By Charlotte Hamrick
I met Ronit Plank when we both signed on as Co-editors in Creative Nonfiction for The Citron Review two years ago. Right from the start we worked well together and found we have pretty much the same aesthetic in our reading preferences. I read her highly acclaimed memoir, When She Comes Back, and was blown away by her immersive and unorthodox story. When I heard about the upcoming release of her flash fiction collection, Home is a Made-Up Place, I knew I had to read it. I’m very happy to have had an opportunity to interview Ronit about her collection for Reckon Review.
All of the stories in Home is a Made-Up Place revolve around family and the many iterations included in the concept of family. I was impressed by the array of characters and situations you created. When you were selecting/writing stories for this book, was it a conscious decision to create/include stories with a diversity of what constitutes a family or was it an organic process?
Definitely more organic. I was in the thick of child-raising when I wrote many of these and the children in the collection are mostly young. If I wrote these stories now I’m not sure I’d depict the kids at these ages – you really do write what you know. I hadn’t begun my memoir When She Comes Back or even fathomed that I would write about my childhood. I wasn’t yet aware of how much work I had ahead of me emotionally to understand what had happened in my own family but I think that these stories are close to my experience of wanting safety and stability; to know you have a place and people to whom you belong. When I was writing the stories in the collection I wouldn’t have dreamed of exploring my own history in the ways I do in my memoir. I’m happy I did both.
Are there any other threads that spring up, maybe unconsciously, that you’ve identified? If so, why do you think that is?
I’ve noticed my characters seem to be trying to find themselves or the place and people where they are safe and cared for. They want something different or to feel better but sometimes look for it in the wrong places. Lots of people go through this and I also think it’s related to both of my parents leaving me and my sister when we were kids.
I also write a bit about people who abuse their power and exploit the people around them and I think that has something to do with watching my mother follow a guru who ended up in a lot of trouble with the US government and whose teachings broke up many families and hurt children. I have a lot to say about high control groups and coercive religions.
There’s definitely a thread about the vulnerability of children in these stories and how important it is for them to get what they need growing up so they feel good about themselves; so they know they are enough as they are.
“House in the Woods” is a stellar story that illustrates the abuse of power you mention. It’s a great choice for the opening in Home is a Made-Up Place. Why did you select this story to open the book?
I wanted this story to orient the reader early on in ways I often appreciate in a book or story; that clear introduction of who’s who, where we are in space and time, and a sense of underlying tension that prepares us to dive into the world the writer is creating. I wanted that gather-round-the-campfire feel for the start of the collection and I’m glad to know you liked it for the beginning of the book.
With the exception of “The Plan” which closes the collection, this story spans more time than others in the book and the setting plays a big role. Because the scope is bigger than some of the others, I had a sense that it could be a good one to welcome the reader to the collection as a whole.
The subtle comparison between Nicole’s situation and the dogs’ situation was brilliant. How did you come up with that particular parallel? I ask as a dog lover. It made a particular impression on me.
I, too, am a dog lover, an animal lover, and that parallel kind of snuck up on me as I was writing. I don’t think I consciously set out to create the story like that but as so often happens, we discover what we want to express by expressing it. Early readers also helped me understand what I was evoking for them and that in turn enabled me to tease out more of what Nicole and the dogs are going through.
I remember first learning about theme when I was studying fiction with Scott Driscoll at the University of Washington and how most writers don’t pick a theme first and then write about it. The theme often emerges as we work and sometimes catches us by surprise. That’s part of what I love about writing fiction, that amount of unknown. For me it’s a bit more of a mysterious process than when I’m writing nonfiction and memoir.
In “Gibbous” you write about a severely allergic child and how he and his mother cope. It really made me think about how tough this situation must be to live day in and day out. Something I never gave a thought to before. Tell us a little about how this story came to be. I’m also curious about how much research went into this piece.
When I was in a nonfiction certificate program at UW we had an assignment to interview an expert and because I had been navigating skin concerns for one of my children I chose a dermatologist who provided services for a camp that devoted a week to children with severe atopic dermatitis – also known as eczema. Atopic dermatitis is difficult to manage, can be expensive to treat, and often deeply impacts quality of life. It interrupts sleep, increases stress, and takes an emotional toll on those who suffer from it as well as their caregivers.
A year after my interview with the doctor and exploring alternative remedies, my family visited an outpatient program for support with our own skin situation and they taught us new techniques and gave us tools for treatment. What I learned there was that equal numbers of kids across different regions, climates, and socioeconomic backgrounds experience severe and chronic eczema and there are rarely quick fixes. These families and kids are worn out and their emotional well-being begins to suffer. In this story I think I was processing what I had experienced and also what I’d learned from others; I was exploring what it can take to keep on going when you are about out of resources.
How much time, in general, do you spend on research for a story?
Some of my stories – most I’d say – don’t require much research unless there’s a specific here and there I have to get right, like the geography of a place I’ve never been to or can no longer remember. Since my stories are largely about relationships, interpersonal dynamics, and self-discovery, I usually use an amalgam of my experience and where I have been for setting and fleshing out the stakes. I did the most research for “House in the Woods” since I didn’t know much about that part of Alaska nor anyone who worked on an oil rig.
What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write?
I think I am an outlier in this regard because while I often hear from writing friends and guests on Let’s Talk Memoir that they were writing stories in grade school or were “always writing” I came to it a bit later. My father was a freelance writer and headed PR at a Jewish nonprofit in the City and so I saw him in front of his typewriter whenever he brought his work home, which was always. He was a single dad and hustling to make ends meet. For me writing seemed arduous and also abstract.
In grade school and onwards when we had writing assignments I enjoyed them more than other types of work and wrote a few poems in high school, but it wasn’t until doing theater and in LA that I began writing monologues and sketch that I got to perform at The Actors’ Gang and for a Groundlings showcase class. My desire to write stories came later, out of new motherhood and feeling a bit isolated and wanting to create art again after leaving acting and LA.
I’m intrigued to hear you started writing later in life. I’m particularly interested in talking with women who started writing after their 20s and 30s because I think they bring a wealth of experience that younger writers may lack. Now that you’re out of young motherhood, how does your other work experience propel your fiction writing?
I’ve been thinking about that because my kids are in high school and, predictably, I haven’t been focused on family situations as much. My stories are drifting to characters who don’t have children or are in young adulthood. But like the characters in a lot of this collection, they’re trying to figure out who they are and what they want or making decisions about romantic entanglements.
Do you remember your first story? What was it about?
I haven’t thought about this in so long! I wrote my very first story in fourth grade and it was about me, my sister, and my father, his girlfriend and her two daughters whom we lived with for a while. In the story it’s a scorching and humid summer day in Flushing, Queens and we find an aluminum tray that maybe you’d bake a lasagna or casserole in.
We fill it with water and then because we are magical in the story, we are able to shrink our bodies down small enough for six of us to fit in the tray like it’s our very own swimming pool. We splash and swim as much as we want until the day is over. Then the sun begins to set, everything returns to normal, and we are all happy.
Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a story and how did it turn out?
I was at a sparsely-attended fair with my daughter when she was five years old and it was gray and a cool out, rain here and there – a typical PNW day – and I saw people getting their hands dipped in wax at a booth. I’d never seen wax as art before except in candle form and was interested in the idea of waiting in line for something like that as well as how someone comes to wax dips as a job. I thought about the appeal: how we want to see ourselves in the world, even in small pieces and to leave a record. I thought I noticed something in the interaction between the man doing the dips and the woman with him and began writing “Rick’s Wax Hands” that week. It was first published in The Iowa Review and is now in this collection.
I loved “Rick’s Wax Hands” and now the story behind it! How interesting it is that you expanded the wax dipping and the people in line to a story that is so layered. Do you often find inspiration in the normal everyday moments of life or was this an unexpected gift?
It was definitely a surprise to me – I wasn’t searching for a story that day but I think curiosity led me down that path. I think what makes writing fiction interesting to me is wondering what makes us do what we do and how people negotiate the situations they find themselves in. So much in our lives is ultimately out of our control so fiction can be a satisfying way to explore cause and effect and how we become who we become. That’s a big draw for me.
Do you have a dedicated space and/or time to write?
I have been very type A and regimented in my life so the idea of a set time and place every day appeals to me but I had young kids when I began my certificate programs at the University of Washington and then my low-residency MFA at Pacific, and I couldn’t count on extended time every day. So I grabbed what I could when they were at school and I continue to do that.
I used to write only in coffee shops or, when I had a deadline, at my desk into the wee hours. I still love that idea of late-night coffee and just me and my creative time in a quiet house, but more often these days I’m plopped on the sofa in the mornings, Mac on my lap, with my three dogs sleeping nearby within pet-able distance.
Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?
I’m stubborn so I don’t give up easily. I will keep going back to try to crack a piece or a story because it’s like a puzzle I want to solve and that is a lot of where my motivation comes from.
As for tips, I’d say don’t show your work to others as you’re creating it. Keep it between you and your creative subconscious for a while to see what you cook up, what you’re trying to show yourself or understand. Then, when you feel it’s about ready, share it with a trusted reader or two if that feels right.
I also suggest if something is gnawing at you, if you can’t let a story go, then keep forging ahead. It can take a long time – a few of these stories have been so many years in the making but I’m happy I stuck with them because what I wanted to say and these characters grew important to me. I wanted to speak for them and do them justice and that helped spur me on.
Mostly, I’d like to say follow your hunch, your instincts. Feedback is important but if you feel strongly about an element of your story, trust yourself. Your work is an expression of you – a story is kind of like a snapshot of some of what we’ve come to know, a fingerprint of how we understand the world and who we are inside. In that sense no one else can tell us what it needs to be.
Where can we purchase Home is a Made-Up Place?
Charlotte, thank you for inviting me to do this interview. It’s been fun to reflect on the collection with you. You can order Home is a Made-Up Place in paperback anywhere books are sold and at this link https://ronitplank.com/home-is-a-made-up-place/ and in ebook on Amazon.
Ronit Plank is a Seattle-based writer, teacher, and editor whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Writer’s Digest, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, Hippocampus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her stories and essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Best of the Net, and the Best Microfiction Anthology. She is author of WHEN SHE COMES BACK, a memoir about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and their eventual reconciliation and HOME IS A MADE-UP PLACE which won Hidden River Arts’ Eludia Award. Her weekly podcast Let’s Talk Memoir features interviews with memoirists about craft, the creative process, and the writing life and is available on Apple, Spotify, and at ronitplank.com.
Charlotte Hamrick’s creative writing and photography has been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Still: The Journal, The Citron Review, Atticus Review, Reckon Review, Trampset, and New World Writing, among many others. Her fiction was selected for the Best Small Fictions 2022 anthology and she’s had several literary nominations including the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. She is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor for Barren Magazine and current Creative Nonfiction Editor for The Citron Review. She also writes intermittently on her Substack, The Hidden Hour. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and a menagerie of rescued pets where she sometimes does things other than read and write.