The Waters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell, follows a family of self-reliant women in rural Michigan.

Writer Bonnie Jo Campbell is not the sort of person you expect to see on TV. She seems too real, too unawed by lights and glamour to be sharing the screen with a celebrity journalist so carefully put together she could pass for AI. Yet there she was one morning on the set of the Today show, talking with Jenna Bush Hager about her latest book, The Waters, which Hager had chosen for her on-air book club. Campbell was clearly pleased to be on the show—who wouldn’t be?—but she didn’t “put on airs,” as my grandma in Saint Louis would have put it.

The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
W. W. Norton & Company, hardcover, 400 pp., $30,

Bonnie Jo Campbell in conversation with Donna Seaman
Thu 2/22 6 PM, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, free, first-come, first-served

Sure, Campbell has written her share of well-regarded works. Her short story collection, American Salvage, was a finalist for the 2009 National Book awards. In 2019, her novel, Once Upon a River, was adapted into an independent movie of the same name. But nothing she has written before has received as much approbation as The Waters, about three generations of strong, self-reliant women living on an island in rural Michigan and their tension-filled interactions with the nearby hidebound, male-dominated community of Whiteheart. No less than Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley praised Campbell’s “ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world.”

When I spoke with Campbell in early January, she had just returned home to her small family farm on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan, from an out-of-town book event. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. Note: she was on her phone for part of the interview “wandering around doing stuff,” such as feeding her beloved pair of donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote. Donkeys loom large in The Waters, both literally (one character raises donkeys) and figuratively (Dorothy, the protagonist of the novel, is nicknamed Donkey). Campbell was friendly and talkative (we spoke for nearly two hours), but was also feeling the pressure of having a new book. “My agent said, ‘You just got to keep promoting that book because you took eight years to write it, so don’t be lazy about promoting it.’” 

Bonnie Jo Campbell wears a sleeveless red top and blue jeans. She stands near a staircase, her elbow resting on the banister. She has long blond hair past her shoulders, and is smiling.
Author Bonnie Jo Campbell
Credit: Fran Dwight

Jack Helbig: You wrote much of this during COVID.

Bonnie Jo Campbell: People act like COVID times should have been a good time to write, but I think they were sort of a challenging time to write. Many things happened during the writing of this book that kind of shook me up. Among them was that I had breast cancer and my mom had breast cancer and went through hospice and died. All this stuff happened while writing the book.

After you had completed a draft, you abandoned the manuscript?

I just thought it wasn’t rich enough. The world is filled with mediocre novels, and I thought it doesn’t need me to write another one.  

Would it be accurate to say that The Waters was carved out of that original manuscript?

It was carved out of it, but then that was a long time ago that that happened. I wrote something that was very long, I mean the thing swelled to 650 pages before I realized that I had to decide where the beginning and end of this story was. That was one writing of it. It got a lot better when I cut it down. I learn as I write, and I learn what I’m writing as I write it. I write like a short story writer. I write organically. 

I’m no great writer. I’m just a really good reviser. I have some good ideas and I love characters. I feel like I’m a very honest writer. I can’t make anything happen that isn’t natural. I kept messing with the shape of it and the plot, but you’ll see it kind of spirals.

I like the spiraling around. There is a rich, magical realist fairy-tale quality to the story. 

Yes, and that happened over the course of years. I really did start out writing a very realistic novel. But it sort of morphed. As I paid closer and closer attention to detail, the book became more mysterious. It became more fairy-tale-like. The more I paid attention to the gritty detail, the more mysterious and unreal it became. Here’s the magic of fairy tales for me: they’re absolutely the archetypes of which humanity is made. 

Have you read Salman Rushdie? There is a fairy-tale magical realist quality to his work.

No. I know it’s a terrible thing to admit, but in the last few years, I’m just reading women writers because I feel like I neglected them all through college. 

I’m reading this mythologist named Sharon Blackie. She’s really interesting. After I finished this novel, I read one of her books and she talks about the post-heroic novel. She talks about the heroine’s journey instead of the hero’s journey. 

That idea fits The Waters. These are heroines’ journeys.

I’m really interested in those women who can’t follow the rules. They just can’t get jobs. They just can’t get up in the morning and make meals for people. 

I started out trying to just tell Donkey’s story. Then I enlarged the scope to telling the story of the whole community. The book really came alive for me when I ventured even farther out and started being interested in the community and the men. I love the men, they give you comic relief and they make things more urgent with all their trouble.

One theme you explore is the effect of toxic hypermasculinity on women. It is literally the trigger that sets Margo Crane, the protagonist of Once Upon a River, off on her journey. How does it play out in The Waters?

For some reason these men, their masculinity, is threatened by the circumstances of the world, their jobs and such. So they’re expressing a kind of hypermasculinity that’s really not natural. And I think that’s what’s going wrong right now, is that the men are not comfortable because their role is changing. You know, where are they supposed to work? 

Herself [aka Hermine, Donkey’s grandmother] is not against men. The truth is I think a lot of us are tired of this hypermasculine society we’re living in. 

You were a graduate student in math when you discovered your calling as a writer. 

I have an undergrad degree [from the University of Chicago] in philosophy, and then I got a second undergrad in mathematics, and then I got a master’s in mathematics. I’m very mathy. I’d always tried to write, but I was never very good at it. I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll just write, but I’ll have a career in math so I can pay the bills.” I like math. But my true love was always writing. Then when I was in my mathematics PhD program, I just decided, “Oh my God, if I don’t stop myself, I’m actually going to get a PhD in mathematics. I better try one more time to write.”

Is the setting for the book based on the rural area where you live?

Well, somewhere in southwest Michigan. It’s sort of a hot mix-up. The two places that mean the most to me are Kalamazoo County and then Berrien County, which is where Saint Joe, Michigan is. My grandparents have a cottage there, on an island. So that’s where that inspiration [for the setting of the book] came from.

Do you have a working farm in Kalamazoo?

No, it’s just donkeys and some chickens. This is my mom’s house, and we bought it. The world of the novel is the world inside my head that’s created as a result of knowing the landscape and knowing the history. So it’s a fabrication, but it comes from my intimate knowledge with what is here and also kind of knowing the history or something.

It does seem like the same kind of world as the world of Once Upon a River

Yeah. It’s rural Michigan, where the men are men and the women are scared. The men are well armed. But here on this island [in The Waters], the women do what they want. 

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