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Synopsis: What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978. The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster. Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park. The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth.
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Grab the Lapels blogger Melanie Page interviews author Bonnie ZoBell about the setting and characters in her new collection, What Happened Here:
Melanie: To me, the setting is so important to this collection. What are your feelings?
Bonnie: Setting is always extremely important to me in all my work, and I love to read about it in other people’s fiction, too. The locale and the ambience have so much to do with the characters and who they are—their belief systems, what life is like for them, morals, what other people around them are like. To me, setting tells worlds.
In What Happened Here, I mean for North Park to become a character in its own right. I don’t know whether any of those characters would be the same if they didn’t come from sun-drenched, desert-like, casual North Park. When I read a good setting in someone else’s book, it makes me feel like I’m in the scene, too, and one of the characters.
Melanie: As I was reading the title story, I felt the 30th anniversary of the PSA crash paralleled the depression and anxiety of John beautifully. There’s quite a bit of tension in this story! Why is John so sensitive to the crash?
Bonnie: John is bipolar and deeply depressed. It's not logical why people feel depression, or at least I don't believe it is. The more we find out about the disease—and we've learned so much about mental health problems over the last fifty years it's incredible—the more we're finding out how much of this is chemical and hereditary, as I try to suggest in the novella. Only 73 years ago, Rosemary Kennedy was given a (failed) partial lobotomy for what was later deemed by most as some as form of depression. The first antidepressant wasn't invented until 1958. I have chronic depression, for which I'm very well treated, but when I had my first bout in college, the theory was you should snap out of it, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, stop feeling sorry for yourself.
I try to show both John's mania and his depression. His problem is that medications aren't working on him. There are something like 30% of patients who are unresponsive to medication. He could be imagining that the coming of the 30th anniversary of the crash is paralleling his own descent into depression. He may have unintentionally talked himself into this. For whatever reason, he firmly believes it's true.
John probably really does feel the sense of loss of the people who died during the crash thirty years ago more deeply than anyone else in the neighborhood. He's in a hyper-sensitized state and feels everything acutely. All the talk of the crash really could be making him feel increasingly depressed.
Melanie: John definitely sounds like a complex character. Was there a character who made you frustrated or angry?
Bonnie: I can’t think of too many times my characters have made me frustrated or mad. Oh, maybe occasionally frustrated, like Susan’s father in “Uncle Rempt.” He’s a really uptight kind of guy who lives in Aloha, Washington. Whereas his male balding pattern looks like the stripes of a jail cell, his brother Rempt, who’s a much looser and quirkier kind of guy, has a balding pattern that looks like a Yin Yang symbol. Susan’s father only finally let’s her move out of the house when she’s a senior in college and then only to the dorms of her Catholic college. From there, she’s so enamored by her Uncle Rempt’s free spirit, she sneaks over to his new shop without telling her father every chance she gets and helps her uncle sell rock crystals known for their spiritual and healing powers.
A part of me would like to shake Susan’s father’s shoulders and say, “Get a life, man!” This uptight stuff makes our existence nothing but a big prison cell. You’ve got to let your guard down sometimes, have a little fun, allow your kids to cut loose a bit. But exasperating as he is, I don’t feel anger towards Susan’s dad because he’s human. These are feelings of protectiveness he exhibits—he can never let down his guard with Susan because he loves her and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. I don’t believe feelings can be right or wrong. He wouldn’t be real if he weren’t fallible. I might not choose to be friends with him in real life, but if writers don’t like their characters, something’s wrong. Our job is to find the core humanity in those we bring to life to help readers and ourselves to not be so alone, to understand the moral implications of our actions instead of lashing out. If I don’t like one of my characters, then I think I’m not going deeply enough in trying to understand his or her psychology.
Melanie: There are a lot of ghosts in these stories, especially the novella. What is your intent with that?
Bonnie: I did end up writing more about ghosts than I planned to, but I also had, well, if not a good time with them, at least an informative time with them. There are the ghosts of the bodies who died during the crash, which the current neighbors need to deal with...or not deal with. If you live in a house where people died, it’s probably a good idea to sort it out in your mind just a little bit.
As I wrote about how different characters came to terms with the crash, I found myself asking in each case whether that particular person felt his or her house seemed haunted by the spirits or welcomed by them, or whether that character seemed not to acknowledge any spirits at all. Their perceptions are all a little different and help define who they are. I also came to terms with how there was a whole different type of specter floating through the tales that were equally haunting and disturbing. A number of my characters have had troubled pasts with parents or siblings or unfortunate situations (PTSD) and are having difficulties leaving those phantoms behind. In essence, the folks are being tormented because of unresolved issues. I guess I’m of the belief that we all have some ghosts kicking around in our pasts. Who we are or how happy we allow ourselves to be is largely about how peacefully we’re able to either leave these shadows behind or live peacefully with them, instead of allowing them to continue tormenting us day in and day out.
Melanie: Overall, there are a lot of characters in this collection! Was it hard working with all of them? Were there any struggles in updating the reader on what a character is doing when the focus of the story is not his or hers?
Bonnie: The stories were actually written over a thirty-year period, so mostly I wasn’t working on all of them at the same time. Sometimes I do have a few stories or a story and a novel or a flash I’m writing simultaneously, and as I started shaping this collection, I was working on several What Happened Here stories together because I wanted to add them to make the book more cohesive. When I began to actually organize the collection as a whole, I did have to be careful about what had happened with various characters in previous stories before I had them running through the next one. Especially Sean, the missing surfer, who gets talked about in a lot of the stories following "Sea Life," I had to keep very close track of.
What I finally did was type up a big chart, listing all the stories, what point of view each was in, a summary of what happened, whether the story ended happily or sadly, and what other characters from other stories did when they ran through tales not their own. I had to do this with the macaws, too, who show up throughout the book. I didn't want them to be doing the same thing every time, and I also didn't want all the characters' reactions to the macaws to be the same.
Melanie: Do you hope readers will take away a message from this collection?
Bonnie: I wouldn’t want readers to feel as if they’d been hit over the head with a message, though I’d like to think the book has some meaning. Mostly, I want people to feel they’ve experienced what it might be like to live as someone else—don’t we sort of crave that, in a voyeuristic way, wanting to know what makes other people tick, how they get through their days, how they cope with the same kinds of problems and moral issues we have? I hope readers might come away thinking it’s worth fighting against fate when it delivers catastrophes, that we have some control over how our lives turn out.
Bonnie ZoBell’s 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. After receiving an MFA from Columbia on fellowship, she has been teaching at San Diego Mesa College where she is a Creative Writing Coordinator.