April 14 2010 12:00 AM

For Bonnie Jo Campbell, writing about Michigan brought national acclaim


Portage author Bonnie Jo Campbell has been doing the whole “trains and boats and planes” routine since her book “American Salvage” (Wayne State University Press) was named as a finalist last year for the National Book Award. Although “Salvage” did not win the award, she became the David-vs.-Goliath darling of independent publishers and small presses nationwide and has been making appearances from coast to coast.

Right after her book was nominated, Campbell said she knew winning was a long shot but “this award is one where you win even if you lose.”

She was right.

“Salvage” probably received more attention than the ultimate winner. It was also selected for a Michigan Notable Book Award as one of the top 20 books of 2010.

Campbell’s book is a grim look at rural Michigan and some of its downtrodden residents, who scramble for a living in the face of a death-spiral economy. It is not a pretty picture, but as Campbell has often pointed out “these are our neighbors and relatives.”

The author will join fellow National Book Award Finalist David Small (“Stitches”) as the keynote speaker for the Library of Michigan’s Night for Notables at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 17 at the Library of Michigan.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in your writing career since being a finalist for the National Book Award?

Campbell: My life has changed radically.  I got an agent, sold an unfinished novel, and I've gotten some more invitations to read, publish and teach.  And perhaps more importantly I have slightly more confidence in my ability to write another good story.  Hopefully, the novel I'm finishing will be a good story.

Q: Are you having trouble finding time to write?

Campbell: I am having some difficulty finding time to write these days because I'm traveling too much.  I'm speaking to you from Denver, the Associated Writing Programs Conference.  I'll be boarding the train tonight at 7:50, and I hope to be able to work on my novel in my coach seat for three hours.

Q: This year 11 of the 20 Notable Books were published by university presses, including yours. How important is their role in the world of publishing?

Campbell: The role of university presses in publishing fiction is critical nowadays and becoming more so.  The kinds of novels and story collections that used to be published by New York houses are now being turned away, and the authors are turning toward university presses, which still take an intense interest in high-quality writing, especially if there's any regional angle, in the author or the subject matter.  This means that the authors will make a lot less money, but there's an advantage in that the books will stay in print.

Q: Any idea what you will say at the Notable event?

Campbell: I'm thinking of sharing some of the things I've learned as a writer in the last 20 years.  I'll have lots of time on the train, 22 hours, to think about it.  I will be gazing at the Midwestern landscape, thinking about my fellow Michigan writers and readers.

Q: How important is it to be recognized by the state you live in, especially since your book speaks to Michigan?

Campbell: It means the world to me that my fellow Michiganders like my stories.  I would not have been able to bear it if my books were appreciated by people in New York, but not by my neighbors.  I have tried to write these stories as honestly as I can, treating the problems of Michigan's struggling working class and poor folks with the dignity they deserve, and if I'd gotten it wrong, or if folks had said I was being unfair, that would have been a heart breaker.  I've been honored to be a finalist for both the NBA (National Book Award) and NBCC (National Book Critics Circle), and I felt similarly as honored for winning the Stuart and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Literature, an award given to a Michigan writer each year through Saginaw Valley State University.

Q: What's up next for you?

Campbell: I'm going to finish that book!  I am, I am.

Q: What kind of support or advice would you offer for other young, aspiring authors?

Campbell: Write and take an interest in the world and your fellow human beings.

Campbell also will join the 19 other Michigan Notable Book authors for a statewide tour. Brad Leithauser, author of “The Art Student’s War,” will be a guest of the Delta Township Library on April 23. Leithauser’s work is a historical coming-of-age novel set on the Detroit homefront during World War II. James M. McClurken will discuss his Notable book “Our People, Our Journey” May 12 at Cooley Law School in Lansing.