Sarah Bernstein is a Canadian writer and scholar who was born in Montreal and now lives in the Scottish Highlands, where she teaches literature and creative writing
In 2015, she published Now Comes the Lightning, an acclaimed collection of prose poems. Study for Obedience, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, is Bernstein’s second novel. Her debut, The Coming Bad Days, was published in 2021. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in publications such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, MAP magazine, Granta and ROOM Magazine. In 2023, she was named by Granta as one of the best young writers in Britain.
One of the many inefficiencies in the way I work is that I tend to approach things through the sound of a line – so it’s almost like catching a musical phrase, and then trying to follow the logic of its sound, rather than primarily its sense. Story tends to follow voice rather than the other way around. (I am hoping to find a better way to work in future). This time, I had been writing pieces that ended up forming the basis of the narrator’s voice and publishing them as poems or micro fiction for a few years before I realised they might be connected. Once I realised they were, and that they might be part of a longer project, I spent a couple of months reading widely and taking notes – which is usually how I start – and then once I had a basic idea of what the story might be, the rest didn’t take very long. A few more months of consistent work, maybe.
I work in the brightest room in my house, which is the front porch. It is usually a little bit too cold in the winter and a little bit too warm in the summer, but the windows look out onto the bay, so I can watch what’s happening with the weather and the sea life. I try to keep it tidy, but it’s also a growing and drying space, so right now it’s a bit crowded with tomato plants, their attendant flies, and a rack of curing onions.
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Study for Obedience is an absurdist, darkly funny novel about the rise of xenophobia, as seen through the eyes of a stranger in an unnamed town – or is it? Bernstein’s urgent, crystalline prose upsets all our expectations, and what transpires is a meditation on survival itself— The Booker Prize 2023 judges on Study for Obedience