Ronna Wineberg’s new short story collection, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, features a couple of characters who are mathematicians—two different characters in two different stories—but it’s not a coincidence. In our interview, Wineberg states her desire “to contrast the precision of math with the chaos of life.” However, her stories do more than just present this obvious juxtaposition—they artfully explore how we look to precision and definition in our emotional lives, often to our disillusionment and disappointment.
Even so, there are answers to be had, if we do the more complex math. In the collection’s eponymous story, the narrator, Grace, finds herself in the middle of a divorce, an equation that has no easy solution. Grace sets out on her own logical proof to understand what has happened and why, and to figure out what to do next. She seeks absolute answers in a self-help newsletter, but finds a more valuable solution set in the acceptance of uncertainty—out of which comes incalculable hope, compassion, and belonging.
Wineberg plays with our phony sense of certainty and entices us instead to live in a probabilistic cloud of opportunity and possibility—far more promising and self-actualizing. Characters in her collection leave behind the variables that have defined their lives—marriages, religion, community—and befriend strangers in hopes of making new connections and finding new joy. Some are successful and some are not; that’s just how probability works.
Bloom: Your story collection, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, has been published on the heels of your successful debut novel, On Bittersweet Place, which came out in late 2014. Was the collection already in the pipeline?
Ronna Wineberg: I had been working on the short story collection when Relegation Books accepted my novel for publication. I put aside the collection then, but continued to write stories while revising On Bittersweet Place. After the novel was published, and I had done readings for it, I was ready to begin another project. I decided to go back and work on the collection. I did revisions, added some new stories to the manuscript, and then decided to look for a publisher.
Bloom: Do you find it invigorating to work on several projects (both a novel and the short story collection) at once? How does one form help to shape or interact with the other? Or, is it challenging to switch back and forth?
RW: I do find it invigorating. If I’m having difficulties with one project, it’s helpful to switch to another, even temporarily. Eventually, I focus on one. When I was working on the revisions for On Bittersweet Place, the switch to writing a short story gave me needed distance from the novel. When I returned to the novel, I had ideas and new energy for the manuscript, and I’d also written a story. The two forms are so different, though. Still, a novel can benefit from economy and focus, and working on a story reminded me of this. The challenge is that it takes some time to immerse myself in a project again when I return to it.
Bloom: John Benditt describes Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life as “threaded through with the themes of American Jewishess” – what are your definitions of American Jewishness? How has that identity inspired or shaped your explorations?
RW: American Jewishness is so diverse. There is a huge range of religious observance and cultural connection to Judaism. And there are people who completely assimilate into the larger culture, and those who reject the religion. I didn’t consciously set out to explore the themes of American Jewishness. Themes arose as I wrote. I was interested, however, in exploring how one’s relationship with Judaism can change over time; what’s viewed as a burden can become an asset or even a longing.
Bloom: That’s a beautiful and fascinating idea! Can you elaborate on a personal experience where a burden became an asset or something you longed for, or maybe a similar experience you created for one of your characters?
RW: In the story “Relocation,” Ellen’s relationship with religion and her family felt like a burden when she was growing up. She married a man who had no interest in religion, and she lived her life differently from the way her parents lived. Now that she’s middle-aged, a relocation expert, and working with a client in his late mother’s house, a house that reminds her of where she grew up, Ellen’s youth becomes a longing. She longs for that lost world and suddenly realizes its value. The narrator, Sylvie, in “Excavation,” also longs for the world of her youth and her family, which she had once fiercely wanted to shed. As an adult, she wants to rewrite the past and correct her behavior.
Our lives, in a sense, are made up of different worlds. We live in each one for a certain amount of time, and then move on. The world of childhood, of adolescence. The many segments of adulthood. When we look back, we have more clarity about what was meaningful and valuable. I feel that way about parts of my childhood.
Bloom: What authors or teachers inspired you to write? Who inspires you now?
RW: I was inspired by books I read as a child. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare; Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton; Exodus by Leon Uris; Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books. I loved being drawn into a story. I also loved reading poetry. In college, I took a course in Yeats and Joyce taught by the poet Donald Hall. He read aloud poems and prose to us in his wonderful, booming voice. Other teachers who were inspiring: Margot Livesey, David Milofsky. And I was inspired by Alice Munro’s masterful stories, Grace Paley’s work, Isaac Bashevis Singer—his stories and novels—Amy Hempel, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and William Maxwell. I still admire their work. I’m inspired by John Updike’s short stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Sue Miller, Nathan Englander. I’ve been reading some non-fiction, recently Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. It’s an exquisite book, an inspiration for how to write, how to live.
Bloom: You began your professional life as a public defender and have spoken before about how that very demanding career made it difficult to write. What was the tipping point for you, when your writing took center stage? What was that like, to make such a drastic career change?
RW: Yes, I had been a public defender in Colorado, and then practiced law in Denver. Writing began to take center stage when my family moved to Nashville. When we moved, I wasn’t a member of the Tennessee Bar yet. I decided to work on writing while I applied for reciprocity. My three children were young, but in school. Now was the time to focus on writing. This felt risky and a little uncomfortable. Law was part of my identity. I could help people solve their legal problems. Law has structure and some qualities similar to math, a precision. As a lawyer, I had skills, a diploma I could hang on the wall; this gave me a sense of legitimacy and competency. As a writer, I didn’t have that. I didn’t have an MFA. I had only my desire to write.
Before we moved, a story of mine won third place in a local writing contest, sponsored by the Denver Women’s Press Club, which was thrilling and encouraging. After we settled in Nashville, I went to the Sewanee Writers Conference and joined a Nashville writers group. Despite my desire to write, I knew I could devote time to writing and still fail—it was an unknown path.
Bloom: Then, you went from law into medicine! You helped found the Bellevue Literary Review, which is a unique publication focusing on “using fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to better understand the nuanced tensions that define our lives both in illness and in health.” First, how did you make the transition from the very demanding discipline of law to the equally demanding discipline of medicine, and how did it change or enhance your own writing process?
RW: I didn’t pursue medicine as a profession, but became involved with the Bellevue Literary Review, which publishes work on medical themes, as you mentioned. We try to interpret the themes broadly. I hadn’t concentrated on these themes before and knew more about law than medicine. When I became involved with the BLR, the journal was just an idea. It was exciting to be part of creating a literary magazine within the auspices of a hospital and a medical school. We didn’t know if writers would submit to us, though, or if people would read the journal. We didn’t have a name for the journal yet or a firm idea of the kind of work we would publish. And we had never been editors of a literary journal before, but we had a lot of enthusiasm. I sat in an office at Bellevue Hospital with two doctors who wrote nonfiction, and we created the parameters for the BLR. We asked two poets to be the poetry editors of the journal, so that we’d have a complete editorial team.
Learning about medicine and experiences with illness definitely enhanced my own writing, broadened my subject matter and my understanding of the world. The experience with the BLR has given me a sense of the many poignant subjects that writers explore and the creative ways to approach these themes.
Bloom: As a math nerd, I was intrigued that a couple of your ancillary characters in the collection are mathematicians. Was that by design, and if so, why?
RW: Yes, it was by design. Math is concrete; there is usually a right and wrong answer. A mathematician feels in control and successful when he or she solves an equation or problem. I like the sense of specificity and safety in math’s parameters. There is no such control in life. I wanted to contrast the precision of math with the chaos of life.
Bloom: The collection seems effortlessly connected, but I suspect it involved a lot of careful work! What qualities of connection (in addition to exploring American Jewishness) did you consciously work on in the collection, and which ones surprisingly emerged on their own?
RW: That’s a lovely compliment. Yes, choosing the stories and arranging them involved a lot of careful work and experimentation. Sometimes I felt as if I used glue to fasten the stories together and create a logical order for them.
My conscious intent when I worked on the collection was to explore how one person’s perceptions of a relationship can be different from another’s. I’m interested in relationships between partners, spouses, parents and children, friends, business relationships. I wanted to look at the ways people cope with marriage or divorce, and how people integrate the past into the present. Surprisingly, the written word—letters and notes—became important to characters. Also secrets, love, and loss emerged organically as themes, without intention or plan.
Bloom: In the title story, there are really no concrete facts, just ineffable aphorisms and nebulous suggestions and a few practical tips, which challenges us to acknowledge that personal truth often has little to do with fact. When faced with uncertainty—divorce, aging, loss—how do language and literature help us to change our lives?
RW: I think literature and language can help us when we’re faced with uncertainty, help us feel we’re not alone and to understand that others have weathered the shocks of life. We see how characters in fiction manage challenges and difficulties. Reading allows us to stop, step out of our own lives, and see the world from another point of view, see other options for how to live.
One of the ironies of “Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life” is that there are no concrete answers or tips for how best to cope with adversity or uncertainty. Each person is left to navigate his or her life as best he or she can. But Grace, the story’s narrator, reads a self-help newsletter and hopes to find solutions to her problems. Self-help offers are filled with promises, but there are no answers. Nothing can really change our lives, except, perhaps, if we change our attitude.
Bloom: You were a Visiting Scribe for the Jewish Book Council, where you blog about your work and life. Did you enjoy blogging, and how do you think writing is evolving (for good or for bad) thanks to new technologies?
RW: I enjoyed blogging. It gave me the opportunity to write about subjects drawn directly from my life. The new technologies make it much easier to write and disseminate one’s work; the volume of writing and number of writers has increased. But there can be something seductive about composing text on the computer—a manuscript appears perfect and finished, even though it’s not. I like to read hard copies of a project, too. And technology can waste time. You can feel as if you’re writing when really you’re writing e-mails or tweets or doing interesting research on the Internet.
Bloom: Lastly, what are you working on next?
RW: I am working on more stories. I’d like to put together another story collection. I’m also revising a draft of a novel. The novel is about a public defender whose client pleads not guilty by reason of insanity.