Instructor Q&A: Brittani Sonnenberg

“Character is intimately tied to place, and we are different people in different places. Setting our fiction in specific places helps us explore and map emotional geographies within ourselves, too.”
–Brittani Sonnenberg

Brittani Sonnenberg is the managing editor of Tribeza Magazine and the author of the novel Home Leave. She was raised across three continents and has worked as a journalist in Germany, China, and throughout Southeast Asia. A graduate of Harvard, she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her fiction has been published in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 as well as Ploughshares, Short Fiction, and Asymptote. Her nonfiction has appeared in Time, Associated Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NPR Berlin.
Brittani is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Place in Fiction: The Secret Trapdoor to Storytelling” on Saturday, October 29 at St. Edward’s University. This class will cover the ways that setting can hook readers and create plot and character. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
brittani-sonnenbergScribe: It might be tempting for writers to forget about setting or take it for granted, believing it’s just the place a story is set. No big deal. But your class seems to suggest otherwise. Why should writers pay attention to how they handle setting?

Brittani Sonnenberg: As Eudora Welty says, “Feelings are bound up in place.” We all know that to be true. The other day a friend of mine, who is planning a trip to Berlin (my former home of seven years), asked me for a list of recommendations of what to see. I found I could barely give cogent advice, I suddenly felt so choked up at the thought of the places I love there: Schlachtensee Lake, the coffee shops along the canal, my favorite museum. And it doesn’t have to be the memory of an exotic locale: anyone who steps inside their old elementary school or a spot where you used to hang out with a former girlfriend or boyfriend will find themselves suffused with memory and feeling. That sense of deep emotion is what we crave in novels: it’s why they mean so much to us. Any place you miss, or loathe, or feel haunted by, is ripe for writing about.
Scribe: In your class description, you say that writers can learn to enjoy setting (that it’s the only vacation most writers can afford). What a fascinating way of talking about the way a work can transport us! Can you give example of this?

BS: Having grown up across three continents, I’ve always used writing, from the time I was twelve (when my family moved to China), to return to the places I dearly missed (especially my grandmother’s cabin in the Smoky Mountains of North Georgia) but knew I wouldn’t see again for months on end. It wasn’t simply that describing that sunny porch and the cool mountain air in journals allowed me to see and feel that space again, in my mind’s eye. It was that I felt my self in those places come alive again: who I had been there. Character is intimately tied to place, and we are different people in different places. Setting our fiction in specific places helps us explore and map emotional geographies within ourselves, too.
Scribe: What novels or memoirs have you read that struck you as having used setting particularly well?

BS: I just finished reading Good as Gone by local writer Amy Gentry, and I thought she did a fantastic job describing Houston’s suburbs and highways. I’ve also been reading Annie Dillard lately, and I am mesmerized, every time, by how she can evoke natural settings. John le Carré is more famous for his nail-biting spy plots, but I think he’s a beautiful writer; here’s a sentence of his, from a page opened at random from A Perfect Spy: “The church had a wooden porch, a footpath led beside a playing field. He passed a farmyard with brick barns and smelt warm milk on the autumn air.” Beautiful! Eudora Welty, of course, is one of my favorites; I think she could have written about a parking lot outside a strip mall and I would have loved it. Jane Austen, whom Welty deeply admired, also does an enviable job of capturing the flavor of the air on long country walks and the suffocating atmosphere of beautiful drawing rooms that are full of snobs.

Read a New York Times review of Brittani's novel Home Leave.
Read a New York Times review of Brittani’s novel Home Leave.

Scribe: Your own novel, Home Leave, is about American expats, which means it follows them to many different places. Did this mean you had to start from scratch with setting each time the novel jumped to another place?

BS: I don’t think it felt like starting from scratch since those places are so deeply buried in me. It was more like turning on the lights in separate rooms. The bigger challenge was in wading through the nostalgia and being disciplined about crisp description, forcing myself to re-see, re-smell, re-taste, re-touch, so that the reader could get a true feeling for the setting, and what those places meant to the characters in the novel.
Scribe: To prepare for the class, students will read an essay by Eudora Welty, a Southern writer known for the way she handled setting. What did she do in her work that can resonate with writers working a generation or so after her most famous books and stories?

BS: So much! Setting dictates a great deal in Welty’s work, or, to put it more gently, so much of her writing flows naturally from setting: How a character relates to a place informs their desires. Are they desperate to get out of town? Or do they love nothing more than working in their garden and gossiping with their next-door neighbor? Do they take comfort in the natural world that surrounds them? Or are they afraid of it? Much of her humor is intimately tied to setting: in my favorite story of hers, which is perhaps also her best known, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the title itself emphasizes setting: a home in a post office (although we don’t see that particular setting until the end of the story). Many of Welty’s stories tend to be very voice-driven, and even though the first paragraph of “Why I live at the P.O.” doesn’t include a long description of setting, you can hear the narrator’s relationship (and sense of ownership) of her hometown coming through loud and clear:

I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled.

Strong setting doesn’t necessarily require pages and pages of description, but it does need to ground the story. In this opening paragraph, “back home again,” and “here in China Grove” says all you need to know: the narrator’s never left her hometown (unlike her sister, Stella-Rondo); for the narrator, China Grove is always “here,” her sense of location and the unfolding present is fixed on that spot.

Thanks, Brittani!
Click here to register for Brittani’s class.
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