With Study for Obedience shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Sarah Bernstein about the cruelty of the countryside and why her writing begins with sounds rather than stories

Read interviews with all the shortlisted and longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning the prize mean to you? 

It feels unthinkable – impossible, even! 

How long did it take to write Study for Obedience, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing? 

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.  

Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like? 

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.  

Sarah Bernstein

I was also interested in the question of innocence and the really bizarre expectation that, in order for someone’s suffering to be recognised as legitimate, that person needs also to be innocent – whatever that means

Study for Obedience contains elements of folk horror, with a palpable sense of dread and strange events occurring throughout the novel, from mass hysteria in livestock to the narrator’s ‘reed men’, which she deposits on doorsteps. Where do you draw your inspiration from for these discomforting images and moments?  

Partly it comes from the countryside where I live, where there is quite a lot of sudden animal death as a matter of regular occurrence – frogs squashed on the journey from one verge to another, gulls picking off ducklings, poorly lambs never getting any better. The book tries to imagine what it might be like to be the kind of character who reads significance into what are in fact ordinary occurrences because it’s the only way she knows of making sense of what is to her an unknowable landscape. So there’s that. I also drew inspiration from what I’d been reading, which happened to be a lot of Shirley Jackson at the time.  

The narrator of the story is consumed by obedience. The novel opens with a recollection of a childhood in which she describes her ‘devotion’ to family members, yet details revealed later allude to something more sinister. How much agency does she really have?  

I was trying to think through what it might look like if certain (usually feminised) characteristics associated with passivity could take on a kind of power, especially over the people reinforcing those sorts of gendered norms. That idea comes from the painter Paula Rego – that obedience can, in a sense, also be murderous – it can be harmful to the person demanding obedience. I was also interested in the question of innocence and the really bizarre expectation that, in order for someone’s suffering to be recognised as legitimate, that person needs also to be innocent – whatever that means. The novel’s narrator is a character who has been disempowered and badly treated in a variety of ways and who has also abdicated moral responsibility in other areas of her life, so the question of innocence is a complicated one, for her as well as for us. The question of agency is I think also complicated by the narrator’s sense of her own fatedness – her sense of living in a cycle of history she can’t work her way out of.  

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein

Which book or books are you reading at the moment? 

I’m reading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return and also Tristram Shandy – I am 200 pages into the narrator’s account of his own life and he hasn’t been born yet. 

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why? 

I have a couple – Bernice Rubens’s The Elected Member, which won in 1970, for its use of the Yiddish idiom, which gave me an unbelievable shock of recognition and familiarity when I read it; Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won in 1979, for the way it imagines alternative social worlds and also childhood; and Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, shortlisted in 2011, for among other things the pleasure it takes in the sound of language. 

What are you working on next? 

I have the ghost of an idea that has led me to the archives of Scottish land court decisions.  

Sarah Bernstein