Once Upon A River: Bonnie Jo Campbell On Writing

I first heard about Bonnie Jo Campbell when her short story collection, American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. The first story, "The Trespasser," all of four pages long, left me stunned. Bonnie's stories are about the white working class of rural Michigan. Her characters struggle to to patch together their broken families. They are often scarred by sexual abuse, meth or alcohol. One of the most memorable stories in the American Salvage was "Family Reunion." In the story, a rural teenage girl exacts her revenge on an abusive uncle in the most exacting manner possible. Bonnie Jo has now taken this girl’s story and expanded it into the novel, Once Upon A River, which has just hit bookstores.

Interviewer: What inspired you to expand Margo’s story from Family Reunion into a novel?

BJC: Thank you for taking an interest in my new novel! A few years ago, when I realized that I’d written two different stories with a strong, young female narrator living on a river, then I knew I had a larger story arc that might be worth discovering. In my first collection there’s a story “The Fishing Dog.” In my second collection, I included a story “Family Reunion,” and only gradually did I realize that those stories featured a protagonist who might be the same person. I asked myself how the gal got from here to there, and that was the start of the novel. Also, I’ll confess that in “Family Reunion” I thought I had really nailed the ending, with my protagonist shooting her rapist in a non-lethal way; however, being a realist writer, I realized that one violent act often brings about the next violent act, so I had to ask myself what came next.

Interviewer: Margo is such a quiet girl, yet she has a steely resolve and is quite the sharpshooter. It’s almost as though she is using her instincts to survive.

BJC: Yup, she acts on instinct much of the time. Usually instinct serves her well, but sometimes it lands her in trouble. She has a set of skills that benefits her well in order to survive on the river. Survivalism is part of a great American literary tradition, and there’s a bit of the survivalist in an awful lot of us.

Interviewer: Margo appears to be one with the river, right from the memorable first paragraph. You also use the image of a girl in the river in "The Trespasser." It provides for great imagery and symbolism. Did you spend a lot of time on the river yourself through the years?

BJC: Gosh, I’d forgotten that the trespasser was on the river! Thanks for telling me you liked my first paragraph; I worked hard on that. Many characters in my stories are based on real life characters, but Margo was based on the river, plain and simple. I wanted her to identify with the river, to be both peaceful and wild. In my first novel, Q Road, the protagonist is based on the land. I guess you could say I’m going elemental.

Interviewer: I read that you learned to shoot rifles as part of your research for this book. How was that experience?

BJC: Well, everybody around here plinks the occasional target with a .22 rifle. I wrote a draft of my book with no more than a casual understanding of shooting, and my friend Gary Peake (the only real person who appears in Once Upon a River) told me I’d have to work a little harder to get it right. He is a Master Bullseye Shooter, and he taught me how a great shooter could think about shooting. He also tried out a lot of the shots I proposed for the book, showing me how some of them were unfeasible and others would work. We shot together a few times. Later, my husband Christopher bought me a Marlin 39A Golden lever action rifle, a gun like the one Margo uses in the book.

Interviewer: What’s one piece of advice you’d give a writer who is making the move from writing short stories to writing a novel?

BJC: I guess my advice would be to follow the story where it wants to go. Don’t try to make a novel out of material that wants to be a short story and vice versa. I find that my own writing process was pretty much the same for this novel as it had been for short stories in the past, but the story I wanted to tell here was bigger. Writing is always an organic process for me, and as I wrote this novel, I did not generally know what would happen next. I don’t advise this as a method of writing. Probably it would be better to make an outline. I didn’t feel capable of making an outline. For my next novel, I hope to make an outline. Whatever length of story you are writing, work hard and do the best you can to honestly investigate the characters in your story—oh, and love your characters.

Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River is in bookstores now.