Interview by Morgan Baker
When Ronit Plank was six, her mother dropped her and her sister off with her father so she could follow the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to India. Though she returned when Ronit was twelve, her mother left again to follow Rajneesh to his ashram in Oregon. Her memoir, When She Comes Back, shares the journey Ronit underwent with a mother she couldn’t depend on.
In her latest release, a collection of short stories called Home is a Made-up Place, Ronit examines different family constructs and how various pressures play out and influence those lives. Released in February 2023, this collection won the Hidden River Arts Eludia Award for short fiction in 2020.
Both books are engrossing and shine a light on how complicated families can be, but also highlight that it is possible to take care of yourself and not only survive, but thrive.
The Seattle-based writer is host and producer of the podcast “Let’s Talk Memoir” and serves as a nonfiction editor for The Citron Review. You can find Ronit’s work featured in outlets such as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Writer’s Digest, The Rumpus, American Literary Review, Hippocampus, and The Iowa Review.
I was excited to speak with this multi-genre writer about all things writing and home; our conversation is below.
MB: First, congratulations on both books. Home is a Made-Up Place was just released; but can you tell us a little more about how and when they came out?
RP: When She Comes Back came out in May 2021, and Home is a Made-Up Place was released this February, but they weren’t written in that order.
I wrote the short stories at the beginning of my writing life. After moving to Seattle, I took classes at the University of Washington Extension Program in the evenings. I wrote my first story there and began getting published in 2011. Up until then I’d only written some sketch for a class at The Groundlings and short pieces at The Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles.
MB: What’s it like writing in two genres? Why did you switch from one to the other? Do you have a preference?
RP: I went to get my MFA in a low residency program at Pacific University. I went for fiction because I had a novel-in-progress, like so many people do. My advisor preferred I work on short stories because they can be easier to revise and improve in a writing program format. But I’d already written a bunch of short stories and was more interested in my novel. I probably could have advocated for myself better but instead, I switched to nonfiction after my first semester. I had published a few essays by then and was discovering I had a lot to explore from my upbringing.
I was excited about nonfiction but I thought I would write personal essays. I resisted memoir; I didn’t understand the genre. When I turned in my first essay—which was about 18 pages long—my advisor Debra Gwartney said this reads like an annotated version of your memoir. Why don’t you write the memoir, already?
So, I leaned in. And soon I became fascinated and excited by memoir and wrote a piece for Brevity about what I was beginning to understand about the genre.
MB: I teach CNF to undergrads who often come in thinking it will be easy because it’s from their life. At the end of the semester, they say, ‘this was really hard.’
RP: Yes, it’s really hard. I didn’t understand that nonfiction can be every bit as creative and nuanced. I just find it endlessly fascinating.
MB: What’s the difference in how you approach fiction versus nonfiction? Do you think the writing experience is different?
RP: It’s not easy for me to pin down but I think my nonfiction comes from a version of myself I think of as perhaps more accessible or chatty, even. Whereas with fiction, I think I’m more conscious of creating a mood along with the world of the story, almost as if I’m trying to cast a spell so the reader can trust my storytelling and invest in my characters.
RP: I’m definitely more comfortable with nonfiction these days and am really appreciating shorter forms. I love seeing all that we can do with lyric and hermit crab essays. If a writer can create something out of their own life and observations that’s fresh and new, that’s miraculous.
MB: How do you decide which genre to work in?
RP: This is a tricky question but one I have been thinking about since the collection came out and I’m glad you asked. Sometimes when I sit down to write, I have an agenda or a specific thing I know I need to explore. When something is really gnawing at me or when I already have a strong take or opinion, that is usually when I work in CNF. But when I’m trying to figure something out – how something could have happened that seems to make little sense, especially with human dynamics and relationships, or when I want to recreate a feeling, conjure and experience on the page, I turn to fiction.
But I am pretty sure this is an incomplete answer because part of it is chance or maybe intuition. I also know that how I write or why I write will likely keep changing as I change and grow.
MB: I’ve said this before, but when I read your stories, I felt like a rubbernecker at an accident site. I didn’t want to look, but I was so engaged and curious, I had to look even when it was disturbing—in a good way. I wanted to find out what happened.
Both the stories and memoir really focus on family, or home. What is driving this work?
RP: Some of the stories are based on dynamics I’ve observed and some of the stories are closer to what I experienced in my life.
Also, since my childhood was atypical, perhaps I had fresh eyes on or maybe an interest in analyzing what family dynamics and roles can be. That might be where some of these stories originate. Many of the people in Home is a Made-Up Place seem to want better for themselves; they understand they are missing something.
I know there is a bit of hard material about the treatment of animals in “House in the Woods” and I only wrote as much as I could personally take. I have no interest in goriness. I don’t want to terrorize my reader. But I wanted to explore the idea of being in a marriage where you’re feeling more and more alone—the burden of new motherhood and isolation and what being free might mean.
As for When She Comes Back, I never thought I’d write a memoir, but I was writing lots of pages for my MFA program and reading memoirs which I loved. I had to shut down my self-judgment, that negative voice that seemed to be looking over my shoulder criticizing my work like a cranky Muppet. That’s when I began to embrace memoir and CNF.
Up until then I thought I needed obscure the truth of what I had experienced or felt in order for my writing to be considered good enough; that wouldn’t be creative if I was writing about myself. It was a revelation for me when I realized I enjoyed writing memoir and nonfiction. I didn’t have to go through the added step of hiding. And I suppose there was no other first memoir for me to write but one about how my family broke apart.
MB: I think a lot of people who aren’t writers don’t understand or appreciate memoir. If you’re a fiction writer, then you’re a real writer. How do you address that?
RP: I see that and used to think that way about memoir myself. Back when I was a new writer I believed fiction took more effort and required more artistry. I don’t know where I got that idea—perhaps I knew I had a memoir lurking within me and was afraid.
But I’ve learned so much in the intervening years. No longer a memoir-denier or a self-hating memoirist, I see the gift and opportunity that is memoir.
Memoir at its best requires self-interrogation and reflection, honesty, courage, humility, real emotional intelligence, doggedness, writing chops, structure – all of it. And the memoirs you can’t put down, the ones you get swept away in, those are often the ones that have a plot and dramatic arc every bit as gripping as any book of literary fiction.
MB: Tell me a little about putting the collection of stories together.
RP: I sometimes had a hard time reading the stories again when I was revising them for this collection. It was hard to remember where I was in my life when I wrote them because I’m in a different place now. “Gibbous” was particularly personal and emotional for me.
MB: That story was interesting. Readers often relate by putting themselves in similar situations. You write about taking care of a kid who doesn’t fit into a box—a universal feeling.
RP: I know it’s a darker collection. There’s a little melancholy to these stories. I guess when I was studying fiction at University of Washington’s extension program and at Hugo House I rarely read literary fiction that was sunshiny. Most of the work I read was about situations that were askew or people looking for a different way to live. I think when I began to write my own stories they sort of reflected the unspoken history I was trying to deal with.
MB: What do you want your readers to take away from the short stories, or the memoir, or both?
RP: First, I hope I did a good enough job that I was able to keep readers with me. I hope they can become invested and caught up in the world I’ve created, even for a short time.
When it comes to memoir, I hope we can remember that everyone has gone through difficulty; we can’t always know what people have experienced. Something that occupies a lot of my thinking is the vulnerability of children and animals and people who can’t advocate for themselves. I’ve found it’s important for me to give voice to situations that are subtle, but can be incredibly painful.
So many memoirs and nonfiction writers have experienced difficult upbringings. Trauma comes in all shapes and at all times. The insecure childhood trauma is the kind that leaves a lasting effect on someone’s life. We have to work hard to try to become whole or safe after enduring the relationships or experiences that made us into who we are. I want people to know that it is possible to change and break away. It’s really hard, but it is possible to survive and to even have a good life.
MB: Can you tell me about the podcasts you’ve produced? They must inform some of your writing.
RP: The first one in 2017 was Mouthy Messy Mandatory and I was a co-host. A year after that ended later I launched “And Then Everything Changed” which features interviews with guests about the pivotal moments in their lives and decisions they feel have defined them. I did that show for about two years and then I took a break.
During that time When She Comes Back had come out and I was really enjoying memoir and meeting many writers in the memoir writing community. I was learning so much about the ways memoirists approached their manuscripts and getting pretty immersed in the genre so I decided to launch “Let’s Talk Memoir.” I wanted to concentrate my lens on conversations with writing teachers and memoirists because I was genuinely curious about how different writers approached their work and I wanted to learn more. I hoped it could be the kind of podcast that both memoirists and memoir fans would like.
I recently saw stats showing this little niche podcast which as of this interview has 35 episodes has exceeded 22,000 downloads. I’m super happy about that.
MB: That’s awesome.
RP: I’m grateful that listeners around the world are finding the show—the US and Canada are my biggest groups but there are listeners downloading the show in the UK, Australia, India, Mexico, Singapore—it’s so good to see. Season Two goes through May, then I’ll be on hiatus over the summer, and back in September with Season Three.
MB: How do you have time to do all these things?
RP: I have much more time now that both of my kids are in high school. My daughter drives, so she takes them to school. That’s an extra hour right there I didn’t have a year ago. I try to work when they’re at school and wrap up by about three every day so I can do chores, errands, and family stuff in the later afternoons and evenings but gosh, the time goes so fast and my to-do list seems to grow back every morning.
MB: You must never get bored.
RP: That’s actually true. I don’t ever get bored. Between my own writing, teaching memoir workshops, reading books for Let’s Talk Memoir interviews, doing post production on each episode, marketing all of it, my family, and trying to see friends when I can, I feel like my cup, my plate, and my life are full. I feel very grateful to be able to do this work.