Faulkner’s Rule of Etiquette for Encountering Friends (with Whom You’ve Been Fishing that Very Morning) on the Sidewalk

This is a re-post of an essay written for Read Her Like an Open Book and published on June 25, 2014. It’s one of my favorite guest blog posts. And it seems particularly timely in light of recent events. 

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover  Faulkner

By Brittani Sonnenberg

Two hours outside of Nashville, a severe thunderstorm hit. My mother and I were driving to Oxford, Mississippi, for the third stop of my six-city book tour for Home Leave, and in Jackson, Tennessee a curtain of rain descended. It bore all the fury of a monsoon in Singapore, where my mother and I had often sat out tropical storms. We sat again now in our rental car, helpless, parked at a strip mall, as the splatting drops turned to hail and then exhaled to a quieter rain.

The deluge done, we followed signs to Oxford, turning off the highway and onto a two-lane road, wet and shiny from the rain.

“Looks like Mississippi now,” Mom said, and she was right – the low hum of early evening light coating the glistening kudzu and weathered wooden buildings distinctly resembled Yazoo County, where she had grown up –  but a “West Tennessee Coon Hunters Association” sign laughed at our faulty internal compasses. The radio stations were getting fuzzier but the landscape was sharpening, shaking itself loose from the franchise blur, driven by at highway speeds, to small farms, tired establishments promising ribs, and houses set gently back from the road, that we now took in at a languid 55 miles an hour.

The state line came soon enough, and Holly Springs a few miles further. Night was falling, and the columns and wrap-around porches of the little town’s houses gleamed pale. More shadowy countryside and then Oxford snuck up on us like a kid out of the bushes: a sudden square of activity around the courthouse. On bustling restaurant patios, the women’s hair blow-dried and their dresses just so. I hadn’t brushed my hair that morning, but I had dressed in clean jeans and a nice top for dinner at City Grocery.

My reading at Square Books was scheduled for 5pm the following day. I passed the hours listening to Southern banter and endless stories, low growls of laughter from my mother’s college friends; drinking coffee from a thick mug; walking up to Faulkner’s grave; marching through the wilting heat; down through the kind rows of pines, into Rowan Oak. I had visited Goethe’s house in Frankfurt one month earlier (I live in Berlin) and felt nothing for it. Faulkner is not my favorite (Eudora Welty is), but I loved pacing through his house, absorbing the eyelet covers on the bed, his tiny desk, the angular handwriting on his outlines.

If there is any devoted writer or reader who has not been to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, they need to stop their devoted writing and reading and get down there now. The main store is a charming converted pharmacy (my Great Uncle Jeff has memories of getting ice cream there as a child, more on Uncle Jeff later); Off-Square Books, where the reading was held, is a sweet, welcoming hardwood floor building. I read aloud from the first chapter of my novel, set in Mississippi, and no one threw tomatoes or stalked out in protest when I put on a heavy Southern drawl for the narrator’s voice. Afterwards, we retired to my mother’s friend’s front porch for a lazy early evening of drinking and talking, grateful for the cooling. An Ole Miss baseball game was on in the living room; people drifted in and out of conversations about tailgating plans for the fall and George Saunders’s sentences and the art of lawyering. As the party was winding down, a colossal thunderstorm slammed the street, screaming bloody murder, driving rain onto the porch. Later, as the last guests were leaving, my mother and her friends harmonized to old Baptist hymns on the porch swing.

The next day, our hours waning, we went to see Uncle Jeff, my mother’s uncle, who grew up in Oxford, and now lives in the VA home on the edge of town. We drove there with a parade of relatives and assumed the VA conference room. His daughter wheeled Uncle Jeff in. “The reason I called this meeting,” he boomed, and we laughed. We begged him to tell us Faulkner stories, and Uncle Jeff recalled how Faulkner always wore a suit, how he had taught the ten-year-old Jeff how to box with real boxing gloves, and then Jeff delivered the following anecdote, without saying who had told him. You got the feeling it was a story owned by the town.

One summer morning, Faulkner went out fishing with a good friend. Later in the afternoon, he passed the same friend in the street without greeting him. The friend followed him and said: “I’ve always heard you didn’t greet folks properly on the street, but I’d never witnessed it myself until now. Why would you pass me without saying a word?” And Faulkner said: “We just spent the entire morning talking and fishing. What on earth do we have to say to each other?”

(Or something like that. A sentiment I identify with 100% and would not mind becoming universally accepted etiquette.) Then Uncle Jeff’s memory left Faulkner behind and drifted to playing football with neighborhood kids in the street, getting nickels for ice cream at the pharmacy, and then it was time for us to leave.

For the rest of that hot afternoon, an Oxford resident, playing tour guide, introduced me to an impressive field of kudzu, an undrinkably sweet sweet-tea, a sprawling back porch that rivaled any of Berlin’s pretty wrought iron balconies, and smart, funny women.

I always romanticize the South. I know it’s not right; I’m aware of the region’s cruel contradictions and its stubborn disregard, all too often, for its past and present sins. In Berlin, you can’t walk fifty feet down the sidewalk without seeing gleaming copper bricks, bearing the names of the murdered dead. The World Cup aside, many Germans still walk around profoundly ashamed of Germany. On Oxford’s graceful sidewalks, shaded by magnolia trees, no copper apologies caught my eye. Up until recently, the college band still played Dixie at every ball game. Sometimes I feel guilty for liking the South as much as I do, in spite of its ugly tendencies, for feeling the strong kick of belonging when I’m back. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I never stay too long. Does that rosy fondness, that makes a place feel so familiar, simply indicate the opposite: that you’re just passing through?

I don’t know. Even though my family moved to China when I was twelve, my mother’s Mississippi roots, my five years in Atlanta, and the summers my family spent each year in the Smoky Mountains have made something about the region stick undeniably to me. I feel a similar stickiness from all my other homes, too: Berlin, London, Singapore, Shanghai. Maybe I’m following a Faulknerian aversion to small talk, which is to say, choosing when to belong, never fully committing to one home, keeping my head down on the street, setting stories in the towns I’ve just left behind.

Brittani Sonnenberg has an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. She also serves as a visiting lecturer at the MFA program of the University of Hong Kong. Her award-winning fiction has been widely published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O’Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University. She was a European Journalism Fellow at Berlin’s Freie Universität from 2009-2010 and served as the editor of the American Academy’s Berlin Journal from 2011-2013.  Home Leave is her first novel.

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Author Paulette Livers on How NOT to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

Guest blogger Paulette Livers: How Not to Write a Political Novel

Paulette Livers   Cementville

Paulette Livers is the author of Cementville, a 2014 novel about the impact of the Vietnam War on a rural Kentucky community when seven local boys are killed in one battle and a POW returns home to rebuild his life. Her debut novel has received strongly positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Elle magazine. Livers is the owner of Mighty Sword, a design and writing studio in Chicago. She blogs at http://paulettelivers.com/journal/.

“Fiction is stone deaf to argument. . . . The bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction.”  —Eudora Welty, in her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

The secret about writers that non-writers don’t know is that every time we start a new text, most of us feel as if we’re doing it for the first time. I begin from a place of confusion and move to timid exploration, bushwhacking a new path through the wilderness, certain (hoping!) there’s a glimmer of an idea somewhere in all the undergrowth. The glimmer for my novel Cementville came from events that happened in my hometown a long time ago. I was a child when our country was experiencing the rumblings of major change—the burgeoning Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Act—changes after which nothing would ever be the same. And we were in the middle of a war from which no one seemed capable of extricating us.

Families in my hometown were dumbfounded when the local unit of the Kentucky National Guard was called to active duty at a distant firebase. Sons of farmers trooped off to defend a nearly defenseless Vietnamese hillside stashed with Howitzers and ammo. On the night of June 19, 1969, a thunderstorm fell hard on Firebase Tomahawk. The racket of that middle-of-the-night storm allowed the North Vietnamese Army to overrun the base. Once the fighting was over, Battery C had also lost nine men. The loss to our tiny town was palpable, as if blunt force trauma had been committed upon the communal body. No one seemed immune to the mourning. My older brother was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He sent photographs: a sky raining young men hanging from their silken parachutes like baby spiders released from their mother’s egg sack; a close-up of his ear, bloodied by the debris of an exploded grenade. Eventually discharged, he wandered for a time on the streets of some Cali­fornia city. I put notes in my father’s letters to him, begging him to come home.

Among 1973’s returning POWs was an officer who came back to his rural community to settle. Having returned to a hero’s welcome, he purchased acreage from my aunt and uncle in the bucolic bottomlands and knobs of central Kentucky. He won the hearts of neighbors along Wilson Creek, digging them out of winter storms, pulling out stumps and clearing the land of old trash. Our own hometown hero. He was a godsend, my aunt and uncle said. It was a story that seemed almost too good to be true.

Four years after he came home, our decorated hero shot and killed his neighbor in an argument over tractor parts. The young man who died, a father of four small children, was a factory worker who repaired farm equipment and cars for extra money. I listened to my aunt and uncle talk about this heartbreaking experience, their anguish tangible and ripping. I tried to wrap my head around what had happened, to reach inside the heart of someone who was little more than a flat hero character in my aunt’s kitchen stories until the day he murdered a young man who had become his friend. Even at 18, I knew better than to expect to find meaning in what had happened, something almost never imparted by tragedy. Still the event—which seemed to be the distillation of the wages of war wrought on this tiny community—continued to haunt me.

Years later in a writing group I began working on a series of vignettes. The group suggested the vignettes were part of a bigger canvas; that I might be writing about a community. I might be writing, they said gently, a novel. As the material took shape, multiple voices clamored like a chorus, begging not just for the story of an unhinged war hero or of boys cut down too young, but an elegy for a town gripped in mourning.

In the course of researching and writing Cementville, I discovered my adolescent sense of the magnitude of local suffering had not been an exaggeration. In the 1960s, my community of Nelson County, Kentucky had a population of around 30,000. By war’s end, we had suffered the highest per capita loss of any community in the United States. Was possible to contain such loss and grief in a package as feeble as a bundle of words?

But one thing I did not set out to do was to write a political novel, notwithstanding Toni Morrison’s declaration that all art is at some level transgressive—i.e. political—or better be! Forster’s epigraph for Howard’s End, “Only connect,” best sums up what I was after. I sought connection, entry into the psyches and the adversities of people I was not at all certain I could ever understand. Like the tragically murderous decorated hero. Absent understanding, I hoped at least to approach his struggle with something like empathy. I was trying to illustrate the human spirit in the face of unfathomable grief, and rage.

Novelists are often asked whether a work is autobiographical. With varying degrees of equivocation, we like to respond, No. Eudora Welty, in the essay quoted above, said that novelists take from life “not to report it but to make an object . . . and offer it to the reader. . . . What distinguishes [the novel] from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.”

It does seem, though, that we tend to trail after the ghosts that haunt us. We are dogged by the urge to revisit old territory, recheck the status of old wounds. There’s a saying that applies here, one that’s been stated several ways: The past is another country. What I have come to believe is that one gift of the passage of time is the ability to see with the eyes of the traveler visiting a country for the first time. I don’t believe I could have written this book at twenty-five. Even when I was forty, this particular piece of the past would not have been past enough to feel like another country. Distance from that adolescent self steeped in the stew of grief and unable to place anything so large into a manageable framework, allows the writer I have become through years of lived life, to enter her country and see it with the eyes of the traveler.

When I started writing those vignettes of grief-struck families and an unhinged POW I didn’t know I was embarking on the seven-year-long creation of a requiem for a lost time, a lost community, a lost country. As I was arriving at the end of Cementville’s writing and wondering how I would wrap it all up, I thought of something I heard Irish writer Colm Toibin say. He often finds himself stuck in an uneasy helplessness in his work, seeking to rectify the lack of meaning in tragedies. His solution is to find for his stories endings that hover between uncertainty and closure. In the years since adolescence, when I watched the forces of war and social change enact a sort of baptism by fire on my rural community, I have let go any belief I once had that the universe promises us any moral accounting of itself.

Still. We do feel the weight of the cargo of war, and some of us feel the need to bear witness. We look around and say Here we are again. Or Here we are still. Storytelling is my tool for witnessing, a narrow and twisting path toward radical empathy, a bushwhacking exploration into what it is to be human.

Brittani Sonnenberg on Home Leave: “Certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel”

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg’s first novel, Home Leave, was published on June 3 by Grand Central Publishing. It is the story of the peripatetic Kriegstein family (parents Chris and Elise and their daughters, 16-year-old Leah and 14-year-old Sophie) and their experiences living abroad in Hamburg, London, Shanghai, and Singapore. It is a complex exploration of the various relationships in this one small family, the nature of home, and the impact of a family tragedy on those left behind. Sonnenberg’s writing possesses a sophistication and insight that makes readers sit up and take notice. The opening chapter is as brilliant and clever a piece of writing as I’ve read in a long while (and will no doubt be widely anthologized, as it can stand on its own quite nicely).

Sonnenberg studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. Her award-winning fiction has been published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O. Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.

Home Leave appears to be autobiographical, at least in the sense that you lived in some of the places that are featured in the book. How do you decide which personal experiences to make use of in fiction? Do certain experiences seemingly make that decision for you? And how do you then decide how much to rework the truth into fiction?

I think that’s exactly the way to describe how it felt to write Home Leave: certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel. At other times, I would be working on an utterly fictional passage, and a tiny autobiographical sliver would insert itself. Before I began the novel, I wrote a memoir that I ultimately put in the proverbial drawer: something wasn’t coming together with it. But I still had a deep urge to continue exploring the memoir’s material (an American family overseas, a sibling’s sudden death) in fiction. It didn’t feel like “reworking the truth” since the novel’s chapters, as they came to me, felt fresh in their fictional forms. But I suppose in some corner of my brain I was reworking the truth in a playful way, like a kid playing dress up, trying out different costumes and props.

I lived in Honolulu from ages 10-12 and it had a profound effect on me (although it wasn’t a foreign country, it felt like one to me). What are your thoughts on living in a foreign country as a child? Do you think everyone should do that?

I think it makes a lot of sense that living in Hawaii at such an impressionable time changed you deeply. I think living overseas as a child is both a privilege and a burden: you’re exposed to a profoundly different way of living and thinking and being, but it also jostles your notion of where home is and who you are. I recently conducted an interview with several writers who have settled overseas as adults, who all claimed that this “outsider status” as a foreigner can be crucial for writing and for gathering material. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

We hear and read a lot about parents coping with the death of a child, how they never get over it, understandably. But what is that loss like for a sibling? We don’t hear nearly as much about the long-term effects within that relationship.

It’s devastating for every family member, in different ways. For a sibling – at least for me – there was a lot of guilt about surviving my sister Blair, who was two years younger than me. And I felt horribly alone in the world without the sister that had shared so many worlds with me. I still ache from that missing, although now it’s a gentler throbbing than before.

Have you always known you were going to write about a death in the family? Or did it impose itself on you while you were trying to write about other subjects?

Several of my short stories involved the death of a loved one, but the novel was the first time I tried writing about the subject in a way that felt so “close to home.” It was difficult to write, but I felt the urge to deal directly with my family’s experience, rather than through an entirely fictionalized scenario.

How long did you work on Home Leave? Did it come to you slowly over time or in a vision, as it were?

Both. Home Leave took a long time to write, and it came out very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, I had worked on a memoir for a couple of years that I finally put aside. I started from scratch on a new fiction project that dealt with similar material, and ended up writing the novel in a little under two years. But the subject of a sibling’s death and an American family’s life overseas had been on my mind for many years, and one of the chapters is adapted from a short story I wrote in college.

How many drafts did you write before you reached the published version? Who helped you produce the book as published, and what was their contribution? 

My agent, Jenni Ferrari Adler, and another reader, a close friend of mine, helped me to revise the first draft. Jenni sold the second (or perhaps it was the third?) draft to Grand Central. Several chapters then went through major revisions with my editor at GC, Helen Atsma, and even my German editor, Ulrike Ostermeyer at Arche Verlag, helped a great deal with the chapters set in Berlin and Hamburg.

What experiences, as opposed to books, have shaped your perspective and voice as a writer?

Living overseas, especially in Shanghai, was an enormous influence. I also think my Southern heritage (my mother is from Mississippi) has affected how I view storytelling and humor. And my sister’s death has forced me to think a lot about mourning, grief, love, and family, and prompted me to investigate these themes in my fiction.

Are you part of any writers’ groups, for example a group of friends from your MFA days or organized writing groups? If so, what do they offer you as a writer?

Yes, I am. I have a casual writing group in Berlin that helped me with several chapters from the novel. I also have friends from my MFA program who I turn to for help, not only with manuscripts, but also just with the daily frustrations and quandaries of being a writer. And I have a good friend in the US – a fantastic writer who works as a psychiatrist – who I often consult.

Which of your stories would you recommend to someone who enjoyed Home Leave? Where can we find them? Do you have any plans for a story collection?

Thanks for asking! My short story “Hong Kong Buffet,” about a Chinese restaurant in Mississippi, was just published by Readux Books (a wonderful small press in Berlin), and is available as an e-book and a paperback; and my short story “Taiping” (which won a 2008 O. Henry Award) can be found online. I don’t have any current plans to go out with a short story collection, but I’ll keep you posted!

You are currently living in Berlin. Why did you decide to settle there? Is it a particularly good location for Americans? It seems as if it has become the new Paris for creative types.

In some ways, my decision to settle in Berlin was something of a coincidence; I was looking for a break from the Midwest (after graduate school in Michigan) and happened to visit Berlin and fall in love with the city. I do think it’s a good location for Americans – there are a lot of us over there, especially from Brooklyn! – but one thing I truly value about Berlin is its cosmopolitanism. It draws creative types from all over the world and it’s energizing to see so many people who are so excited to be there.

What is your writing routine (if you have one)? Where do you write? What five things do you need in order to write?

I try to write for about three hours a day, usually in the morning. I read a wonderful article on establishing a writing routine by Ellen Sussman in Poets and Writers a few years back that I’ve adopted (somewhat) and that’s helped me stay (somewhat) focused. I write mostly at home, but I also have a shared office space with other writers in Berlin that I recently joined. Five things I need in order to write: a window, relative quiet, a laptop, courage, and coffee.

What are your thoughts on the issue of gender bias in publishing (such as the issue of feminized cover art used on literary fiction by women and the imbalance of bylines and books reviewed)? Joyce Carol Oates recently noted that it seems unnecessary to have awards such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction when women are winning so many of the major awards (the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Booker, etc.). Do you agree or disagree? Do we really need things like the VIDA Count (and, for that matter, a blog like Read Her Like an Open Book)?

This is a tough question. On the one hand, there is an objective disparity that needs to be addressed (and I feel like resources like VIDA and this blog call necessary attention to the issue). On the other hand, sometimes all the uproar drowns out the individual voices of the books and authors themselves. What everyone would prefer, of course, is a level playing field, but until we have that (and in order to get there), I think intermediary efforts are crucial.

Which authors and books are your primary influences?

Lots! But I’ll list a few…

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time (my favorite childhood novel)

Eudora Welty “Why I Live at the P.O.” (short story)

Ha Jin “When Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” (short story)

V.S. Naipaul Reading and Writing: A Personal Account

Pretty much anything by Alice Munro

Rainer Maria Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad

What have you read recently that impressed you? Which authors and/or books deserve more attention?

I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

William Faulkner’s Rule of Etiquette for Encountering Friends (with Whom You’ve Been Fishing that Very Morning) on the Sidewalk

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

By Brittani Sonnenberg

Two hours outside of Nashville, a severe thunderstorm hit. My mother and I were driving to Oxford, Mississippi, for the third stop of my six-city book tour for Home Leave, and in Jackson, Tennessee a curtain of rain descended. It bore all the fury of a monsoon in Singapore, where my mother and I had often sat out tropical storms. We sat again now in our rental car, helpless, parked at a strip mall, as the splatting drops turned to hail and then exhaled to a quieter rain.

The deluge done, we followed signs to Oxford, turning off the highway and onto a two-lane road, wet and shiny from the rain.

“Looks like Mississippi now,” Mom said, and she was right – the low hum of early evening light coating the glistening kudzu and weathered wooden buildings distinctly resembled Yazoo County, where she had grown up –  but a “West Tennessee Coon Hunters Association” sign laughed at our faulty internal compasses. The radio stations were getting fuzzier but the landscape was sharpening, shaking itself loose from the franchise blur, driven by at highway speeds, to small farms, tired establishments promising ribs, and houses set gently back from the road, that we now took in at a languid 55 miles an hour.

The state line came soon enough, and Holly Springs a few miles further. Night was falling, and the columns and wrap-around porches of the little town’s houses gleamed pale. More shadowy countryside and then Oxford snuck up on us like a kid out of the bushes: a sudden square of activity around the courthouse. On bustling restaurant patios, the women’s hair blow-dried and their dresses just so. I hadn’t brushed my hair that morning, but I had dressed in clean jeans and a nice top for dinner at City Grocery.

My reading at Square Books was scheduled for 5pm the following day. I passed the hours listening to Southern banter and endless stories, low growls of laughter from my mother’s college friends; drinking coffee from a thick mug; walking up to Faulkner’s grave; marching through the wilting heat; down through the kind rows of pines, into Rowan Oak. I had visited Goethe’s house in Frankfurt one month earlier (I live in Berlin) and felt nothing for it. Faulkner is not my favorite (Eudora Welty is), but I loved pacing through his house, absorbing the eyelet covers on the bed, his tiny desk, the angular handwriting on his outlines.

If there is any devoted writer or reader who has not been to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, they need to stop their devoted writing and reading and get down there now. The main store is a charming converted pharmacy (my Great Uncle Jeff has memories of getting ice cream there as a child, more on Uncle Jeff later); Off-Square Books, where the reading was held, is a sweet, welcoming hardwood floor building. I read aloud from the first chapter of my novel, set in Mississippi, and no one threw tomatoes or stalked out in protest when I put on a heavy Southern drawl for the narrator’s voice. Afterwards, we retired to my mother’s friend’s front porch for a lazy early evening of drinking and talking, grateful for the cooling. An Ole Miss baseball game was on in the living room; people drifted in and out of conversations about tailgating plans for the fall and George Saunders’s sentences and the art of lawyering. As the party was winding down, a colossal thunderstorm slammed the street, screaming bloody murder, driving rain onto the porch. Later, as the last guests were leaving, my mother and her friends harmonized to old Baptist hymns on the porch swing.

The next day, our hours waning, we went to see Uncle Jeff, my mother’s uncle, who grew up in Oxford, and now lives in the VA home on the edge of town. We drove there with a parade of relatives and assumed the VA conference room. His daughter wheeled Uncle Jeff in. “The reason I called this meeting,” he boomed, and we laughed. We begged him to tell us Faulkner stories, and Uncle Jeff recalled how Faulkner always wore a suit, how he had taught the ten-year-old Jeff how to box with real boxing gloves, and then Jeff delivered the following anecdote, without saying who had told him. You got the feeling it was a story owned by the town.

One summer morning, Faulkner went out fishing with a good friend. Later in the afternoon, he passed the same friend in the street without greeting him. The friend followed him and said: “I’ve always heard you didn’t greet folks properly on the street, but I’d never witnessed it myself until now. Why would you pass me without saying a word?” And Faulkner said: “We just spent the entire morning talking and fishing. What on earth do we have to say to each other?”

(Or something like that. A sentiment I identify with 100% and would not mind becoming universally accepted etiquette.) Then Uncle Jeff’s memory left Faulkner behind and drifted to playing football with neighborhood kids in the street, getting nickels for ice cream at the pharmacy, and then it was time for us to leave.

For the rest of that hot afternoon, an Oxford resident, playing tour guide, introduced me to an impressive field of kudzu, an undrinkably sweet sweet-tea, a sprawling back porch that rivaled any of Berlin’s pretty wrought iron balconies, and smart, funny women.

 

I always romanticize the South. I know it’s not right; I’m aware of the region’s cruel contradictions and its stubborn disregard, all too often, for its past and present sins. In Berlin, you can’t walk fifty feet down the sidewalk without seeing gleaming copper bricks, bearing the names of the murdered dead. The World Cup aside, many Germans still walk around profoundly ashamed of Germany. On Oxford’s graceful sidewalks, shaded by magnolia trees, no copper apologies caught my eye. Up until recently, the college band still played Dixie at every ball game. Sometimes I feel guilty for liking the South as much as I do, in spite of its ugly tendencies, for feeling the strong kick of belonging when I’m back. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I never stay too long. Does that rosy fondness, that makes a place feel so familiar, simply indicate the opposite: that you’re just passing through?

I don’t know. Even though my family moved to China when I was twelve, my mother’s Mississippi roots, my five years in Atlanta, and the summers my family spent each year in the Smoky Mountains have made something about the region stick undeniably to me. I feel a similar stickiness from all my other homes, too: Berlin, London, Singapore, Shanghai. Maybe I’m following a Faulknerian aversion to small talk, which is to say, choosing when to belong, never fully committing to one home, keeping my head down on the street, setting stories in the towns I’ve just left behind.