Bonnie ZoBell: The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2013)

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

You know who they are – the women who can’t get out of their own way, or can’t get started; the ones lost in whatever dreams they’ve had since childhood that are preferable to reality, women who’ve missed the mark somewhere, gone over the edge, around the bend. Women who never cared about the mark, the edge, the bend in the first place. Whack-job girls. They aren’t stupid. And they aren’t crazy, certainly not in a technical sense, not at first, though in time, they could be. They’re just like the rest of us, and they’re just doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

These are the women Bonnie ZoBell has gathered together in her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls.

I knew Bonnie back in my Zoetrope days, from the Newbie office and the Flash Factory where we read and reviewed each others’ work (and I understand Zin lurks in her latest Office there even now). One of the benefits of Zoetrope was the opportunity to hang around with writers like Bonnie (who, I should mention, has an MFA from Columbia, an NEA Grant, and serves as associate editor of the Northville Review and contributing editor of the Flash Fiction Chronicles, among other things like her day job teaching writing to college students). I was lucky enough to see the beginnings of some of these stories; I recognize the prompts from a few of them (“500 words combining public transportation and the death of a pet…” “…using the name of a Factory member and at least one of these elements…”). I knew I had to read the collection, and I was very happy to find it in downloadable format as well as in paperback.

I asked Bonnie a few question, and, bless her heart, she answered.

How did the collection come about? Did you decide to put together a collection of your favorites, and noticed they were all about, well, whack-job girls, or was it a conscious decision to select pieces that fit that description?

Funny you should put it that way, Karen. That’s pretty close to how the collection came about. I had a lot of flash I’d written, so I made a list of the ones that I thought were my best. As I’m sure you know, flash writer that you are, it’s pretty hard to be objective about that since they’re all your babies. Yes, I looked through them trying to see any connecting themes. I did know that I thought “The Whack-Job Girls” was my best title for a story, which was confirmed by some writer friends I asked. And then, yes, I noticed that there were a lot of, well, whacky girls in these stories—alienated, acting in unusual ways, not quite right socially. So then I took out all the stories with male protagonists and started trying to arrange the rest of the stories around the theme of whackiness.

Though I read a lot of collections, I don’t know much about how they’re organized. How did you decide on the order of the stories?

I considered several things when I put the stories in order and changed my mind a few times as well. I wanted the first few stories to be some of my strongest as well as my last story. But also I was trying to vary the stories so that, for instance, if there were only two second-person stories, I didn’t put them next to each other. I tried to have a nice mix of first-, second-, and third-person stories throughout, though other considerations meant I couldn’t always do that. The other type of stories I tried to keep apart were stories on the same topic. For instance, I think there ended up being two stories with domestic abuse in them, and since it’s definitely not a book about domestic abuse, I made sure those weren’t right next to each other because I didn’t want people to get that idea.

I love the trailer – can you talk about the process of creating it?

The trailer was a lot of fun. I’m writing an article about that and other trailers for Flash Fiction Chronicles. I wanted a trailer because I think they’re cool and help give a flavor for a book you might be considering buying. However, I’m not rich and I have very little time since I teach. I knew there were big-shot places that you could spend a lot of money on them, but I also had friends who had friends who had made them, so I started looking around for someone more reasonable who might make one for me. A friend, Talia Carner, referred me to John Ray Gutierrez at Big Burrito Media. He’s very reasonable, a lot of fun to work with, and best of all, a lot of his work his crazy, which went right along with the book.

I recognize some of the stories and prompts from the Flash Factory. What do you think are the benefits of working from prompts? The drawbacks?

Every single one of the flashes in the book came from The Flash Factory on Zoetrope. I’ve gotten a lot of story ideas from the prompts given in that office, too. The biggest benefit of working from prompts, at least for me, is that they encourage me to write about topics and characters that wouldn’t normally come to mind. There are no drawbacks that I know of. If you don’t want to write from a prompt because you already have a story in mind, then don’t!

You have another book coming out next year – What Happened Here. I read at least one story (I think) that will be included in that collection. Did you set out to write a series of linked stories, or did it just evolve that way?

Yes, the publisher of my dreams, Press 53, has taken my connected collection, What Happened Here. I couldn’t be happier about that because I think Kevin Morgan Watson is so smart and a wonderful editor. I’m still having some trouble getting the title story the way I’d like it to be, and he’s given me some great advice—not prescriptive so much as talking to me and helping me to understand what it is I’m trying to say in that story. No, they weren’t originally connected, but I came up with a central incident to connect them all to, which was a plane crash that occurred in my neighborhood of North Park in San Diego some thirty years ago. I do think that even when we writers are writing about wildly different topics—or so we tell ourselves—the stories are still all from the core of who we are, so they weren’t very hard to connect.

With all this going on, are you having the time of your life right now?

Ha! Silly girl. You’d think, huh? I’m very happy that more people will be reading my work, most of all. But I’m also on a big learning curve finding out how to promote a book, which takes a lot of time—both the learning and the promoting. I’m looking forward to a time in the future when I can sort of unplug from everything and go back to doing more writing.

A quick take on a few of my favorite flashes:

Nonnie Wore No Clothes” from Foundling Review, December 2011.

Nonnie felt that if she bared as much of herself as she could, if she were as open as she could possibly be, she might glean something from the Virgin, some deeper understanding and therefore willingness might be accorded to her. Maybe she’d catch a break. Maybe Mary would perceive that while Nonnie wasn’t perfect, she really did need some help right now.

What it’s like to be desperate enough to see the Virgin Mary in a smudge on the wall – and how sometimes that can let you love, just enough. Since I recognized the prompt, I was particularly interested in Bonnie’s contributor note about the origin of the story. It’s also available as an audio recording, complete with music and sound effects.

Black Thumb” from Used Furniture Review

“She’s only heard me once. I take great pains. And it wasn’t that bad, simply me telling a man he had beautiful nose, no matter what other women told him.”

You can’t be everywhere at once – or all things to all people – but that doesn’t stop some women. The problem is when worlds collide, and your daughter hears you on the phone with a client.

You Are Not Langston Hughes” from FRiGG, Winter 2008.

You wanted something different. In Spokane, you were tired of working as a lunch waitress at the Bon Marche department store. You wanted more urbane city centers than the NorthTown Mall, to surround yourself with more important bodies of water than Lake Coeur d’Alene, to know people whose dreams extended beyond nine to five.

I’ve never been bitten by the New York bug, but if I ever were, this is the way I’d want to do it. I love the voice – and yes, second person might be why.

The Whack-Job Girls” from Bartleby Snopes, January 2010.

That’s what the men have started calling the regulars at Nellie’s since all the trouble started, the Whack-Job Girls. And the Girls call them the Short-Fuse Dudes. The Girls don’t have to sit around and take it. Not according to Oprah.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going on here (except for the dedication) but it’s a story with snakes and Chinese food and a Loretta Lynn song, “Love is Like Bad Noodles.” Would you think I was incredibly stupid if I admitted I googled that to see if there really was such a song? There is, actually – it’s on the trailer created by Big Burrito Media – but Loretta Lynn had nothing to do with it. The fun part is, I know who these women are. I recognize them. I see them every day.

Black Friday” from Night Train,

Howard lit a cigarette, not seeming to notice anything amiss. A clear sign that it was never going to work with him.

The leftover turkey was just the first hint.

Serial” from Necessary Fiction, October 2010

Rich is still seated, but soon after dinner we’ll recline into prone positions on our separate couches, our “boats,” as we like to call them. On our boats we are safe, neither sharks nor serial killers can get us. We idle unthreatened in our living room.

When I heard this passage on the trailer, I knew I had to have this book.

Graveyard from Wigleaf, October 28, 2011

Could the man or the woman in the hotel room have been defecating on the wall and using the hair dryer at the same time? I should want to know, since my major is anthropology, what makes human beings do the things they do.

Hotel maids have all the fun.

The stories are very short – they’re flash, after all – and display a variety of voices and styles. Some are wildly abstract. Some are somber and earnest; they led me into my own heart, and I nodded along as I read. Many are funny, in that way that seems so about-someone-else and becomes so surprising when we see ourselves in a mirror. All are fundamentally heartbreaking.

And they all feature whack-job girls: women in various stages of oddness, of differentness; women who are just a thought away from being… us.

12 responses to “Bonnie ZoBell: The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2013)

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