This week's guest at The Red Dress Club is Bonnie Jo Campbell.
I discovered her writing through a friend of mine, Jeremy Harbottle, who did a review of her book, American Salvage over at my book blog.
Admittedly my first reason for grabbing her book was because she is local to me in Michigan. She lives and writes about Southwest Michigan where I spent five years in college living locally and five more years commuting to for my Masters work.
She has been the finalist for and won numerous awards for her writing in both fiction and short stories.
We are so ecstatic that she has taken the time to be interviewed for The Red Dress Club! Please give a lovely welcome to Bonnie Jo Campbell!
1) You are applauded for your "real" characters. How do you create such compelling characters? Every story is different, and every character is different. Often I start with a character from real life , while at other times I invent the character that the story needs, or the character that would rise up naturally from the landscape or cityscape I’m investigating. The main thing is that I really like people, and I enjoy talking to people and figuring out what makes them tick in real life, and that helps me in stories. I generally don’t describe a character physically in much detail, but nobody seems to mind.
2) How is your process for writing short stories different than the approach you take to writing a novel? It’s the same. That’s what makes writing a novel so difficult—it’s just a lot more of the same. I have some difficulty holding an entire novel in my head, keeping all the bits and pieces aligned so that they work together. The risk in writing a novel is much greater, of course. If I write a weak short story, well, that’s a few hundred hours down the drain. If I write a lousy novel, that’s years of my life gone.
3)Obviously your life experiences have helped shape your writing, but what kinds of other research did you have to do for American Salvage? I had to do meth-related research, by asking folks who had more experience than I did and by looking online. Every story had its own requirements. In “The Yard Man” I had to figure out why sort of snake the protagonist had seen. I had to create a snake that could have been a native Midwestern snake, but also could have been some member of a more exotic species. I made the snake six foot long because that would allow it to be a milk snake or a corn snake (that’s the maximum length for those snakes). For “Boar Taint” I had to research theories about the phenomenon of boar taint, the smell of boar meat, and I found that there’s considerable controversy about whether meat pigs need to be castrated.
4)Did you find that in order to write about your community, you had to somehow separate yourself from it? Was it difficult to be so honest about a community you so clearly love? Gosh, no. I couldn’t possibly separate myself from my community. I figure that what I say is acceptable if and only if it is honest and fair and generous. Staying in my community forces me to be honest, fair, and generous. There are plenty of issues I won’t write about any time soon, ones that are too personal to folks around me.
5) Do you consider yourself a regionalist writer? Why or why not? Sure, I like to be considered a Michigan writer or a Midwestern writer, in the sense that I have something special to say about my place. I hope that doesn’t stop me from being of interest to folks who live in other places. Faulkner was a southern writer, after all.
6) What are you reading right now? I’m reading “Light Lifting” by Alexander MacLeod. It’s a collection of short stories that are so intense that I feel I’ve lived all the lives he’s writing about.
7) What advice would you give to novice writers (that is not already on your website)? Let yourself be obsessed with the subject matter of a story. Train yourself to be obsessed with subject matter. Don’t try to understand the material; rather, you should try to know the material the way you might know a friend. Be a fan of the material the way you might be a fan of a famous person or a band. Writing is a slow process for me—most of my stories take years to write—and so I need to remain interested in order to finish.
Good luck! Bonnie