Sometimes, writers must go in search of events to incorporate into their work. For San Diego author Bonnie ZoBell, however, fate sought her out and shaped her writing. For this interview, ZoBell, who lived in San Diego during the 1978 crash of PSA Flight 182, discussed how that event influenced her life.
ZoBell lived in San Diego’s North Park at the time of the crash. She said, “I was an SDSU student living in an apartment on Texas Street, on the other side of the neighborhood from where the crash occurred. As I left my apartment that Monday morning heavy Santa Ana winds were blowing through the streets. I looked up and was stopped by the huge black plumes of smoke that had taken over the skies. The neighborhood was too dark and smoky for it to just be a house on fire.”
One hundred and forty-four people died in that disaster, including some that had been on the ground. ZoBell said she heard about the crash on the radio. “That part of North Park was cordoned off from people driving by to look. There were even reports of people stealing jewelry off the bodies that lay on the ground. It was all over the news, and most people knew someone who lived in North Park. I now live in a cottage only feet from the crash site, so that influenced my writing of the book, too.”
As a result of that tragedy, ZoBell has incorporated a recurring theme of perseverance into her stories. She said, “You can fight and make your existence what you want it to be without letting the bastards get you. You can’t let your ghosts dictate your whole life.”
In addition to that theme, ZoBell also draws on her feelings for San Diego. “I love San Diego and have lived here most of my life,” she said. “My grandfather was one of the original oceanographers who helped start Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Tourists come here for the beaches and good weather. People leave because of the congestion and conservatism. But San Diego is so much more than all that. It’s full of all kinds of nooks and pockets of beautiful and varied landscapes and kinds of people.”
ZoBell, in fact, is a wealth of information about San Diego. “Wyatt Earp owned an oyster bar downtown in the late 1800s,” she said. “The Spanish priests left mustard seeds behind so they could find their way back from walking Southern California establishing missions. These mustard flowers now thrive and bloom all over. In my childhood we still found arrowheads made out of obsidian. Jewel resided here as a teen and lived out of her car while singing in area coffee shops and making a name for herself.”
ZoBell also said, “My focus on the PSA crash has to do with my love of the history of the place and wanting to understand how that kind of catastrophe affects regular people. I did a lot of research for ‘What Happened Here.’ The interesting thing is that if you look up the crash online, you find some articles and blogs that have hundreds of responses from readers from then and now that are enormously moving and telling about how various people reacted.”
Both ZoBell and her friend Melanie Peters were so moved by the event that they created a mini-documentary, interviewing neighbors about North Park and how they were affected by the crash. That video is available on YouTube and is called North Park Eclectic.
Above all, ZoBell is interested by people. She said, “I find human beings fascinating, their many strengths and flaws, which especially surface during conflict. I want to see what they’ll do under duress, and often even I am surprised. People are so utterly complicated, and as much as I can, I get them into scenes to see what they’ll do in the world, the better to see what we’re really made up of.”
One of the things ZoBell did to research “What Happened Here” was to learn more about San Diego surfers. She said, “Researching hardcore surfers and surf lingo offered a lot more humor. I had no idea! And then my brother and my brother-in-law, both surfers, got into it and really helped out. Who knew that if a newbie makes some horrible faux pas out in those waves and then a seasoned surfer paddles over to him and says, ‘Chicken or beef?’ what he’s saying is, do you want to run away scared or fight each other?”
More information and events
For more information about Bonnie ZoBell, visit her website at bonniezobell.com.
On November 12th at 6:30 pm, ZoBell will read from, discuss and sign “What Happened Here” at the North Park Library, located at 3795 31st Street. There will also be a showing of “North Park Eclectic.”
On November 20th from 5-7 pm, ZoBell will lead the discussion following a showing of “Return to Dwight & Nile: The Crash of PSA Flight 182.” This event will take place in the San Diego Central Library auditorium at 330 Park Blvd., San Diego.