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  1. Book ImageAmerican Salvage

    Bonnie Jo Campbell

    Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction
    Finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction
    “These short stories approach their subjects from an array of perspectives, but what they share is freshness, surprise, and a compulsion to plumb some absolute extremes of American existence.”—National Book Award citation

Discussion Questions

  1. In “World of Gas” and “King Cole’s American Salvage,” we meet our protagonists at work. Work also figures largely in other stories such as “The Inventor” and “Bringing Belle Home.” How are Campbell’s characters defined by their work, on and off the job? Is there more to being a member of the working class than having a certain kind of job? Is Campbell’s depiction of working-class characters different from what you’ve read before?
  2. In “King Cole’s American Salvage,” a nephew must care for his difficult, damaged uncle. In “The Burn” and “The Inventor,” grown sons continue to struggle for their fathers’ approval. Are these intergenerational struggles inevitable? Can they end positively? What do you think will happen in these families after the stories end?
  3. Did you find yourself identifying with or rooting for any of the romantic relationships in the stories? Which ones have the best chance for success? Do some seem beyond repair? What makes fulfilling relationships so difficult for these characters?
  4. Guns and the threat of gun violence play a role in the stories “Family Reunion,” “The Burn,” and “Falling.” Campbell once said in interview that whether or not a gun appears, it is safe to say that every household in these stories contains a shotgun, rifle, or handgun. How do guns affect the lives of these characters? Would the stories change if the characters could not get guns?
  5. “The Trespasser” seems to borrow from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” while the girl’s revenge at the end of “Family Reunion” echoes that of many fairy tales. How does Campbell play with folk and fairy tales in her stories?
  6. Pain plays an important role in the stories “The Burn,” “The Inventor,” and “Storm Warning.” Why do the characters suffer so much physical distress? How did their distress affect you? What does it say about lives in the world of these stories?
  7. One reviewer has said of American Salvage, “Against all odds, salvation counterbalances loss and despair in unexpected ways.” Where do you find the most important or powerful instances of salvation in the collection? Which elements of plot, character, or language made you choose the moments you did?
  8. Money is in short supply for the majority of Campbell’s characters, and the need for it is a driving force. In “King Cole’s American Salvage,” King Cole is the only character who has wads of cash, but it does not protect him. In what ways is King Cole in the same boat as Campbell’s other characters, particularly Jill in “Boar Taint”?
  9. Campbell’s characters, while resourceful and creative, often live anachronistic lives disconnected from technology and other advantages that many of us take for granted. Is there evidence in these stories that the characters are capable of coping with the challenges and demands of daily life, work, and love in the twenty-first century?
  10. These stories take place in rural communities and small towns. How might the plots of the stories and the lives of the characters change if played in urban settings?

Q&A with Bonnie Jo Campbell

You’ve had an impressive array of occupations: traveling with the circus, leading bicycle tours, studying mathematics. What attracted you to all of these different things, and why are you now writing?

As a young person, I wanted to write, but I also wanted to have adventures. I was poor, but I was determined to not let that stop me from having every experience. I wanted to travel around the country, so I took up hitchhiking, even though it scared me. I hooked up with the circus, and I got a job selling snow cones and a room on the circus train. I loved every minute of it. The bicycle tours through Eastern Europe and Russia came about because my uncle Alex was a Slavic scholar who traveled there. Mathematics has always appealed to me because of its intense mental demands, and it served as a nice contrast to the other, less rigorous things I was interested in. In the end, though, I had to write. A mathematical proof is beautiful, but when you’re finished, it’s really only about one thing. A story can be about many things. It was actually my mathematics PhD advisor who advised me to “go take a writing class.” I never looked back.

Readers don’t see this part of the country very much in fiction: the rural, post-industrial Midwest. What drew you to these stories? Did you originally conceive of the book as a whole, or did it come together piecemeal?

My part of the country is, of course, the center of my universe, and in these stories I let myself write about the most troubled of the people around here. I simply wrote stories, one after another, about what seemed most compelling. The thing that gets me started on a story is a person in a tough situation, and so gradually the stories started adding up to create a more complex and complete picture. I realized that I was writing about folks with lots of skills, especially fix-it skills and survival skills, who were nonetheless not doing well in America’s new millennium.

You’ve written about the character in “King Cole’s American Salvage”—the junkyard man who only sells American car parts—before, in a nonfiction piece. What is it about this particular story that makes you want to return to it again?

I’ve also written poems about the salvage yard. If I could write music, I’d write it as an opera. I had written an essay about a local tow-truck driver, and I found the material so compelling that even when I was finished I couldn’t let it go. So I tried to figure out, What is the most powerful story that lies within the real life story? The nonfiction story was very much a condemnation of the person who committed the crime against the tow-truck driver. The fictional story, oddly enough, has some sympathy for the criminal.

Some readers have found these stories difficult because the characters are in big trouble. Do you see hope for these characters?

Thank you for using the word “hope.” I ultimately see this book as very hopeful. One reviewer in Detroit wrote, “these stories are prayers,” and I was grateful for that. Some readers have had trouble with the tough situations depicted in the stories. Some people tell me they’d be afraid of my characters if they met them in real life. I tell those people that they meet these characters all the time. They just don’t pay attention to them when they meet them, at the gas station, the grocery store, the post office. If I could wish for people to get one message from my book, it would be that all the members of our community, even the poor and disreputable, are worth caring about.

Why did you choose to write short stories instead of a novel?

My life is changed by stories on a regular basis, because some of the best work being written today is in the short story form. This form allows us to create work of great intensity, an intensity we might not be able to endure in a longer form—some of the stories in American Salvage are heartbreaking in a way that might be hard to take in a longer work. Certain kinds of humor also work best in short pieces. Experimental novels are often tiresome, while the same sort of experimentation in a short story seems brilliant or wicked. Perhaps it’s my mathematical background that makes me always seek the most concise telling of a story—as mathematicians we always sought the shortest, most elegant proof of a theorem.

What’s the story with the photo on the cover of the book?

The cover photo was taken by Mary Whalen. She is a Kalamazoo photographer, an artist with a grandly sympathetic soul. I gave her a copy of my manuscript, and she produced a beautiful black-and-white photo of her daughter and her nephew. And then our mutual friend Susan Ramsey said that a good book cover should have a face on it or the color red. I told Mary that, and she colored the dress red, and the photo came alive.

Who are some of the other writers who have influenced you?

It’s hard to answer a question like this honestly. My literary forebearers are Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. But I was probably most influenced by my storytelling mother, who loves to make everything seem outrageous, and by my storytelling grandfather, who always wanted a calm, peaceful ending. I love Alice Munro’s and Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories way more than money, and the same for Margaret Atwood’s novels and David Lee’s pig poems. While I was studying mathematics, I read a lot of mysteries, and I appreciate the satisfaction that genre fiction can give a reader.

You have said that one story in this collection began in 1985. Are you persistent or just stubborn? Or is there a third, better choice?

You know, until I finished the story “Bringing Belle Home,” I feared I was being foolish to keep coming back to it again and again. In 1985, I lived in Cambridge, and I remember I was sitting at a desk on the third floor of my cousin’s rooming house working on the story. Actually, that’s how I met my husband; he was underneath the window with his old two-stroke motorcycle, where you had to mix the gas and oil so it just smoked and smoked and smoked. And I had the window open and the fumes just kept pouring in the window—I don’t know, guys and motorcycles. I ended up marrying him, so I guess it worked out. And I’m still happily married to him twenty-two years later. And the story is finally finished and published.

About the Author

Bonnie Jo Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm with her mother and four siblings in a house that her grandfather, Frank Herlihy, built in the shape of an H. She learned to castrate small pigs, milk Jersey cows, and make remarkable chocolate candy. When she left home to study philosophy at the University of Chicago, her mother rented out her room. She has since hitchhiked across the United States and Canada, scaled the Swiss Alps on her bicycle, and traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus selling snow cones. As president of Goulash Tours, Inc., she has organized and led adventure tours in Russia and the Baltic states, all the way south to Romania and Bulgaria.

After earning a master’s degree in mathematics in 1992 she started writing fiction. Bonnie now lives outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Christopher, and other animals, and she teaches writing at the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. She studies Koburyu kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art, in which she holds the rank of second-degree black belt. She writes all morning seven days a week but makes time for harvesting food of all kinds. In her garden she grows enough tomatoes to put up forty jars for winter, and she brings in more modest amounts of asparagus, peppers, greens, and brussels sprouts, assuming she can keep the deer from eating them. She picks every kind of berry, collects and husks black walnuts, and each autumn finds at least one giant puffball mushroom to eat. She makes elderberry wine in her living room, and she attempts to teach good habits to her donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote.

Please check out Bonnie’s Web site, www.bonniejocampbell.com, and blog, “The Bone-eye.” If you find Bonnie in your town, be sure to ask her for a temporary tattoo.

About Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. The author of Once Upon a River and American Salvage, she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Books by Bonnie Jo Campbell

  1. Book CoverAmerican Salvage

    Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction
    Finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction
    “These short stories approach their subjects from an array of perspectives, but what they share is freshness, surprise, and a compulsion to plumb some absolute extremes of American existence.”—National Book Award citationMore

  2. Book CoverMothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories

    “Bonnie Jo Campbell is a master of rural America’s postindustrial landscape.” —Boston GlobeMore

  3. Book CoverOnce Upon a River: A Novel

    “A demonstration of outstanding skills on the river of American literature.” —Entertainment WeeklyMore