Bonnie ZoBell’s fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013, and her connected short story collection What Happened Here is forthcoming with Press 53 in spring 2014. She has received an NEA for her fiction and an MFA from Columbia University. She is an associate editor at The Northville Review and a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles, where she’s writing a series of interviews with the editors and publishers of fiction chapbooks. For more information, visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.
How many stages are there in the writer’s journey and where are you on that path?
Bonnie ZoBell: I don’t know that I think of these stages as linear but simply as different parts of writing that we continue to learn throughout our lives. I’m constantly learning, and I think most other writers are, too. In fact, in choosing what it is I’m going to write next, there has to be something new I’m going to learn by doing it, or it wouldn’t have much appeal to me. If I already know everything there is about a subject, why bother? I want to be stimulated and pushed.
What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?
Bonnie ZoBell: That’s a tough one. When I’ve just finished writing something, I usually think I’m a genius for an hour or so. Then the next morning, I wonder how I can even put my name on that drivel. If I finally figure out how to solve some big problem in a piece, then I’m very happy with that. Right now, I’m still struggling with the title story “What Happened Here” in my connected collection What Happened Here coming out next year with Press 53. In my mind, and for my own reasons, it’s the most challenging piece of fiction I’ve ever written. I haven’t quite nailed it yet, but I think when I do I’m going to love it. I hope so.
What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.
Bonnie ZoBell: Aside from the long story I mention above, right now what I’m honestly struggling with is sitting down in the chair like I used to and having some long days of getting a lot of writing done. My first book, in this case a chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, just came out, and I’m trying to do what I can to promote it because I want people to read my work and because I want to be able to get a next book published. But it’s very time consuming to try to learn all the ins and outs of promoting. One of these days in the not-too-distant future, I’m looking forward to unplugging from everything and spending a lot of time staring into that screen and creating some new characters and new stories.
Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?
Bonnie ZoBell: I think serendipity is a very important lesson to learn. I think, like Natalie Goldberg says, you have to really let yourself go and write some crazy bad stuff with the promise to yourself that nobody but you is ever going to read it. Just let yourself go and see what happens without trying to make reason out of it. And if a refrigerator or a mynah bird or a sand dollar drops out of the sky into the middle of the story, your job is to be open enough to leave it there and to try to understand what it means, to trust that your subconscious is working on the story every bit as much as your conscious mind is. You have to make yourself wait until you figure out what it means, how it ties in to what you’re trying to say in the story instead of doing the easy thing—deleting it. Sometimes those refrigerators and mynah birds and sand dollars turn out to be the most important parts of the story if you can understand why you were lucky enough to have it drop by.
Who have been your teachers?
Bonnie ZoBell: Steve Almond has been my most recent and a very important teacher for me. He’s excellent because he encourages me to keep doing what I’m already doing only better. He doesn’t try to get me to write like him, but to go more deeply into what it is I’m trying to say. He says too many writers sidestep the pain when in fact they need to slow down where it hurts, go further into it, spend more time there understanding and writing about it.
Dorothy Allison has been a wonderful teacher. I was lucky enough to be able to work with her at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and to get a mentorship with her on a novel I was working on. She’s a very passionate woman who doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t want you to avoid the depths of what’s really going on in your work either. The best thing she said to me was that I needed a goddamn motherfucker in my novel. Everybody was a little too nice. Very helpful.
Excellent books have been equally good teachers for me. I’ve been a bookworm all my life. Those books that somehow just blow you away with their beauty, their wonderful character development and use of language, their complications, the moral issues they try to deal with teach me so much: William Trevor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Antonia Nelson, and so on.
Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?
Bonnie ZoBell: I do wish I got out more. My husband especially wishes this. There are friends I don’t get to see often and family members. I have a very full-time job, though, and if I want to be able to get any writing in, I have to be very selfish about my time. I just hope the people I love understand.
Looking back, what mistakes have you made?
Bonnie ZoBell: Maybe all those years ago I shouldn’t have taken that full-time job I still have now. I could have remained part-time and somehow paid the bills and been able to buy groceries. But then I would have worried and obsessed about making the rent. That wouldn’t have helped my writing either.
What do you wish someone had told you?
Bonnie ZoBell: I’m pretty stubborn, Sheryl. I don’t know that anybody could have told me anything that I didn’t have to find out for myself.
What scares you about the road ahead?
Bonnie ZoBell: I hope I won’t end up a homeless person. One of the good things about working full-time all these years is that I’ll get a pension. I’m looking forward to living on it and writing more.
If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?
Bonnie ZoBell: She took care of her friends and wrote some good books.
Thanks so very much, Bonnie, for swinging by and sharing a little of your journey with us. And congratulations on the first of many fine books to come.
April 17, 2013 5:09 PM EDTBonnie is a fabulous writer and I just loved hearing her thoughts on these provocative questions. I also love hearing that she studied with Steve Almond, and that we share some similar favorites in Trevor and Garcia Marquez. Her chapbook The Whack Job Girls is a winner!– Susan Tepper
April 17, 2013 7:48 PM EDTGreat interview – especially love this so universal portion:
What do you wish someone had told you?
Bonnie ZoBell: I’m pretty stubborn, Sheryl. I don’t know that anybody could have told me anything that I didn’t have to find out for myself.– Eva
April 17, 2013 7:53 PM EDTBonnie, I’m wondering if/where you seek feedback? You mention teachers in the interview above, but do you also use peers/writing groups of any kind? (Also–major congrats on both books!)– Danielle LaVaque-Manty
April 18, 2013 8:06 AM EDTThanks for stopping by, Susan!– Sheryl Monks
April 18, 2013 8:16 AM EDTI love that point, too, Eva. And it’s such an important lesson for us all, that practice truly is the best teacher.– Sheryl Monks
April 18, 2013 8:33 AM EDTGreat question, Danielle. Thanks for stopping by.– Sheryl Monks
April 18, 2013 12:28 PM EDTThank you so much, Susan. That means a lot coming from you!– Bonnie ZoBell
April 18, 2013 12:30 PM EDTThanks, Eva. Phew, I’m glad it came across that way ; )– Bonnie ZoBell
April 18, 2013 12:33 PM EDTHi Danielle,
I used to have a local writers group, but it kind of fell apart and became too time-consuming anyway. Now I ask for feedback in an online group, or I ask people if they want to trade feedback. If you get back here, I’d love to know what you do.– Bonnie ZoBell
April 19, 2013 6:38 AM EDTI LOVE what Bonnie says about giving your subconscious a little space and time to work out the odd little surprises it drops in the middle of our writing. Thank you for that.
Great interview!– Susan Woodring
April 19, 2013 6:53 AM EDTI love that, too, Susan! And also the advice and lesson from Dorothy Allison. Everyone can be a little too nice sometimes. So, so true.– Sheryl Monks
April 21, 2013 6:38 AM EDTI loved the entire interview but here are my favorite parts. “I think serendipity is a very important lesson to learn. Trust that your subconscious is working every bit as much as your conscious mind is”. Also, Bonnie’s advice from Steve Almond–don’t sidestep the pain. Slow down where it hurts. Go further into it. And Dorothy Allison’s advice about a novel being too nice. Get a “M F-er” in there! (instead of an “inner goddess”, I wonder if I could coax out an “inner mf-er” in some of my writing!!) Thank you for this, Bonnie! I am looking forward to reading The Whack-Job Girls. I’m hooked already just by the title.– Kathy Mendenhall
April 21, 2013 7:33 AM EDTYou pulled out all my favorite parts, too, Kathy. Thanks for stopping by!– Sheryl Monks
April 23, 2013 1:51 PM EDTThank you, Susan and Kathy! Much appreciated.– Bonnie ZoBell