Fall for the Blog: Bonnie Jo Campbell and Mary Kay Zuravleff

Fourth Estate follows events of the Fifteenth Annual Fall for the Book Festival through Fall for the Blog.

Fiction authors Mary Kay Zuravieff and Bonnie Jo Campbell write contrasting spins on the "American Dream." 

Angela Woolsey
(photo by John Irwin)


The room erupts in a chorus of giggles as Mary Kay Zuravleff reads aloud a passage from her latest book, Man Alive!. Revolving around a man who becomes obsessed with barbeque after surviving a lightning strike, the passage she reads from the novel is told through the point-of-view of the man’s wife and has reached a comical sex scene.


Fellow fiction author Bonnie Jo Campbell joins Zuravleff at a reading and craft talk for the 12th annual Fall for the Book Festival. This event, one of dozens taking place at Mason and other venues in the surrounding area, started at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening. Campbell started off by reading the first chapter of her novel Once Upon a River, which centers on a young girl named Margo growing up in Michigan. The book resonates with rich, immersive details and a strong sense of atmosphere and setting. It serves as a nice contrast to Zuravleff’s more conversational style and wry, observational humor.


When they finish their readings, the two authors take questions about their books and craft from the gathered audience. They exchange genial banter with each other as they describe their writing processes and offer advice on everything from doing research and figuring out when a specific work is finished to the importance of choosing the right title and book cover.


Normally a “dirty realist,” a label she says her agent gave her, Campbell discusses the challenges of attempting a more traditional, conventional style with Once Upon a River and how this influenced her goal of creating a mythic character with Margo. She thanks a friend for rectifying the missteps and false assumptions she made when describing guns and shooting, which are a vital component of her novel. When asked about the differences between writing a short-story and a novel, Campbell says, “Writing a short story is like dating a man. […]Writing a novel is like getting married.” 


In other words, short stories have a narrow focus on a singular incident and allow for some information to remain unexplained, whereas novels demand plausibility and close attention to all the minute details of a story.


Zuravleff explains that she got the idea for her book from an article, unspecified at the event, in The New Yorker. Zuravleff goes on to say that she often starts with a question, which, in this case, was what happens when someone no longer fits in or wants to be a part of their family? She balances the humorous and serious emotional themes of her work by realizing that humor can be found everywhere in real life, even the most mundane situations. Contrary to the claims of a review quoted during her introduction at the reading, she does not consider herself a comedic or satirical writer.


When the talk ends, the room hums with energy. Campbell and Zuravleff provided great insight into the art of writing through their readings and the Q&A session. The event was informative and enjoyable for both readers and aspiring writers alike. 


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