How does place impact prose? Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula explores that very question, drawing on the work of Upper Peninsula authors past and present to create a vibrant kaleidoscope of voices and experiences. Bonnie Jo Campbell, Andrea Scarpino and thirty-three other authors important to the region appear in this exceptional and diverse volume.
"Etched against the backdrop of a wilderness both aggressive and haunting, the collected works in Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula flay the soul with their beauty and define Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a place unique, where defeat and victory claim kinship through stories, and redemption is built upon endurance."
"Campbell’s busted-broke, damaged, and discarded people are rich in longing, valor, forgiveness, and love, and readers themselves will feel salvaged and transformed by this gutsy book’s fierce compassion."
"Andrea Scarpino faces not just the drama but the tedium of pain, and offers us no easy comfort; rather, there is both raw insight and surprising grace. The writing dissolves the usual boundaries, between prose and poetry, medical fact and mythical imagination and—like pain itself—between our individual bodies and the whole surrounding world."
One might make the argument that two of the strongest voices in contemporary Michigan are Andrea Scarpino, representing the Upper Peninsula poetry scene, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, representing the Lower Peninsula fiction scene. The strength of their voices comes from a combination of having unique, distinctive, and passionate style and subject matter on the page, furthered by both authors willingness to tour extensively, notably to rural communities in the state. Scarpino is the 2015-2017 U.P. Poet Laureate whose latest book is What the Willow Said as It Fell (Red Hen Press). Bonnie Jo Campbell is a previous National Book Award finalist whose current book is Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories (W.W. Norton & Company).
RR: Both of you are brilliant with titles. I’m a big fan of the cryptic Once, Then and the best title of 2015 might be Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories with its lovely double-entendre of “Mothers, tell your daughters stories.” Can you talk about your book titles?
AS: Thank you, Ron! Your compliment means a lot to me because I really struggle with titles. When I was doing my MFA, one of the recurring criticisms of my workshop submissions was that I needed a different title, and I often go through dozens before I find one I really like. They just seem so final—like naming a child.
I really like titles that simultaneously shape the reader’s expectations and withhold a little bit of information from the reader. I want the reader to be interested in opening my book, but I also don’t want to be too explicit about the book’s content. In both my poetry collections, the titles developed from lines within the book itself which I hope readers will recognize when they’re reading. In my second book, the line, “what the willow said as it fell” is followed by, “Take this body, make it whole.” So I liked What the Willow Said as It Fell as a title in part because I’m hoping the idea of wholeness, and obviously the fact of the body, shines through the poetry.
BJC: Thank you, indeed, Ron! I’m with Andrea that titles are hard. And I might even go so far as to say that a work is not finished until it has the right title on it, and for me the title is often the last element of the story or collection to come to me. That said, after I get the right title, by settling into the final understanding of my work, then I have still more work to do, adjusting the whole work slightly to the title. The titles to all three of my collections have great stories behind them, and I’ll say that I spent months coming up with Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. I had this story collection, but didn’t quite know what it was about. After trying out hundreds of other titles, arguing with my editor and agent, and stressing endlessly, I finally came upon this one. It resonates especially for me because it’s a line from the song “House of the Rising Sun” when sung by certain female artists. Once alighting on that title, my editor and I made some adjustments to the collection, leaving out a few stories that no longer fit and requiring me to write two new stories, including the title story. American Salvage has a similar story behind it, in that the title story was the last one I wrote. My novel, Once Upon a River, has a different story behind it. My agent came up with that title in the shower. We sold the book with that title, and I didn’t like it for a long while. Finally, when I saw the title allowed me to be fantastical, I embraced it, and I still like it.
RR: You both write about suffering frequently. What role does suffering play in your fiction and poetry? Do you handle it as redemptive or existential?
AS: I don’t think there is anything redemptive in suffering. It’s just suffering: it just hurts. I actually respond very negatively to suggestions that suffering makes us better people or enriches our lives in some deep way. I know some people derive meaning from their suffering and I’m glad for them when that’s the case, but the only meaning I’ve been able to derive from painful moments in my life is this sucks. I want this to end.
Suffering is an integral part of being alive and being human, which is why I so often write about it—I don’t think a single human being is spared suffering. And yet, we so often like to pretend we don’t suffer. We’re told to put on a brave face, and women especially are told we should smile no matter what is happening in our personal lives. So I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge and sit with suffering, to understand it as a central human experience, and to appreciate the suffering of others around us. And writing and reading about suffering can help us with that.
BJC: I tend to write about what worries me, and the suffering of others worries me immensely. We fiction writers tend to write about suffering that comes about both because of circumstances and also because of the nature of one’s character—it is most interesting when a character has at least partially brought about his or her own suffering. I don’t write as a sociologist, and my main interest is in exploring the human character, but I am glad when my readers tell me that they have more sympathy for the sorts of folks they encounter in life because of my stories. Like Andrea, I see suffering as universal. Nobody’s life is easy when you come down to it—we want to pretend some people swim effortlessly through life’s waters, but life is hard for everybody a good portion of the time. And while I don’t see suffering as inherently redemptive, I do think it can sometimes spur a character into action.
RR: What religion do you identify with? What’s your religious/spiritual background?
AS: I don’t identify with any religion in all honesty. My father was Catholic so I have spent a fair amount of time in the Catholic Church, and my mother identified as Quaker for a while, so I spent time at Friends Meetings. I also grew up with dear friends who were Jewish and Muslim, and as an adult, I’ve read some about Buddhism. So I guess I have a bit of a smorgasbord religious background, which also means I don’t have a deep understanding of any one tradition.
BJC: Andrea, you and I need to have a beer! How have we never sat down together?
RR: The following is quoted from Mothers, Tell Your Daughters:
“I’m not going to hell,” he whispered. “God is leading me home. He has shone his light on the path to Him. God has forgiven me.”
“For what, Carl? What has God forgiven you for?”
“Forsaking Jesus.” He sounded exhausted, his voice a hiss.
There was a long pause before he whispered, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior, my light in the darkness.”
“How about forgiveness for hitting your wife? And your son? Is God forgiving you for that?”
Could you talk about this passage?
BJC: The passage is from the story, “A Multitude of Sins,” a man who has abused his wife and son finds Jesus right at the end and so figures he’s saved. When the husband is dying of cancer, the wife begins to discover the seeds of her empowerment. She finds herself furious at the notion of her husband receiving forgiveness. I enjoy seeing this woman become angry after a life of submissiveness.
RR: Andrea, in your poem “Homily,” you repeat the phrase, “She didn’t believe in God.” Why that repetition?
AS: My poem “Homily” was based on an experience I had while visiting Paris and walking into Notre Dame on Christmas Day: the priest was saying the mass in Latin, and the air was filled with incense and evergreen, and I was completely in love with being there and being present in the moment even though I don’t identify as Catholic. So I guess I tried to capture the feeling of wanting so badly to believe in something because the present moment is so special, but also knowing, deep down, that belief is just not there.
RR: Do you find you struggle with your religious beliefs through your characters?
AS: I don’t know if I struggle with my own religious belief through my poetry, but I definitely am a person who questions almost everything, including religious belief, in my life and in my poetry. I like feeling open to the world, and I like questioning, and I like hearing about other people’s beliefs, and I like learning how other people experience the world around them. And I find religious belief endlessly curious and interesting and rich with possibility.
BJC: I’m not interested in my own religiosity, but I am interested in the religious beliefs of others, and as a writer, I’m interested in seeing how those beliefs inform character.
RR: Bonnie Jo, Halloween appears in Once Upon a River and Q Road, notably in the passage on “Halloween [where], he’d soaped windows, strung toilet paper across people’s front yards, and once he’d found a veined, milky afterbirth from his sister’s horse foaling, and in the middle of the night dragged it onto a neighbor’s front porch.”
Are you attracted to what an old Religion professor of mine, Dr. Hough, called the Jungian shadow aspects of humanity?
BJC: Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love has an epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a line Prospero says of the monster Caliban: "This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine.” I, too, acknowledge mine!
RR: Earlier, we spoke of suffering. Both of you are connected to metaphorical center points in Michigan—Marquette and Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo is emerging as an economic and spiritual powerhouse of the state, as well as important for Michigan publishing with Zondervan and New Issues Press. There is also the complication of poverty in the far southwest regions that grinds up against Grand Rapids’ wealth. Hate groups are in that area and the recent Uber driver murders. Bonnie Jo, where you live is a very complicated place. Can you talk about good and evil in your writing, how it fits with the complexities of southwest Michigan?
BJC: I was just reading Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and I was noticing how he makes very clear who is good and who is evil in his stories. I am more interested in gray areas of human nature, in people who try to be good, but fail, and in people who make trouble sometimes. The person who has a decent job and a good family situation might go his or her whole life as a productive law-abiding citizen, while the same person, after losing a job and a spouse and children might become a meth-addicted criminal. What amazed me about the Uber shooter is just how ordinary and normal he was; that showed me that crimes are not committed by devils or evil people necessarily. Crimes are committed by people who make bad choices, and they make them for a variety of reasons, some of which we will never understand.
All we can do, it seems to me, is pay attention, keep our minds open to all the possibilities good and bad, and work to care for one another at all times. We can strive to never be cruel or judgmental.
RR: Who are the great spiritual writers in fiction and poetry?
AS: I love Marilynn Robinson’s writing, particularly Gilead. I first listened to that book as an audiobook on a road trip many years ago, and I remember just weeping while I was driving because I was so moved by the quiet spirituality throughout her writing. And that quietness is really the kind of spiritual or religious writing that I most appreciate: a quiet attention to those around us, a quiet attention to the world, a quiet attention to the connections that make us human.
RR: What issues of religion do writers need to talk about now?
AS: Acceptance and appreciation of different opinions, viewpoints, and religious traditions. Our country’s hate speech deeply troubles me, particularly as it is directed toward Muslims. But we’ve never been particularly good at accepting differing viewpoints and that’s something that writers and religious leaders and teachers and parents and politicians all need to address.
BJC: As a writer I spend a lot of time imagining how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes, and that helps me be more humble and generous toward my fellow human beings, even the difficult ones.
Interviewer Ron Riekki’s latest book is the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Award-winning Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Michigan State University Press), which includes writing from Bonnie Jo Campbell and Andrea Scarpino.