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The Booker Prize, the Scottish Highlands and a love of writing

Author: UNB

Posted on Oct 19, 2023

Category: Arts , Inspiring Stories , UNB Fredericton

It’s been a big year for Sarah Bernstein (MA’12).

Her latest novel, Study for Obedience, was published in the U.K. and Canada in the summer of 2023. It’s now shortlisted for both the 2023 Booker Prize (one of six finalists) and 2023 Giller Prize (one of five finalists). And, she was named to Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2023 list. Oh, and she’s about to have her first child.

But the Montreal-born author, who now lives in the Scottish Highlands, says that while the prize nods are “huge and inconceivable honours that have opened up opportunities for wider readership,” what continues to drive her is the writing itself.

“What I love the most is the sound of the language, the feeling of making something that feels, especially in early stages, a bit like a secret.”

The early stages of Sarah’s writing began when she was just a kid. A self-professed shy child, she says that writing was the way she was able to make sense of the world around her. “McGill used to run a young author's conference, which I remember attending a couple of times, and that was the first time I'd seen or met any published writers. But I don't think I really thought about publication for a very long time – I was writing because I felt I had to write, not necessarily out of any idea I might make a career out of it.”

Sarah received a joint English and creative writing undergraduate degree from Concordia University before going to the University of New Brunswick for a master of arts degree. “UNB allowed me to take graduate-level English classes alongside creative writing workshops, which was important for me. Also, I was extremely lucky to have funding for the duration of my master's, without which I don't think it would have been possible for me to continue my studies.”

While at UNB, Sarah became involved with The Fiddlehead and Qwerty publications, and participated in the Frye Literary Festival. “At The Fiddlehead and Qwerty, I read and responded to submissions, which is useful for writers, I think, in that it reminds you how subjective the selection process is when you're submitting your own work and having it turned down. I also supported other editorial activities so got a sense of how literary magazines are run and the tremendous amount of work (much of it voluntary) that goes into making them. I went to the Frye Literary Festival in 2012 to read my work as part of a panel of emerging writers, and it was the first time I'd read my work in a professional setting like that, and not just as part of a reading my classmates and I had organized. It was exciting and quite intimidating.” 

“The instructors at UNB always treated our creative work very seriously – that is so important for emerging writers, to have mentors who are willing to try to read your work on its own terms. I stayed in Fredericton to work and save money for a year after my degree while I applied to PhD programmes, and I eventually got funding to go to the University of Edinburgh to study for a PhD in English literature. I really cannot say enough good things about the UNB program and the people.”

Now, in addition to writing, she’s the one teaching literature and creative writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. After teaching at the Universities of Sheffield and Edinburgh, she joined the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow as a lecturer in Scottish literature and creative writing. She admits it's not always easy to find time to write, but does her best to “carve out bits of time to work on creative projects.”

Her current environment certainly provides inspiration. “I think the Scottish Highlands have influenced my work in the sense that where you live determines to some extent what you see and how you see it. So, for example, being up here I've learned a bit about the politics of landownership and land reform in Scotland, how the landscape has been shaped through land use. These are the sorts of ideas I'm interested in exploring at the moment.”

Her current work, Study for Obedience explores the world of a woman who leaves her hometown to move to a "remote northern country" where locals, already suspicious of newcomers, become hostile toward her as she tries to find a way to shape her life. The Booker Prize 2023 judges panel describes the work as “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?”

This is Sarah’s third publication, and as her accolades accumulate and her readership grows, she notes, “I have found myself so moved by some of the reader responses to Study for Obedience – particularly readers who say that they found the book difficult in the sense that it was doing something they hadn't encountered before, and that they found themselves, or their usual approaches to reading or seeing the world, changed by the encounter with the book. It's amazing to see that kind of intellectual generosity.”