Next up in our HWA Crown Award interview series we talk to Emily Bitto about memory, the Australian art world and her Debut Crown shortlisted novel, The Strays.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I have always been interested in history, but probably as a writer I’m more fascinated by the related concept of memory, both personal and cultural. I see memory as closely related to history, but perhaps as more fluid and shifting, as well as being more personal and subjective of course. In The Strays, for example, I was interested in thinking about how one person’s interpretation of their own past – the narrative they tell themselves to make sense of their life – can change over time. I was also interested in how different people who have experienced the same events can have very different, often competing, interpretations of those events, and in thinking about what happens when those competing versions come into contact with one another. This happens on the level of recorded history too, of course, but I guess I’m naturally drawn to the interpersonal and the psychological rather than the grand stage of history.
How did the initial idea for The Strays come about?
It was a very muddy process initially! There were certain ideas that I was fascinated by and knew I wanted to write about – including female friendship, memory, the art world, the experience of being an only child, and utopian communities, among other things – but I really had no idea how those ideas would come together into a single narrative. It was really when I started researching artist communities in Australian history that the story started to come together.
The book is set in Melbourne in the 1930s – what attracted you to that particular place and period?
This period in Australian art history was particularly fascinating to me, mainly because of the fact that there was an incredible tension between mainstream culture at the time – which was extremely conservative – and the influence of modernism that was beginning to reach Australia from Europe. During this period there were really very serious consequences for artists who chose to go against the established ideas of what was acceptable in terms of both subject matter and style. For example (and I have drawn on this in The Strays, in a fictionalised manner), there was a conservative art and political establishment who banded together to make sure that anyone painting in an abstract, non-figurative way was essentially shut out of opportunities for major exhibitions, prizes, travelling scholarships etc. Modern art was seen as ‘degenerate’ and its practitioners ran a real risk of being ostracised by the powerful mainstream. On top of that, there were a number of obscenity cases that happened around that time too, so the representation of nudity or anything considered ‘unseemly’ in the mainstream public eye also carried a risk of legal consequences. There is mention of an event in The Strays that actually happened, in which a print of a Renoir nude was displayed in the window of an art book shop in the city in Melbourne, and the Vice Squad actually came and forcibly removed it, on threat of obscenity charges. It’s hard for us now to even comprehend how a Renoir nude could be seen as radical or threatening. We live in a time when virtually nothing is genuinely shocking in terms of art, and I was really interested in thinking about what it would have been like to be an avant-garde artist in that period. I imagine it would have been quite terrifying, but also incredibly exciting, to go against the establishment and to be partly responsible for introducing those new, radical ideas into the Australian art world.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
A bit of both. I love the broad background research: getting a sense of what life would have been like during a particular historical period. And I loved reading the archival material that related to the particular artists who lived and worked during the period when The Strays was set (there are some wonderful collections in the State Library of Victoria that I spent many hours looking through, including letters exchanged between artists working during the 30s and 40s, and they gave me a great sense of things like what they talked to each other about, what they were reading and eating and drinking, the language they were using etc.). What I don’t love so much is the nitty-gritty stuff of trying to avoid anachronisms. I’d write something about someone zipping up their dress and think, ‘hang on, when were zips invented?’ There was a scene where I had children playing Monopoly, and then I realised later that it didn’t exist yet. That stuff I found a chore. There are so many details to potentially get wrong!
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
My research into the Heide Circle (the main group of artists on which the artist circle in The Strays is loosely based, which included probably Australia’s most well-known modernist artist, Sidney Nolan) turned up a lot of really fascinating material. There were several incidents that I was quite tempted to weave in to the narrative because they were so dramatic and compelling, but which I ultimately left out because some of them were so dramatic that I thought readers wouldn’t find them plausible. A classic case of life being stranger than fiction. But I definitely recommend readers looking into the Heide Circle if they are interested in that period, or in artist communities. There are some excellent books on the subject which make for very interesting reading.
What was your path to publication?
I wrote The Strays as part of a creative writing PhD at the University of Melbourne. It took me three and a half years to complete the PhD, which was made up of the novel manuscript as well a major research dissertation. Just before I submitted the PhD, I entered the novel manuscript into an unpublished manuscript prize (the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards prize for an Unpublished Manuscript) and was lucky enough to be among the three shortlisted writers. From that, I managed to get an agent, and she quite swiftly found a publisher for the book, which was incredibly thrilling. However, just as I handed in my PhD, feeling like I never wanted to look at the manuscript again, I then had to embark on another major round of revisions with the publisher, including a lot of structural edits (the past and present sections were interspersed throughout the entire novel in the first version) and even the removal of one character. Talk about killing your darlings! That all took about another six months. So it was a long process for me, but one that felt very fortuitous. Doing the PhD was great for me, because I responded well to the structure and the series of deadlines that it imposed on the writing process. And then entering the manuscript into the prize, which I decided to do the day before the deadline, was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Think of the first draft as simply a process of creating the raw material that you will be able to work with later. I have a strange metaphor I like to use for myself, which is that of clay. I think of writing the first draft as actually making clay, almost exuding it out of one’s skin and simply gathering it together. At the end of that process, which might take six months or several years, all you have is a big lump of clay. It’s only at that point that you actually start shaping it into something that resembles an object that you would be happy to put out into the world. Working in this way stops me from being too precious in writing the first draft. Just get the words down on the page!
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
My favourite historical writer, and one of my very favourite writers in general, is Michael Ondaatje. I particularly adore his novel In the Skin of a Lion, because it is a book that contains vast amounts of historical detail, but that, in terms of the reading experience, wears its research very lightly. As a reader, I prefer to read work that has a contemporary voice, regardless of historical period, and also work that puts human relationships front and centre. In the Skin of a Lion is, to me, a perfect novel. My other favourite would be Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Both take interesting liberties with the representation of the past, both are deeply language-oriented, both focus on people who have often been neglected by mainstream history, and both are incredibly moving on a human level.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
As I’ve hinted above, I think the novelist has the ability to merge the personal with the historical in a way that reminds us of the fact that history is made up of millions of individual lives, each of which are of intrinsic value and interest in their own right. Novelists are often drawn to those people who are neglected by History with a capital H, and also to complicating the narratives that we receive through mainstream history.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Artists, children, politics: chaos ensues!
Emily Bitto is the author of Stella Prize winning novel The Strays. She has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne where she co-owns the Carlton cafe bar, Heartattack & Vine.