Priscilla Morris' Black Butterflies is shortlisted for the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize. 

Priscilla Morris © Conor Horgan

Sarajevo, Spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – whether Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.

Zora, an artist and teacher, is focused on her family, her students, her studio in the old town. But when violence finally spills over, she sees that she must send her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe that hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind. As the city falls under siege and everything they loved is laid to waste, black ashes floating over the rooftops, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over.

Inspired by real-life accounts of the longest siege in modern warfare, only thirty years ago, Black Butterflies is a breathtaking portrait of disintegration, resilience and hope.

About the Author: 

Priscilla Morris is the daughter of a Yugoslav mother and a Cornish father. She grew up in London, spending summers in Sarajevo, and studied at Cambridge University and the University of East Anglia, where she gained her PhD in Creative Writing. She teaches Creative Writing at University College Dublin and lives in County Monaghan, Ireland. Black Butterflies is her debut novel.

WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?

Priscilla: To me, adventure writing means a quest or voyage of some sort, action, danger and overcoming of increasing challenges. There’s a building of tension and suspense; a plot with a compelling forward motion which culminates, after a dramatic life-death climax, with a homecoming and return to safety. Adventure stories are typically thrilling to read, involve a brave hero or heroine and are often set in interesting, exotic, extreme or otherwise non-everyday times and places.

No, in a word! Though, having read the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing criteria, I can see why it has been shortlisted. Thank you!

WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you? 

Priscilla: Many! Tove Janssen, Alice Walker, Michael Ondaatje, Ali Smith, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka, to name a few. As a child, I loved Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Lewis Caroll and Jules Verne.

JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, Albert Camus’ The Plague and Ismail Kadare’s The Siege were key siege novels that informed the structure of Black Butterflies. Nenad Velickovic’s darkly funny Lodgers gave me a great insight into the specifics of life under siege in Sarajevo, while Lana Bastasic’s brilliantly surreal Catch the Rabbit gives a glimpse of postwar Bosnia.

WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?

Priscilla: My most adventurous times have been when I’ve upped sticks and moved abroad. I moved to Barcelona in my mid-twenties and Rio de Janeiro in my early thirties to teach English. Brazil, in particular, was incredible. Full of life, colour, music. Despite the shocking wealth gap and the violence, the people had an amazingly positive, can-do attitude and it was there that I began to engage properly with writing. 

Living alone in Sarajevo for five months in 2011 to research Black Butterflies was an adventurous, challenging time. I spoke to people who had lived through the siege and got to know the geography of my mother’s city and the surrounding mountains. Many of the forests were full of landmines. I walked to the beautiful Goat’s Bridge to clear my head when war stories weighed me down, just as Zora does in my novel.

                 Goat's Bridge © Gwen Jones

I sneaked into the old library, which was still in ruins then after it was shelled and engulfed in flames during the siege.

          Priscilla Morris in the Old Library in Vijecnica, Sarajevo, 2011

My great-uncle, a landscape painter, used to have his studio above the library, and its fiery destruction was the key event that inspired the writing of Black Butterflies

                   Vijecnica on fire, 1992

WNSF: Black Butterflies could be called historical fiction, why did you choose to write about this time? Or that particular place in this time?

Priscilla: Black Butterflies is set during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. I wrote about this time because my mother is from Sarajevo and, although she left long before the war, marrying my English father in 1972, my grandparents and many other relatives were trapped in the blockade of the city. I knew and loved Sarajevo from childhood visits. I struggled to understand how a place that was famed for being so tolerant and hospitable had so quickly and brutally fallen apart. One in three marriages in Sarajevo were mixed; my mother’s family was made up of Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Slovenes. I wrote to understand better the war that turned most of my mother’s family into refugees. I was inspired by the resilience and courage shown by the Sarajevan people and, in particular, by my artist great-uncle’s story of loss and survival.

WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic? 

Priscilla: Place is massively important to me; the feeling of wonder and excitement at entering another world when reading is what first made me want to become a writer aged six. I did a huge amount of research for Black Butterflies. Not having lived through a war myself, and not being from Sarajevo, I was very anxious to get things right and very sensitive to questions of representation. I went to live in Sarajevo for five months in 2011 to research the novel. I got to know all the areas and places in the city that have significance in the book. I rode to the end of the tram line to visit the source of the river Bosna at Ilidža and walked along the Miljacka to the Goat’s Bridge.

                 Goat's Bridge under snow © Gwen Jones

I hired a car and visited the rest of Bosnia and Hercegovina, retracing a mountainous journey to Zvornik. Back home in the UK, I studied war images of the city in books, newspapers and documentaries. I taped a siege map to my wall: 

                 FAMA Survival Map of the Siege of Sarajevo

Finally, a Bosnian friend who lived through the war read my final draft to check the representation of life under siege and place detail were as accurate as possible.

The winner of the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at an awards ceremony on 18th October 2023. Support Priscilla and buy a copy of Black Butterflies: