Used to be a doctor would wrap a woman up tight to hold body and soul together, but when I fell last week trying to get to the kitchen to pour myself a drink, they just untangled my tubes, picked me up like I was a child, and put me back in this awful bed. Told me I’d had a stroke. Now I’m lying here with a broken rib that aches.

Stop going through my cupboards and drawers and envelopes that are none of your damned business and sit down and hear me out, Sis. Being unable to say a word means my mind is about to burst. And since I can’t even hold a goddamned pen, I’m counting on you, my flesh and blood, to somehow read my thoughts. They say if they wrap my broken ribs I’ll get pneumonia, but I never got pneumonia before they stuck me in this hospice bed. In the old days, they fussed about a punctured lung, but maybe a busted rib hasn’t punctured a lung in this county since 1932, when old Mr. Wickman’s dapple-gray pony trampled him and sent him to an early grave.

Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of the forthcoming story collection Mothers, Tell Your Daughters (W.W. Norton, October 2015) and the bestselling novel Once Upon a River. She was a National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her collection of stories American Salvage, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. Campbell is also author of the novel Q Road and the story collection Women & Other Animals, winner of the AWP short fiction award. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband and two donkeys, and you can check on her progress at www.bonniejocampbell.com.

Will Allison on “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters”

In our latest story, the narrator of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” (issue #208) is a tough woman—widow, mother of six, smoker, drinker, drowner of kittens, butcher of chickens and cows, breaker of horses, lover of men. But most of all she’s a talker; indeed, talking is, as Campbell puts it our author interview, “her great power.”

The problem is, this woman just had a stroke. She can hardly speak a word as she lies in bed in the old Michigan farmhouse her father built, cared for by nurses and her estranged daughter, Sis. “Now she can only try to explain her life to herself,” says Campbell. “Probably it’s what we all end up doing in the end.”

What this narrator has to say about her life might surprise you. She’s proud of the fact that she didn’t worry about her kids when she raised them. She doesn’t regret letting her husband and boyfriends beat her children. She refuses to apologize for allowing her kids to eat PBB and lead paint. And she doesn’t really like when her grandchildren visit. (What she’d really like, at the moment, is a jelly jar of elderberry wine.) As much as she wants to believe she lived her life right, however, she does have a few regrets, one in particular involving her boyfriend Bill Theroux and Sis. But if that sounds like the sort of regret you’ve read about before, get ready for another surprise.

We’re thrilled to present the title story from Campbell’s forthcoming collection; it features one of the strongest and most distinctive characters we’ve encountered in a long time—a woman you might come to love in spite of yourself, and a woman you definitely won’t forget. If you’d like to learn about the inspiration for this character—and find out which two words Campbell never uses in her fiction—be sure to check out our author interview.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” gives voice to a character who has suffered a stroke and can no longer communicate with the people around her. The result is a story that consists entirely of internal monologue. Why did you choose this viewpoint/structure?
BC: I started the story with an intention to explore a peculiar mother-daughter dynamic but without a plan for how to present it. I figured this speaker was a woman for whom talking was her great power, and then I realized that her speaking aloud made her too powerful, so I took that away from her. Now she can only try to explain her life to herself—probably it’s what we all end up doing in the end. I wanted to present a woman who was a survivor, someone who had a strong life force, who could still power on right through to the end, despite losing almost everything.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
BC: At first I thought a woman in her bed without a voice would have nothing to say to her daughter from whom she was estranged. Then I found that she had a lot to say, so much that the story got way too long, and then I pared it back. That’s the usual difficulty for me, too little and then too much. I always have trouble getting the right shape for a story, and that was true here too, and it took me hundreds of hours to come up with this. On the simple structural level, I tried out different paragraphing, using long passages without breaks, but that made the voice come on too strong, so I’ve settled on regular paragraphing. I tried about twenty or thirty different endings, some that were too sentimental, some that were too cold, others that were too highly orchestrated. It’s always hard getting endings right. And beginnings. And middles.
WA: I love the narrator’s voice and sensibility. Is she based on anyone in particular?
BC: The sensibility is based on someone I know, or at least some types I know, but I needed to create the slightly larger-than-life language that would best express the sensibility in its full glory. I love the no-nonsense farm woman type of character, and these women have appeared in all my works, but in real life such women are never talkative enough, so I gave this woman a few more contrary aspects. She’s practical, but she is filled with desire and acts on her desires. This sort of hard-bitten rural woman is disappearing from our landscape, and maybe that’s part of why I’m so interested.
WA: Both the narrator and her estranged daughter have endured plenty of suffering. Which character do you sympathize with more?
BC: As the story developed, that changed. At first I sympathized with the younger woman who had been wronged by her mother, but as I wrote, I became far more interested in the older woman, the woman who had transgressed. This has happened to me with other stories—I started writing a story about a girl who was hit by a car, and then I became more interested in the man who hit her, and that’s how I came up with “The Inventor, 1972” from my collection American Salvage. This shouldn’t surprise me, since the mind of a criminal is usually more interesting than the mind of a victim.
WA: “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” will appear as the title story in your third collection, due out in October from W.W. Norton. Does it share any themes with other stories in the collection?
BC: I wrote this story at the last minute in order to complete my collection, so I hope it touches on a lot of the themes, which are motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, and also the relationship among women and other animals. Several of the stories are like this one, in that they feature ferocious mothers and scrappy daughters, but the tables are turned in other stories.
WA: In addition to three collections, you’ve also published two novels. Can you talk about the difference between writing a story versus a novel?
BC: Every story is different, short or long, and each one follows its own rules. At the risk of generalizing foolishly, I will say that in a short story, a writer can ask the readers to suspend disbelief, but in a novel, a reader has more time to ruminate, to notice when a situation seems unrealistic or absurd in some way, or just not well thought-out. Novels, even outrageous or experimental novels, have to be more like real life than stories do, or perhaps it would be better to say that they have to address elements of real life. That’s my answer today. I may change my mind tomorrow.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
BC: I will say that the major writing took about four months, which makes it the shortest period ever, but the original draft was put together out of some shorter pieces I wrote starting more than a decade ago. So I guess you could take an average of that and say the story took a few years to write, which is about average for me.
WA: What are you working on now?
BC: I’m reshaping and reconfiguring a novel I’ve got going. I wrote it chronologically, but I am thinking that’s not the most powerful presentation of the material, so I want to try something different. Writing a novel is hard, and I don’t recommend it.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
BC: My professor Jaimy Gordon once advised me against using the words masturbate and ooze. I don’t think I have used either. Though now that I’m sitting here, I’m thinking of a sentence that contains both of them. I’ll bet you are too.