Bonnie ZoBell on her Story Collection, Book Trailers and More

Lionel Shriver, author of Big Brother: A Novel and We Need to Talk About Kevin offered high praise for Bonnie ZoBell's recently published collection of short stories: “In clear, lucid prose, What Happened Here evokes a haunting sense of place—calling up a California you don’t often read about, with Californians you don’t often meet.” I’m delighted to have the opportunity to ask Bonnie about her path to the publication of this beautiful work.

VP: Your collection of stories, What Happened Here, came out in 2014, and just prior to that in 2013, you published a chapbook called The Whack-Job Girls. You’ve also published short stories in literary magazines for years. Can you talk about how these magazine and chapbook publications helped lead you to book publication? What path do you recommend for writers who are working in the short story genre and want to eventually publish a full collection?

BZ: It’s a funny story, Virginia, but after years of not getting a book published, Press 53 accepted What Happened Here the very same month that Monkey Puzzle Press accepted The Whack-Job Girls—May of 2012. I'd been writing novels for some years, none published, mind you, though each had an agent, and since I was feeling really down and out about all that, I went back to story writing for a while. I learned how to write flash fiction and did some more writing of longer stories.

So I can’t say that publishing the chapbook helped me to publish the collection, though that was my intent. However, publishing so many of the stories beforehand was a huge help. Most publishers really care about how visible you are these days since I'm sorry to say but it's the writer who does most of the promoting of her own book in our era. Kevin Morgan Watson at Press 53 was introduced to me by a fellow P53er at an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, and he already knew of me because I was on Facebook and I always posted stories I got published. Also, I'd bought and read many Press 53 books because I think he has great taste in picking beautiful collections. All of the stories except for the novella in my book were already published, so I think that helped. And it would have been fine with Kevin if I'd published that, too, but that was the last piece I finished and I was still making changes right before it went to print.

All of the stories in the fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls were published when I approached Nate Jordon at Monkey-Puzzle Press. I think that helped, plus a friend who had published there let me use her name, which certainly didn’t hurt.

When I was researching presses to send each book, I saw there were places that didn’t want too many of the stories already published, but the large majority of them think it’s fine and say that isn’t what makes them choose a book anyway. I can't help but think having at least some of them already in print does help, though, because publishers are taking a chance on you, and if you've already been validated by other publishers, that might help them think they’re making the right choice.

Now, with most of my stories published, I’m going back to one of my novels because I have some new ideas about improving it.

Besides the above, I would recommend that story writers who want to get a collection published note where authors they admire and feel their own work is something like are being published. Those would be good leads on where to send stories. Writers conferences are a great way to meet magazine editors, book editors, and agents. The cheapest way to go is one that's not too far from where you live so you don't have to pay too much for travel on top of conference fees. And there are other ways of meeting editors. You could email one of them and tell him or her how much you like one of the books that press has published. No editor or agent gets tired of hearing that.

VP: You’re also great at making book trailers. How did you come to focus on them? And what do you think are the benefits of making a book trailer? At what stage should an author make one? (I’ll put a link to yours, if I can figure out how, and if that’s OK with you). 

BZ: I’d better quickly admit that I didn’t make them. I paid people to make them, though I helped a lot. I'm a very visual person, so I like seeing these, and they can help promote your book. I’m told they're not very hard to make, but I didn’t have time, so I researched and found several people who are artistic and not very much money. Believe me, at the high end you can pay a lot of money for these. You can find How To articles all over the Internet if you want to make one yourself. Sometimes I think the very homemade-looking ones are the best of all. You can see what Mark Budman has to say about making your own here in the article "An Insider's Look at Book Trailers."

 PHOTO: Elsa

PHOTO: Elsa

My two real book trailers are very short as they’re meant to be for someone quickly looking through the Internet. The one for What Happened Here is only three minutes, and that's considered long by some. John Ray Gutierrez at Big Burrito Media is the person who helped me with both of my book trailers, for the chapbook and the collection. He's very reasonably priced. I never actually met him. We did it all via email and telephone. He had me record (with my iPhone!) the different characters (friends and sisters) speaking their parts. If you want to read more about that experience, you can read the article I wrote about it here, “From Printed Page to Moving Picture: Looking into Book Trailers, Part 1.

Another person who makes book trailers, who is also reasonably priced and who has done work for friends who've been very happy with her is Kim McDougall, who is now at Castelane. You can read more about her here, "From Printed Page to Moving Picture: Looking into Book Trailers, Part 2."

Then a talented friend, Melanie Peters, who has done some publicity for me and who also lives in San Diego, came up with the idea of interviewing neighbors in North Park, where I live and where What Happened Here is set. The novella has at its forefront the crash of PSA Flight #182, which smashed right into the neighborhood in 1978. Since North Park is a character itself in the book and since many people here are still unsettled by the crash, we wanted to video neighbors whose family and friends were affected as well as what they like about the neighborhood. This video is fourteen minutes.

I don't think it’s worth making a video for your work unless you have a book or a chapbook coming out. Then it can help you promote.

VP: Your collection, What Happened Here, consists of not just short stories, but also a novella. Did you know in advance that the collection would contain both genres? How did you decide to write a novella? Were you tempted to make it either shorter and into a short story, or longer and into a novel?

BZ: There are also a couple of pieces of flash fiction in What Happened Here. I didn’t know in advance that the title story "What Happened Here" would turn into a novella. It just got longer and longer and turned into one. I meant for it to be a story, but I liked where it was going as a novella so I kept at it. I think I did wonder at one point if I had enough to make a novel out of it, but I just didn't. It turned out to be the perfect novella length, though people definite a "novella" in different ways.

VP: You have received fellowships to a number of artists’ colonies, including Yaddo, McDowell and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. You’ve also received mentorships to the Tin House Writers Conference and completed your MFA from Columbia. How do you think these shared residencies and learning situations with other writers and writing faculty helped your work? Was one experience especially helpful in the creating of your collection, What Happened Here? I’m curious if you have thoughts about how to be a part of a writing community? 

BZ: I'm very grateful for all of the experiences you mention. For many years San Diego was a kind of literary wasteland, so from the minute I finished getting my bachelor’s, I craved interaction with other writers. I went to Columbia’s MFA program the following year. When I first got in, I told them, oh, I really can’t go to New York. I've never been east of Utah. But then I decided to do it, and I’m so glad I did. Not every MFA program is good for everyone. There were people who left Columbia while I was there, but it was great for me. It’s a big program, so I always felt like there was someone I could talk to and relate to. I was pretty unhappy to get into the graduate dorm rather than getting a Columbia apartment—I’d already been living on my own for years. However, it turned out to be a blessing because then I got to meet a lot of other people I liked who weren't in my program. It’s good to have that balance.

I’ve been teaching for thirty years full-time. It’s very nice in the summer or whenever I have time off to attend colonies or workshops and get to be around other writers for an intense period of time. There are more writers in San Diego these days, I’m happy to report, but it's still nice to get away. I’d advise anyone to do it. There’s a very nice sense of community, you meet other writers you can stay in touch with forever—this past summer a friend and I who met at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts some thirty years ago realized we both had new books out and ended up reading together in North Carolina. I’ve also continued trading and critiquing work via email with people I’ve met. At conferences you have the opportunity to work with very well-known and gifted writers. I’ve heard people say getting to conferences fairly often is as good as getting an MFA, and I think there's some truth to that.

You can also start your own writing groups where you live. A lot of people are very grateful to find these. If you and a friend start one and decide just what you want in a writing group, then you can shape it however you like. You can interview writers, have them send work in first (we usually sent potential members our work, too, so they could decide if it was what they wanted, too).

I don’t know whether I could ever pick out just one conference or colony that helped me the most because at different times I needed different things. Colonies are wonderful for finding quiet to dig in and get a lot of work done. But I’ve gotten invaluable feedback whatever fiction I’m working on at the time from writers at conference.

VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers that you may not have touched on in this interview? Any words of inspiration that have helped you over the years? 

BZ: No matter what type of writing community you find yourself in—academic, conference, or your writing group—I do think it's important to get feedback and learn how to really hear it before you send your work out. That's the main thing I hear editors and agents talking about, and I think they're right. You have to be able to accept criticism and make the writing better. You would have eventually figured it out yourself, but feedback speeds the process up. It's also very important to embrace your own voice. You want YOU to be in the writing more than anything else. That doesn't mean you can't listen to criticism, but that you have to be able to consider it while retaining your own voice. That's the most important aspect of your writing.