Bonnie Jo Campell is reading at 2pm Monday at ODU as part of the 33rd Annual Literary Festival.
I have a habit of spending my lunch breaks at Barnes & Noble, touching books, reading first pages.
One day, I picked up American Salvage and read the first page, then the second, quickly followed by the third. The opening story, “The Trespasser,” a modest three and a half pages, grabbed me by the collar and smacked me good and hard. I promptly bought the book.
American Salvage is a collection of stories at once rough and hopeful; gritty and pure; a book populated with people both damaged and strong. I finished the book and knew I had just learned something about writing. That book had its way with me, and I was inspired. So when I was offered the chance to interview Bonnie Jo Campbell–author of Women and Other Animals, American Salvage, a finalist for the National Book Award, Q Road, and the forthcoming Once Upon a River–I jumped at it.
I found in her a kindred spirit, as quirky and funny as I hoped, as inspiring as I dreamed, and thankfully, as inclined to random tangential conversation as I am.
AltDaily: Can you talk a bit about your literary influences?
Bonnie Jo Campbell: I want to think of Flannery O’Connor, and Faulkner, and Steinbeck as my influences because I love them so much. But I’m guessing that my mother, who is not a writer but is a storyteller, a woman who drinks and tells funny stories, probably has as much influence on my writing as any writer does. And my grandfather, who also told stories but in a very different way—very sober, very much looking for the good in humanity. While my mother wants to tell a story about someone dancing with a lampshade on their head, my grandfather wanted to tell the story of when someone was very kind and returned someone’s little dog to them. Hearing these voices when I was young is probably as much a literary influence as anything.
I was going to ask you about your non-literary influences as well, but it sounds like the mixing of voices in your family and in the books you’ve read and any number of things seem to create your style.
Yeah, I really listen to people. I think that’s where I get most of my inspiration for writing. I listen to people everywhere. I’m a talker. I love it when there’s a line at the post office because it means I can talk to people in the line.
The post office is such a romantic literary place anyway. I always think that, really, writers for such a long time have gone to the post office to send their work out.
And hope for the best.
And they get letters back! It’s just beautiful. I’m such a weirdo about the post office.
I know. I actually have a great love for the post office, and for the entire postal service, and I know now everyone agrees with me there.
I used to love it when there were long lines at the voting polls.
Oh me too!
I grew up in Georgia, and there were always these old men working the polls. They had the most wonderful accents, and they’d come along and make little self-effacing jokes and flirt with the old ladies—
I love that! You’ve got me thinking now, we should write some stories about the voting booths.
Places you wait in line.
Because there’s always a different crowd. It’s your neighbors you see at the voting booth. And you realize when you see them there that you don’t see them very often. And then there’s that lovely fussing—so much is done by hand at the polling places. They’ve got to look you up on the list, and I think now they do a thing with a highlighter. It’s very old-fashioned.
Very true. Now you’ve said you’re a farm girl, you’re used to hard work.
Oh yes. If writing meant that I had to be brilliant or clever, it was going to be hopeless. And I’ll tell you what: I think that writers are actually not the storytellers. They’re not the ones who tell the jokes at the party. The writers are the ones who fail to tell the joke well. They fail to tell the anecdote or story, and then they go home, and they spend three hours writing it and getting it right.
And farm work is very physical: do you find that work and physical activity help your writing life? Something like busy hands equals open mind or anything like that?
Physical movement is incredibly important to me. I wonder if writing is a little like yoga. People do yoga to make their bodies strong in order to sit there and do nothing while they meditate. And I think maybe some writers find it’s important to have strong bodies so that we can sit there and do nothing. To me, the hardest thing about writing is just sitting there. I love to be active. I want to be outside. I want to be cracking open walnuts and pulling the nut meats out of them. I want to be out in my garden. I want to be gathering berries. I just found a puff ball mushroom. There were six puff ball mushrooms in my yard. Do you know what a giant puff ball mushroom is?
It can be that big and you can eat it. [Readers, please imagine Bonnie Jo Campbell holding her hands out to the size of your face.] I’ve been looking for them every couple of days, and right before I came here, I found six of them. But I can only eat so much puff ball in a day, so I, for the first time ever, picked a modest-sized one. It was only about as big as a croquet ball because then I could eat the whole thing.
How did you cook it?
I cooked it with garlic and onion and butter because mushrooms are the best at soaking up butter. And I just discovered a new mushroom this year called chicken of the woods. It’s delicious. It’s this bright yellow mushroom the color of a chick, and you cook it up and it’s the same texture as chicken. You’ve got to try it. And it looks like nothing else, so you won’t get poisoned. I only approve of eating mushrooms that don’t have a poisonous twin. Those two are safe ones.
I’m not well-versed in vegetables. I really like to cook things that are incredibly bad for me. Like pastries.
Yes. And bacon. That’s pretty much what I do.
Sometimes I throw zucchini in with the bacon. Or green beans. I love green beans coked in bacon grease.
I’ve started doing green beans with garam masala. I’m not that adventurous with foreign foods, but garam masala is the five-spice blend they use in India. It’s a little bit sweet with cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s actually delicious on green beans. But I think you could put a little yak butter in it. Or bacon grease.
Yak butter. Where would you get that? This is fun. Switching gears: several of the characters in American Salvage find themselves physically hindered—beaten, hit by a car, thrown from a boat, etc.
And I did that to them.
I don’t know how you did it, but we’re going to get to that. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about physical limitation. We were talking about leading an active life, and that sense of physicality and its particular fragility. Does that hold a special significance for you as the writer?
Yeah, maybe I’m writing about it because I’m desperately afraid of it. But I already decided: if I have to be executed, I hope they shoot me. That’s the only way I want to go. I can’t stand the thought of that injection or electrocution. I hope they just shoot me.