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Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.
Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.
In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.
LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?
BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.
LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?
BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.
LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?
BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.
LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?
BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.