August 2014

Mary Akers


An Interview with Bonnie ZoBell

Twice in my life, I have flown through an airport only hours before another plane crashed there. In 1994, with my two young daughters in tow, we landed in Charlotte, NC for an extended visit. Later that evening, a band of severe thunderstorms caused USAir flight 1016 to crash on approach. Thirty-seven of her fifty-two passengers died. Fifteen years later, as I boarded an early morning flight in Chicago, I watched a child scrape a layer of ice off the exposed body of the plane with his hand. "That can't be good," said the man directly behind me, and we shared a nervous chuckle. That night, Flight 3407's wings built up a heavy layer of ice and stalled on approach to the Buffalo airport, killing all 49 on board and one on the ground.

I was not directly affected by either crash... and yet, something about proximity to tragedy leaves its own kind of mark, even if one only experiences the aftermath at a remove. Perhaps it is the subtle reminder of the frailty of life and the capriciousness of death that mark you. Perhaps simply a renewed resolve to remember that every day counts. Perhaps you feel grateful... and then immediately guilty for not having made your one precious life mean more.

In Bonnie ZoBell's wonderful short story collection What Happened Here, all of these emotions travel beneath the surface of her characters' lives as she takes us through the immediate and extended aftermath of a tragic airplane crash. ZoBell provides a rare glimpse into the myriad ways that shared tragedy can touch a community and the individuals who live there. The eleven stories in What Happened Here present us with a cast of fascinating, flawed, and luminous characters as we walk with them through the wreckage toward hope, regrowth, and hard-won truth.

I'm really curious about your inspiration for What Happened Here. What compelled you to write a collection of stories with a plane crash as its emotional center?

I actually live only feet from the site of the real-life 1978 crash in San Diego that I write about in my book. The San Diego Airport is particularly difficult to navigate -- skyscrapers hug the landing field -- and PSA Flight 182, a 727, was coming in for a landing and lost sight of a Cessna with a student pilot that was also in the air space. A warning went up in air traffic control, but nobody believed it and the two planes crashed mid-air over the North Park neighborhood. Everyone on the plane died as well as seven people on the ground -- 144 people total. Twenty-two houses were wiped out, and plenty of others were damaged.

I lived in North Park at the time of the crash, but not in the same house I live in now. It's eerie, hard to imagine something so huge like that just coming right out of the sky at you. The crash has always fascinated San Diegans who have some history here. When I moved into my current house (the crash occurred over my back fence), it was hard not to think about the tragedy. I was writing the title novella with the couple in which the man is bipolar and decided to set it in the house where I live now. There were so many similarities between the plane crash and John's crashing in terms of depression.

It strikes me that one of the themes running through your collection is how people deal with tragedy. Would you say that's a fair descriptor?

Yes. In the novella, it's dealt with pretty directly. There's a sort of block party in which many of the neighbors arrive and are introduced. Then, later in the collection, they have an opportunity to tell their own stories. The party is for the thirtieth anniversary of the crash to appease and honor the ghosts still on their properties. The neighbor who throws the party digs up old newspaper photos of the crash and hangs them on the wall. The narrator describes the photos as being a litmus test for the soul: Some people can't bear to look at them. Others look and feel sickened. Others, oblivious, reach right past them for the chips and guacamole.

After the neighbors have a few drinks, they offer a toast and posit different ways to cope with catastrophe: Get good and angry and get it out of your system. Don't get angry because you'll never stop. Try not to think about it and go on with your life. No, you have to deal with it head-on.

All of the characters -- and by extension, all of us -- have bombshells to deal with in life. Certainly an airplane crashing into your block at 300 miles an hour qualifies as a catastrophe. But big, showy events aren't the only tragedies. Having troubles with the person you love can be devastating, too. It can break your heart and leave you feeling incredibly alone.

I appreciate how artfully you employ humor, lightening up some of the darker stories.

I try to keep some dark humor running through my work even when the subject matter is tough -- and there are some actual funny stories in this collection -- because I do think you have to laugh at the ironies and mishaps in life. But you also have to feel for the girl with the entertaining, crystal-selling uncle, whose male pattern baldness takes the shape of a yin-yang symbol across his scalp. Yeah, so eventually you just move out from a rigid father, unless you are so immersed in his rigid world view that it's going to imprison you for the rest of your life.

"Lucinda's Song," a story about octogenarians falling in love, has some wonderfully light touches of humor, too.

The character Lucinda was a lot of fun to write. She's doing a little competing with the other widows for a very eligible bachelor, Ramón, who attends her weekly bingo game run by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. I was in the middle of writing a serious story when I gave my students the assignment to find one of those wonderful National Enquirer headlines and write a story to go with it. One of my students brought in "80-Year-old Woman Arrested for Brown Lawn." It was about a woman living in a gated community with very strict landscaping guidelines. When security guards for the community came to talk to her about her brown lawn, she kicked one of them and was arrested.

Of course, when I put the part about her being arrested in the story, nobody who read a draft for me believed that could really happen, so I took that part out. Life is stranger than art, and all that. But I had a great time trying to figure out why she was letting her lawn turn brown and decided that she was having a torrid love affair and couldn't be bothered with watering. Her son didn't see the humor when he found a bottle of personal lubricant on the kitchen counter from when Lucinda and Ramón made love against the dishwasher and she threw out her hip. And, of course, some serious parts get worked in, too. Sometimes we discount the feelings and emotions of our older loved ones. And did you know that STDs in retirement homes have increased by more than fifty percent in the last fifteen years?

Wow. No, I did not.

You also include a wonderful, epistolary story, appropriately titled "Dear Sam." I'm a big fan of stories written in letter form. They feel voyeuristic, but at the same time say as much about what is written as about what is not written. And it's a great vehicle to convey neighborhood gossip, too. What made you decide to use the epistolary form for this story?

I wanted to have one story from an old timer who lived through the crash as an adult. Edgar is a lot older than most of the neighbors, so for him to completely bare his soul, he'd have to be communicating with another person. Enter Sam, a man his own age who lived through the North Park crash, too. Sam moved away after the disaster, and Edgar keeps telling him in the letter that he doesn't blame him. Edgar is watching the news coverage for a smaller plane crash in San Diego, which prompts him to write to Sam. All his fears about fate and multi-ton jets that drop out of the skies without any notice have returned to him. Since he's pretty old and therefore facing death anyway, he feels doubly scared and is reaching out.

John, one of the main characters in the title novella, "What Happened Here," is bipolar and really suffering.

Yes, I've known a lot of bipolar people and believe there are more than most of us realize. We tend to be a bit fascinated with them because there, but for a few crossed wires and a little chemical imbalance, goes us. Even in John's story, though, one can find humor -- like the out-of control purchases he makes when he's manic, the way he calls famous people and gets them to talk to him on the phone.

While the stigma of mental illness has dissipated considerably in the last twenty-five years, it's still not uncommon to hear a newscaster describe some heinous act a person has committed, and then say, "Well, he was bipolar," as if that explains everything. We tend to hear only the extreme results of manic depression, like my aunt (once removed) who jumped off a highrise apartment building. But the large majority of folks who are bipolar don't commit heinous acts. They have mood swings, often unbearable ones, and it's not uncommon for them to self-medicate by drinking too much, like John does. The cause of manic-depression is still not entirely known. Sometimes it's hereditary and other times it just appears out of nowhere. Some people are successfully treated with Lithium, or a newer drug. Some are treatment-resistant, like John.

John having no control over his mood swings, which is frightening, struck me as another sort of fate, not unlike the jet crashing into the neighborhood. You don't know when it's going to happen or what will become of you when it does happen. Will it ever go away? Or will you be like this for the rest of your life?

I love that the macaws keep flying into and out of the stories. They're a touchstone of sorts, both for your characters and for your readers. To me, they symbolize both freedom and endangerment. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to feature the macaws so prominently?

I really enjoyed working with those macaws, and I should say I exaggerated them a bit, to make North Park even more idyllic than it is. But in fact there are macaws in our neighborhood. I talked to the San Diego Zoo, located very near us, to see what they had to say. It turns out the macaws are escapees from not only the zoo, but also people's homes, and from smugglers trying to get them over the Mexican border.

They swoop in and out of the stories just like PSA 182 did when it crashed in 1978. They're all about fate, too, only a kinder type of fate. The macaws are light-hearted and remind us to laugh.

So many of these stories seem to be about wanting, about desires that are unmet or unfulfilled.

Yes, I do think the stories are about wanting. I also think they're about not having control over everything in life and about overcoming what oppresses us, attaining our own personal freedom. We may not have much control over what comes our way, but we can try to make the lives we want. Even the wild band of macaws who flit through the neighborhood have escaped their prisons and are enjoying life in the palm trees above us.

Such a wonderful image and reminder. Freedom on the wing.

My favorite story in your collection is "Sea Life," with Sean the wannabe surfer, newly graduated and looking for work but questioning everything about his life. In that story, he interacts with the sea life in a fresh and wonderful way. My favorite passage (just before his epiphany) reads:

Whole communities of beings go about their business underneath him -- schools of mackerel head north. Even with the seaweed, he can see gills, tails, eyeballs peeking out of kelp paddies, hiding from the terns and pelicans that swoop down and gulp them. A diaphanous jellyfish floats like a see-through parachute. Millions of anchovies, sardine, grunion -- bait food -- shimmering everywhere.

He allows his vision to blur on a droplet or a fish, prisms of sunlight turning pink and green and blue. Everything is a little too quiet.

Glad you like that story, Mary. Sean is completely relaxed here, after an earlier skirmish with surf Nazis. He's being baked and massaged by the sun and sea and he's simply idling out in the water and letting his mind go. I love the ocean's steady and hypnotic waves, the droplets of water and mists from the breakers that make you see life differently, literally and figuratively. That scene is the quiet before Sean's storm.

The interspecies interaction in that scene is beautiful. What I found emotional was the transformation that occurred within Sean as a result of that interaction. It's a big switch in his worldview, but these little strangely momentous moments happen to us all the time.

There is one character I liked even more than Sean: Cat Man. Where did you get the idea for Cat Man, and why do you think he is important to this collection?

I have to say that someone very much like Cat Man lives in my neighborhood. However, I did make up the story -- the real-life man simply inspired the character. A lot of us have neighbors like this -- the guy that insists on feeding all the feral cats, a guy that lives nearby that isn't quite right after some war he was in.

Cat Man brings the neighborhood together. The neighbors accept him even though he's different. They come together to protect him. He didn't choose to go to war -- it's what fate handed him -- and while he definitely has difficulties with reality, he's managing okay. He's not in a hospital.

Everybody, up and down all of our streets, has crises and problems. We have to accept and protect them. Otherwise, who will accept us?