Bonnie Jo Campbell lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan and teaches at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. She is the author of six books, including the bestselling novel Once Upon a River, the story collections American Salvage, a National Book Award finalist, and the just-released Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Her stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, the Alaska Review and other journals. She has won the AWP award for short fiction, a Pushcart Prize, the Eudora Welty Prize, and she was named a Barnes & Noble Great New Writer.
Let me confess that I haven’t been a bedtime reader, until recently. My husband and I have been changing schedules, and I used to stay up late waiting for him. Then I drank wine with him, and so I went to sleep the instant my head hit the pillow. And so we went from late shift to early shift, and then back again to late shift, but I decided not to go back to drinking late-night wine. I thought I would miss the wine, but instead, I have found that I get a good twenty minutes of reading in. And maybe they are the most luxurious moments of reading of the day. Often that is the amount of time I want to give to a New Yorker fiction piece in deciding if I want to finish it. Or sometimes I read a wickedly funny Anthony Lane movie review in that time. More often, though, I pick up one of the old standards that I’ve got stacked on the floor.
The biggest book beside my bed is the Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor. I have been invited to talk about Flannery O’Connor at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. in March, and so I’ve figured I’d better bone up on her. I have a terrible memory, so I can still be surprised at the plots of the stories. My current favorite story is “The Displaced Person,” which is about a Polish man coming to a farm to work after World War II. This brutal depiction of the treatment of a hard-working immigrant is newly chilling in the light of what is happening today around the world to migrants and immigrants.
A lot of us people who strive to be nice take great comfort in Flannery O’Connor’s harshness. In an essay in the Collected Works, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” O’Connor takes issue with an editorial in Life Magazine, “The gist of the editorial was that in the last ten years this country had enjoyed an unparalleled prosperity, that it had come nearer to producing a classless society than any other nation and that it was the most powerful country in the world, but that our novelists were writing as if they lived in packing boxes on the edge of the dump while they awaited admission to the poorhouse.” This addresses a question we writers are often asked, something along the lines of, “Why do you always write about bad things in society?” This six page essay gives us something to say to that.
Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl – This is Diane Seuss’s new book, and your head is going to fly off when you read it. Or at least it will fly off if you are a Midwestern girl who misspent your youth chasing boys and dreams of visiting the big city.
An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. My friend Heidi Bell, who is an editor, advised me and others to read this book. Ms. Lerner comes at writing from an editing angle and is full of wisdom for the writer. This wisdom as dispensed by an editor rather than a fellow writer is profound and feels fresh.
Carson McCullers‘ The Ballad of the Sad Café – This is a work of fiction I keep referring back to. Carson McCullers told somebody that she was trying to write a realistic contemporary fairy tale, and I think she succeeded. She had crazy ideas about love, which for her in real life was always unrequited. She saw the lover and beloved persons as fundamentally unable to connect. In her words: “First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries.” I love the way the story is told and then tacked onto the end of it is a description of “twelve mortal men” singing as part of a chain gang. I’ve taught this book, and as a class we have always argued about whether the song of the twelve mortal men is joyful or sorrowful for the reader. I guess it is both.
America Eats by Nelson Algren – I can’t get enough of this book. I’m not even sure where I picked it up, but it’s work that’s been reprinted by the Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series. Apparently in the late 1930s Nelson Algren worked for the Illinois Writers Project, part of the federal government’s effort to employ artists. He was supposed to catalog what different groups of Americans were eating, and especially what different immigrant groups in the Midwest were eating. As well as recording food information, Nelson Algren is collecting fun stories, including the “invention” of the popcorn ball in Nebraska, which is said to have occurred “In the Year of the Striped Weather” as a result of corn and sugar cane growing together. In the same section, he also records such superstitions about food such as “If a woman cuts thick slices of bread she will be a good stepmother,” as well as “If you plant potatoes on Good Friday, you will have a good crop.” At the end are recipes for everything from Armenian Burgoo to African Charchouka to Hungarian Goulash and Spaetzle.
My friend Gina Betcher gave me a fun food book that I keep dipping into. It’s At Home on the Range by Elizabeth Gilbert’s great-grandmother Margaret Yardley Potter, a food columnist writing in the 1930s. It’s a book that was in Ms. Gilbert’s family since before she was born. Ms. Potter writes with great confidence about how to cook just about anything, how to feed a heap of people without any nonsense. The chapters are charmingly named, e.g., “Weekend Guests Without a Weakened Hostess” and “Preserve Yourself in a Jam.” In her chapter about desserts, she makes short work of dozens of desserts. The recipe for fruitcake, goes on for several pages, but her recipe for Trifle is only a paragraph and begins “Trifle, for four or six pepole, has a foundation of about one third of the big sponge cake, or one whole single layer, that is two or three days old. Even a hard, stale piece will do, so keep the cake safely locked up!”
What’s the last book to “make your head fly off?”