September 14) is my birthday, and I’m devoting my fifty-third year to Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading and rereading her stories and letters, preparing to speak in honor of her at the Library of Congress on March 25.
You’re no Flannery O’Connor.
O’Connor wrote with complete confidence that there was a higher power, that the Catholic God was going to sort out whatever messes we humans had made. This allowed her to be a little more brutal in her stories. I don’t have that confidence, and so I have to figure out how people can, on their own, redeem themselves. Like O’Connor, I make my characters pass through the fires of hell, but in my stories there’s usually some payoff, and once they’ve been heat-treated, they’re stronger than before.
There are a lot of story collections. Why does the world need this book?
Are you a Catholic?
Would you answer the question?
In Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, you’ll find some voices you might not have heard from lately: sluts, mothers of sluts, daughters of sluts, grandmother-sluts, grandmother-farmers, circus snow-cone sellers, phlebotomists. This book celebrates and exposes various mother-daughter relationships in all their complexity, and it also explores how women may be affected by an experience of sexual violation or molestation. These women aren’t victims—they’re people moving on from a bad experience and finding that life is changed, and perhaps is becoming unrecognizable. And my characters survive and become wiser.
The characters in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters are in rough shape. Do you see hope for them?
My characters were conceived in a spirit of confusion, but they can save the world. They might even be able to save themselves.
What makes a short story, as opposed to a novel?
When I’ve got a character in a tough situation, I try to write a short story about it. If I’m not able to start wrapping things up in ten or twenty pages, I may be writing a novel, which means I have failed to write a short story. With a novel, I am in way over my head, and I know I’m going to be working with the same set of characters for years to come, so you can’t really blame me for trying to avoid that predicament. Besides, some of the best books published in the last few years are collections of short stories, including George Saunder’s Tenth of December and Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck, and I can hope that my stories are fit to lick the narrative boots of the stories of those two writers.
How do you get a story collection published?
Well, I was working on a novel, and so my handsome agent Bill Clegg (who is also a bestselling writer) and I decided to try for a two-book deal with WW Norton, by including a pile of stories I had already written. To our surprise, my editor, Jill Bialosky said, “Let’s do the stories first.” I hadn’t known for sure that I had a cohesive collection of stories, and we did spend a lot of time figuring out what the collection would be. We removed the novella about a girl haunted by her father’s ghost, and this helped us see it could be a mother-daughter book. After batting around dozens of titles, we all loved Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Once we had the title, I wrote a pair of new stories to fill in the gaps, and those were “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom” and the title story, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” Usually it takes me years to write a story, but for these stories I had only a few months. I think they’re finished. I hope they’re finished. Finally we decided to throw in some very short stories, one-page stories. Then I fiddled endlessly with the order of the sixteen stories. All the while I was revising the stories themselves, which needed a lot of revision, right up until the 11th hour.
Is there sex in the book?
Yes, lots of sex. In fact, my friend Leigh Camacho Rourke suggested I call it Fifty Shades of Plaid. If you like sex, you are going to like this book.
Is there gratuitous sex?
Of course not.
And why all the plaid?
The official cool weather uniform of my people in Michigan is the plaid flannel shirt. For winter, we have fashioned the insulated flannel shirt. Most of us have at least a half dozen flannel shirts in varying degrees of raggedness, and the two times I was invited to lunch at the Park Club in Kalamazoo, I wore my very best flannel shirt. My book wears a flannel shirt my sister found at the second-hand store. In the back of the bench seat of the truck on the cover of the book are two wadded up flannel shirts, one of which that has already been used as a grease rag.
How does it feel for Entertainment Weekly to have chosen Once Upon a River as the novel that best represents the state of Michigan in its map of The United States of Books?
Well, it feels really great. I started laughing with joy when I saw it, and I haven’t stopped. Then I glanced at West Virginia and saw that my teacher Jaimy Gordon was chosen for Lord of Misrule, and that put me over the moon. We are raising glasses in Kalamazoo—I guess we would have raised them anyhow, but we are raising them in joy rather than in sorrow and resignation. I am waiting to hear what the state says about my book in response, but it has not gotten back to me yet. Michigan is one of those states that barely tolerates its writers, so I’m hoping they’ll let me stay now even though I’ve called attention to myself.
You’ve mentioned in earlier interviews that your Mom doesn’t like your writing, but you’ve dedicated this book to her. Does she like this book?
My mother read the book and said, “This made me cry,” and so I was telling everybody that my mom liked my book (it’s true she hasn’t really liked the other books). Later she clarified and said, “I didn’t say I liked it, I said it made me cry. I don’t like to cry.” However, my mother and I are the best of pals and have plenty to talk about. And shout about.
Is your mother in the book?
Of course not, not really, but shades of Susanna inhabit many of the stories. She is a tough woman, who struggled to raise five kids while living the life she wanted to live on a small farm. However, the mothers I tend to portray are rather less good-humored than my mom, who is one of those funny storytellers who will keep you laughing. You would like Susanna. Come visit sometime. She’ll roll you a cigarette. The middle-aged woman in “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree” is the closest to being my actual mother, though the story is entirely fictional.
Do you have daughters?
No, I have no daughters, or none that I know of, no sons either, and so I will undoubtedly die miserable and alone someday, with only my books to comfort me. I see this book as a kind of daughter and know she will plague me and delight me, and I will argue with her and I will worry about how she is perceived as she goes out into the world. My book American Salvage is my only son, and he was more trouble to conceive, but has straightened up and behaves now. Though I have no flesh-and-blood daughters, I have a heap of fabulous nieces, aged from 3 months to 32 years, and I can’t live without any of them. We could talk about this no-children thing at great length at the Lamplighter Lounge, but it wouldn’t make for very interesting reading here. Meet me later.
Where can I find you?
You’ll find me lurking at the edge of the Kalamazoo River, under the cover of swamp oaks. I’ll be the one smoking two cigarettes.
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
I’m a donkey person. My donkeys are a father and son, Jack and Don Quixote, and they make my life better just by smelling good and being themselves. Recently they’ve developed a hoof fungus, which we could all do without. My book, however, is a dog person.
What’s deep in your heart?
My heart is brimming, full of love for my husband and three hundred seventy-nine other people, many of them fictional. My heart aches. It pumps hard and then threatens to stop altogether. I have the heart of a bitter old woman and the heart of a stupid kid, one of those kids who doesn’t look before crossing the road no matter how many times you yell at her. Yes, I have two hearts. One heart is clenched like a fist; the other heart has a hole in it and scans the room. My heart is ruined, hopeless. Don’t ask me about my heart.
What is your writing schedule?
I first consider all other options, and then I sit down to write, preferably before I have woken up entirely. I would like to dream on the page, but it doesn’t usually work out that way. Sometimes I do fall asleep. My husband sleeps in the next room and when he calls my name, I go to him.
The only way I was able to finish writing this book was because they moved my husband to an early shift. He had to be at work at 6am-4pm for nine months, and since I was accustomed to writing all morning, I tricked myself into writing for six hours instead of just three.
Is it laundry day at your house?
No, this is just how I dress. When I’m home I pretty much wear the same thing for a week at a time, just putting on a Carhartt coverall for the rough work and then taking it off before I go to bed.
What will you be wearing on your book tour?
A martini, three olives. Also, I’ll be wearing my muscles, which are very large and powerful, and you’ll see why I’m handling my own security.
What can we expect if we come to a reading for your book release?
Fights, I hope. There’s a lot to disagree about in the fiction of today. My women narrators are not easy to get along with. Passionate embraces. There’s a lot to love about fiction today. Souvenirs. I have bookmarks, bracelets. Snacks, I hope. I’ll try to bring some, but yours would be welcome as well. Maybe the bookstore will spring for some crackers and cheese. Or we could take up a collection and get a twelve-pack.
BONNIE JO CAMPBELL is the author of the best-selling novel Once Upon a River (July 2011, W.W. Norton) and is also a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. She was a 2009 National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her collection of stories, American Salvage, which won the Foreword Book of the Year award for short fiction. Campbell is also author of the novel Q Road and the story collection Women & Other Animals. She has received the AWP Award for Short Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, and the Eudora Welty Prize. Her poetry collection Love Letters to Sons of Bitches won the 2009 CBA Letterpress Chapbook award. She teaches in the Low-Residency Program at Pacific University. She lives in Kalamazoo.