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November 17, 2009

U of C alum aims for National Book Award

The University of Chicago may have an impressive collection of Nobel Prize winners, but National Book Award winners are harder to come by (one alumnus, Hayden Carruth, A.M. ’47, won the award for poetry in 1997). That may change this year with Bonnie Jo Campbell, who graduated from the U of C with a philosophy degree in 1984. Her book The American Salvage, a collection of stories about Midwest workers lost in the whirlwind of post-industrial America, is a finalist for the award. The Maroon had an opportunity to speak with Miss Campbell the night before she left for New York, where the winner will be announced on Wednesday.

Chicago Maroon: I read the first story, and it was so gripping and so different than from anything I read. How did you come up with something like that?

Bonnie Campbell: I write stories when I’ve been thinking about situations, usually real life situations. When these situations rattle around in my head and bother me then at some point I have to construct some fictional place to put these ideas and situations. And it was fun to write the first story [which] was a retelling of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears.

CM: Oh really?

BC: Yeah, you don’t notice it at first, but the second time it will stand out more. It’s using that structure. So the structure seems different because it is kind of a fairy tell structure.

CM: So I’m looking back at it and I can see it a little better now.

BC: It’s Mama, Papa, and Baby, and then you have Goldie Locks, who is the [drug] abuser.

CM: What made you want to write in this type of genre? Some of the stories are realistic and a little dark. Do you want to explain that?

BC: Yeah, somebody put me in the camp of “dirty realism”, which is Dennis Johnson and Raymond Carver. I don’t intentionally write in any particular style but this group of stories that I’m trying to tell have that as its natural style. The stories of these people have to be told in this way.

CM: It opened my eyes to the rural life of the Midwest. It was something I wasn’t familiar with at all until I started reading this book.

BC: Oh yeah cause you’re in the city.

CM: Yes. Are some of these [stories] based on example or real life memories, or growing up in the Midwest? Do you want to elaborate on that?

BC: Everything has some germ of reality in it. Everything I write. That’s because the way I write is to, as I mentioned, I write from my own obsessions. I need something from real life to obsess about in order to create a story. I guess an analogy is that an oyster needs to have a little grain of sand to make a pearl. It needs to have some sort of irritant. I need some sort of irritant to get me going to create a story. So most of these stories have some sort of aspect of real life at their core. But once the story starts forming then it has its own reality and I don’t have to rely on what really happened. Most of my characters have some central aspect that belongs to a real life character. But it changes so much in the building of a story that no one would recognize the original character.

CM: Give me a little more background about yourself. How did you end up at UChicago?

BC: My grandparents went to the University of Chicago, and they graduated on 1930 and 1931. That was a while ago… and my Aunt Joanna graduated from Chicago in [the ’50s]. So I went to the University of Chicago because my grandparents lived in Hyde Park, and it made sense.

CM: Yeah, to follow that path. What dorm did you stay in, just out of curiosity?

BC: I lived off campus. I lived with my grandparents.

CM: That makes it easier.

BC: I know it’s not typical, and it was atypical at the time. But it was convenient because it was free.

CM: I know, so much cheaper!

BC: When I went to school it was a lot cheaper. It was $7,000 a year. It was very cheap.

CM: That’s nice!

BC: I loved going to the University of Chicago. I have to say I wasn’t really sure of what I was getting into, I didn’t know how… I wasn’t very smart as a young’un. I just kind of wandered around doing whatever was convenient. But then when I got to the University of Chicago, I just loved the seriousness of it. I was the opposite of a lot of people. I was the opposite of most of my friends who sort of felt burdened by the seriousness, and had to work to lighten things up. And I felt very comfortable in the seriousness. I never got tired of it. I loved focusing on studying.

CM: Well it got you to writing books.

BC: I did philosophy, and I think it’s a good major for a writer. It’s great for a law degree too. But for a writer it’s a good rigorous way to make yourself a better thinker. Writers need to be better thinkers.

CM: That’s true, because with this book when you read it, it makes you want to go back and reread it again because you need to analyze it and understand these characters. You want to know how they feel and how they think. It’s a very fascinating tale.

BC: And so much of writing is rewriting. What I learned is that creative writing is 5% writing and 95% rewriting. So you really do use analytical skills in writing. It’s very fashionable to say that writing comes from a free space. Writing has to come from your gut. It has to have that. It has to come from those places, but then you need to really apply rigor as much as you would in a mathematical proof. To write a short story you need as much rigor as writing a mathematical proof. I have a little more flexibility in a short story. A proof is more slippery, where writing is very [flexible].

CM: Which one is your favorite story?

BC: Well, you know, it’s like your children. You’re not supposed to have a favorite child. But I think right now, this week, my favorite is “The Yard Man,” the second story. And that story was a pleasure to write because I got to do a lot with nature in the story. My first collection of stories, Women and Other Animals, were all about women and nature, and to some extent farming and living in the farmland. But this book is mostly about men and machines. And it was a pleasure to write “The Yard Man” because I got to write about men, machines, and nature.

CM: That’s an interesting mix to put them all together and see what comes from it. Are you excited for the book award on Wednesday?

BC: Yes, I go tomorrow to New York. Tuesday I get to meet my new agent. I did not have an agent before the nomination. I now have an agent and a book deal.

CM: Congratulations!

BC: Tuesday evening is a reading of all the National Book Award finalists. The five finalists in each of the four categories will all read for four minutes each. And then Wednesday is the banquet and then Wednesday the winner is announced.

CM: So what story are you going to read?

BC: I’m going to read a shortened version of “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem”. ’Cause four minutes is nothing! Four minutes is less than two pages. It’s the only story I could shrink down well enough. I cut it and cut it and cut it until it’s just under four minutes.

CM: When a book strikes your heart and when it tugs at your heart-strings you know it is a good book. And this does it in the first two pages. It really got me hooked and I really liked reading it. I really enjoyed it.

BC: Thank you.

CM: I wish you the best of luck at the awards.