TSP on Bonnie Jo Campbell, Summer 2009:
We Are What We Write
by Zinta Aistars
It’s fascinating to watch. Bonnie Jo Campbell enters a space, and every fly
in the room, including me, is drawn to her like honey. And not just to Bonnie, but to Bonnie’s words, too. We are what
We’ve met before. Many times, in fact, paths crossing
from youth, when we were both in the same high school on the boonier outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan—Comstock High
School. If I was growing up in the ‘burbs, civilization encroaching far too fast, then Bonnie was more safely out there.
Really out there. Where the farmland unrolled free, and the trains rolled by, even the circus train that Bonnie would follow
at one point. Yes, she ran away with the circus. But she came back, and stayed, while I left and left again. We would meet
again in a writers’ group I joined for a short time, and I had the astounding pleasure of reading some of her work in
early draft. Later still, when she taught as an adjunct professor at Kalamazoo College, where I wrote for the alumni magazine.
Later yet, when I introduced my TSP cofounder and coeditor, J. Conrad Guest, at
a reading at, sadly, now defunct local bookstore Athena’s in downtown Kalamazoo. Bonnie was reading then, too. There
was Q Road, an amazing novel that spoke of those out there places she knew so well;
Women and Other Animals, a collection of stories that made tarnished women shine
And now, with her third book sliding off the hot presses of
Wayne State University Press in Detroit, one of the Made in Michigan Writers Series, I sat in a quiet corner of Bell’s Brewery at the beginning of town and awaited her arrival. I had American Salvage with me—in manuscript form—with its publication pending but weeks away. Tucked away as I was in the corner,
I could see Bonnie come in and scope the place, missing me. She had Darling Christopher with her. Embarrassing, actually,
but I couldn’t stop thinking of her husband that way: Darling Christopher. It was how Bonnie referred to him, how she
dedicated her work, including this newest manuscript. And there was something darling about their relationship, looking on
from where I stood, my own in shards behind me. I watched her order a glass of red wine—oh, that Bonnie audacity, ordering
wine in a microbrewery!—and then I snuck up on her.
She turned around and her face blossomed into a sunshine smile.
Never mind how corny that sounds, that is exactly what Bonnie’s face does when she sees someone she knows. Or doesn’t
know, I suspect, but approaches her with guard down. Mind you, I detect fraud with the best of them. That must be it, I think,
as we move back to our table in the corner while Darling Christopher gathers elsewhere with friends, to patiently await his
That must be it. Bonnie’s allure. I don’t think
she will mind my saying she is not your Vogue fashion model. Her bright face is clean of makeup. Her clothes are comfortable
and sensible. Her blonde hair hangs long and free, tucked behind her ears, no trace of spray or gel or foam or pretension.
Her laughter is freeform cascade. She is what she is: Bonnie Jo Campbell, and oh my God, is she beautiful. Here’s what
I mean: this woman is what every woman, while primping and prissing in the mirror for a date, wishes she had the nerve to
be. Herself. And so achingly few of us dare.
I’m telling you, we all feel it, both genders, all ages,
whatever class level, no matter religion or social status or wallet thickness. There is an authenticity about this woman that
is positively irresistible. And because we are what we write, my theory is that this explains the quick heat of popularity
for all that Bonnie writes. She may not be a household name yet. Just watch. She will be.
Bonnie Jo Campbell writes about broken people. Broken women,
especially. “Men and women break differently,” she says, sipping that red wine. “Let’s face it, no
one wants to admit that in our world men are predators. Walking into this bar… men and women do it differently. Men,
they come in and scope the place: what do I want here? Women, they come in and look around quickly, am I okay here?”
So this love for broken people… broken, yet very strong,
very durable women…
“Broken people inspire most of my writing,” Bonnie’s
smile blossoms again, showing the love. “People learn through pain. No, I’m afraid we learn nothing from happiness.
It’s the pain. To be transformed, we must be heat-treated. Sometimes pain makes you mean, but sometimes it makes you
tender and understanding.”
“…is a curse. I’ve never known anyone that
is beautiful to be happy. Ordinary people are the happiest. The physically beautiful, life seems to promise them so much,
there are all these high expectations, but they fall apart. Life takes hard work.”
Bonnie’s story in American
Salvage, “The Burn,” is about a man who is mean, grumpy, racist, sexist. Like God with her Job, Bonnie beat
him down, and Murphy’s Law in this story was in full swing. Everything that could go wrong in one day did. Jim Lobretto’s
car runs out of gas, he spills hot coffee all over himself, he can’t hold a woman in his life for more than a moment,
if that. He spills gasoline on his lap. He gets stopped by a cop. He drops a match…
Yes, he learns.
Most of Bonnie’s characters do. They are survivors. They
are heat-treated and transformed. Ordinary people dealing with ordinary life, which is the toughest business any of us know.
Bonnie has been through that mill, too. She did not turn mean.
“But I did have to prove to myself I wasn’t stupid.
I got a degree in mathematics to prove that to myself. A second degree black belt adds confidence. I think of myself as a
big, tough gal.”
Her stories, she admits freely, are autobiographical. If not
in the obvious sense, then in the life sense. Characters are conglomerations of friends and family, people in the local news,
observations, all blended and messed together to produce characters who breathe with life off the written page. Writing is
therapy, she says, and she needs her sessions—three to five hours a day and never a day missed, ever.
“My stories all came from a seed of real experience. I
write about things that obsess me. Writing helps me figure things out. I mean,” she chortles, “who would dare
talk about this kind of stuff to a therapist?”
We are what we hate is a theme in the story titled “The
Yard Man.” We are what we fear. We are, also, what we love most. So Bonnie knows that intimacy, too, and it is what
is most beautiful about every day, ordinary, broken people (and we all are):
“She rested her hip against
the doorframe and gazed at him languidly while he fumbled with the key. Before they’d left home, his wife had insisted
they make the bed, and so, in a few minutes, when they went upstairs, it would feel something like a motel bed. And his wife
would go into the bed with her cool coppery hair and soft thighs and smooth arms, and there would be no children there to
disturb them. He would slide over her and inside her and the sunlight would play on them through the curtains, dappling her
body. On this hot afternoon, the red squirrels would sleep and not scratch inside the walls as his wife’s hair coiled
on the pillow. Let snakes sun themselves upon rocks, let spiders suck juices from the bodies of flies they had captured in
the night and drop the crumpled corpses to the floor like the shells of tiny pistachios. Let dilapidated wooden sheds settle
while weed roots nudged into cracks in their foundations. Let all of nature continue its parade while he made love with his
wife, the great love of his life, whom he’d lost in high school and miraculously found again.” (page 14, “The
Bonnie has four novels tucked away, unpublished, works in progress
or regress, because she has no fear of mess. “A writer can’t have a clean house,” she says, and one suspects
this goes far beyond the literal. A writer must not fear mess, or brokenness, for from that place rises lasting beauty and
understanding, and love. A writer must not fear the living, or there will be nothing of value to say. She talks of loving
the solitude of her writing, but it stands beside a life fully lived. Bonnie plants great vegetable gardens, rides donkeys,
does math, chases a circus, travels cross country to be a faculty member at a low residency MFA program in Portland,
Oregon. She teaches and is willing to be taught. She says, “I wish I wasn’t interested in anything else, but I’m
very involved in life,” but it is that ever and everywhere being interested that brings the life back to her work.
“And then I don’t answer the phone. Sometimes I
light a candle, I shut out the noise. I write.”
And is never satisfied. She fusses over stories already published,
rewrites stories that are rejected, transforming what one publication turns away into the next publication’s prize-winning
entry. With the sensibility of an artist but the skill of a business woman, she gets the reality of modern writing—the requirement to
be one’s own publicist. Nor is she against hiring one. Connecting with her readers, after all, if not a presence in
her writing space, is very much a presence when the typing is done.
“Sharing writing is so intimate,” she says, her
voice dropping to a level of nearly whispered intimacy. “During that seed time, writing is all for the self. It is so
much work to create something that can be read. I value that alone time. But I write to communicate. It is important to connect.
If I had no prospect whatsoever of being read, well, I’d make candy instead, and pass it out on holidays.”
Recently, Bonnie has also started writing poetry. “I never
thought I would,” she says. “Fiction is so hard. It’s like a marriage. Poetry is like a quick, exciting
affair. You know, writing is a tortuous process. You think it will get easier, but it doesn’t. Every time I start
a new story, I question myself. I’m not smart enough to write this. But the story becomes smarter than me. So I just
go along with where it leads me, one sentence at a time. That’s how people find wisdom. A little bit at a time.”