Interview with Room’s 2024 Fiction Contest Judge, Sarah Bernstein

Rose Morris

Photo credit: Alice Meikle

Sarah Bernstein is a Canadian writer who was born in Montreal and currently lives in Scotland. She has published three books, including a collection of prose poems titled Now Comes the Lightning (2015) and two novels, The Coming Bad Days (2021) and Study for Obedience (2023). She won the 2023 Giller Prize for Study for Obedience, which has been praised for its dark humour, sharp prose style, thoughtful exploration of power and prejudice, and innovative storytelling practices. Study for Obedience was also shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

Sarah is the judge of this year’s Fiction Contest, which is open to submissions until March 31th, 2024. Room collective member Rose Morris had the chance to talk to Sarah in anticipation of the Fiction Contest. Their discussion touches on the writing process, what it feels like to have your work published (and rejected), the importance of sound in written text, and what Sarah’s been reading lately.

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ROOM: You’ve published both fiction and poetry. How does your process differ when you write fiction as opposed to poetry?

Sarah Bernstein: In some ways my process is very similar, since I think a lot about sound in fiction as well as in poetry. But I guess I think of them differently in terms of duration—how time operates in the novel, say, as opposed to in a poem. In poems I tend to think of moments, and in fiction I think more about sequence. Although I should say I’ve been focusing on fiction the past few years so I haven’t actually done much writing of poetry [recently].

ROOM: When I first picked up your novel Study for Obedience, the opening lines “It was the year the sow eradicated her piglets. It was a swift and menacing time. One of the local dogs was having a phantom pregnancy. Things were leaving one place and showing up in another” were so striking to me in setting the tone and context of the story I was about to read, and also brought to mind the iconic opening lines of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”). How important do you think opening lines are to a piece of fiction? And how do you find those opening lines?

SB: I think they’re important in setting up expectations for the reader, particularly with regards to establishing the sound of the narrator’s voice, the sound of the language—those are the aspects of writing I tend to start with. Once I know how a first line sounds, subsequent lines will start radiating out, following the logic of the sound of the voice. The opening lines of Study for Obedience are actually the first ones I wrote as part of this project, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes I start from the middle and press back and forwards. The opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favourites.

ROOM: Study for Obedience definitely explores the idea of plot and rebels against typical story-arc conventions. I’m always interested in the role of plot since, in my own writing, I tend to be much more compelled by thoughts and feelings than action. What would you say is your relationship to plot?

SB: I guess the way I think about plot is that it is the order in which things happen. Those things can be external events, which I think is what people usually mean when they talk about plot, but I think that action is constituted differently depending on the kind of work you’re writing, and things can ‘happen’ within the delineation of thoughts and feelings, too. I think I tend to be as, if not more, interested in the way a character tells a particular story as I am in the content of that story—what the speaker sounds like, what they reveal, conceal, what they’re trying to persuade the listener of. I tend to write about the process of characters making sense of their experience of the world, rather than about a series of objective, external events.

ROOM: You’ve mentioned sound a few times. Can you speak to what sound means to you and why it’s important in a literary work?

SB: When I’m starting a piece of writing, I tend to work by the logic of the sound of a line. It’s almost like hearing a musical phrase and following it, following the rhythm along and along. I like books that attend to the specifics of language in this way, taking pleasure in the way the lines sound, whether that sound is lovely or harsh, whether the sentences create a sense of flow or friction.

ROOM: How do you approach judging a literary contest?

SB: Well, I’ve not done it before, but I imagine I’ll try to take an approach similar to the way I read in general, which is to try to figure out what a given author is doing in their work, to enter into their logic as far as possible, and to see how far the form of the piece—how the story is told, the language it uses, how it’s structured—suits the project.

ROOM: Do you have any tips for emerging authors submitting to the fiction contest?

SB: There’s no one way to approach writing fiction, and so I hope that writers will try to follow the stories and the forms that suit them. For me, that’s where the most interesting writing comes from.

ROOM: Room was the first magazine to ever publish your writing. Looking back on that experience now, can you tell me a little about what it meant to you and whether it changed things for you?

SB: I was so thrilled, especially because I admire the work the magazine publishes. Up to that point I’d never really thought that my work would be read by anyone except my friends or creative writing instructors. I’d submitted a couple of pieces to the student journal during my undergrad that were rejected and then I sort of lost interest in the idea of publishing. When Room took that story, I guess I started to think that my work could be in conversation with other people’s work in some way, and that was very exciting.

ROOM: What made you decide to submit to Room after those first few rejections from the student journal and having lost interest in publishing? What would you say to new writers who are in the phase of having received some rejections and may be feeling unsure about continuing to submit their work?

SB: I was on an MA course in English and Creative Writing and the teachers were encouraging us to pursue the professional aspects of writing, namely trying to get our work published. But I think it was important for me that I kept working on my writing, experimenting, reading it against what I’d written before and also the things I liked to read, rather than aiming to write something that I felt would be ‘publishable’. I liked the ethos of Room and the work they published, and I had a story I thought might fit. I think fit is important when submitting work–finding a magazine that publishes work you admire and honestly assessing the piece you’re looking to publish. That said, my work has been rejected from magazines many times since that first publication–so that too is part of the process. Not everyone is going to like or get your work, and that is okay.

ROOM: You mentioned having your work be in conversation with other work. Last question: what have you been reading lately?

SB: I’ve read two beautiful, stylish books recently–Jo Hamya’s new novel The Hypocrite, out later this year, and Justin Torres’ Blackouts.

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Rose Morris has been a member of Room’s editorial collective since 2013. She holds a Masters degree in literature from the University of Victoria. In addition to her role at Room, Rose is a content writer for a marketing agency, a volunteer for The Malahat Review, and occasionally a poet.

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