Why Sidura Ludwig is holding her breath

Why would Birmingham play a pivotal part in a novel that is set in post-war Winnipeg?

It was an interesting adjunct for Sidura Ludwig, a Canadian writer who found herself living in the city for three years.

The writer is celebrating the UK launch of her debut novel, Holding My Breath, and has found herself back in the place that she used to call home.

And she has discovered in the four years since she packed up that the renaissance has continued apace in her absence.

“I arrived in 2001 and I remember that the city felt like it was being reborn,” she says.

“It was an exciting time to be living here as there was so much fantastic stuff going on.

Now I see there are apartments, condos and new developments springing up all over. It is quite a change.”

Sidura moved to Birmingham in 2001 with her husband, Jason Shron, who was researching a PhD in the history of art at the University of Birmingham.

An habitual writer (her parents told her she was writing stories from the age of three), Sidura, now 36 and a mother-of-two, used to spend Sundays holed up in her bedroom, writing.

Employed as a communications officer for the Birmingham Children’s Fund, she was keen to pursue writing, having already penned short stories successfully.

She had shown promise by winning the Canadian Author and Bookman Prize for Most Promising Writer when she was just 18 and was not prepared to let her creative juices run dry in her new home.

But it was a Birmingham Book Festival writers’ workshop that changed the course of her career.

The smiley-eyed author had begun to formulate an idea about a young girl living in a multi-generational household in her native Winnipeg when she took part in a workshop with the writer Annie Murray.

She was handed an old picture postcard with a photograph of a young girl at a poolside, watching people lounging around.

“I’d already started toying with the idea of writing about a young girl, but this postcard and this workshop were really the springboard for me,” she says.

“From that I wrote a short story, which was called Holding My Breath Under Water but I wanted to keep writing about this girl and her family.”

It was at a Tindal Street Press fiction writing group, of which she was a member, that her contemporaries suggested she should abandon the idea of the short story and go for the full-blown novel.

Sidura talks at breakneck speed, sipping her coffee at a city centre cafe while her 10- month-old daughter Dalya sleeps soundly in her buggy. Her three-year-old son Nachmani Boaz has stayed at home in Toronto while she embarks on her UK launch.

She expresses her trepidation at changing the short stories about the Levy family and turning them into a novel.

“I did want to write a novel, but I was nervous about its form and length,” admits the masters graduate.

“I’d written short stories since I was a teenager and I was comfortable with the genre as I knew how to play about with the characters and give them voices.

“I had to look very carefully at my stories and make sure I could develop one consistent voice. But I’m really pleased with it and it’s fantastic to be able to say, ‘yes, I am a writer’.”

Holding My Breath was published in Canada last year and is published in the UK by Tindal Street Press, which has made the book its leading title for 2008.

It tells the heart-warming story of the Levy family. As a close-knit Jewish family in the North End of Winnipeg, the story focuses on the needs of the individual members and the emotional traumas that they endure in the privacy of their home.

It is told from the point of view of Beth, a young girl who lives with her parents Saul and Goldie, aunts and, until her death, her grandmother Baba.

It is an emotional tale about the conflicting demands of loyalty and the need to break free from the shackles of family ties.

Beth’s mother is an exhausted and hardworking woman with barely two cents to rub together. A proud woman, with high standards and expectations from her closest family members, she yearns to be a member of the elite and wealthy Jewish Winnipeg community.

Her fragile mental state eventually cracks, but it is her family that is able to rehabilitate her.

Sidura weaves a delicate thread to bond the family members together, but the strands are so strong they are difficult to cut through.

While Goldie wants her trophy family, others are not so keen to be stifled.

Free-spirited Sarah, Goldie’s youngest sister, raises the most concerns, for she does not live by the family rules and is desperate to flee the nest.

Middle sister Carrie, a talented seamstress with a secret past, keeps alive the spirit of their dead brother Phil, who died as he prepared to fight in the Second World War.

It is his diaries that fascinate Beth. He was obsessed with astronomy and her fascination with the subject grows as she consumes his words, much to Goldie’s disgust.

The relationships between the family members are utterly believable – indeed recognisable in many cases – and are sometimes heart-rending to read.

Sidura, who trained a journalist in her native Canada, attaining her masters at Carlton University in Ottowa, says she had her own grandmothers in mind when she wrote the book.

“When I was younger I used to have lots of talks with them and I was inspired by their stories.

“Women of their generation didn’t talk about their stories much as they were with their families, but I was interested in giving a voice to women like them.”

“I’d already started toying with the idea of writing about a young girl, but this postcard and this workshop were really the springboard for me”

This article appeared in The Birmingham Post in March, 2008. It must not be reproduced without the prior permission of Jayne Howarth