Bonnie Jo Campbell, tall and lean, read a poem last night to a rapt crowd from her chapbook, "Love Letters to Sons of Bitches." It begins, "The basket I bring to the hospital to stop you from dying." It's a poem of love and pain and worry, and when she finished reading the room was utterly quiet. And then she smiled.
She next read "The Solutions to Brian's Problem," a short story from "American Salvage." She had truncated the story a bit last year to read it aloud at the National Book Awards ceremony. ("American Salvage" was a finalist.) But she also likes the idea of many versions of stories, like Monet's haystacks. Each one slightly different.
The story was in the form of a list--a list of possible things for Brian to do to cope with his wife's meth addiction. Each solution more harrowing and impossible than the one before it. More stunned silence when she finished, and another big smile from the author.
"I'm interested," she said, a little later in the evening, "in the struggles of people who live really close to the edge. Issues where people's very survival is at stake."
This struggle is at the heart of her latest novel, "Once Upon a River," the story of Margo Crane, a teen-age girl who sets off in her rowboat to find independence and her mother. What follows is a series of dire events, but Margo is so calm, so thoughtful, that the book has a lovely equanimity to it despite the tragedies.
The book is steeped in river life, which Campbell knows well. She grew up along the St. Joseph River in Michigan, spending summers on her grandparents' island. River life, to her, "is the sensation of playing in the muck--you could hollow out the banks; the water hollowed out the banks. I was fascinated by how the river rose and fell; it was constantly moving."
It took four years to write "Once Upon a River." The first draft of it--as with the first draft of anything, she says--was something of a mess. But once that first draft is done, "Ah, finally something to work with," she said. "Now I can get started."
She writes without knowing precisely where the story is going (though with "River" she did know where Margo would end up). "I like to get through a first draft and then search for the arc. Really study it. I can be very analytical about this thing I've created. You don't know what the challenges of a book will be until you're deep into it."
The character of Margo appears in her first novel, "Q Road," as well as in two early short stories. It was fun, she said, to pull together what she already knew about the character and tell her full story. "Certain elements of the story have been with me ever since I was a little girl, playing in the muck," she said. And then she smiled.