Every writer needs writer friends who know and understand what it’s like to live the life we’ve chosen, or that has chosen us, and who can share the thrills and chills and ups and downs and magic and mundane right along with us. Bonnie ZoBell is such a friend of mine. I’m crazy about her writing. I hope you are too. And if you don’t know Bonnie or her fiction, let me introduce her via these few interview questions.
Bonnie’s most recent book is What Happened Here, a collection of short stories and a novella that was published last year by Press 53.
The 1978 plane crash in North Park plays a recurring role in the stories in What Happened Here. Was the crash and its history — crashing in your neighborhood, right near your house — something you were haunted by, something that you needed to write about because it is so present in your daily life? And how did writing about it change your feelings about it, or did it?
The crash has always been a presence in my life because I lived in North Park in 1978 when it occurred as well as living here now. It was such a devastating and human event. Planes are supposed to stay in the sky. I wrote the opening, title novella last of all the stories in the collection, and it has the most information about the tragedy. A bipolar man experiences a depressive crash that parallels the coming 30th anniversary of the PSA crash. The novella started out to be a story, but I got so involved in the history of PSA 182, (I now live in a house right next to the crash site), and in the neighborhood as well, that North Park became its own character. I don’t think I realized until I started writing and opened that door how strongly the presence of the crash lived inside me.
Writing about it definitely changed my feelings about it. I interviewed a lot of people who still live in the neighborhood who were and still are very affected by the crash. My neighbor says he lives with the ghost of one of the passengers in his house, but that she has come to him and said she’s happy, so she’s not an unfriendly ghost. Besides my own interviewing of people, the hundreds of personal accounts on the Internet of people who were affected by this event will floor you. Just regular people going about their business as this monster drops out of the sky. Maybe it’s because I live in the neighborhood next to the site that the whole thing become more than just an article in a newspaper but something real that happened here while regular folks were out walking their children in strollers or gardening or getting ready for work that means that it will be a presence in our neighborhood forever.
Your characters are so richly written, so human and vulnerable. How do you find them? Do you construct them or do they just evolve in the writing?
Well, thank you, Judy. I appreciate that. I think to a certain extent they are all me. I don’t mean that they’re autobiographical, but that I kind of have to become them to fully understand what they’re all about. There’s a surfer kid in one of the stories, “Sea Life,” who has an interaction with a dolphin. This character lives a life nothing like mine, is the opposite sex, much younger, etc. However, I can still definitely feel what he’s going through in his life as he comes of age and has to deal with making certain compromises as to who he is and who he has to be to fit into the workplace. I still grapple with that myself. I guess it’s kind of like method acting—I have to find a part of myself that at one time had to struggle with what that particular character is struggling with so I can feel it.
Same with your dialogue, it’s so real and layered and specific to each character. Do you hear their voices in your head? Do you say the characters’ dialogue out loud as you write it, or read it aloud after it’s written?
I definitely hear the characters’ dialogue in my head and often say it out loud. I make hand gestures at the computer to emphasize how I think these people would be feeling and talking. I eavesdrop as much as possible and feel that it’s important to read things like People magazine to hear how different people talk. (Or Us, which my sister says is for people for whom People is too intellectual.) I try to imagine how that particular character would say something. Or, sometimes the dialogue comes to me first and that helps me develop the character. Researching is always a lot of fun. For the same surfer story I mention above, I had so much fun researching surf lingo. I looked up “Wave Rights” to read more about surfers fighting over waves. I also asked my brother and brother-in-law who surf about the rights and what surfers would do and say.
In your collection of stories, the plane crash and the North Park neighborhood where it happened are links that connect the stories. How does a collection of short stories come together? What should a writer who has all kinds of stories look for as a connecting link? What makes it work?
I personally really enjoy linked collections, especially those in which characters from one story make appearances in other stories. I had a collection that wasn’t linked that I liked well enough, but I started trying to think of how I could link them. As I say, I wrote “What Happened Here,” the title novella, last. And it kind of took over. I got so into not only the crash and the aftermath but the neighborhood of North Park. I suddenly had the idea that I could move all the other existing stories into the same block of the neighborhood and bring the stories together that way. Once I had that idea, I rewrote all the other stories—some thirty years old—to place them in North Park, created at least some mention of how the crash affected those people, threw together a block party in which they all came together, and introduced parts in which they interacted.
I know you as an avid gardener, especially in love with succulents. Does gardening influence your writing? And you have a few pets—two dogs and two cats. How do they influence your life and your writing?
I do love gardening mainly because of how meditative it is to me. My brain is completely cleared as I think of nothing but where I might like to plant that Jatropha podagrica, or how I can solve the problem of too much water run-off going onto the sidewalk or how I can manage to have flowers that want a lot of sun in my same small yard that has a lot of trees. And I love succulents for several reasons. They’re so Dr. Seussian and weird they’re fun. I love finding especially strange ones. They don’t require a lot of water once they’re established, a good thing in San Diego where we have severe drought conditions. And they’re so easy to grow if you live in the right climate. All you have to do is cut part of one off and plant it somewhere else, and you have a second plant. I need this kind of meditation and it goes particularly well with writing because it clears your mind of all the other worries so you can come to the page in a fresh way.
My animals, though I think they’re the ones who own me, are a huge part of my life. They help keep me sane and offer unconditional love. I’m the dog person and my husband is the cat person, but I love them all. My rescue Maltese take unusually good care of me when times are hard. They completely understand without my ever having to explain. Ozzie and Xena want nothing more than to cuddle. We get each other out of the house for walks. They adore me and I adore them.
I see you as both introvert and extravert. You’re friends with more writers than most writers I know, and you reach out to more writers in person and via social media and the Internet. How do you balance the need for solitude with the need for community?
I see myself mostly as an introvert, though when I get out to see good friends I love to talk and interact. I do know a lot of writers in person as well as online and find these friendships indispensible. The nice thing about knowing writers online is that if you’re ever feeling the need to talk to someone about writing issues, there’s always someone around. There’s no isolation. And unlike other people I know, for some reason I’m very able to turn off social media when I need some alone time or time to write. The wonderful thing about the writing community is how supportive most writers are. I try to give back and be a good literary citizen for others, too. When someone else does this strange writing thing we do, it’s wonderful to be able to count on the group so much.
Thank you Bonnie, for your response to the questions and for introducing us to Ozzie and Xena and giving us a little taste of your succulent garden. For those who’d like to know more about Bonnie’s neighborhood, click here for a short film that explores the neighborhood and the lasting effects of the 1978 plane crash.
Bonnie ZoBell’s linked collection, What Happened Here: a novella & stories, was published by Press 53 in 2014. Her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March of 2013. She has won an NEA and other awards for her fiction, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College, and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.