Bonnie ZoBell: San Diego Is My Muse

Bonnie ZoBell
photo by Elsa

As Bonnie ZoBell explains below, the stories in her new collection, What Happened Here, are linked very closely by their geography—one city block, and as you’ll see it’s the block where ZoBell lives. You can read an excerpt from the collection’s novella at The Nervous Breakdown, but before you do that, let’s learn how San Diego has worked its way into ZoBell’s writing as well as her heart.

When I left San Diego for graduate school in New York City in 1979, I was sure I’d never return. I’d had enough of the small-beach-towns-strung-together world for a lifetime. There was no literary community to speak of. Conservatism abounded with all the branches of the military and retirees living here. Nobody quite knew what an MFA was—though in retrospect I don’t think other towns did either. So I researched them in San Diego State University’s library. This was long before the age of computers.

I sent out applications with abandon. Wouldn’t Arizona be cool with all that desert? Bowling Green had history, opening in 1910, and wonderful faculty. The farther away the schools were, the better. Yes, it was expensive to apply to so many, but I had to get out of here.

How wrong I was, I now think thirty years later. I loved living in New York, yes. Twice I told Columbia University’s MFA program that, no, I couldn’t go there because I’d never been east of Utah. And then finally I did. I arrived at the graduate dorm at night in a cab, something I hadn’t had much use for until moving to the East Coast. When I looked out my eighth floor window the next morning, I realized all over again that I couldn’t attend Columbia because I didn’t own a suit, and everyone I saw was wearing one. I couldn’t afford to buy a suit. (Columbia had given me a fellowship.) Not until later did someone explain that the building I looked out on was the law school. Everyone wore a suit was because big firms were interviewing on campus.

That first day, I put on a huge coat that I’d bought in San Diego that made me feel constricted, like I was trying to walk in a mummy sleeping bag. I wore no shoes, as I hadn’t any time I could get away with it in the San Diego beach town I’d moved from. A very tall black doorman in a uniform with epaulets and a military peaked cap told me in a booming voice, “Go put your shoes on!”

I’d never seen a doorman before. But boy was he right. NYC isn’t the place to go barefoot.

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4 March 2015 | guest authors |

Kirstin Valdez Quade on “Parker’s Back”

Kirstin Valdez Quade
photo: Maggie Shipstead

“One of the themes I find myself returning to again and again in my fiction is faith,” Kirstin Valdez Quade says at the beginning of this guest post; indeed, one of the first things you’ll notice as you read the stories in Night at the Fiestas is the strong presence of religion, and religious pageantry, in her characters’ lives. So it’s not unexpected that she might turn to Flannery O’Connor when asked about the short story writers who’ve been an influence or inspiration to her—but it’s a delightful surprise to see that she’s singled out one of my favorite O’Connor stories to discuss.

One of the themes I find myself returning to again and again in my fiction is faith. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my very devout grandmother and great-grandmother, and I went to mass regularly. Northern New Mexico Catholicism is full of petitions and processions, home altars and lit candles and plaster saints on the mantle. It’s also the Catholicism of agonized depictions of Christ, His wounds gaping and bloody.

The Catholicism in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is similarly gory. She specializes in petty, flawed characters, characters who nonetheless are drawn to transcend themselves. When they’re lucky, these characters, however unpleasant and undeserving they might be, are granted grace—though usually when grace comes, it’s violent and at the last minute. My favorite O’Connor story is perhaps “Parker’s Back,” one of the two pieces she was working on when she died. I love the story for its occasionally cruel humor, but also for its depiction of a faith that is ugly, uncomfortable, and deeply necessary.

O.E. Parker is a flawed man. He lives wildly, selfishly, likes his drink and likes his women. Parker repeatedly runs away from what he most needs—to be truly seen, by himself and by God. He can’t even bear to admit to his full name (Obadiah Elihue! Who could bear it?).

Yet Parker longs to transform himself and transcend himself. He covers himself from head to toe in tattoos, always seeking “a single intricate design of brilliant color…an arabesque.” Still, every tattoo disappoints, and that unity of self eludes him. His anxiety only increases, until there is only one place left uncovered: his back.

Inevitably, “dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo,” and he takes off once again for the city, in search of the tattoo that will unify him.

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15 February 2015 | selling shorts |

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