Interview with Bonnie ZoBell by T.C. Porter
For the vividness of Bonnie ZoBell’s What Happened Here, a novella and stories, consider the book’s here, which features: North Park macaws; a rave warehouse in Gaslamp; the (god-foresaken) I-5 corridor between here and LA; Santa Ana winds; auditioning for the San Diego Symphony; escaping to Hemet, Julian, San Onofre State Park and Sedona; border crossing to Tijuana and Rosarito; bingo in Mission San Luis Rey; brown native landscapes amidst “the damn gated community that wanted to water the hell out of everything;” and the boobs near Camp Pendleton.
Deeply rooted in location, ZoBell’s mosaic of recurring characters yearn for wholeness. Their patchwork world is the wreckage of a horrific (and historic) airplane crash that left body parts hanging from power lines populated by rainbow colored macaws.
San Diego’s lead role is just one of many reasons locals will enjoy ZoBell’s summer read. She has taught generations of writers who will find this long awaited gem worth the wait.
Bonnie appears this month in California, Oregon and Washington. Her next San Diego reading is October 18.
As part two of her book tour commenced, we traded emails.
T. C. Porter: Why do you write? What is the itch you scratch with your work? Or is it presumptuous to say there is such scratching?
Bonnie ZoBell: I’ve been writing for so long—40 years?—that writing is just what I do. I suppose it helps me sort out the world, even if what I’m writing about isn’t actually happening. I need to do it to stay balanced in the stratosphere. If I don’t do it, things aren’t right—I guess you’d call that a bad itch.
TCP: What is your writing routine and practice like? Can you give us some color and detail on what you do, and where and how you do it? Do you use prompts? Do you write in a special place? Do you have any peers you write and edit with?
BZ: I’m afraid I’m a bit of a binge writer. I can go for a long time, even a couple of years, and do almost nothing but write. It doesn’t make my loved ones very happy, and I get behind on bills. And then I can go for some periods of time without writing at all.
I live in a fairly small and old cottage with my husband. The garage is so small that you can tell it was built for a Model T—modern cars don’t fit. I don’t know why we waited so long, but a few years back we converted the garage into my office. And he got to keep our shared office in the house. I had a lot of fun—painting the ceiling blue like the sky, and so on. And all my great passions are out here now—my gardening tools, since I love to garden, and all my writing stuff. The dogs sleep out here while I work. My husband comes to visit.
I do really like prompts. My whole fiction chapbook that came out last year, The Whack-Job Girls, was flashes that came from prompts. And there are a few stories in What Happened Here that came from prompts as well. Like the story, “Lucinda’s Song.” I gave an assignment out to my students to grab one of those great National Enquirer headlines and write a story that went with it. One of my students came in with “80-Year-Old Woman Arrested for Brown Lawn.” I liked that headline so much I wrote a story about it, too. In reality, there was a woman who lived in a gated community who got in trouble for not keeping her landscaping up. When one of the community officers came by to write her up a citation about it, she kicked or hit him and was arrested.
When I gave a few readers an early draft of the story to read, none of them bought that the 80-year-old woman would really get arrested, though—life being crazier than art and all that—so I took it out. Then I had so much fun deciding why she’d let her lawn get so brown. I finally decided that she was having such a torrid love affair, she couldn’t be bothered with watering. She meets Ramón at her local bingo game put on by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, and one thing leads to another. Lucinda’s son Miguel is not at all amused when he discovers personal lubricant sitting on the kitchen counter from when Lucinda and Ramón have such passionate sex against the dishwasher that Lucinda throws her hip out. That was such a fun story to write!
I like prompts because they make you write about things you might not normally write about.
TCP: Do you have any scheduled readings in San Diego?
BZ: I had quite a few readings in San Diego right before and after my book came out on May 3, 2014, including one at San Diego Writers Ink. However, at the moment I’m just about to drive up the West Coast and read in some other cities. My friend Timothy Gager, a wonderful fiction writer from Boston, is coming out to read at SDWI on October 18th, and he invited me to read with him, so I’ll be doing a reading with him, Heather Fowler, and Teisha Twombey. My mother wants me to read in North County since I haven’t done that yet.
TCP: And tell me about this book tour; part 2?
BZ: You can see the specifics of the second leg of my Red Bird Tour, up the West Coast, here.
When my book came out, it was too hard to sit still doing nothing, so I took the show on the road. On the first part of the tour on the East Coast, I decided the whole thing would be much more fun if I got to see old friends, relatives, and friends I knew online but had never actually met, so that’s what I’m doing again. (I went back East first so that I’d get in and out before the heat of summer!)
On this second part, I’m going to Long Beach, Los Angeles, Morgan Hill (South Bay), San Francisco, Sacramento, Petaluma, Portland, and Seattle, all of which I’ll love getting to see again. While I read with a pretty even group of men and women on the first half of the tour, the second half seems to be all women: Stephanie Barbé Hammer, Jo Scott-Coe, Donna Hilbert, Jordan Rosenfeld, Désirée Zamorano, Amy McElroy,Meg Pokrass, Valerie Fioravanti, Liz Prato, Wendy Willis, Jennie Shortridge, and Jennifer Murphy.
I can’t tell you how fun and informative it is to get to talk to so many writers about writing and books. Very enlightening.
TCP: How did this collection come to be? Is it just, here’s Bonnie’s latest stories? I suspect they’re bound together more intentionally. How did the book come about? How long have you been working on it?
BZ: They’re bound together very intentionally, and yet I didn’t set out to do that. The oldest story in the collection “Nimbus Cumulus” was published thirty years ago in The Cimarron Review. I wrote some novels in between these stories over the years, which never got published, but there’s one of them I’m longing to get back to as soon as things settled down.
I had a lot of published stories and was trying to think of a way to put them together. Then I was writing the novella that begins my collection about the couple in which the man is bipolar. I was living in the house I live in now, which is only a few feet from where PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park in 1978. I ended up adding the crash to the novella because I so liked the parallel of John, the character who’s bipolar and spiraling out of control, to the plane that’s doing the same thing.
Then I started trying to figure out which of my other stories I thought were my best. It takes me a long time to write a story, so I didn’t just knock out a bunch for the collection, though some are new ones. I pulled all of them together and set them on the same block in North Park and started playing with the characters running in and out of each other’s stories. I worked on how the characters in the other pieces would have reacted to the crash. And since I was still writing the novella, I invited all the other characters over for a block party for the thirtieth anniversary of the crash. It was a lot of fun. They were introduced in the opening novella before their own stories come up later. I also sprinkled macaws throughout them to help tie them together and because I love the macaws.
TCP: Tell me about working with this publisher. I think it’s the first time?
BZ: I had a chapbook come out a year ago called The Whack-Job Girls published by Monkey Puzzle Press. Actually, after years of not getting novels published, these two collections were accepted in the same month in 2012. It was wild.
What Happened Here is published by Press 53, a wonderful independent press edited and published by Kevin Morgan Watson, who’s a dream-come-true of an editor. He understood exactly what I wanted to do in the book and helped me do it. I met him at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference one year where he told me to submit it to him when it was ready. A few years went by and I finally submitted it to him. Then I withdrew it because I still didn’t think the novella was good enough. A year later I resubmitted, but he thought the earlier version of “What Happened Here” was better. It was a really hard piece for me to write, and I’ll be forever grateful for his help in getting it right. He didn’t dictate what I should do, but told me what parts were working for him, what parts weren’t, and what he wanted to know more and less about. I was still rewriting it as it went to press.
TCP: The characters are so down to earth, real. I mean, most people I know, we’re all normal people. Fiction is often a cast of elites, professors, untouchables. Your world is populated by people who drink a six pack while you’re waiting in their home to go look at a fishy RV you want to buy. How do you do it?
BZ: I love that, ha! A fishy RV. Hahahahaha! Why is that so funny? Ahem, okay . . . well I guess it’s funny because that’s what I try to do, take regular old people doing regular old things, which are sometimes pretty funny, while facing monstrous problems, like we all do, even if we don’t have AIDS like Willy in that story does. I’m not interested in elites who pretend they have no problems and hide the funny things they do that make us human while wearing better clothes and living in better houses than we do. Raymond Carver is one of my all-time heroes, and I loved the way he wrote about working class folk with no airs.
TCP: You sort of break the myth that a college professor is detached. As if there is an ivory tower anyway. But there’s some truth in stereotypes. You steer clear of this one. Do you do anything intentional to stay connected and plugged in with people of many kinds, or does it sort of just happen naturally?
BZ: Well, maybe it’s partly because I’m at a community college? We aren’t very elite but deal with more regular old people working their way through college. I actually talk to my students more than I do my colleagues, and students at our college are a group of all different ages, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and levels of education. I consider myself more of a writer than an academic, though I do teach at a college.
TCP: And speaking of teaching, you’ve been at Mesa College for, well, I think twenty-five years. That’s amazing. You must enjoy it? And how does that feed into your writing?
BZ: Somehow, I’ve been teaching at Mesa College for thirty years now. I’m not sure how that happened. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching and have had some wonderful students.
TCP: It’s refreshing and exciting to read an author rooted in San Diego, writing stories set here. What particular interest do you have in the city, and what challenges and opportunities are posed when you root in a real place (as opposed to fictional or more general settings)?
BZ: Setting is really important to me in fiction because it helps characterize so much. Not just because where people live shapes them, but because of how people feel about where they live, what kind of kinship they have. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing about San Diego over the years. I grew up here and know it better than anywhere else in the world. My grandfather moved here from Idaho as an oceanographer to help start Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and we have several generations of family in the area.
I have a whole novel I’m just about to go back to set in Del Mar Terrace—the very southern section of Del Mar sitting above what is now called the lagoon. A lot of it’s about a set of kids called the Terrace Rats who grew up there in the fifties and played on the earthmovers used to put in Interstate 5 when the workers went home at night. I’ve lived all over San Diego and written about different parts. I love writing about the ocean. I don’t even go there that often but feel like there’s something really wrong if I’m living in a place that doesn’t have a huge mass of water to my west, moisture, salty breezes, brine in the air. I strive to make the landscape another character in my stories because I think it tells so much.
In my mind, there is nothing but advantages in writing about a place you know well. And you can always make stuff up—it is fiction.
TCP: As an experienced writer and teacher is there any specific advice you give us?
BZ: Oh, wow. I think my best advice would be to read as many excellent novels and stories as you can get your hands on. Those are the best teachers, both consciously and subconsciously. And try to keep believing in yourself because there’s so much rejection out there in the publishing world, and so much of it is truly subjective.
Bonnie ZoBell’s new linked collection What Happened Here, a novella and stories, centered on the site PSA Flight 182 crashed in the North Park area of San Diego, was published in May 2014 by Press 53. Her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls was released by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She has received an NEA fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, A PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Los Angeles Review nominated one of her stories for a Pushcart Award, a place on Wigleaf’s Top 50, and a story published by Storyglossia was named as a notable story in story South’s Million Writers Award.
T.C. Porter writes literary, genre-bending novels from San Diego, where he lives with his family. He seeks representation on his completed first novel. He blogs for SDWI, leads writing groups and curates a reading series unifying local and national authors and poets. His work has appeared in several literary journals, scholarly publications and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Porter participated in John Dufresne’s master novel class at Taos Writers Conference in 2013. He has studied under SDWI’s T. Greenwood, Jim Ruland, Steve Kowit and others, completed fifty weeks of fiction with Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and graduated from University of Missouri, Columbia (B.A., English). Follow him at http://www.tcporter.com.