Arts & Culture » Lit Feature

Once Upon a River author Bonnie Jo Campbell

The Michigan writer discusses her new novel.



The way Bonnie Jo Campbell tells it, Margo Crane started showing up in her writing before she quite knew who Margo was. The character gets a walk-on as a local eccentric in Campbell's 2003 novel, Q Road. And she appears again—anonymously but unmistakably—in a couple stories from Campbell's 2009 National Book Award-nominated collection, American Salvage. Campbell says others wondered about Margo before she did, and it was partly their interest that led Campbell to find out more about her by making her the subject of a new novel, Once Upon a River.

A Michigan girl like her creator, Margo is a tenth grader in the early stages of the book, living along the fictitious Stark River, which feeds into the Kalamazoo. It's the late 1970s, but Margo is a throwback to another time. Her grandfather taught her how to fish, trap, and skin, and she's a dead shot with a rifle. Most important, Margo lives in profound symbiosis with the water that runs through her little factory town. As Campbell writes, "When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive, she felt the Stark River move inside her." A series of personal catastrophes cuts the girl loose from American normality, forcing her into an odyssey on the river.

In the book, Margo appears different ways to different people. How does she appear to you? I doubt that I could summarize it in a few sentences. It took a whole book to write her up. I guess I was playing around with the notion of identity. The whole book is Margo trying to figure out her identity, even though she kind of knows what it is. But in her encounters with men she has to fall into their view of her, which is something that women have done to survive over the centuries.

But there comes a point when she points a gun at a man and says, You're not coming on my boat. [Laughs.] That's right. This is a novel of education. And so she hopefully has moved a little bit by the end of the story. She's kind of figured out a few things—figured out that even if she desires something she might not want it.

There's a rape scene early on, but it's ambivalent. Margo's not entirely a victim. I guess I didn't want her to have preconceived ideas about sex. She's kind of a nature girl and sex is enjoyable for a lot of people. I talked to some victims of molestation, and they expressed that same idea, that one of the things they feel the most guilty about is that there was some element of enjoyment in the ugly business. If that's the case for someone, it introduces a new element of strangeness into what we would prefer to see as cut-and-dried abuse. And it is an abuse, of course. But that isn't to say there can't be some element of enjoyment. I'll probably get in trouble for saying that.

Well, yeah, I'm thinking you will. There's supposed to be anger— Well, isn't there anger? She has all the feelings. I wanted that molestation to be as complicated as possible. We've seen a lot of molestation in stories, and so I wanted to make it a rich experience. And I don't mean rich in the way of being good but rich as in complicated. And I thought for this particular gal that was realistic. Writing fiction isn't about principles. It's certainly not political. To write a story that means something requires really devoting oneself to the characters, even if some things come out that weren't what you expected and weren't what you liked.

In an interview I read, you gave the impression that Margo was the river itself. Yeah. I kind of based her on the river, I guess. I usually base my characters on real people, but she was one that had no basis in reality. So I did just try to figure out, What would it mean for a girl to really embody the river? And Margo is who I came up with.

You also write a lot about what the river is doing and how it feels to Margo. Yeah. I hoped that people would like that, and I enjoyed it. I grew up on a creek, but I spent a lot of time on the Saint Joe River. My grandparents had an island cottage and so us kids spent a lot of time on the water, playing on the water and in boats and messing around with water creatures. So I kind of tried to celebrate that sort of life and that sort of experience. But then, also, the river becomes a scary place when you have to depend on it. It's only a playground if you can go out and play in the water and then come back in and be safe and warm in your house.

I worried about Margo being in the polluted river. It's a dangerous world, especially for somebody who's really connected to the land. If the land is polluted you have to either sacrifice your connection or take your chances and become as dirty as the thing you love. Maybe we're always as dirty as the thing we love.

Why is Margo a dead aim with a rifle? That was kinda my original conception of her. What about a girl who can really shoot? And I guess I was interested in exploring that. I've always been fascinated by Annie Oakley. I've read a bunch of biographies of her. I guess I was interested in that particular skill because it's gonna serve Margo as a survivor and because it's gonna make her a little dangerous. She's actually a very nice, peaceful girl for the most part, and I think if she didn't have her shooting skill she wouldn't be as interesting. She wouldn't have interested me initially.

What interests you about Annie Oakley? She's just so damn good at what she's doing. It's so exciting when somebody is just really good at what they do, and we don't encounter it that often. Like my sister: She's a fabulous phlebotomist. I'm always telling people that because it just impresses me. She draws blood at the hospital and she's really good at it. They call her in when they've got a drug addict whose veins are ruined or an old person whose veins are deteriorating. I just admire her so much that she has this skill. I think there's something magical about it. I imagine my sister as a diviner: she touches people's arms and finds just where she can get the vein. Annie Oakley is a fun American character and the shooting sports are very interesting in that there's parity between men and women. In most sports men tend to be a little faster, a little stronger—but the shooting, she doesn't have to take a back seat to anybody.

I had parental feelings toward Margo. Is that something you want? I don't know. I just want people to be interested in her. I want people to be interested in her development. I think my editor had parental feelings for her; I detected some motherly worry about my girl. But I'm more brutal. I'm the writer. I'm the one who's putting her in all this trouble. I'm the one who's making trouble for poor Margo. What a thing we writers do. We invent characters out of nothing and then we put 'em through hell. 

Add a comment