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 |