Bonnie Jo Campbell is sitting in the catbird seat. Her first collection of fiction–Women and Other Animals, published late last year–earned her positive reviews in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the Village Voice. She’s also got a hot agent in New York and has just sold her first novel to Scribners, receiving a $25,000 advance.
The funny thing is that Campbell, 37, started writing fiction just three years ago. “I only took one fiction class in college. And that teacher–I think his name was Stein or Stern,” Campbell tells me, trying to recall the name of University of Chicago writing guru Richard Stern, “told me I exemplified all that was wrong with fiction today. I was so humiliated I decided I would write only nonfiction because no one could fault you for writing nonfiction.”
She got into writing the way she’s gotten into everything–following her instincts. She’s led bike tours across eastern Europe, worked in a coffee shop and a circus, and published her autobiographical essays in her own personal zine, the Letter Parade, receiving praise from zine queen Pagan Kennedy. In the early 90s Campbell entered a PhD program in math at Western Michigan University. “I don’t know why I went into math,” she says. “I think maybe because I think math people are smart. I wanted to be smart because I have the dumb blond complex.”
In a sense Campbell’s whole adult life has been a response to growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She liked Kalamazoo OK, but in 1977, when she was 14, she started taking the train to Chicago on weekends to visit her uncle, who worked on Van Buren Street. “That was when all these men’s hotels used to be there. It was great. Guys throwing up out the window all the time. Army surplus stores. And lots of bars.”
Her uncle had an apartment in Lincoln Park when it was still kind of a seedy place to live. “He was my dirty uncle. He used to live with a woman he used to call Ann of a Thousand Holes. I used to call him Uncle Humbert Humbert, and he would get mad at me. He was kind of a pervert before he got married.” And he loved hitting the bars. “He said he’d read in the Reader that there were like 1,200 bars in Chicago. ‘That’s a lie,’ he’d say. ‘I’ve been thrown out of more bars than that.’
“He would take me even though I was way too young. I’d have to fight off his dirty old friends. And,” Campbell laughs, “I got good at it.”
After high school Campbell came to Chicago to study philosophy, working odd jobs and traveling during school vacations. One summer she was hitchhiking to California with a boyfriend, and they got into a fight by the side of the road in Phoenix. “I don’t know why I was hitchhiking with him because he had a beard and you can’t get rides if you have a beard. He was being a prick and I said, ‘Well, I’ll join the circus.'”
Campbell never made it to California that summer. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus happened to be in Phoenix, and she started hanging around with the circus crowd. Before the circus pulled up stakes, Campbell was offered a job selling snow cones. “I made a lot of money doing that because I was the only girl and people prefer to buy snow cones from a girl. I was so strong by the end of that summer, because you walk up and down those stairs with snow cones up high over your head. You build up these amazing arm muscles and leg muscles by running up and down those stairs all day.”
She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1984 with no clear idea of what to do next. On impulse, she decided to go on a bicycle trip solo, winding up in Boston to visit her cousins. “I thought if I biked somewhere no one could fault me for doing nothin’. First I went up to Wisconsin to the ferry to Ludington, Michigan, and took that across. It’s really cool. And it’s such a drag to bike through Gary, Indiana.” Campbell stopped off to visit her family in Kalamazoo. Then she went on to Boston “and got a job in a coffee shop like everyone else.”
Campbell’s cousins had a boardinghouse in Cambridge. “It was a place where weirdos hung out. And I joined them and hung out there for a couple years.” That’s where she met her husband, Chris.
While living in Cambridge, Campbell started putting out the Letter Parade. “My grandmother once told me that no one could be a writer unless they wrote letters. I’m a really bad letter writer, but I thought if I’m not writing letters, I can at least write one letter to everybody once every couple weeks.
“I would pick out one interesting thing that happened to me and write about it. And Chris would put together these news collages”–collections of oddball news stories he found in the daily papers. Campbell’s essays started getting quirkier. In one issue she wrote about all the junk on her dresser. In another she wrote about a man she’d read about in the news who’d escaped from a nursing home. “I think it’s really fascinating when you really focus on a person’s life. It’s like really close-up photographs. My husband’s been taking these close-up photographs, and everybody looks incredible. Everyone is so deep looking compared to how they look normally.”
At about the same time Campbell began leading bike trips through eastern Europe. She’d taken her first such trip in college: an uncle who taught Slavic studies at Brandeis also organized trips by bike every year through eastern Europe. One year he gave her a free place on the tour, and Campbell enjoyed it so much that her uncle made her part of the team leading the tours. And when he decided to give up the business, Campbell took it over, working with a Chicago friend, Mary Szpur. They called their outfit Goulash Tours and began organizing more or less yearly trips in 1986.
“We toured for eight to ten weeks through Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia when it was one country. I wish it had been two then–we could have added another country to the list and made the tour sound even longer.”
Biking through eastern Europe had its own unique set of problems. You could bring only so much foreign currency into each country, for example, and take only so much local currency out. Campbell and Szpur got around this by packing lots and lots of Kent cigarettes, little American flags, and tiny Statues of Liberty, which they used to barter for things they needed. “We also had to bring our own medical supplies. We brought along drugs we had no idea how to administer. We took a lot of antibiotics.”
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Campbell and Szpur added Russia to the list. “Those Russians were incredible. We had somebody break off a crank arm on one of the pedals. We were near one of those old Russian collective farms, and a guy there refashioned the whole thing using leftover parts he had lying around, from hay balers and things. I have great faith in Russian ingenuity.
“Those trips were great. After each trip Mary and I were the most gorgeous babes. You know, crush grown men between our thighs. Before the trips we’d be these fat, sick things, getting on the plane with too much luggage.
“Sometimes it was an advantage to be in a police state. One time in Romania somebody on our trip got his bike stolen. We went to the police, and they had it back within like an hour. We hate to think of all the people who were roughed up as a result.”
Campbell and Szpur continued hosting tours until the mid-90s, when both their lives became too complicated to take ten weeks off each summer to ride.
Eventually tiring of Boston, Campbell moved to Milwaukee and then back to Kalamazoo. One day, on a lark, she decided to get a degree in math. “I’d always been good in math. But I had to catch up–I’d only taken calculus in college and some logic courses.” Soon, however, she was immersed.
“Math was pretty fun. When you know something in math, you know it for sure. You can prove it. That’s what it’s all about are the proofs. But then the language of math gets a little dead. OK, you’ve gone through all this agonizing process and you’ve proved this one thing. And it has no application to anything else your friends are going to talk about.”
Campbell got her master’s in math, but soon after she started preparing for her PhD she found herself deep in a personal crisis. “I was suddenly crying all the time. I had a really great adviser, and I would go into his office and cry. ‘I feel so unhappy. I can’t do math anymore. I just don’t like it.’ He’s the one who told me to take a writing class with Stuart Dybek. He knew I liked writing because I was writing a lot more in my math proofs than other math students. And because he knew I did the Letter Parade.”
After one class in Western Michigan’s creative writing department, Campbell was recruited into the MFA program. “They give you a teaching job so you can scrape together a pathetic living writing.” She stayed at Western Michigan for the full three-year program, writing stories based on her experiences in the circus, on the road, growing up lower middle-class in Kalamazoo, hanging out with her “dirty uncle” in Chicago.
After graduation she entered her thesis, a short-story collection, in the Associated Writing Program’s annual fiction contest. The prize: $5,000 and a publisher. Campbell won, and Women and Other Animals was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Janet Kaye, writing in the January 9 New York Times, called the stories “hard-hitting” and “bitter but sweetened with humor.”
Soon after the Publishers Weekly review came out, Campbell ran into a friend at a bookstore, writer J.D. Dolan. He said, “Did you know you’ve got a star in Publishers Weekly?” Campbell didn’t even know what that meant. “Do you have an agent?” he asked. Campbell answered no, and the next day Dolan called and said, “My agent said you could send her your work.” Campbell mailed off her short stories and a novel she’d written, and the agent called and said she liked Campbell’s stuff and would like to represent her. “Then I found out she was this hot-shit agent in New York. They call her Binkie, but her real name is Amanda Urban.”
Urban urged Campbell to send her novel out to publishers, which Campbell found a “scary” prospect. “I had a mediocre novel, but she said, ‘You have to send it. You’re hot now.’ Someone at Scribners liked it, but they didn’t like it enough to take it without revisions. But because of the short stories Scribners said, ‘I think you can make it good enough that we will love it.'”
In just one year Campbell has achieved what most writers only dream of their whole lives: a published book, a good agent, a nice advance on a first novel. “My poor husband wants to travel,” Campbell sighs. “But I just want to stay home and write.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Campbell.