2009 National Book Award Finalist Fiction
Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell

American Salvage

Wayne State University Press

Photo credit: John Campbell

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on American Salvage being named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction! Do you recall the inception of the book? Was there any image or incident or memory that triggered the writing process?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: Each of the stories in this collection was its own adventure. “Bringing Belle Home” is a story I worked on for twenty-five years. “The Inventor, 1972” came from an old neighborhood tale of a kid drowning in the public park. The stories came one at a time, slowly, as they do. I didn’t see them as a collection until late in the process. The overall vision came together finally when I arrived at the book’s title, and when I realized I needed an additional story to complete the work. “King Cole’s American Salvage” was the last story I wrote.

BAJ: When you wrote American Salvage, did you have an audience or reader in mind?

BJC: I’m always considering my audience, a theoretical gang of thoughtful readers who are busy and distracted and need me to work hard to get their attention. Lately, I’ve been writing with a certain friend in mind, a fiercely humanitarian misanthrope who is unforgiving of bullshit or mistakes. This person happened to be the copyeditor of American Salvage.

BAJ: Did writing American Salvage feel any different than what you’ve written before?

BJC: My first two books were largely concerned with women, farms, and nature. This book is mostly about men and machines. I’ve always had an easier time writing from the point of view of a man, and so I let myself do that. It’s a guilty pleasure, a kind of cross-dressing.

BAJ: Did you encounter any blocks or unexpected difficulties in the process? How did you push beyond them?

BJC: Oh, just the usual crippling insecurities that threaten every day to prevent me from writing or taking my next breath. Once I push all that to the background, the writing and rewriting simply become my job.

BAJ: One of the elements that all of this year’s fiction finalists share is a deep sense of place, a narrative focus on how time and setting both form and inform the characters’ lives. Did you always know that place would play such a large role in American Salvage? How did you go about evoking a landscape that would imbue the book with such power and resonance?

BJC: Everything I write is tied to place. My characters occupy a precise landscape, which is the place I’m from, raised to the power of human desire. My stories make the most sense when I work this way, planted firmly. Faulkner taught us that there are an infinite number of stories in any populated county. My job is to look for the stories that rise out of this part of Michigan.

BAJ: Along those lines, what kind of research did you do for American Salvage?

BJC: A number of the stories are concerned with methamphetamine, and for that I talked to current and former abusers, and also I read a blog in which a guy described in detail his experience shooting the stuff up. For “King Cole’s American Salvage,” I hung out at my local junkyard with a wrecker driver who’d been beaten up and robbed, watched him and his cousin scrap out cars. He let me ride around in his truck with him. Maybe my favorite research was into the phenomenon of boar taint for the story of that title, and I enjoyed researching orange snakes for “Yard Man.”

BAJ: You’ve written both short stories and a novel. Do you find one form preferable to the other? Does writing or reading one or the other excite you more?

BJC: Oh, either form is great when the story is going well, when it continues to unfold and offer more. The novel is something like a marriage, where you have to deal with all aspects of the characters involved. A short story is like dating relationship, in which many aspects of character remain unexplored, so long as there’s enough to keep the conversation going. And writing poetry, well, that’s my midlife crisis, that’s my extra-marital fling.

BAJ: The death of the short story is often discussed. You’ve had extraordinary success in the form. What does the short story offer readers that perhaps a novel can’t, and why do you think the form is always under such duress?

BJC: The death of the short story? I haven’t heard about that. I read and write short stories on a regular basis, as do all my students and literary friends, and my life is changed by stories on a regular basis. Thousands of great stories are published each year in literary magazines.The short story form allows us to create work of an intensity that we could not endure in a longer form—some of the stories in American Salvage are so intensely sad that nobody could go on reading them for 300 pages. Certain kinds of humor also work best in the short form. Experimental novels are often tiresome, while the same sort of experimentation in a short story seems brilliant or wicked.

BAJ: What writers do you enjoy reading? Are there other artists or art forms that influence or inspire your fiction?

BJC: I love Alice Munro’s and Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories way more than money, and the same for Margaret Atwood’s novels, and David Lee’s pig poems. The best thing I’ve read in the last year was Mark Spragg’s book of essays, Where Rivers Change Direction. And most of my other favorite authors have been finalists for the National Book Award. While I was studying mathematics, I read a lot of mysteries, and I appreciate the satisfaction that genre fiction can give a reader. Many of my stories are inspired by stories I’ve read, while some are inspired by old folk songs. More than anything, though, it’s the art of living that interests me. I’m at my best when I am picking berries, planting my garden, processing tomatoes, harvesting black walnuts, collecting osage oranges from the nearby trailer park, and making wine. Oh, and drinking wine on my screen porch. Right now there’s five gallons of concord grape wine fermenting in a bucket in my living room. I’ve got eight pounds of de-stemmed elderberries in the freezer waiting their turn.

BAJ: As a member of the faculty of the Pacific University low-residency MFA program and as a writer of such distinction yourself, you have a unique perspective on the state and future of contemporary literature. What advice do you give your students?

BJC: Oh, gosh, there is such a wealth of literature nowadays. There’re stories and books for every taste and inclination. It seems that more people than ever are interested in writing and sharing themselves through writing, and that’s great. Fewer people are reading, however, and that means fewer people will make a living as writers. Those of us who want to write need to make decisions that allow us time and space to write and integrate that into the rest of our lives. I teach workshops at public libraries in which I encourage people to create and self-publish family and community documents for enjoyment by small, specific audiences. Anyone who desires to write should find a way, because every time a good story comes into existence, whether it’s a family anecdote or a finely crafted literary piece, the world is a better place. I try to convince folks that it’s worth it to stick with a story until they’ve investigated and developed every bit of richness it can offer up. I feel the same way about people. I rarely give up on anyone. Funny, my students do not always find it comforting to hear that one of the stories took twenty-five years to finish. I consider finishing a story to be a matter of life and death, though without a time limit.

BAJ: This year is the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards. How do you feel having your book celebrated among the luminaries that have preceded you? Are there previous NBA winners or finalists that you’ve found especially powerful over the years?

BJC: I am over the moon. Over the moon of the moon if there were one. I can’t tell you how much I am honored and humbled, mostly humbled. Finalists and winners William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Nelson Algren are the wise elders. Finalists and winners Andrea Barrett, Joyce Carol Oates, and Francine Prose are the smartest women in America, and I’m ecstatic to even have my books on the same shelves as their books. I have dreamed of sitting next to NBA finalists on busses (maybe beside Elizabeth McCracken, Dorothy Allison, or Annie Proulx). When I don’t win the prize, I need only remind myself that Nabokov didn’t win for Lolita, nor did Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, nor did Kurt Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse Five. Now that I’m writing this to you, my heart is pounding, at realizing my name is going to appear in the vicinity of those names. All right, then, I solemnly swear to work harder than ever at this craft, in this business of writing about, as Faulkner put it, the human heart in conflict with itself, in hopes that I can be worthy of this distinction.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is director of the creative writing department at Harvard.