The Coming Bad Days is a blistering examination of gendered loneliness and vulnerability across the public and private, told through fragmented vignettes narrated by an unnamed protagonist. Drawing on the novel’s themes of cruelty, frustrated intimacy, and exploitation, this interview delves into the violent, institutionalised structures that intervene in and shape women’s experiences.
Anahit Behrooz: You’ve published poetry before, but this is your first novel. How did you come to write it?
Sarah Bernstein: I never really considered myself a poet, I never felt like I knew enough or that I had the right to be writing poetry. I had always been writing short fiction, so coming back to this felt very natural. I suppose even the book of poetry that I published is fairly narrative, it’s written in vignettes which is relatively similar to the structure of The Coming Bad Days. My interest has always been in capturing voice, and this just seemed to be a kind of natural medium for that.
AB: And how about the very narrative itself? Parts of it seem to be drawn from your own experience, like the academia plot: did you always know that you’d be drawing from these themes?
SB: Not really. I think when I started writing, I was writing as a way to make sense of the humiliation I felt at the hands of the institution. It started off as a joke, as a way of dramatizing that, because in writing it out you see how absurd it all is. But the way the narrative grew was really as a process of accretion. I didn’t really have a plan of where I wanted it to go: I wanted to think through relationships between women, the way desire moves in friendships, and how the world intervenes. I was writing little by little, and I had maybe six pieces that are from the very beginning that I’ve kept, and the rest of it has grown in conversation with books I read and people I spoke to. And I was reading from the manuscript for a pretty long time as it grew. It’s been a very interactive process.
AB: You talked about the importance of developing voice. There were parts of this novel that really stood out to me, like the narrator is constantly trying to make sense of who they are or constantly trying to express themselves. She keeps repeating phrases like ‘what I mean to say’ or ‘I cannot explain this’, like this impulse to make herself constantly understood. I was wondering if you could speak a little about how you developed that particular part of the voice and why it was such a central part of her character?
SB: There’s a way that in clarifying things or attempting to clarify things academics often abstract, rather than make things concrete. The idea of storytelling is really important and how do you narrativise a self, and when the narratives that you have are literary or academic or critical, that tends to be how you understand yourself, but they’re not at all sufficient. We need other people to see ourselves. And I think the solitude makes it difficult for the protagonist to be able to understand herself because she’s making recourse to these narratives that she says later on continue to undo and misapprehend her always. There’s a character in [Muriel Spark’s The Girl of Slender Means], Selena Redwood, who takes these composure classes: there’s a play there that she’s composing herself by composing herself, that play between writing and self-presentation.
AB: You’ve mentioned Muriel Spark, and parts of it also reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf, that idea of the everyday and the repetition of the domestic. Were there other influences that you were deliberately drawing on?
SB: Maybe not deliberately, but I was reading a lot of Woolf when I wrote this. Fleur Jaeggy is another writer that I was reading quite a bit of, and her cutting cruelty. That’s one thing I found inspiring, the way she designed these women protagonists, who are exceedingly unlikable in the sense of being difficult to understand and not giving much up. There’s a hardness to her protagonists, they’re so self-contained. It comes off as cruelty, but it’s not quite, it’s just a resistance to softness.
AB: I did want to ask about this idea of cruelty: I was quite startled at times how cold the narrative felt. But at the same time it felt quite passive in a sense that there was very rarely a cruel action, it was all very internal. Could you talk about that a little bit, about that balance between so-called cruelty and then that vulnerability and frustration that the protagonist feels.
SB: I think I was interested in the idea of cruelty because I liked it, because it sounds provocative, but actually what can be construed as cruelty [often isn’t] – and I say this as somebody who has often been apprehended as an ice queen and that’s not really how I see myself at all. In the book, disaster is the air that the protagonist breathes. And with Clara, the thing that comes between them—the act of violence that threatens to break everything that is beautiful—the protagonist says she did not will it. Yet because disaster is the air she breathes, she comes to feel as if she did, because she’s stuck in that logic. And that makes it very difficult to forgive yourself.
AB: I had underlined that passage actually, where she talks about how she had harmed Clara, or let her down by not listening. It struck me as a very interesting dynamic; often when we have these female relationships they are very warm or romanticized but that wasn’t the case here—Clara isn’t even in the book all that much. Could you talk a little about how you approached that idea of female intimacy?
SB: I think it’s right to say that Clara is not really in the book, in many ways she is a projection of the protagonist’s own desires. Which is not to say that she’s a figment of her imagination. But to move from a space where you’re so solitary, and there’s a porousness between yourself and the world that makes things difficult to apprehend… I guess I was trying to think through what it would be like to have somebody come into your life, and immediately have that kind of closeness and reflect yourself back to you. When they first meet, the narrator says, ‘I felt that she was taking my ideas and bringing them into the sensible’. It’s like there was no outside for the narrator, and then Clara makes that possible for her. But I suppose, since the background of this world and of life is violence, would it be realistic to have these relationships romanticized? Everybody’s hedging their bets.
AB: The part where she talks about what happened to Clara, which is never made explicit, she speaks of it as a rite of passage. Is that how you think that sort of violence towards women is experienced?
SB: Not in any sense that it’s acceptable. But within the logic of the novel’s world and the logic of the world in which we live, it’s something that’s far more common than uncommon. And you know, there is this narrative that being a survivor ought to bring people together. I think that is maybe wrongheaded in some ways, because ultimately acts of violence break us apart. They don’t bring us together. And I think part of me trying to think this through in the book was also to think through the apparent injunction for women to speak their traumas. I’ve always struggled with that idea, that there’s something necessarily radical in confession. I think there can be, but it isn’t in itself a radical act – it requires certain conditions to be so. I’m not saying we should be silent about these things, of course, but I was interested in thinking through what the ethics and the stakes are of that injunction to tell.
AB: It’s really interesting how you talk about that violence as very trapping: there’s a bit where you say how women can’t transcend their bodies because they are constantly trapped within them.
SB: I was just reading this bit yesterday from Mira Mattar’s Yes I Am a Destroyer—sorry, I just want to find it because she covers it in a way I was totally astonished by. ‘They told me I was a girl and I believed them. It taught me who I may and may not love, how to arrive at femininity and what I may and may not invoice for. Peered at and skirted I understood my love would always have a pleading tone, that a shirt would never fall predictably against my chest, and that the lineage of smiling was only a hook in the cheek’. So that sense that these are roles assigned to us, and there’s nothing natural or necessary about the ascription of femininity or about the ascription of who is a woman.
AB: I want to think a little bit about the way this is connected to loneliness, but also the way that the narrator relates to men: it felt like there’s a real abjection to it, I remember where she talks about how she can’t talk to men without resentment or disgust. Could you talk a little about how that plays into it, this idea of being trapped within these ideas of femininity that mean there is no recourse to intimacy, or at least male intimacy.
SB: Yeah, it’s very difficult. We’re only given certain ways to understand ourselves and then those ways preclude any meaningful connection or require the subjection of another, or indeed the subjection of ourselves. This is kind of off-topic but it makes me think of this picture I saw yesterday of Adam Driver wearing shorts. And I’m not a fan of Adam Driver, but he looks so happy in the picture. And I caught myself thinking, ‘OK well, after all, he’s somebody who needs love too’. That idea that men require or deserve tenderness is something that has been a very fraught idea for me, exactly because of this way that we’re cast into particular roles.
AB: It made me think of Lauren Berlant and how they talk about intimacy as being structural. And I want to think about how that plays into how this book talks about loneliness, in that there are no structures of intimacy for this protagonist. Did you want to engage with this idea of loneliness as a particularly female embodied experience?
SB: When I started writing this, there was a whole thing about the resurgence of the female flâneur and how that kind of solitude is radical. And while I thought so many of those texts were really interesting, I also thought the politics of loneliness are more complex than merely liberating. It’s this instability that the narrator experiences between the public and private, and part of that is as a result of this John Berger thing, of ‘men look, women appear’. The boundary between a woman’s public and private self always faces these attempted incursions, and there’s a porousness to her psychic space and to the demands on her time. At the beginning she says, “I modelled my intellectual behaviour after a man I once loved, who considered me a distraction from his intellectual labours”. Because those are the models of public life available to her. When she wants to become a mind without a body, the only model available to her is a masculine one, which is ultimately why she can’t achieve it.
AB: You mentioned how loneliness is more complex than our current conceptualisations of it—in what ways?
SB: Maybe I’m just being difficult, but I’m always suspicious when a big concept like this comes up and it’s like, ‘OK, this is what we ought to attach ourselves to’. Spending a lot of time on your own is important for personal growth, but it can also be damaging, in the sense that loneliness is brought about by the atomisation of the world. Even if we’re thinking in terms of an academic department, for example, we’re disempowered by being told that we’re alone, we’re disempowered by management when they tell us that we’re not allowed to share information about our salaries or our working conditions. And the protagonist comes very close to being complicit in the structures that she hates, because she becomes too attached to this idea of herself alone in the world.
AB: It was really strange reading this in the past few weeks after what happened to Sarah Everard, given how the backdrop of the novel is these missing girls. It felt quite dystopian, but also uncannily familiar—was this deliberate?
SB: I don’t know that I drew on dystopia deliberately. I definitely scaled it back from first drafts: there was more overt violence in the city, but then it comes back to the ethics of displaying female suffering. But it is important that the protagonist sees these things in a doomsday way. It seems like the end of something, but it’s just the everyday.
AB: I’m really interested in this backdrop of violence, the way it informs how she moves through the world. Would you say it’s the main conflict in the novel, this idea of what spaces women are granted safe access to?
SB: I’m not sure this totally answers your question, it might just be what I want to say. But institutions don’t protect women in the novel, and they don’t in real life. The university, for all its talk of diversity, does more harm than good. It doesn’t protect vulnerable workers, and the mayor’s office in this book is maybe even behind what’s going on, nobody really knows. And the same people that would purport to protect others seem somehow to be the agents of violence. I guess I’m answering the question this way because I see institutions as a middle space between the public and private, they’re a mediation between the self and the world, and the protagonist can put that bureaucracy between herself and the world. But in doing that she’s tacitly agreeing to these systems that harm people.
AB: I want to talk more about the novel’s academic setting. I was wondering why you settled on it, because there obviously are so many institutions which replicate these structures of harm. It was very interesting to me that you chose this one that you have experienced, but that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t associate necessarily with the most violent executions of power.
SB: Yeah, we see all the time in the press that ‘academia is the left’ or ‘woke academia is doing this and it’s doing that’. But actually, it’s an ostensibly progressive institution that is in fact anything but. I think maybe choosing to write it was, as you suggest, a matter in part of proximity. But also, I find it really funny, I find the whole setup so absurd.
AB: Within the novel?
SB: Within the novel and in real life, and it’s that humour that I wanted to bring across. These are supposed to be people who think for a living, and they have no capacity for critical thinking whatsoever. But I suppose, in the case of the novel anyway, it’s about how people experience that cleft point between themselves and the institution.
AB: You mention this paradox, these people that ostensibly think for a living and do very little thinking. And it struck me that for a book so situated within academia, there is in fact very little intellectual labour. I’m really interested in this specific depiction of the industry, that it is so little about the work and more about this unsettling, absurd politics.
SB: I guess part of it is that the situation as is makes it very difficult for individual people to actually find time to think. The job gets in the way of the work, always. And that makes it very difficult to teach well or to undertake the basic functions of the university. And there’s something sad about the way that all of us in engaging with it and making little accessions every day, have contributed to that. We’re told that certain things are necessary and we agreed to them and yet it doesn’t feel like an agreement, because it feels like coercion. Somebody said to me that this feels like a novel without a protagonist in some ways: I really like that description because it’s like, what if things happen without happening? What is the relationship between inaction and complicity? And how does power intervene?
Sarah Bernstein is from Montreal, Quebec and lives in Scotland where she teaches at Edinburgh University. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in tender, Contemporary Women’s Writing, MAP and Cumulus. Now Comes the Lightning, a collection of poems, was published by Pedlar Press in 2015.
Anahit Behrooz is an arts journalist and film critic based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in Extra Teeth, Girls on Tops, and The List among others.
The Coming Bad Days was published April 2021 by Daunt Books Publishing, £9.99.