I was pleased to note that Ronna Wineberg’s novel, On Bittersweet Place, is currently available in bookstores in addition to the Barnes& Noble and Amazon websites. Having enjoyed her earlier work, Second Language, a collection of short stories, I was interested in this first novel. A recent interview with Ronna Wineberg can be seen below. Barbara Keer (B.K.) Ronna Wineberg (R.W.)
On Bittersweet Place is the powerful coming-of-age story of Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jew whose family flees their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution. The story unfolds in Chicago during the Jazz Age of the 1920’s, where Lena’s impoverished family has settled and where she must traverse the early years of adolescence. Lena’s new world is large and beautiful and full of promise, but it is also cold and unwelcoming and laden with danger. Ronna Wineberg delivers a moving, universal story of family, self-discovery, young love, and the always-relevant experience of the immigrant, the refugee, the outsider struggling to create a new home and a better life in an unfamiliar place.
B.K.: Your first book, Second Language is a collection of short stories. On Bittersweet Place is your first novel. Can you describe the differences between these two approaches?
R.W.: Short stories need to be compressed and focused. When I was writing Second Language, I had to be concise. A story has a limited amount of pages; there isn’t room to fully explore a character’s background or thoughts. In contrast, novels are expansive. A novel contains hundreds of pages; there’s room to meander and digress. When I wrote On Bittersweet Place, I had to keep in mind the expansive quality of a novel. Also, stories can be written quickly. I wrote some of the stories in Second Language over a period of weeks, although I then revised them. It took me much longer to finish a draft of On Bittersweet Place. And I had to connect the pieces of the novel so that everything fit together. This isn’t necessary to do in a story collection (unless the stories are linked).
BK: What was your motivation in writing a novel rather than another collection of short stories?
RW:I originally envisioned On Bittersweet Place as a series of linked stories. However, when I began writing the book, I realized it was a novel. I changed my approach and wrote chapters instead. I knew I had enough material for a longer work, and I had always wanted to write a novel. Working on the book was a challenge and pleasure. I enjoyed spending so much time with the characters.
B.K.: I believe that your book is the first novel published by Relegation Books. I also understand that their approach to publishing is unique and creative. Can you tell me more about this?
R.W:Yes, On Bittersweet Place is the first novel published by Relegation Books. Dallas Hudgens is the publisher. He’s also a writer and had published two novels with Scribner, but the company wasn’t interested in his short stories. He queried smaller presses; one was interested but then went out of business. He decided to publish his own book, a story collection, Wake Up, We’re Here, and created the imprint, Relegation Books. Then he decided to publish other writers, too. Dallas gathered a team of professionals, an editor, a book designer, and the Manhattan literary publicist Lauren Cerand. They’ve coined the term “craft publishing.” Lauren explained in an interview in The Washingtonian, “There is no longer just one path to publish a book. It’s about looking at the best possible path for each book; they’re not all cut from the same cloth.”
B.K.: In what ways do you believe your book is relevant to today’s immigrants?
R.W.: I think On Bittersweet Place is relevant to today’s immigrants. Immigrants still need to overcome difficult obstacles, the same obstacles the characters in On Bittersweet Place faced: learning a new language, finding work and housing, understanding a new culture, and dealing with prejudice. Today’s immigrants still have to re-invent themselves and make a home in an unfamiliar place.
B.K.: Are there aspects of Lena’s experiences that stay in an earlier time and don’t “translate” to problems faced by immigrants today?
R.W.: There are aspects of Lena’s experience that don’t translate to our world. In the 1920s, immigrants often didn’t travel beyond their city of arrival. New York was a major port. People went to Chicago then, like the characters in On Bittersweet Place, because friends or family lived in the city and because economic opportunities were considered good. In today’s world, immigrants settle in all parts of the United States and live in areas where they don’t have personal contacts. Also, in the 1920’s, people were more removed from world events. Lena and her family relied on newspapers and the radio for news. Now information travels quickly on the Internet and television. An immigrant today would most likely know about global events and be connected to his or her country of origin. And in our contemporary world, there’s a greater understanding of the challenges immigrants face and the need for education, supportive services, and legal protections.
B.K.: Is there any specific message or described experience that you would hope to have your readers take away from this book?
R.W.: Mainly, I hope readers enjoy the characters and the story. I hope, too, that readers will take away an understanding of love, an awareness of the cost of prejudice, and a sense of the power of family bonds. I also hope the novel will encourage readers to think about their own families and experiences growing up.
B.K.: Finally, is there anything that you’d like to share with Splash Magazine readers that may further interest them in this moving novel?
R.W.: I was thrilled that On Bittersweet Place was included in The Millions “Most Anticipated” list of books for the fall of 2014. The Millions just published an interview about the book, too. The Harvard Crimson recently published a review of On Bittersweet Place. Harvard Crimson Article
More information about Ronna Wineberg can be found at the Ronna Wineberg Website
For further information about Relegation Press and On Bittersweet Place check the Relegation Press Website
Photos: Courtesy of Ronna Wineberg