Writing Process Blog Tour: Bonnie ZoBell

I’ll be participating in the “My Writing Process” blog tour, thanks to an invite from San Diego writer, Bonnie ZoBell, author of the collection, What Happened Here. Read her blog answers below:


Below is a guest post written by Bonnie ZoBell.

Bonnie ZoBell: My Writing Process:  Blog Tour

Today I’m taking part in the #MyWritingProcessTour. It’s so interesting and instructive to see how other writers go about their work. I was nominated by my friend, Susan Tepper, writer extraordinaire.  Be sure to get a copy of Susan’s latest book, The Merrill Diaries, beautifully written and a thought-provoking romp through the U.S. and parts of Europe.

The awkward part about writing this blog post is that at the moment I don’t have much of a writing process because besides teaching, I’m in the process of birthing my newest book, What Happened Here: a novella & stories. I’m doing everything I can to ease her passage into the world, making sure she’s nurtured in every possible way, and giving her a good wholesome introduction with the hope people will be as good to her as they’ve been to me. At the moment, it’s on pre-release and available only on my site, but she’ll be officially launched on May 3rd. What I’ll do here is write about my process when I’m writing. I warn you: This process isn’t entirely the healthiest for children and other living things, in other words younger writers. Don’t show this to your students.


What am I working on?

I’ve gone back to an old novel, most recently calledAnimals Voices—which I worked on for many years—because I think I’ve finally figured out a solution to a problem I was having. The story starts out with some young kids, the boy very curious about the unusual girl, after he gets over her strangeness and the way all his friends make fun of her, because she can communicate with animals. They grow up and marry and he is diagnosed with AIDS in the early years. Communication is difficult when no one will acknowledge the disease, probably even more so than communicating with owls. Then I’m going to go back to another novel that I also spent years on calledBearded Women, about a woman who goes to an electrologist because she’s hirsute. There are class issues between her and the electrologist, and it comes down to the main character needing to pluck other parts of her persona as well.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’d call what I write literary fiction, though I’d like to write more magical realism. Oh, give me anything to read that contains beautiful language and a good story, and I’ll devour it. Perhaps mine differs because of my love of setting. I’m thrilled going back toAnimal Voices, getting the chance to revisit the southern part of Del Mar in San Diego, land filled with an estuary, all kinds of unique crawly life, and the magnificent Torrey Pine trees. These gnarled pines grow crooked because they’re on the bluffs right above the ocean and therefore get a lot of strong winds. They’d be creepy if they weren’t so beautiful.

I’m no minimalist, though I try to be as spare as I can. I like to think that sometimes I’m successful at writing beautiful, in-depth descriptions that let you see images in life in a unusual way without going overboard.

I’m whimsical.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I love language and because writing fiction helps me figure out the world. I’d be lost without it.

How does my writing process work?

This is the unhealthy part: I’m a binge writer. I can go for days, weeks, even a couple of years and do nothing but write. I ignore my husband and animals, my hair gets dirty, my bills don’t get paid, and I wear clothes that should have been recycled some time ago if I get really passionate and possessed about what I’m writing. But it takes a toll. So after doing this for a while, it’s hard to allow myself to go back there—there’s so much deprivation. Unfortunately, the other side of it is that I can also go for a long time not writing at all. That’s where I am right now while I promote and regroup from my collection. But I’m daydreaming about those Torrey Pine trees.


My tags

I’m tagging three of my favorite writers who will take the baton next and telling you about their writing process:

Myfanwy Collins – Lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son. She has published her début novel Echolocation, a short fiction collection I Am Holding Your Hand, and her YA novel The Book of Laney is forthcoming.

James Claffey – James’ collection Blood a Cold Blue was published earlier this year. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently working on a novel based on his childhood in Ireland.

Tamara Linse – Writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl ~ broke her collarbone when she was three, her leg when she was four, a horse when she was twelve, and her heart ever since. She lives in Wyoming, and just released her collection, How to Be a Man.


About Bonnie ZoBell:

Bonnie ZoBell’s linked collection, What Happened Here: a novella and stories, will be released by Press 53 on May 3, 2014. She’s received a NEA fellowship, and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. Visit her at http://www.bonniezobell.com.


The kites sit atop the nearby tree, their wings spread, the last of the sun flitting off to the west. These are the closing days of winter, the falling of the gates before spring overruns the place. Age and death and parent and distance. Prayers said in secretive darkness, before the house awakes, before the cry of the child, before the grinding of coffee beans and the flush of boiling water. Matilija comes back to life, the greening buds, the nearby cherimoyas fall from the branches and rot as the rats lick the bright white flesh. Life is less seasonal change and more subtle strokes of a fine brush.

for Mardi Gras from a distance

Hiraeth (Welsh): a homesickenss for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

The heat. The stifling weight of the humid air. The shrimp po-boys at Liuzza’s by the Racetrack. The sign for Mystery Street. Henry Moore’s “Mother & Child” statue in City Park. The Jazz Fest bands sound checks in the early morning hours and me sitting on the balcony of our apartment wondering how I arrived here all the way from Dublin, Ireland, where I’d left my parents teary-eyed and aging at the airport gates almost twenty years before. The city, she smells of rot, decay, baking bread, and funerals. The city is a long way from where I live now, on an avocado ranch, surrounded by trees rich with the hand-grenade sized fruit.

N’awlins, or New Or-leans, or Noo-ahlinz. Call her Nola. Call her home. Call her dirty and violent and loud and destroyed. Call her eternal. Once I arrived I never wanted to leave. Maybe because she’s not a typical American city, maybe because she’s a terribly European sort of a place. Call her café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde at three in the morning with drunken friends and visiting writers far from their families. Call her a branding iron seared into the heart. Never call her predictable, because New Orleans is a muddy mistress—sultry, seductive, callous, and all-encompassing.


Nights and early mornings I walked the dog, our red heeler, around the neighborhood, past the shotguns and the porticoed mansions. One night a massive black dog sprang from a stoop and bared its teeth at us. Rua, our dog, barked, strained at the leash, and I said, “Jesus Christ!”

A voice from within yelled at the black beast and it slunk back to the steps. “Are you a mick?” the voice asked.

“I’m from Dublin,” I said.

“I’ve got some Jameson’s. You want a drink?” Glasses, bottle, and New Orleans character appeared, and behind him a baby grand piano in a room with polished hardwood floors. Shots. More shots. “You like to smoke a little?” he asked, not cigarettes, either.

“No, thanks. Gave that up for Lent a long time ago.” We talked of jazz, and Montreaux, and Cork, places he’d played before. The dog walk continued a good hour later on a decidedly less stable path than beforehand.


Weekend bike rides into the quarter. Out-of-towners stroll about snapping photos of bead laced balconies and blue dog paintings. Mint and lavender popsicles at Meltdown on Dumaine, followed by a Bloody Mary at the Napoleon House. Crooked pavements and buskers. Our apartment a house divided four ways. The young father separated from his wife, taking care of a small boy. The yells through the walls. His frustration. We’d meet him as we walked the dog, pulling his son in a little cart, swigging on a bottle of Coors Lite as the kid sucked on a lollipop. The bike rental guy directly beneath us, the ever-present stink of his weed penetrating from below, his altercations with passers-by who were afraid of his dog. Next door the preacher with his four kids and the largest rabbit we’d ever seen. The city held me in her thrall, the dirty imperfection a familiar note to my own flawed self.

Sunday Gras and the Krewe of Eris parade. Discord. Anarchy. The trumpets and the drums. We’d congregate by the railway tracks, hundreds of steampunk revelers, costumed and chaotic. Midnight and the crowd dancing, singing, jugglers with blazing batons, the edgiest costumes possible, the procession wound through the Bywater to its eventual demise in Jackson Square. We found an outlet for our darker selves, more acolytes than strict devotees, we made the winding journey to the quarter for three years, and the last time some of the crowd got over-zealous and caused some minor damage to cars and property. As the parade hit the quarter proper, we witnessed the police tazering and pepper-spraying the crowd in an attempt to break up the gathering.


A city of dogs and dog walkers, the dogpark in City Park and its obstacle course, the water fountains we’d watch our friend Laura’s dog, Zadie P. Jones, frolic in, the fenced-off area for the small dogs, all longing to escape and join their larger brothers and sisters in the larger area. Our dog, Rua, raced around in circles, chased by a line of fellow-revelers, almost their own canine marching parade. Evenings I walked Rua with Laura and Zadie, across Esplanade and by Alcee Fortier Park with its chess tables and fish fountains, and along by the bayou where in the late-1800s Marie Laveau cast her spells. We dug in the mud of the bayou when the water was low and unearthed vintage bottles of different size and color, and imagined the old days when people used the bayou as a dumping ground.

Cabrini High School and the statue of the Virgin Mary. We walked by one night and the grass beyond the fence was dotted with little crosses. Halloween, we thought. Not Halloween, rather a student project representing aborted fetuses. A makeshift cemetery to prick the consciences of all who walked past. The metal footbridge adjacent to the school served as an impromptu picnic site for locals at weekends. Sometimes they set up tables with tablecloths and wine glasses.

Novembers we’d attend the Words & Music Literary Festival, meet with agents and editors lured by the free lodgings and bountiful food and alcohol. Lunches at Muriels, turtle soup and juleps, academics blathering on over dessert about Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. The final night’s prize ceremony and gala, and one of our friend’s drunken howls as the singer launched into “Runaway Train.” She hollered, “That’s my favorite song,” over and over, other friends trying desperately to silence her. When the song was over the singer bolted for the exit, my wife in hot pursuit, trying to apologize for someone else’s transgression. When the organizer took us aside and asked for names, we feigned innocence, saying we weren’t sure whom the outburst had come from. The following year the festival punished the writing program’s students by reducing privileges and upping the cost for us. I still have the audio recording of “Runaway Train,” from that night, Dave Pirner’s rage and retreat to his Bywater home.

We lived in Louisiana for three years, and New Orleans for one. It took little time for the city to imprint on my heart, and when we drove out of there for the last time I was stricken with regret for not having made more of my time there. It was in New Orleans that I grew as a writer, surrounded by the ghosts of St. Louis #1 cemetery, drinking too many coffees at Rue de la Course on South Carrollton, jazz at the Three Muses on Frenchmen. The heart of the city was to be found in the hidden spaces where inspiration lived in the shadows. Courtyards with gorgeous stone fountains, narrow alleys with rickety iron fire escapes and cats licking their paws in the sunlight.

New Orleans and the big muddy river above the roof of Cafe du Monde, the tourists forming neat lines to be seated for their plates of powdered beignets and steaming hot cafe au lait, and the rest of us, locals, knowing it’s okay to wander in and sit at the first empty table we see. It’s easy to love a city that feeds her people so well. I ate more po-boys than a man has a right to eat, and practically licked the remoulade sauce off the plate to savor the last drop of creamy heaven.


And the rain, always the rain, the rain that flooded the streets in minutes, that ran down gutters in torrents, that soaked us to the skin, and then disappeared as swiftly as it had arrived. The thunderstorms were amazing, sky cracking peals, blink and you miss them lightning strikes. In our waning days living in the city we had frequent storms, as if the city knew we were departing for the avocado groves of home. It was in one of these last storms that our daughter was conceived. Humid air, cloud-filled sky, the bedroom lit by the lightning, our passion mirrored by the electricity in the air.

It was by the waters of the bayou that we said goodbye to the soul of my mentor, Jeanne, who had died in a terrible car wreck on the road to Lafayette. We made paper boats from one of my manuscripts she had marked up with her notes, and in the late evening light we placed tea lights in the small craft and set them on fire. By the water’s edge we said our goodbyes to Jeanne and witnessed the paper boats burn and burn until only one remained, less paper than wax, half-submerged, the flames flickering and dying, then springing back to life, as if Jeanne didn’t want to leave.


When it came time for us to depart we met our friend, Laura, and drove to Magazine Street for a last social gathering. In Juan’s Flying Burrito we sat at a table and ordered drinks, while Maureen headed for the restroom to take the pregnancy test that would propel us back to California, to the relatively safer world where we would raise our daughter, far from the banks of Bayou St. John, far from the voodoo shops and the third lines, far from our apartment on Grand Route St. John with the Buddhist prayer flags on the balcony, and the musty scent of the neighbor’s marijuana smoke rising in the humid air.