Thu 2 Oct 2014
by Susan Tepper
Bonnie ZoBell’s new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories, was released on May 3, 2014. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has held resident fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, and Dorland, received an MFA from Columbia University on fellowship, and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.
Susan Tepper: What Happened Here is a captivating book title because it’s so beckoning. It is also the title of your first piece (a novella) in this collection, which encompasses so much life and death simultaneously.
Bonnie ZoBell: Lord knows I appreciate that, Susan. I went through so many titles over the years before arriving at this one. Briefly I liked Block Party, but then it seemed too ghoulish since the party in the book is commemorating a real-life plane crash in which 144 people died. Vessels was a little too. . .literary? Trying too hard? Before that it was This Time of Night, after one of the stories, and then Why Are You Here.
Finally, Steve Almond, who was a wonderful mentor and reader for me for this book, pointed out that often when I talked to him about the novella, I started sentences with, “What happened here was . . . ” Finally I had a title.
ST: I’ve had some personal experience with a plane crash, but nothing near what goes on in this novella you wrote, Bonnie. What makes your novella so masterful is the way you interweave past and present, allowing the current inhabitants of the neighborhood to lean into the ghosts of those who fell from the sky. At the same time respecting them, while trying to exorcise them. It’s tricky business.
BZ: Part of the reason I wrote about this crash is because I live only feet away from where it occurred thirty-five years ago.
ST: I had no idea!
BZ: Debris fell on my cottage, though it didn’t get demolished like twenty-two nearby houses did. Next door a body fell through the roof and landed on the then-owner’s home. Refrigerated trucks were a regular feature on our streets for some weeks because of the number of body parts found and the need to identify who they belonged to. I lived in this neighborhood, but on the other side of it—some miles away. I remember that morning distinctly.
ST: It isn’t the sort of thing you’d ever forget, right?
BZ: Right. But as for melding past and present together—I was writing the novella about a man who is bipolar and sinking fast, and I was living in this cottage where the crash had occurred, and they sort of melded in my mind—the trajectory of both.
ST: That’s a perfect example of the creative mind putting together seemingly diverse incidents to form a work of art. You set the story in the present time to integrate the character of the bipolar man.
BZ: Yes, most of the story is set in the present, and it was hard not to spend too much time in the past. The crash and the ghosts left behind from it inform the present story, but I didn’t want to bog the story down with too much. I took a lot of the parts about the crash out. It was tricky.
ST: I can imagine. Because such a thing is so emotionally charged. So inconceivable really. Planes are supposed to stay in the sky, not crash down onto neighborhoods. Similar to when the World Trade Center came down, people cannot let go of that, and those living in that area will never let go, I suspect.
Your character inhabitants, though it’s many decades later, have identified with the crash and can’t seem to shake it off, though some were probably not even born when it happened. Why do you suppose it has its grips in them?
BZ: It’s part of our history. And there are very physical elements still here that mark where it happened. The neighborhood is full of Craftsman-style homes and Spanish Revivalist cottages built in the ’20s and ’30s. Twenty-two homes were demolished in the crash and others were damaged, and these homes were replaced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As you can imagine from the unfortunate architecture of those later dates, these places look entirely different than the rest of the neighborhood.
We’re reminded, perhaps more than other neighborhoods, that fate can step in and change everything in an instant. It would be like if there was a home in your neighborhood where someone was murdered. Afterward, the home will always be remembered in that way. Often-times it’s even hard to sell a house like that. This is on a much larger scale. Besides which, we have the spirits of all those poor souls still here. We have to respect them.
ST: At the conclusion of the novella, you have added ten stories to this book. How did ‘Uncle Rempt’ find his way into the storyline?
BZ: “Uncle Rempt” was written from a prompt on Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I like him—he’s an oddball of a guy, which the narrator of the story, Susan, really needs. He’s some bit of light-heartedness, needed after the novella, which did have some dark humor in it, but was a much more serious story. Since Uncle Rempt was already off to some idyllic sort of spot, I just made that be North Park, where the rest of the book is set.
Susan herself is imprisoned at the beginning, as many of the characters in the collection are, and manages to find her way out to a better life as even the macaws in the neighborhood have. She comes of age and no longer has to be beholden to her archly conservative and overly-religious father. With her foot already halfway out the door and into the dorm her father only recently let her move into at a Catholic university, it’s easier. He becomes enraged when he finds out that Susan has taken a liking to his free-spirited brother Rempt. When Susan’s father summons her back to the house, she instead takes off cross-country with her uncle to a great place in Cali called North Park. There they sell air, and Susan lets her hair fall into dreadlocks. A whole new life!
ST: Uncle Rempt being attached to North Park, where the novella is set, breathes new life onto North Park in an abstract sort of way that’s really interesting.
Your final story in this collection is titled “Lucinda’s Song” and involves an elderly woman. A kind of circling around and coming to rest. But, gently. You wrote:
But mostly North Park brought Lucinda peace.
BZ: Glad to hear you feel “Uncle Rempt” is a nice change after the opening novella. I mean to show how eclectic the neighborhood is by placing stories with dissimilar characters close to each other. Lucinda in “Lucinda’s Song” may be an octogenarian and her story might be at the end of this collection, but she’s no shrinking violet, as she’d be the first to tell you. The story starts in her voice:
“The night Ramόn Fernández first turned up at Sunday bingo hosted by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Lucinda Sánchez couldn’t have cared less. He and all those old hussies in attendance could kiss her eighty-year-old ass. And, frankly, it wasn’t such a bad ass. They might be surprised. “
Lucinda is finally free in this tale. Like the macaws and other stories in this linked collection, she has found a way to leave her unhappy past behind and has fallen in love and into a torrid love affair with Ramόn, so much so that when they make love, one or the other always seems to throw his or her back or hip out when they do it against the dishwasher or refrigerator.
ST: I can think of worse ways of getting injured!
Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com