A Conversation with Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Before becoming a writer, she held a variety of jobs, which included traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and leading bicycle tours in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltics, and the Balkans. She has studied mathematics, but now she writes fiction and non-fiction, much of it set in Michigan’s vanishing rural communities. Campbell’s writing is known for its vivid descriptions of the land and the people she so clearly loves even at their most unlovable—men and women who drink, fight, and work in a difficult and unforgiving landscape. Her first novel Q Road has been described as “thoughtful, well-paced, deeply moral (though not moralizing).” Her first collection of short stories, Women and Other Animals won the AWP Short Fiction Award and was published in 1999 by the University of Massachusetts Press and in paperback by Simon & Schuster. Bonnie Jo’s new collection American Salvage, in which “Boar Taint” appears, will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2009.
GEETA KOTHARI: The first thing that struck me when reading “Boar Taint” was the chocolate bar Jill picks up on her way to buy her hog. It’s a small detail, but it grows in importance as the story progresses.
BONNIE JO CAMPBELL: Well, at first, I figured a gal like Jill would want some sort of comfort food for her journey. I mean, I’m a chocolate lover, and so if I were going to get myself a freaky hog I’d want some chocolate.
GK: Specifically, dark chocolate?
BJC: I chose the dark chocolate hazelnut chocolate bar because my writer friend Lisa Lenzo had recently given me one, and it seemed to me about the best thing I’d ever eaten.
GK: Was the chocolate there in the early drafts or did it emerge as you were writing?
BJC: It was in there right from the beginning. I guess it was part of the sensory architecture of the story. Pig stink, dark chocolate, silence, the smell of men, humidity and rain.
GK: I like that notion of sensory architecture. Too often when people talk about structure, they focus on plot first, but it seems to me the plot emerges from the details like the pokeweed, the flashlight, the hog itself. Where did the hog come from?
BJC: I grew up on a small farm, and once my ma got this idea to castrate a big boar hog we’d ended up with so that the meat would taste better. She’s the one who told me about boar taint ruining meat. Normally we castrated the babies, and it was no big deal, just a couple quick cuts and some squealing, but it was bad what we did to that boar. He put up a big fight, and afterwards he just lay there and wouldn’t eat for weeks, and he swelled up. I think he did recover, and he lived until we butchered him, but it was not pretty, and I felt real bad about it.
Also, growing up, I knew people who kept underfed animals in lousy situations, not caring properly for them–dogs and ponies, mostly–tied out in yards. Nowadays I guess I’d call the authorities, but way back then that hadn’t seemed like an option. An animal suffering abuse becomes weak, but when it is straddling life and death it becomes unpredictable as well, capable of strange behavior.
GK: So did the story start with the hog?
BJC: I started the story with two things: an educated gal who has decided to become a farmer and a room full of Jentzens for her to encounter. My ma once told me a story about visiting a strange farm and going into the house about sundown and there were no lights on and the people were all just sitting around the table in the dark doing nothing, as though waiting for the sun to rise the next morning. That image haunted me. In the story I didn’t try to explain or even figure out for myself why such a group of people would be sitting there that way. They could be dullards or a family troubled by incest, but they seemed to me somehow to be the embodiment of the end of the road for the farm families who don’t make the adjustments required by twenty-first century farming.
GK: Sounds like your ma is a good source for story.
BJC: Oh, yeah, my ma is the real deal. She’s a great inspiration—I never get tired of studying her. She’s impossibly practical in a lot of ways, lives her life almost without sentimentality. She can also be a harsh and judgmental person the way some of the old farm wives used to be. She didn’t grow up a farmer, but when she got divorced, she became one in order to feed five children. She befriended some of the old farmers around here and learned a lot from them. She’s also a big reader, but she doesn’t have a lot of patience for most literary fiction, not even mine. She prefers writing that is lighter, funnier, more formulaic. She likes murder mysteries.
GK: The Jentzen men are a ghostly yet menacing presence, and it’s interesting how Jill’s sense of alienation becomes crystallized for the reader once she gets home, where another group of men are waiting for her. It reminded me of the time I walked into the living room of a colleague’s house during a party and it was filled with men waiting for the boxing match to come on TV. My discomfort was immediate and intense, and I had to leave the room. Yet she doesn’t leave, she chooses to stay.
BJC: Yeah, a group of men can be a strange thing for a gal to wander into, whether it’s on a construction site or a friend’s living room. I study martial arts, and sometimes I’ve come into the dojo while a mostly male class is practicing judo or MMA, and the air is very oddly charged.
The Jentzen men are the failing farmers, ghosts of the men they once were, so far gone they don’t even bother to communicate anymore. They are especially terrifying to Jill because she encounters them in that close kitchen, and there’s a feeling the men might devour her for sustenance. Maybe they’ve already devoured the woman doing dishes. The challenge for Jill staying on the farm with Ernie is that she has to imagine a way she can stay on her own terms and without her own men devouring her. Oddly, she seems to think this uber-hog will help her do that.
GK: I also liked the complications that emerge as the story progresses—the decision to stop and buy a chocolate bar sets Jill up to take the hog without examining it; the hog turns out to be first sick, then dead, then wild.
BJC: Oh, that poor pig! He is in bad shape when she gets him from ill treatment at the Jentzen farm, and the bumpy ride home just about does him in. I imagined the pig just passes out from the stress of being loaded and knocked around. Back at Ernie’s farm, the smell of the females in the barn wake the boar up. The male sex drive is a powerful force, maybe the last part of the animal to go.
As for the complication in the story, that’s where the fun in writing is, giving yourself over partly to cause and effect, partly to embracing all the mystery of human behavior and the human soul.
GK: Did you know how the story would end?
BJC: When I started the story “Boar Taint,” I didn’t know if Jill would stay with Ernie. My early endings to this story involved her at least driving away from the farm toward Ann Arbor, with the likelihood of throwing in the towel and returning to Ann Arbor. I guess I probably tried to find a way for her to stay, because whenever possible I do like to see marriages remain intact, in stories as in real life, if only because the complications of staying together seem more interesting than the possibilities afforded by separation. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been married twenty-one years.
GK: I wasn’t sure either, but I thought the way you described his hands and her response to them was a good sign she’d stay—at least for a while.
BJC: Yeah, his hands are probably too intact. A real farmer has often lost a finger or two.
GK: Did you know you were going to be a writer when you were growing up?
BJC: From the time I was fourteen I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t have the confidence to really put my eggs in that basket until I was thirty-five or so. In the meanwhile I studied philosophy, ran bicycle tours, and got a master’s degree in mathematics. Writing seemed like a field that was too crowded, and I couldn’t imagine competing with all the other writers to get published. I just relaxed finally and poured all I had into writing. When I realized that writing was mostly a lot of hard work, it was a great relief. Working hard—now that was something I knew how to do.
All through the years, though, I had had been writing personal essays, and that turned out to be a good way to work my way into writing better stories. I still write essays, at least a few a year, and some of my stories arise from essays I’ve written.
GK: And now you also raise donkeys.
BJC: I suppose I don’t really raise donkeys, now that our old mama donkey died (she was at least forty years old, lived a nice long life). I feed and attempt to train our two remaining donkeys. I’ve trained one for riding, but I’d like to get them in harness for pulling. They’re large, standard-sized donkeys, and they are strong and smart.
GK: How does “Boar Taint” fit into the new collection?
BJC: Messing around with that notion of men devouring women was fun, because in my first collection I have a lot of stories in which women devour men, but this second collection focuses more on the male of the species.
GK: When will it be out? Are the stories in a similar setting?
BJC: This collection is called American Salvage, and it’s coming out from Wayne State University Press in spring 2009. “Boar Taint” is the only story specifically about farming and farmers, but all the stories deal with people living lives that are slightly anachronistic. There’s a salvage yard owner who won’t deal with foreign cars, a man who lives in a defunct construction yard, tearing down the old buildings one by one. There are people cooking up methamphetamine—I don’t know if that’s a problem where you are, but it’s a big deal around here, people stealing anhydrous ammonia from farmers’ fertilizer wagons to make the stuff. You might say the stories in American Salvage are making the case that not all Americans are on the same page heading into the twenty-first century. It’s as though there was some kind of apocalypse and nobody noticed, and now a large number of folks are living off the debris that’s left behind.
GK: Was the process of writing this story different from the other stories or similar?
BJC: Every story is different in the writing and the result. There’s one story in my collection that I started in 1985. I kept coming back to it over the years but couldn’t figure the thing out. I finally finished it this year. Or I think it’s finally finished anyhow. It won second prize in a contest at ACM magazine, but then I still did a major revision after that, cut out three pages. I don’t like to give up on a story. Or on a character. Or a person in real life either.
GK: How can you recognize the difference between persistence and wasting time? I’m just about to dive into another revision of my much-rejected novel, and I know all my friends are wondering whether to admire me or just have me committed.
BJC: If a story is still capturing my imagination and attention, I figure I owe it to myself to keep working on it. I mean, none of us is getting rich with creative writing, so we should accept the luxury of writing the stories we are compelled to write, the ones we really want to spend time on. Our ability to be obsessed is our greatest gift, and if we’re going to question the desire to write a given story, then we might as well call into question the entire writing enterprise. And we don’t want to do that.
[This interview is part
of a series of conversations with authors who have work in KR.
It is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for