Book Talk: Chronic moving explored in 'Home Leave'

NEW YORK, June 12 Thu Jun 12, 2014 5:00am EDT

NEW YORK, June 12 (Reuters) - "Home Leave," a debut novel by U.S. writer Brittani Sonnenberg, explores expatriate life through magical realism, following a family across three continents and multiple generations as they move from Atlanta to Shanghai to Berlin.

The Kriegstein daughters grow up playing in empty Korean airports and dancing in public squares in China, counting on each other as the only constant presences in their lives as their parents move them across the globe.

But an unexpected death leaves the family questioning what could have been if they had chosen a more traditional path.

Berlin-based Sonnenberg spoke to Reuters about writing a fictional story based on her childhood, one that straddled diverse cultures.

Q: The lingering effects of trauma, from sexual abuse to death, influence much of the book. How your did own experiences shape that?

A: I think for writers their material is a blessing and a burden. Having lost my own sister when I was 15, it is a weight that you try to shift so it becomes a bit more comfortable. Or to switch metaphors, it is a very tangled knot that you try to pick at and make looser or understand better for yourself.

Blair, my sister who passed away, is someone who has always felt close to me, and her death and its effect on my family was something I really wanted to understand better. It had been close to me for so many years, but I wanted the freedom of fiction to look at it from all angles and to not do it in a sort of plotting way of my own journey through it. I think the novel allows for that unpacking.

Q: The book is woven with fantasy. Were you influenced by magical realism?

A: With my favorite authors there is always this sense of permission, so you have the notion that the wild thing you have a tickling urge to do could work really well.

In Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," she talks a lot about how grief induces a sort of magical realism. Your connection to the person whom you lost makes a kind of magical connection to them more real than what is going on in real life.

Q: You explore this notion of a "third culture kid," children who have spent a significant part of their lives outside their parents' culture. What are the unique hardships that come with not having a set home or culture to fall back on?

A: Having this ability to adapt or blend in or be up for all kinds of experiences or cultures can make it hard to keep your own voice, to announce when things feel like they are not going that well, or to complain and say, 'No I don't feel comfortable. I miss home,' or 'I don't feel like myself' because myself becomes such a flexible notion. You are so often rewarded for making that self very chameleon-like. On the other hand, knowing that I'm adaptable and that I've survived so many places, I also feel excited about entering new situations and cultures.

Q: Which character did you most appreciate developing?

A: I really liked watching the character Sophie, who was based on my sister. I think something that was really fun with her was that even as she departed from who my sister actually was, she still had a lot of spunk and humor and she felt like a really feisty character who had a lot of energy.

Q: Did writing a fictional story so closely based on your own life pose any unique challenges?

A: Possibly the biggest challenge was staying curious about the material and to do that it felt like it would require changing certain things and creating parallel paths. I knew what happened in my life but then I could sort of take a fork in the road and try something completely different. That allowed for excitement in the writing and a curiosity. (Reporting By Marina Lopes; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Steve Orlofsky)