A river runs through her: Bonnie Jo Campbell reflects on "The Waters" and whirlwind book tour

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — Bonnie Jo Campbell writes every day. Every single day. Weekends, holidays, vacations, doesn’t matter. She is at her desk, writing. 
But not today. 

Not for several days, weeks, even months, as she has been caught up in a whirlpool of applause, a riptide of book tour activity, not letting her loose from seemingly endless wave upon wave of interviews, television appearances, book fairs and events, virtual and in-person readings, sharing with the literary world her newest novel — The Waters (W.W. Norton & Co., January 2024).

“I am a slow writer,” Campbell says. “It took me eight years to write 'The Waters.' It’s too hard to write during book tours, and I’m exhausted. I had 16 events in January after the release, 14 events and counting in February, and 29 events yet scheduled, with more coming. But oh, this has been exciting!”

'The Waters' is set on an island in the Great Massasauga Swamp. It is an area known as The Waters by nearby residents of Whiteheart, Michigan. Living on that island are herbalist Hermine “Herself” Zook; her daughter, Rose Thorn, who mesmerizes the men of Whiteheart; and her granddaughter who loves math and nature equally, 11-year-old Dorothy “Donkey” Zook. Other related women enter the scene throughout, bringing with them family secrets and love stories, some of which are laced with violence as the men of the surrounding community interact with the women. 

“It was wonderful to be chosen as one of Oprah Daily's Most Anticipated Books of 2024 and as one of the Chicago Review of Books's 12 Must-Read Books of January 2024,” Campbell admits. “And I cried when I read the review in the Washington Post. But it was a really big deal to be on the Today Show for a Read with Jenna book club selection. That was hard, though, because they wanted to keep it a secret, so I wasn’t told when to fly out to New York until the last minute. I had to squeeze in that flight between other events.”

Campbell appeared on the popular morning show with Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb on January 25, 2024 — the show can now be viewed on YouTube. A group of women from a New Jersey book club asked her questions about the book, in between questions from the show hosts.

“I was told to be ‘camera ready’ when I arrive at the NBC studio,” Campbell says. “Now, as a former newspaper worker, I know what camera ready is for printing, but I had no idea whether my bare face would appear washed out, or if I am supposed to suddenly burst forth wearing make-up after not wearing it my whole life.”

Campbell went through a series of trying on dresses — she is normally in comfortable pants or jeans — and shoes with heels — also something unaccustomed. Her publicist took her to Sephora prior to reaching the NBC studio to apply makeup. 

“I thought the eyebrows the makeup artist at Sephora created were a bit too Groucho-Marxish, but everybody said that was the style and it wouldn’t look that way on TV.” Campbell shrugs and smiles. When she arrived at the studio, however, the makeup artist there shook her head, wiped her face clean, and began over again. 

Campbell wore a secondhand sweater with pants, a scarf looped around her neck with the image of the book cover printed onto it. A gift from Kalamazoo writer, Susan Ramsey, she says. She now wears the scarf at all her appearances. 

All of that, Campbell laughs, may have been the hardest part. This was, after all, about the book and less about her. 

It was the local events with local fans, however, that touched the author most. 

“A couple of my favorite readings were with fellow writer, Andy Mozina,” Campbell says. Mozina recently also had a novel come out — 'Tandem.' “We read together at Kazoo Books in Kalamazoo and Schuler Books in Grand Rapids. We read with music interspersed. It was an idea by Tom Evans, and it was incredible. It was so fun! I had a blast.”

At a Chicago reading in a library, Campbell winced to see such a small audience gathered for her reading. Most all her readings thus far, after all, had drawn big audiences, and packed rooms. 

“Then I was told afterward that the reading was live-streamed to 800 people,” she laughs. 

Other appearances will include reading to a group of 24 inmates at a prison in Coldwater, organized by an outreach program at Western Michigan University, Campbell’s alma mater. At Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Campbell packed the auditorium as she answered questions with filmmaker Haroula Rose about a film made from a previous novel, Once Upon a River. An exhibit about the writer is currently showing at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, in downtown Kalamazoo. At a reading in Marshall, readers brought Massasauga snakes in honor of the book. Yes, another main character in the book is a Massasauga snake. Every reading has had its own flavor and thrills.

Since her first reading at Michigan News Agency in January, Campbell has traveled the state but also the country, coast to coast. The Waters has since landed on the national bestsellers list and is being translated into other languages. 

“I don’t know how many copies have been sold,” she says. “I don’t want to know. All I wanted in writing the book was to celebrate women.”

An audio version of the book is currently being recorded for those who would rather listen to the story than read it. 

“I got to choose the narrator,” Campbell says. “I looked for a particular kind of voice, someone special. I asked Lili Taylor—she was the actress in Mystic Pizza—and she said yes. It’s fun to have someone splashy do it.”

A couple more months of constant travel, Campbell says, and she will finally be able to return home to Darling Christopher—how she refers to her husband— and to her two donkeys, three cats, and a coop full of chickens. And to her routine of daily writing. A new, shorter novel is in the works, she hints.

More events await, but there will be longer breaks between to catch her breath and to dip a toe in the waters that surround her home and restore her. 

“I’ve made so many great connections with all these events,” she says. “I’ve met writers from across the world. But what I have really loved is that people close to me have appeared at readings. People back from high school. Family I haven’t seen in a long time. This book has put me together with old friends. That means the most.”

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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.