BY SARAH TEREZ ROSENBLUM
Perhaps the most gratifying benefit of being a Pluitzer Prize winning blogger (an award granted to me in 1988 by Jamie Pluitzer for most gummy worms consumed in one sitting) is having the opportunity to ask people I admire questions I want answered. Recently, I spoke with Pushcart Prize winner and National Book Award Finalist, author Bonnie Jo Campbell about her background, writing process and powerful short story collection, “American Salvage.”
Our Town Did you always want to write?
Bonnie Jo Campbell From the time I was in high school, but when you’re young you don’t have anything to write. I went around trying and then gave it up and studied mathematics in a PhD program, but all the while I kept writing. Just about the time I was succeeding in math, ready to start a career as a mathematics teacher or mathematician, I started figuring out how to actually write, so I gave up the whole math thing.
OT Are the two capacities related?
BJC Most of higher mathematics [involves] proofs, and somehow that analytical process of getting through proof after proof helped me with working a story through. Writing is so wrapped up in ego, but with math one is just trying to get it right, although you’re often wrong. I think math helped me become a good critic of myself, come at writing a little less personally.
OT I’m curious how you came to write "The Inventor 1972," a short story in the collection.
BJC I worked for a long time to find the right shape. The initial inspiration was a true story from my neighborhood: a boy made his own scuba gear and drowned in his family’s pond. I was haunted by this interesting, inventive, troublemaking kid. I’m also interested in the loss of innocence, and in real life, a girl I knew of got hit by a car on the road by this real pond. Originally, I thought the girl was the story’s centerpiece, but when I started writing about this guy who hits her, I realized that was more interesting. He’s a person who has done a terrible thing and has to live with it, a really flawed character, unattractive to most of the world. I didn’t make any effort to make him attractive; he even has thoughts about the girl that are really terrifying.
OT You often write from a male perspective.
BJC I love writing about men. To get by in the world you have to know how men think. Not that all guys think alike, but women tend to think about more things at the same time, an overgeneralization, but I find it easier to make my male characters focus than I do my female characters.
OT Geography seems integral for you. Why?
BJC I always know exactly where my stories take place, which gives me something certain so I can use my imagination for the other stuff. I worry though, who wants to keep reading stories about Kalamazoo? But then Faulkner had no problem writing about his county, so there’s a tradition. I did write one story set in Romania just to prove to myself I could do it, and then I went right back to writing about Michigan! Still, I get letters from readers saying “you’re writing about my hometown in West Virginia,” or “you’re writing exactly about where I came from in Alabama.” I think by writing about a place with great specificity, you manage to make it universal.
OT What essential part of your writing process looks least like writing?
BJC I’ve been frantically working on this novel. I haven’t shopped, I only shower once a week, the dishes, I’m just going to throw them away! But yesterday I had a little time, so I got on my folding bike, it looks like a clown bike, and I realized my tire was flat so I went to the oil change place, got some air, just chitchatted with the oil change guys. I let them ride the bike, and we’re talking, and then I went to the butcher shop, got some meat and chitchatted with them. I just had the wonderful feeling of simply communicating with my fellow human beings in a very casual, easy way, and I was realizing even in those moments, this is what sustains my writing life.
OT Any hints about your next book?
BJC It’s related to one of the stories in “American Salvage,” "Family Reunion." It’s so hard to write a good ending to a story and Family Reunion probably has the best ending of any story I’ve written, so what did I go and do, I went past the ending and wrote a whole novel!
Bonnie Jo Campbell reads at Women and Children First , Wednesday October 27th, at 7 p.m.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.