“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” the title of the Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new book, prompts the question: Tell your daughters what?
Should mothers tell their daughters about rape, incest, sexual abuse, scrapping for a living to feed the kids or about cheating boyfriends and husbands?
City Pulse caught up with Campbell by phone from Rite Bar and Liquor on Division Street in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. The neighborhood bar is popular with the area’s hipster crowd. Campbell had a short break in her a 30-city book tour and took a layover in the city to visit her uncle.Campbell’s enthusiasm for writing is infectious. She’s creative, unpredictable and fun, and anyone who has been to one of her book readings will tell you she’s a hoot. (Unfortunately, she’s been so busy with her new book that she wasn’t able to bottle any elderberry wine this season. In the past, she has shared a drink with her fans at book signings.)
In her new collection of short stories, Campbell has once again pulled out all the stops. She writes about women’s relationships with each other, with men and with their own sexuality. The themes of her stories are like a country song gone mad.
The collection of 16 short stories will have you holding your breath as she explores flayed emotions, lost loves and a horny burn patient who is attended with a hand job. While the stories are about love and loss, they are not tender. As close as any of the stories get is in the title story, as a mother lies on her death bed, unable to talk, waiting for the end to come. In her head, she replays the times of her life that her caretaker daughter was disappointed in her — including when she let a boyfriend teach her daughter about sex.
“I thought his wanting to kiss you was one more test, one more hardship I had to endure,” she writes. “A girl has to learn a little about men somehow, better just a kiss from a man you knew that all at once with a near stranger like it went for me.”
She’s not an apologist, and neither is Campbell. Campbell writes what has been most recently called “rural noir,” which seems a more polite and scrubbed version of the phrase it replaced: “trailer noir.”
Campbell lives with her husband, burros and other assorted critters in rural southwest Michigan. She said that she gets her ideas while standing in line at the post office, pumping gas, getting her tires changed or from talking with people she knows. A few of the stories, like the “Greatest Show on Earth,” were inspired by her own experiences. Campbell traveled with a circus for a short time as young woman.
“Some I get ideas from people I know, but generally I get ideas from people in real life,” she said.
Readers and critics have compared her writing to that of Flannery O’Connor, one of the famed short story writers who helped create Southern Grotesque writing.
“I have a kinship with Flannery and also the minimalist writing of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford,” Campbell said, but she noted that O’Connor, who wrote her acclaimed stories in the 1950s, “was writing in a more static social situation than I am.”
She calls O’Connor’s audience “smug white people.”
So why do people read Campbell’s tougher-than-nails stories, which can be upsetting to the quick?
“I believe readers like to take their own modest experiences and rub against those in the book, even if their lives are not as dramatic, she said. “We don’t want to have all these experiences in the world.”
Campbell has written five books: three short story collections, one poetry chapbook and one novel, “Once Upon a River.” A stark take on girl-coming-of-age literature, “Once Upon a River” tells the story of a rural girl forced to fend for herself in wilds of Michigan. One of the most memorable scenes involves a penis that finds itself on the business end of a sniper’s bullet.
“The resurgence in the short story genre is due to several factors, including the modern lifestyle,” Campbell said. “There are also more people in writing programs, and short stories allow for more interesting characters. The form also allows for outrageous and experimental stuff.” she said.
Included in the collection are a couple of pieces of “flash fiction” of 250 words or less. But Campbell makes it clear that short story writing is not for slackers.
“One story I edited for 20 years,” she said. For this collection, she said, couldn’t write in her office.
“I wrote these stories in the kitchen along with dirty dishes and quarts of canned tomatoes,” Campbell said.
The author also wants to make it clear her short stories do not celebrate victimhood, nor are they meant to demonize men and boys.
“We are in it together," Campbell said. "And it’s always good to talk about sex.”
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 FREE Schuler Books (Eastwood) 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495, schulerbooks.com