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Emily Bitto: superstition and ‘mental pyjamas’

Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, won The Stella Prize earlier this year. It was also shortlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction, and the Glenda Adams for New Writing. In this profile Q&A, she offers a little insight into her processes, and divulges that a second novel is underway. 

What was the most difficult stage of writing The Strays?

The start, and the middle, and the end… And then the editing also… Just kidding. But also not. I don’t think there was a stage that was more difficult than the others. They were all difficult and enjoyable in different ways.

How did you know you were finished your final draft?

Because it went to print the next day! That’s actually true. Of course I was only making minor tweaks by that stage, but I would probably have kept going indefinitely without a deadline, and without my editor saying, “Ok, it’s done. Enough!”

Who do you ask to read your drafts?

I had a supervisor, Kevin Brophy, while I was enrolled in the creative writing PhD, and he was really the only person who read the very early drafts. After I had finished a full draft I showed it to a couple of other writers I trusted, who I knew would give me honest and perceptive feedback. I’m fairly reluctant to show my work too early, because I think the wrong kind of feedback can really throw the process out of kilter.

How did you feel when you received the Stella prize this year?

I don’t know that words can convey how I felt… I’m still trying to process it a few months on.

What’s a quote on writing that you are inspired by?

I really like the advice given by Colm Toibin in the Guardian, to “stay in your mental pyjamas all day.” Reading that allowed me to kind of give in to the process of writing, at least while I was in the thick of writing The Strays, and to let it dictate the way I existed day to day, rather than trying to maintain a “normal” life at the same time. Of course you can’t do this all the time either, but there are times when it is absolutely necessary.

Have there been times that you gave up on writing? How did you get through them?

Not really. There have definitely been times of intense self-doubt, but I think I understood the process enough to know that those times are inevitable and that you just have to push through them. Just go for a walk or catch up with a friend and then harden up and get back to work.

How much does your own life and childhood influence your writing?

My writing is not at all autobiographical, in the literal sense, but at the same time it is also very influenced by my own life and childhood. Images, impressions, fleeting experiences, the way I have experienced particular emotions – all of these things make their way inevitably into anything I write. And just the way I perceive the world and the kinds of ideas I’m drawn to are also a direct result of my own experience, so in that sense I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by one’s own life.

What are you working on now?

I’m pretty superstitious about discussing my work before it’s finished… All I can say is that I’m working on a second novel, and that it will be more contemporary than The Strays, in terms of setting and subject matter.

What are you reading? or What was the last book you read and loved?

I’ve been working my way through the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn this year. I’ve been so busy with work and book stuff that I have been reading much less than I usually do, but I’ve loved these novels. The first one, in particular, Never Mind, is brilliant. He manages to shift between the voices and consciousnesses of different characters in a way that is completely convincing and very impressive. The books are all about a very specific section of extremely wealthy upper-class English culture, which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I love the way they paint such a detailed picture of this very particular world. They are quite disturbing too, and apparently draw on St Aubyn’s own experiences growing up with a father who was a sadist, in the true sense of the word.

Who is your favourite literary hero and heroine? And why?

That’s a very difficult question! Great literary heroines are particularly hard to come by. I’m going to say Nora in Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip as my favourite literary heroine, because she offers that rare thing, a female protagonist who is whole and complex and flawed and fascinating, and who has a richly-rendered inner life. And as my favourite literary hero, I’m going to say Peter Pan, who is exactly the opposite, but what a stroke of genius to create such a fantastical figure: a boy who can fly and who never grows up!

Emily will feature at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015 in five unmissable sessions. Get your tickets now if you haven’t already at http://bit.ly/1k7uUgd . #BBWF2015

Emily Bitto-1 crop


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