Suspend Your Disbelief

Urban Tapestry: An Interview with Bonnie ZoBell

"A deep, dark secret about What Happened Here is that the stories weren't written to be linked."

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Urban Tapestry: An Interview with Bonnie ZoBell

Bonnie ZoBell talks to Jerry Gabriel about her linked short story collection, What Happened Here: "At one point in writing a story, the more words I have is the better. At another point, that switches entirely and I mark my progress by how many words I've been able to get rid of."

Bonnie ZoBell’s linked story collection, What Happened Here, does many things. Perhaps most prominently, it exhumes the specter of the 1978 airline crash in North Park, an otherwise unassuming neighborhood of San Diego. North Park is, in effect, the book’s central character, functioning much as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The anguish felt here, over the lives lost and the involuntary participation of the community in the larger tragedy—hundreds died, most of them passengers—lingers decades later, like a blood stain on the sidewalk that cannot be scrubbed away. The characters who inhabit the book—also otherwise unassuming sorts who seem to be doing their very best to live simple, true lives—carry into the heart of this book their own demons, sometimes independent of the disaster, sometimes directly related to it. All of this might sound grim, and to be sure, there is a darkness to the book, but there is also a lightness buttressed by many comedic moments.

What most struck me when I read ZoBell’s collection was the wholeness of the linkage, as if one were looking at a tapestry, which seen from afar gave the broad strokes of the battle, but up close, one could make out the individuals and the moments. It is about this telescoping effect—a trait perhaps unique to linked collections—that Bonnie and I mostly spoke. We corresponded via email over the course of a few weeks this fall.

Bonnie lives in a casita in San Diego with her husband, two dogs, and two cats. She teaches writing at San Diego Mesa College where she is a Creative Writing Coordinator.


One of the things I most admired about What Happened Here is the sense of place you cultivate. One gets a strong sense of this particular corner of San Diego. Can you talk about how “place” works for you? How conscious are you of it as an element in your work?

Setting is very important to me in my writing because I think where people live has so much to do with who they are. I’m quite conscious of it and love to research setting as well. The ambience of a place has a lot to do with the way people react to conflict in their lives, both physical and emotional. I’ve lived and stayed in various locales, big and small, and they feel completely different and produce different social reactions. NYC, especially, caused me serious culture shock when I first moved there for graduate school. I’d just left a lazy beach town called Ocean Beach in San Diego, where going barefoot was the norm. The first day I left my graduate dorm to see the sights, the doorman had to tell me to go put my shoes on (a sage piece of advice, I soon found). Who’d ever heard of a doorman, except in the movies? When I moved back to San Diego, I was utterly restless without all those people out on the streets at 3:00 a.m.

San Diego is especially important to me because I know and understand it the most intimately—I grew up and have lived here for so much of my life, have four generations of family here, and have done library research on many of the pockets and grooves.

Bonnie ZoBell

Photo by Elsa

The North Park area of San Diego is urban yet small. I lived in North Park in my early 20’s as a college student, renting an apartment at the time of the PSA jet crash into the neighborhood in 1978. It’s part of my history with the place, the memory of leaving one morning for class at SDSU, being unable not to notice those devastating thunderheads of black smoke on the other side of North Park, indicating something disastrous had occurred. I learned the details quickly on the radio on my way to campus. I bought a cottage in North Park fifteen years ago, which happens to be only feet from where the crash happened.

The neighborhood took over What Happened Here as I began to see the association between the commercial jetliner falling out of the sky when I looked out my back window at the street where it happened and the bipolar man I was writing about in my title novella, who was also falling downhill rapidly in a serious depression. From there, I rewrote all my other stories and moved them to North Park, as well.

What are some of your favorite linked collections?

Many of my faves also have to do with place, and I studied those as I wrote my book. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, actually has the subtitle A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life. The fictional town is based on Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson grew up. It’s now thought of as being one of the best depictions of small-town life in the pre-industrial U.S. Trailerpark, by Russell Banks, is set, you guessed it, in a trailer park in New Hampshire. All the characters are disenfranchised in one way or another and living on the outskirts of town. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It’s so delicately and successfully woven together it’s no wonder the New York Times called it a novel. His overlapping stories, set in a fictitious town by the name of Holt on the high plains of eastern Colorado, break your heart with so much humanity. One of my all-time favorites, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, is so much fun the way characters run in and out of each other’s stories. What really makes the book a winner is the magnificent character of Olive herself, but the tales are heavily influenced by the small town they all live in, Crosby, Maine.

Can you talk about the difficulties and pleasures of writing a collection of linked stories?

Hmmm, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this, too, since your wonderful collection, Drowned Boy, is linked. I also read an article about your forthcoming collection, The Let Go, which Queen’s Ferry Press is publishing in 2015, and which is comprised of long stories connected by themes of fatherhood. I especially found it interesting that you wrote many of the stories at the same time—some more finished along the way than others, which makes me wonder if that further connected them.

Okay, but you first.

Okay, but I’m going to hold you to it.

A deep, dark secret about What Happened Here is that the stories weren’t written to be linked. The oldest was written thirty years ago, so they definitely weren’t written at the same time, and they were set in different towns and cities. The title novella was written last—I was still rewriting it up to the minute it went to press.

These tales represent what I think are my best, though it’s hard to be objective since they’re all my babies. While I pondered ways to put the collection together, I’d also begun to write the title novella about the neighborhood of North Park and the 1978 plane crash. As I got more into the novella and realized that I was going to parallel the plane crash and the man’s emotional crash, I started thinking more about North Park. Since you have some of the same luxury in a novella as you do in a novel about spending more time on setting, it suddenly came to me that I could set all of the stories in the same neighborhood. That was definitely a pleasure to have that breakthrough. So then I set about rewriting all the other pieces so they were in North Park and had some interaction with other folks in the hood. While each already had its own themes and conflicts, I worked to have at least some small mention of the crash in most and to connect to themes that brought the overall book together. These people don’t all think about the crash in the same way, and because of their own issues, they have different emotional associations with it.

Some of the stories were really easy to move into the themes of the whole collection—you can make your life better, disaster, and so on. And some were easy to move to a North Park locale. Others weren’t. That was the difficult part.

Jerry_-_Drowned_BoyLike you, I didn’t set out to write linked stories when I wrote Drowned Boy. I think I probably got the idea from Stuart Dybek, whose linked story collection The Coast of Chicago has long been a favorite of mine. He admitted in a class I took with him (some years before I came to this moment) that he also hadn’t set out to write linked stories, but that at a certain point the similarities he was seeing in the cast of characters was striking. They could, he realized, easily be the same people, story to story, so he set about making it so. Like Dybek, I hit a point where I recognized that my protagonist, Nate Holland, was the central figure in pretty much every story, whether that was his name or not, and so I began to look for other parallels. I also quite artificially centralized many of the locations of the stories; honestly, they were all variations on a theme anyway. I also wrote new stories to—air quotes here—fill in the gaps.

But more specifically to the question, the pleasure of such a book is as you describe Winesburg, Ohio—and as an Ohio short story writer, this is naturally my bible—or Plainsong, the loose but rich texture of the connected lives. The chief attribute of linked stories, to my mind, is that you get a larger arc without the boring parts; you can dilate particular moments in your characters’ lives in a way that a novel just never could, pegged as it is to the arc, to the plot.

So interesting what you say about suddenly realizing all your stories have the same main character. My first thought would be, why not make it a novel? But what you say at the end explains—being able to focus in a linked collection on the most important and interesting parts of the story without all the filler.

What are you working on now, and what is the relationship between that and What Happened Here? Is there a link? A heritage?

Well, speaking of novels, I’m going back to one I started some years ago called Animal Voices. In it, too, a certain area of San Diego—Del Mar Terrace—is very important. The misshapen Torrey Pine trees that grow there are found in only one other place on earth—a small island off the coast of California. People may be familiar with Del Mar. The “terrace” part of it is on the southernmost side where the bluffs have eroded in such a way that they look like a terrace over the “slough,” now more politely called a “lagoon.” I’m writing about a time in the sixties, before so much development had occurred, when Interstate 805, now the major thoroughfare to get up and down the coast, was still being built. The construction guys left their earthmovers and bulldozers out when they left, and the local boys played on them at night. There was a real gang of boys from the area called the Terrace Rats who were at odds with the inland boys.

The two main characters are a girl who moves into the tin can house at the top of the bluffs and a boy who is one of the Terrace Rats. They’re kids in the opening chapters. As they age, he contracts AIDS and, being from a fairly redneck family as well as a Catholic, probably has an even harder time with it than anybody would have. He doesn’t tell a soul. The woman, who is able to communicate with animals and is an outcast the whole time she’s growing up, while good at interspecies communication, isn’t always so great with people. However, once these two characters are both outcasts in different ways, she is able to help him.

I’m wondering about the differences between the experience of working on a novel and, say, flash fiction, which is a medium you sometimes write in. Are the ways you approach the two forms markedly different? On a day-to-day basis, how do you mark your progress in both?

Final Cover What Happened Here 1-10-14My experience as a writer with different lengths of fiction is that, yes, I’m being asked for different approaches. Before coming back to What Happened Here to create the novella and finish a few longer stories, I spent some time writing flash, which helped me tighten all my fiction to get at the heart more quickly. Scenes and characters are often implied rather than spelled out. I’m no minimalist—I like a good adjective here and there—but still no story can waste words.

In novels there is more time to puzzle out subject matter and go into more depth. I feel like I can digress a bit as long as it’s related to my theme, I stick to the subject matter, and I keep the tension high. More characters can be developed. It’s okay to linger a little longer on the setting and explore what characters think and believe. What’s hard about this form is keeping the different threads of the story straight. If too much time is spent on one storyline without getting back to others, the reader might become confused. You have to juggle.

I mark my progress when drafting by how high the word count is, but when I’m editing, I mark it by how many words I can cut.

One interesting thing about the stories in this book, Bonnie—and this might go for Animal Voices, too—is how long they have gestated. When we write, I think we’d like to believe that we’re going to cut away the fat and find the story quickly and efficiently. But with the novella “What Happened Here”—and, it sounds like several other stories—you’ve had to work, be patient, and above all, persevere as you find your way to the story you want to tell.

Can you speak to the difficulties and pleasures of this kind of time-elapsed revision/story finding? One tricky aspect—and I don’t know if this is an advantage or disadvantage—is that we change, as people and writers, over time. So it would follow that carrying a story through all of that might do interesting things to it.

I don’t find my process of writing particularly pleasurable, to tell you the truth; it’s just the way I seem to get the work done. Having a breakthrough is always pleasurable, which often happens when I work for longer time on a piece. Also, I lie to myself profusely, telling myself that my projects are going to be through in no time. When I’m starting out, I try not to even imagine that it could be years before they’re finished.

One issue is I have an obsessive habit of needing to write every last idea and scene that might go in a story and book, even though I know I can’t possibly use them all. Then I have to sculpt the story out of that mountain of words. So the story often starts out three times as long as it ends up.

Also, I benefit hugely from getting away from my work and going back to it later. It makes me a hell of a lot more objective. And, in the case of years going by before I get back to things, I think what you say is very true—we change. I find that completely beneficial because I think I’ve matured and learned more about writing in that time and can offer more layers to the story.

In the case of Animal Voices, I worked on that for many years and put it down a decade ago. Going back to it now, going through what I’ve written, I have tons of ideas to make it better, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to take me any time at all. Please don’t remind me that it’ll probably take years.


Jerry Gabriel

Jerry Gabriel’s first book, Drowned Boy (Sarabande, 2010), won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. It was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and awarded the 2011 Towson Prize for Literature. His stories have appeared in One Story, EPOCH, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Missouri Review. His second book, The Let Go, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in 2015. He teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and directs the Chesapeake Writers’ Conference.

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