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Chaos Questions with Bonnie Jo Campbell photo

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the novels Once Upon a River, a National Bestseller, and Q Road. Her critically acclaimed short fiction collections include American Salvage, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Women and Other Animals, which won the AWP Prize for Short Fiction; and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. She was a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow.

Her novel, Once Upon a River, was adapted into a full length feature film and released to international critical acclaim in 2020.

In January, her novel The Waters was released by W.W. Norton; “with a ‘ruthless and precise eye for the details of the physical world’ (New York Times Book Review), Bonnie Jo Campbell presents an elegant antidote to the dark side of masculinity, celebrating the resilience of nature and the brutality and sweetness of rural life.”

Her story collection American Salvage, a National Book Award Finalist, was heralded by The Guardian as a top 10 rural noir novel of all time.

SHELDON LEE COMPTON: It’s Halloween but instead of dressing up in scary costumes, the tradition has changed. Now people dress up in sad costumes. What do you pick for yourself?

BONNIE JOE CAMPBELL: Eeyore. Because I do love a donkey, even a sad donkey. Between my hooves is a print out of the current poll numbers predicting a certain pile of dung may win the election. 

SLC: You’ve been hired to develop the latest reality show. You have complete creative control, but there’s one stipulation. The studio demands that Gordon Ramsey be in every episode of the show, even though it has nothing to do with cooking. Tell me about your big reality show idea.

BJC: Throw bricks at Brits.  

Americans are flown to various British cities and given rocks and bricks to throw. Each show will include a special guest, perhaps even a member of the royal family! There will be a special annual Brexit Bricks episode featuring Boris Johnson getting out of a taxi.

SLC: There’s a new rule. Every American must have a minimum of ten animals in their house at all times and only one cat and one dog are allowed in the mix. How do you stock your zoo?

BJC: Okay, donkeys, absolutely, and parrots. I love a ruckus. A pair of dancing bears would be great—these bears would dance not out of duress but out of joy.  Except that then the bears might eat the donkeys. So nix the bears. I’d say a dog would be great, an Australian shepherd mix, except that donkeys famously kick the shit out of dogs who get in their way (mistaking them for coyotes).  Better make that eight donkeys and then the two parrots that can jump around on the backs of the donkeys. Otherwise I’ll go with one cat an nine mice—that will save me on cat food for a while. 

SLC: You’ve been asked to write the definitive history of rock and roll in one tweet as part of the Condensing American History for the Tech Generation (CAHTG) educational initiative. Let’s see it.

BJC: White musicians stole it all from Black musicians. 

SLC: You're stuck forever in a movie. What movie do you pick, and give us at least one scene from it.

BJC: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I love waking up from a hangover with my false lashes and my shapely eyebrows and perfect eye shadow and pouring myself a martini glass of milk to share with my cat. I could do it over and over again, with a little time out for getting drunk in between takes.   

I would like to be in The Thin Man making clever banter.

If I could be in The Fifth Element, I'd want to be in the scene where they pulled things out of the blue opera singer's belly. But I would want to keep pulling out new, surprising things.

No, I can't be in a movie. I was in a movie once, it was called Smith the Gardener, directed by the brillant fiction writer Darrin Doyle. As I recall it was a movie about the "muscular Jesus." I had one line and it was okay saying it once, but then I had to say it over and over again. I believe I was in the bathtub saying it. Also, I was in the one minute movie trailer Haroula Rose made for my book, The Waters, and I screwed that up even though the job was just to act like myself! So count me out of the movie.

SLC: You've been hired on to write the screenplay for Back to the Future IV. The studio has asked for a one paragraph summary for its afternoon pitch meeting.

BJC: Biff is actually Donald Trump and they find a cure for Parkinson’s. (That was what my husband Chris said.)

A black woman travels back in time, and finds racism, sexism, and monstrous politicans. Oh, wait, that's five minutes ago. 

I don't think I've seen Back to the Future, but if I were traveling to the past, it would have to be the fictional past. In my novel, there is a terrible night that involves a lightning strike and murderous intent, among other things, and I would like to be there, to see why my characters are behaving the way they do here and now. What the heck is wrong with these (fictional) people?

SLC: If you could extend the life of one person from the past by a single year, who would it be and why?

BJC: My mother. I need her to explain some things. I know she thought she dodged a bullet, dying before us kids took DNA tests. What a surprise! I know it’s going to take a while for you to tell me the whole story. And paternity aside, I’d like to have another drink with you. Miss you, Mom. 

SLC: Next year the government is going to require that every citizen get a tattoo in the middle of their forehead. Moving just ain't an option, but you can choose your own. Show me an image of the tattoo you would choose.

A person smiling with a circle on her forehead

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BJC: What I really want is a big snake that would lie across both my eyes and create a thick black eyebrow like Frieda Kahlo, since I don’t have any natural eyebrows.  However, as a result of my mathematical tendencies, the snake would curl up in the center of my forehead and bite its tail to become an ouroboros, which represents the beginning and the end, life and death, wholeness and infinity. So, what the heck.

SLC: Who would win in a fight between Emily Dickinson and Alice Munro? How do you figure?

BJC: I know Alice is in better shape than Emily, but I say: Run like hell, Alice—don’t even look back. Now, Emily and Flannery, that would be a match worth watching. 

A person wearing a hat and scarf

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SLC: Ozzy Osbourne has finally forgotten everything he ever did. What song other than "Crazy Train" do you play for him as a reminder of his importance to the world of music?

BJC: Gosh, who is Ozzy Osbourne? Didn’t he bite the head off a Barbie doll or something?