Women who rise from the waters—and an author’s rising acclaim

Contact: Zinta Aistars
Bonnie Jo Campbell in her home writing space.

"Education instills discipline and allows you to indulge curiosity. … The WMU environment was fun for me, full of smart professors and creative fellow students.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell, BA ‘92, MA ‘95, MFA ‘98, acclaimed author

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Alumna Bonnie Jo Campbell’s latest book is garnering widespread acclaim as a must-read, earning recognition as one of Oprah’s most-anticipated books of 2024 and securing a coveted spot on a TODAY show book club. In "The Waters," Campbell weaves a narrative that draws inspiration from the women in her life, and it clearly captivates readers.

“The women in my life are like water,” Campbell says. “They floated in and out of my life, and as a girl, I hid behind the couch in our house and observed them. I learned about their weaknesses and their strengths.”

Many of these women, their vulnerabilities and virtues intact, have flowed into Campbell’s latest creative endeavor, influencing the colorful characters of "The Waters.” Released in January 2024 by W. W. Norton & Co., this third Campbell novel follows the success of "Once Upon a River" and "Q Road.” Those works, along with the author’s short story collections—"American Salvage,” a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, “Women and Other Animals” and “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” among them—have bolstered her reputation as a prolific writer.

The Waters; Bonnie Jo CampbellHer newest must-read novel unfolds on an island nestled within the Great Massasauga Swamp, an area known as The Waters to the residents of Whiteheart, Michigan. The story introduces readers to characters like Hermine "Herself" Zook, a healer and herbalist; the young and beautiful Rose Thorn; and Rose Thorn’s 11-year-old daughter, lovingly nicknamed Donkey, a math prodigy. These and other characters seamlessly blend elements of fairy tales with realism. The result, says a Washington Post book critic, is “pure magic.”

Not unlike Donkey, Campbell, too, is excellent at math. Two of her three WMU degrees are math centered. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education in 1992 and a master’s in mathematics in 1995. Her third degree is a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which she earned in 1998. She also has a secondary teaching certificate in both mathematics and English, and during her undergraduate studies, she was recognized as the Presidential Scholar of the Department of Mathematics. She additionally earned two teaching awards, one in math and another in English.

The alumna’s transition from a mathematics-focused path to creative writing is a story of transformation and demonstrates how education can unlock a person’s purpose for a fulfilled life and meaningful career.

"Dr. Arthur White was my favorite math professor. I was enrolled in a mathematics PhD program with Dr. White as my advisor from 1993 to 1995, but I found myself unhappy with mathematics. I wanted to try my hand at writing,” Campbell explains. 

The math professor encouraged her to take a writing course with Dr. Jaimy Gordon, a now-retired WMU professor of English who won the National Book Award for fiction in 2010.

“I enjoyed it very much. Then she encouraged me to join the writing MFA program, so I finished up my master’s and moved across campus. Jaimy Gordon became my new favorite professor. While Dr. White taught me to solve problems with logic, Dr. Gordon taught me to solve them with language."

Her “solutions” foment a literary prowess that has earned Campbell a series of prestigious accolades, including a Pushcart Prize, the Eudora Welty Prize, the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Mark Twain Award. "The Waters" continues her track record of critical acclaim. It has been selected as the TODAY show’s Read With Jenna Book Club Selection, featured on Oprah Daily’s Most Anticipated Books of 2024 and listed in the Chicago Review of Books’ 12 Must-Read Books of January 2024.

Reflecting on her student years within a University community that played a crucial role in shaping a prodigious writing career, Campbell emphasizes the significance of education.

"Education instills discipline and allows you to indulge curiosity,” she says. “The WMU environment was fun for me, full of smart professors and creative fellow students. I‘d been trying to write for years and had had some success on my own, but experiencing a graduate-level writing workshop with a brilliant professor like Jaimy rocked my world. I never looked back." ■