Monday, October 5, 2015

The sublime Bonnie Jo Campbell talks about her short story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, writing in the kitchen, the difference between a donkey and a mule and so much more

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the critically acclaimed author of some of my favorite books ever, including Once Upon a River, American Salvage (Nominated for the 1009 National Book Award in Fiction), Q Road, Women and Other Animals (winner of the AWP Prize for short fiction.  Her newest collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (genius title, right?) is fierce, humane and dazzling. I'm so thrilled to host Bonnie here (and I love the photos of her with the donkeys!) Thank you, Bonnie.

What propelled you to write a collection of short stories instead of another novel? Is there a different feeling in it for you?
I'm always working on both novels and short stories, and to my surprise, a collection of stories came together before my new novel did. Writing the stories is more like dating, while writing the novel is like getting married and setting up house and planning for children. There's more freedom to experiment in the short stories, to try out strange or extreme voices and see where they carry me. In a novel, I need to be more dutiful and thorough in creating comprehensive world in which a reader can take refuge for ten or twenty or thirty hours. 

The people who inhabit your work are fierce, downtrodden, working class and rural--and absolutely raw and real. What made you center on them or did you feel as if you had no real choice because they were calling to you?
The people in my stories are a heated-up version of the sorts of people I know from my hometown.  Of course I also know plenty of upper middle class people, educated people, people who are doing just fine, but I find myself more interested in exploring the problems of folks who are having troubles making sense of life. I wonder if I am interested in these people because I spent so much of my young life at the mercy of such people--if you make the supposition that children are at the mercy of adults.  Many of the women in these stories have been affected by sexual violence, and I guess I have felt the need to tell about their experiences.

This extraordinary collection is about mothers, daughters, grief, love, guilt, the ties that bind and sometimes strangle. Why do you think the mother-daughter relationship is so much more fraught than, say, the mother-son one?
We're going to have to call in the psychologists and social workers for that question! There is nothing more personal and essential than giving birth, and then to give birth to someone who could in turn give birth sets up a complicated dynamic from the get go. Maybe part of the problem comes from the natural identification mothers and daughters have with one another as creatures with so much in common, and the necessity of breaking away from one another, breaking that profound bond. Now add to that, as my stories do, some element of sexual molestation of the mother or the daughter. And by the way, thank you for saying the collection is extraordinary.

I’m always interested in process, so can you tell me what was different about writing this book than your last one? What surprised you about it?
Well, for starters, I did all my revising and a good part of my writing in the kitchen of my house. My other books had been written in a room I considered my office, but that didn't work this time, and I'm not sure why. I wrote a lot of this standing up at a table containing fresh fruits and home-canned vegetables. Garlic and onions were always nearby. Dishes were piling up behind me. What surprised me is that I managed to actually wrestle these stories into shape. There were times when the whole collection seemed unwieldy, impossible to manage, like a school room full of unruly, undisciplined children. Did I gain weight while finishing this book? Yes, a little.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you plot out your novels or just fly by the seat of your pen? How do you craft your stories?
I start writing when I've got an interesting character in a tough situation, and then I write as much as I can and then I step back and see what I've got and try to figure out what I want to achieve. In the early stages I work organically, feeling my way along, but then I analyze and scheme and shape and make maps of cause-and-effect relationships. My background is in mathematics, so I've always gotten a lot of good out of my left brain. I've heard a lot of people warn writers against too much analysis of their own writing, so I guess I work differently than those writers.  Joyce Carol Oates says she always knows where she's going when she sits down to write, and I wish I could have me a little more of that.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I'm obsessing about all the wrong things right now. I'm obsessing about my book tour for Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, and I'm obsessing about my health and exercise and how to winterize our drafty old house. I'd like to be obsessing about women and their chickens (a profound relationship) or about mushrooms (I love almost every kind of mushroom and need to go out for aging.) I'm obsessing a little bit about my new novel about a girl who loves mathematics--I hope to obsess more soon. Oh, and folding bikes. I have one folding bike, and I want more folding bikes. Or I want to play around riding them anyway.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You could have asked me about the difference between a donkey and a mule. You probably know, but in case some of your readers don't know, a donkey is one of the world's three equines (horse, donkey, zebra). A mule is a creature born of a donkey father with a horse or pony mother, and it's sterile. Two times in the history of the world, it has been documented that a female mule gave birth.  The recent one was a mule giving birth to a mule daughter. If my book has a mascot, it's that pair of mules.

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