Spotlight On is where we focus in on a member of our writing community and celebrate their success and delve a little into their writing practice. This month we’re really pleased to speak with Bronwyn Birdsall whose new book Time and Tide in Sarajevo has just been published with Affirm Press. Bronwyn spoke with our Administration and Digital Services Officer Isaac Wilcox about this exciting moment.
Congratulations on your new book! Can you tell us a little bit about Time and Tide in Sarajevo?
Thank you! My novel is about Evelyn, a young Australian teaching English in Sarajevo. The story follows her over the course of a few days, where she faces an impossible decision – one that puts both her students’ ambitions, and her friendships at risk. I think it’s about what it means to live when you’ve given up on a future, and the question: how do we go on in a world that feels beyond repair? I hope it captures the warmth, humour and generosity of the city, where I was lucky enough to live for four years as a young person myself.
This year marks thirty years since the siege of Sarajevo began. You taught English there eleven years after it ended, in 2007. What was it like being there at that time?
It’s hard to separate my memories from everything that has happened since. In 2007, I was 24 and just living my life, not really analysing the situation I had found myself in. I had a great group of friends, my students were smart and engaged, and the everyday rhythm of the city suited me well. It wasn’t that I was ignoring the recent history, I think I accepted it as something always there, like an echo. Now that I’m 39, fifteen years older than I was when I first lived there, I look back at that time with much more context about the many years of stasis Bosnia-Herzegovina has been in since. I also think I might comprehend more now just how much people had lost. Through writing the novel and creating the character of Evelyn, I’ve been able to rethink everything I’d witnessed and absorbed in my time there.
On Instagram there’s a great GIF of all your draft notebooks piling up, how long has the book taken you to write?
I’m actually usually very private on social media, with the book coming out, I decided to share more than usual. I’m so glad that post seems to have given people a visual representation of the writing process. In that pile was a notebook from 2016, when I wrote a scene with two of the characters, an idea just popped into my mind during my morning writing. Part of that scene remains in the novel almost unchanged. My idea for the book was quite ambitious for a first-time novelist, and it took many drafts over about four years. I then did around three edits with my publisher, and it finally came out in August 2022.
I loved the characterisation in your book. How were your characters formed? Were they inspired by people you met?
That’s a lovely thing to hear. Most of the characters showed up quite fully formed on the page. None are directly inspired by anyone in particular, each probably is a mixture of tiny traits of twenty or thirty people. The character that needed the most work was Evelyn. I spent a lot of time getting to know her, seeing how she reacted in situations. Late in the process, when I still was looking for ways to bring her closer to a reader, I found a craft book called ‘The Emotional Craft of Fiction’ by Donald Maass, which was the right book at the right time.
Is there anything you’ve read recently that inspires your writing?
There’s a poem by Sharon Olds called ‘For You’ that my writing teacher Sarah Sentilles introduced me to. I feel like in one stanza, she conveys what took me a whole novel to say.
What will you enjoy doing now that you’ve finished this book? Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m really enjoying drafting my next novel, it’s about three generations of women in Sydney. And I’m endlessly fascinated by the creative process – I’ve been working for a while on a newsletter project too called One Sentence at a Time, I hope to have it ready to launch soon.
We know you’ve spent a lot of time at Writing NSW, how has this helped you in your writing?
I had a fantastic experience in the Shared Writers Space at Writing NSW, where I had a desk from February 2018-March 2020. I not only had time and space to write, but met wonderful writers too – including my office mate and now friend Therese Spruhan, whose beautiful book The Memory Pool came out in late 2019. Writer friends have been the unexpected bonus from this novel. The story is very much about friendship, and it’s been an interesting parallel that the people I’ve met while writing it have helped me understand what community truly is.
Bronwyn Birdsall grew up in Sydney. At the age of twenty-four, she moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and worked as an English teacher. The four years she spent there provided the inspiration for her first novel, Time and Tide in Sarajevo. Her writing centres around contemporary life and finding meaning in the everyday. Bronwyn writes from her home on Bundjalung Country, in Northern New South Wales.
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