Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose short story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters was published this month by Norton, is starting an unusual 30-city national tour on Saturday. Campbell's will conclude at the Library of Congress on March 25, 2016, when she reads from Flannery O'Connor's work and discusses O'Connor's influence on her own writing as part of the LOC Poetry and Literature Center's Literary Birthday Celebration series. Campbell talked to us about how she translates life into fiction, why her short stories resonate with readers across the spectrum, and her next project.
A circus worker having to choose abortion against her boyfriend's wishes, a woman being raped by her male friends, another woman taking revenge on ex-boyfriends and abusive husbands.Where do you get your story ideas from?
Oh, the worrisome, gritty stories are everywhere! When I listen to the news my imagination gets going. My head is stuffed with family conversations and gossip, and I chat with folks in line at the supermarket and the post office—turns out if you show an interest, even strangers will open their hearts and say the most incredible things. A lot of the stories in this collection are about the aftermath of a violation of some kind, often of a sexual violation; these stories are more prevalent than we’d like to believe. I’m interested in how experiencing molestation can change a person’s life. Though some would consider these women victims, I’m more interested watching how they move on from the violence.
The relationships between mothers and daughters in your stories are usually fraught. Any reason for that?
Plenty of mothers and daughters get along just fine in this world, but those aren’t the relationships that capture my imagination. I’m not sure if it's true [as Tolstoy wrote in the opening to Anna Karenina] that all happy families are alike, but they are definitely less interesting to read about than troubled families with dark secrets. We read books about all kinds of adventures without really wanting to have those experiences, and I hope I’m offering some kind of adventure here. I also think it makes sense for daughters to rebel against their mothers, because that familial bond is so strong that it has to be broken at some point in order for the daughters to be free to become themselves.
You’ve written both novels and short stories featuring working-class Midwesterners living hardscrabble lives. Why do you think your stories resonate with readers who've likely never met met people like these characters?
Many readers are, let's face it, upper middle class folks, or, at least, well-educated folks, who are not experiencing what ails my characters. Maybe there’s a bit of romance in looking at the struggles resulting from poverty, especially when we are safe from its ravages. I'm not sure. I just hope readers are connecting to my characters as individuals, and not as members of a certain class. Though the abused wife in “A Multitude of Sins” happens to be poor, her response to having her abuser dying in her living room feels universal to me.
What are you working on now?
The next book will be a novel about a young woman who loves mathematics beyond all things. That was the book I was working on when I got waylaid by Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. I’m not sure I should reveal to you what I haven’t revealed to my editor or agent, but the math novel is growing on both ends, and it might turn out to be a trilogy. Keep that under your hat, okay?
This interview has been edited and condensed.