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The Unbound Book Festival comes to downtown Columbia each spring. They aim "to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors of world-class renown to Columbia, Missouri, to talk about their books, their work, and their lives."

Bonnie Jo Campbell on The Waters and creating complex female characters

Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of 'Waters'
Courtesy of Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of 'Waters'

The Unbound Book Festival is happening in Columbia this weekend and KBIA has been sitting down with some of the featured authors for this year’s fest.

In her latest book, The Waters, Bonnie Jo Campbell explores the intricacies of an eccentric matriarchal multi-generational family. Centered around eleven year old Dorothy “Donkey” Zook, Campbell dives into growing up in the wild.

KBIA’s Gillian Koptik spoke with Campbell before the festival.

Gillian Koptik: How did you prepare? Like, what kind of research were you doing while writing this or starting to form the idea?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: Whenever I start writing I don’t know where it’s gonna go. I just knew I had a girl and I wanted her to be really interested in math and when I figured out why she was so interested in math then I had to build a world around her that would really challenge her.

For me the hardest part is to really be creative and come up with a world. Now if I had been worried about researching herbalism say, or the history of farming before I built that world I think it just would’ve taken me forever to do it. So what I did is build the world then research anything I wasn’t absolutely certain of.

Koptik: So Donkey or Dorothy is kind of the main character- even though we hear a lot from other people and what they’re thinking- but what was the intentionality behind picking the youngest in the book to be the focal point?

Campbell: When she was 16 or 17 she had all these complexities and I kept trying to figure out why is she the way she is. Basically I found I had to go back and look at her when she was 11. Well I write a lot about sexual women and also sexual violation and I think I just wanted to get somebody-a character before any of that happened and see where she was. But then to counteract that I made sure to explore her mother who is a very sexual person who has a complicated sexual history.

Koptik: What was it like writing all these male characters that are kind of the enemy in some regard…

Campbell: (laughs)

Koptik: Not all of them of course.

'The Waters' explores the intricacies of an eccentric matriarchal multi-generational family.
Courtesy of Bonnie Jo Campbell
'The Waters' explores the intricacies of an eccentric matriarchal multi-generational family.

Campbell: I write a lot about men and I write a lot from men’s point of view so I’ve got a lot of nerve. Initially, I didn’t include the men in the book in such a big way. Initially I was just gonna write about the women on the island and I was going to leave the men as enemies.

And then the more I wrote the more I thought you know, it would be way more interesting if we heard everybody’s point of view. Because the men weren’t really bad guys. They really were people struggling to feed their families and find pride in what they do and so it allowed me to study…I guess it’s a kind of research in a way.. to really study these characters I’d invented.

Koptik: I know that often in your writing you do tend to write about women a lot, write about women as sexual beings, what makes you gravitate towards that subject matter?

Campbell: I know that a lot of what makes women the way they are has a lot to do with their sexual experiences and especially young women have very formative sexual experiences. And so I guess I am interested in how those play out. I mean I’m friends with a lot of women and I look at their situations and feel like, things didn’t always go well when you were young women (laughs). And I, you know, I’m interested in how that happens.

See more Unbound Conversationshere and see more including the complete schedule of events on the Unbound Book Festival website. 

Gillian Koptik is a student producer for KBIA. She is a senior graduating in May 2024, studying journalism and film at The University of Missouri-Columbia. When she’s not in the booth, she’s usually listening to WBEZ’s “This American Life” or rewatching “Ladybird."
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