Ellena Savage is an author and academic. Her work is published in literary journals and anthologies around the world, including Paris Review Daily, Sydney Review of Books, Choice Words and Lifted Brow. Blueberries is her first collection.
Ellena is the recipient of several grants and prizes, including the 2019–21 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship.
ASTRID: Ellena Savage is a writer essayist and academic. Her work is published around the world, including in the Paris Review Daily, Literary Hub and Sydney Review of Books Blueberries, published in 2020, is her first collection. Ellena currently holds the Martin Bequest Scholarship for prose. Ellena, welcome to The Garret.
ELLENA: Thanks for having me, Astrid. It's great to talk to you.
ASTRID: Now, we are recording in June 2020 and it is, of course, via Zoom. I've just finished Blueberries, and one of the areas that you focus on in some of the pieces in Blueberries is in our industry – writing, publishing, the literary field. You actually critique what happens, how we do it, where the money flows, where the money doesn't flow. And I thought I would start by asking you in this most traumatic of years, what have you noticed and what have you observed about our industry in the last couple of months?
ELLENA: Two things I've observed. One is just the kind of absolute precarity of writers in the Australian economy, and how undervalued they are as workers. That's been really kind of not surprising, but still quite devastating to witness. And the other thing that I've noticed of course in the past few months is how much goodwill sustains literary communities, and how willing the arts workers are to just keep supporting writers at their own expense, how writers hold each other up at their own expense.
So, it's lovely and it's very depressing, but we're working in and around this industry that completely depends on basically volunteerism, and this kind of devotion to the idea of community, and the importance of the arts, which I believe in. But it's also… yeah. It's really upsetting to see how much of the culture in Australia is produced by people not really getting paid or not getting paid enough.
ASTRID: I could not agree with you more. You obviously were writing Blueberries over the last couple of years, well before the pandemic and the associated economic crisis that has come with it, but I couldn't help reading your work in light of what we are experiencing. And of course, we are both writers in Australia and our industry and the broader Arts industry was left out of the stimulus package in the wake of the pandemic, and it is extraordinary to witness how the industry itself does its best to look after each other while kind of getting ignored by everybody else.
ASTRID: Thank you for your thoughts on that, Ellena. I know I know it's a huge topic.
ELLENA: I did an interview recently… I mean, one of the things about COVID that is so… I don't know, I just don't understand it. And it's been so hard to write at the moment because I have no idea what the question is and I have no idea what the answers are. But of course, everyone is trying to think of what this means. I mean, I did an interview recently where someone asked me, ‘What do you think is going to happen to the real estate market.?’ And I'm like, ‘I’m a writer. How would I know these things?’ Yeah. There is a lot of questions and not many answers.
ASTRID: I'm interested in what you just said – you find it hard to write at the moment because you're still searching for the question. I'd like to explore that a little bit. I've heard a lot of people, most of whom aren't writers, say, ‘Oh, this is going to be a productive time and now everybody has time and you can create great works of art’ et cetera. Can you explain to me why you aren’t necessarily feeling it?
ELLENA: (laughter) Well, I had about 70 students this semester, creative writing students where you are working quite closely with each of them on their individual drafts and they're individual development, as well as writing lectures and doing classes. So, moving all of that kind of teaching online was a huge endeavour, which sessional academics like me were not actually paid, for which was very demoralising, and students were treated very poorly in that kind of change ever as well. So, there's like… I mean, for a lot of people in the Arts whose livelihood comes from teaching in academic institutions or working for arts organisations, their workload just tripled without any pay rise. So, there's been a lack actual time to begin with.
And then there is just the constant anxiety and fear, and just the sense of hugeness that it's so hard to… I don't know. Maybe there are some individual writers who are finding ways around that, you know, they're finding the questions and they have something to say right now. For me, when I write I normally start with maybe it's a sensation or a sense that I understand something, but I'm not sure how I got to that understanding and so I'm writing to kind of show the process of thinking. Or I don't know what I think about something and I want to find out, but I know the question. And in this kind of like moment I don't know, yeah, I don't know the question or the answer. I just know that it's very stressful, and sleep has been difficult.
ASTRID: I also teach, and I hear you – a tripled the workload with no extra remuneration. I'm interested in some of the conversations that you may have had with your students. They would have looked to you as their teacher, as someone way further ahead in their career as an established writer. What do you find yourself saying to these students, particularly when you know in your essays in Blueberries you critique the industry they very well be trying to join?
ELLENA: Yeah, I guess I kind of encourage them to see their writing as an important thing to them rather than a thing, a commodity to turn into a product to sell, because that's a really difficult way to make a life. And some people can do it, but not many over the long span of a person's life. So I just encourage them to make sure they have a sense of where their income is going to come from, that actually finding some income, maybe doing something that's unrelated to writing is a good way of supporting your writing, and it means that you can devote your time to writing the kind of work that maybe isn't being commission but you think it should be in the world. So, treating your writing as an art form the way that a fine artist does, rather than a freelancing career. I tried a freelancing career for many years and it was just grind. It's just too much. It's not… it's bad for your physical and mental health. So, I try to encourage my students to really believe in the importance of their work and their voices, but to also make sure that they have a part time job.
ASTRID: I'm interested in how you distinguish between freelancing and fine art. I think a lot of us in the industry forget the difference between creating something that is beautiful and should be created and chasing the next pay check.
ELLENA: Yeah. And as an essayist in Australia, there's a really strong sense I think that an essay is a work of narrative journalism, or it's very tied into news and periodicals. And so there's not… I mean it's changing slightly, but there's not as much of a sense that an essayist can be writing essays outside of the periodical publishing cycles, and that an essay can be a kind of artwork rather than a response that's tied in to timely events.
The kind of the essays that I'm most interested in and the kind of essay practice that I'm interested in comes from I guess a slightly romantic literary era., it's a kind of expressive form, it's about a point of view thinking through themselves in relation to the world rather than issues in response to events.
ASTRID: So, you’ve just noted that Australia maybe doesn't have this tradition, but where currently or maybe where in the past has this tradition grown from?
ELLENA: So, you see the expressive, maybe lyric, personal kind of essays you see them a lot in contemporary American letters, and you see them in 19th century English literature, British literature. I do see that… You know, I'm quite critical of institutions and how institutions shape dictate and determine the limitations of certain genres and what we end up writing. But at the same time, it's really important to pay attention to the relationships between institutions and forms, literary forms. When you're looking at the kind of contemporary American context, you're looking at universities in America and there is composition classes, and part of a composition class is learning to write a personal essay.
You write a personal essay when you're applying for university. So this idea of articulating your point of view is very ingrained in the kind of civic personhood of a North American person, whereas we don’t really have that so much, and we're maybe in Australia a bit more critical or wary of too much self-expression because it might be a bit embarrassing, it might be a bit navel gazing, inserting yourself… you know, Australians are not that crazy about the kind of ego, I don’t think.
ASTRID: I agree with you and your observations, Ellena, and I have to admit I adored Blueberries and when I got to the end of it I struggled to – not that everything should be categorised – but I struggled to find a name for what you had done and what I had just experienced. And obviously I knew I was reading essays, but I did struggle to describe the form, and I don't think I've ever done this, Ellena, but I'm actually going to read a few of the sentences on the back blurb of Blueberries. And the reason why – and apologies to everybody listening who writes blurbs – but blurbs are pretty meaningless most often. But I found that this described what I just read.
“Blueberries could be described as a collection of essays, the closest term available for a book that resists classification. This is a blend of personal essay, polemic, prose poetry, true crime journalism and confession, that considers a fragmented life reflecting on what it means to be a woman, a body, an artist.”
That blurb helped me find the words that I was looking for, and I'm interested in your perspective of what you have done in this collection called Blueberries.
ELLENA: I mean, it's been hard to describe and of course I mean I wrote part of this as part of my PhD, which was a way of funding the writing, which took me years. So, I kept having to apply for grants and this and that to help me fund this book, and I was always being asked to summarise this project in one paragraph. And I think I actually came up with that. I mean, I think I came out with that like list of genres – personal essay, polemic, prose, poetry, true crime, journalism and confession. I was just like, ‘OK, how can I translate what I'm trying to do into something that other people will recognise and understand?’ And that's kind of what genre is, right. It's a way, it's shorthand that we use to describe things so that we know where to put them on the shelf, where it put them in our brains, how to talk about them. Yeah, I guess essay encompasses so many things any way that I'm comfortable using essay. I'm probably slightly less comfortable saying journalism, I'm probably less comfortable with memoir, even though the essays in this book actually do do investigative journalism and there is a lot of memoir in there. So, essay is just this privileged form that can encompass and kind of consume all other forms.
ASTRID: So, the essays in Blueberries aren't the only pieces that you have written in the last couple of years. How did you decide what goes in and what doesn’t? What makes a collection?
ELLENA: That's a really good question, and one I kind of struggled with when I was getting towards the end of putting this collection together. It ended up being quite instinctual and maybe a bit kind of magical, because there was no… I mean, I was talking with my editor Alaina Gougoulis about how do we order these, like what's the formula? And she's like, ‘There is no formula, you know, you feel it. You play with it until it starts to make sense’.
And of course, I wrote lots of other essays while I was writing these essays. I think I kind of knew which ones were for my book and which ones were not for my book. And again, it was just this kind of instinctual thing. And they're all using different kind of voices each of the essays. Also, I probably knew that many of these wouldn't get published in regular journalistic or even literary periodicals, but they would get published in a book because they're more, I don't know, booky. Higher literary, you know, you're allowed, you can get away with certain things in a book that you can't when you have a standalone piece in a journal, for example.
ASTRID: That's interesting. Can you explain that to our listeners?
ELLENA: I guess even with a collection where each of the pieces is talking about really different things, different times, using different voices, different kinds of research, you have this continuity and they build. Whereas with standalone pieces you have to contain within them a fully formed and fully realised structure and shape and form, and they have to say something very specific. Whereas in a collection you can treat an essay or even a short story or a poem as a kind of chapter that's in some way relating to the chapters around it and building something that way.
ASTRID: The first essay in the collection is the longest, it's about forty pages, and for the reader you, or the voice of you, is immediately present and there are two different versions of you in the first work. There is the you of 2017, and the you of 2017 is actually looking back eleven years previously to the experiences you had in 2006. Now, that's just where the collection starts and evolves throughout from three. But I wanted to ask, you know, how as a writer who is clearly writing about yourself and your previous experiences, how much of yourself you choose to share with your readers, share with the public, including when you are writing about really personal things – you are writing about a sexual assault that occurred overseas years ago and how you choose to revisit and re-explore it.
ELLENA: The essay that you just mentioned, ‘Yellow City’, it was obviously a really difficult essay to write, but it was one that I've been thinking about writing for 10 years and I couldn't find the form until I read Nathalie Sarraute’s ‘Childhood’, and then I realise she gave me that kind of this polyphonic kind of style. And then I just felt like I am ready to do it, and I lined up this artist residency in Lisbon where I would go and yeah, I went to this thing and my secret, my project for that was working on this piece. And I actually wrote it in a month, like I didn't really change it from the way that I wrote it, which is really unusual for me. I normally work on things for like a full year until I'm happy with them, but this one just came out, it was more or less as it is.
So, it was really difficult to write this. I experienced a lot of trauma when I was writing it, but at the same time, there's a lot that's not in this, there's a lot that I'd kept out because it was actually too traumatic to revisit for me. I didn't want to think about certain things, certain parts of the story that were too difficult. And so, I just didn't include them. And that kind of is how I navigate my self-disclosure, if I don't want to talk about it I just don't. I don't feel any compulsion to tell people things about myself. It's actually a very controlled self-disclosure, even though I'm disclosing more than maybe other people would, but it's all stuff that I don't feel ashamed of or anything like that.
ASTRID: I'm interested in how you place some of your writing against the big movements that we are all experiencing. So, the first one that comes to mind obviously in relation to your first essay is #MeToo, but also everything else that we are experiencing, the trauma of people that continues to roll on, everything from bushfires to COVID19. Do those society wide movements influence you in terms of what you choose to explore or what you feel like you are able to explore in public?
ELLENA: Definitely. I mean, it's interesting with the #MeToo thing, because I wrote this before #MeToo, about six months before I think it happened in October 2017. And I guess the thing about movements, social movements like #MeToo, they name something that's been happening for a long time. And you know, my academic work is in feminist literary criticism and so I've been interested in questions of misogyny, women's voices, women's writing, queer writing, and so I've read a lot of accounts of sexual assault against women and queer people. So, I'm not like, you know, when #MeToo happened like, ‘Okay great, people who weren't paying attention to this five years ago are now paying attention to this and that's awesome’, but there's been a really sustained kind of project around women's sexual assault for like decades.
And I guess the same thing is like with Black Lives Matter. This is not the first time black people have articulated that they're being oppressed in quite gruesome ways. This stuff is happening all the time. And of course it informs my work and my thinking, because I'm interested in activism and I'm interested in the intersection of actress activism and writing.
ASTRID: How do you place the idea of fine art, which you mentioned, before with activism? Are they the same thing? Can they be the same thing or does activism need to be more accessible?
ELLENA: Yeah, I guess I haven't really ever come to a definition, a working definition of what activism is and what art is. I do think to me artistic practice can involve anything, it doesn't have to be rarefied high conceptual art practices, it can be like knitting, or you know it can be craft or whatever, playing Bongos with your child. I'm interested in how people spend their time when they're not doing what's required of them in order to keep a roof over their head. And art gives people a lot of joy. So I think that maybe the intersection of arts and activism is like we want people to live dignified lives, and a dignified life to me includes the possibility of making art, or, you know, playing bongos with your kids or knitting. And we need activism to get people in a place where they have enough time and freedom and self-belief to take their creative pursuits seriously.
ASTRID: Ellena, that is an excellent answer to a terribly phrased question.
ELLENA: It was a great question.
ASTRID: I don't know. I don't think either art or activism requires a definition. It's just that talking to you has been making me think about where the two might intersect.
So, let's move on to your actual artistic practice. We've been describing your work as essays, and they are, but that doesn't begin to describe what you do with the words on a sentence to sentence level. You have bullet points, you have quotes, you have phrases, it's all not just blocks of prose. And I guess I'd ask you to describe how you work with words at that sentence level?
ELLENA: I guess I write quite compulsively when I'm not required to be working for paid work all the time, I can actually just spend all day writing. And I try to write most days when I'm working, although it gets really exhausting sometimes. And in terms of finding the form to fit the idea or to fit the image, I am just treating ideas as materials maybe, and trying to find the best way to articulate a sensation, an idea, whatever. And that means looking outside of just straight prose, which I also really enjoy writing, but like finding like lists.
I suppose I've been really influenced by a lot of writers. Like when I was learning to write I used models a lot, even just what I was saying about Nathalie Sarraute, that kind of polyphony, which is the many yous who are speaking at any given time or thinking at any given time when you're telling a story. I see something and if I think, ‘Wow, I didn't know you could do that’, I like I just take it. I just take the form and I use it myself. I remember like reading Diary of a Bad Year for the first time when I was 20 by J. M. Coetzee. I actually found it in an airport, which is really odd. And I just sort of found out about who this writer was from a lecture at uni and I bought it. And then for a year all my short stories were broken up into three sections, because I just thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen and I wasn't sure why it hadn't become a dominant novelistic form or short story form.
So, I'm just constantly snatching formal tricks that I find. And I guess reading across fiction, non-fiction, literary theory, poetry, drama like you get a lot more forms when you're reading across genres.
ASTRID: My next question is how do you know when you're writing when your innovative or maybe exploratory prose is kind of good enough to break the rules? And I'm going to give you an example from Blueberries. You have on page 42 to 43, it's about a page and a half, what I'm going to call a brilliant monologue. I don't know if that's the correct description, but you go from toilets to class to hegemony, and you only have three full stops on that page and a half. I counted, because it is such powerful writing and I'm like, ‘How did you do this?’
ELLENA: I don’t know. I mean, the good enough thing is like I don’t have that sensation where I read something that I've written and I think well that was finally good enough, for me to like really feel good about it. It's always feeling a little bit undercooked and a little bit like why couldn't I make it better, there's something deeply wrong with my with my abilities. But at the same time, it's knowing when something is… There is such a strong relationship for me between emotion and prose. And so, if it's like I don't know 70 percent of the emotion is being carried in a sentence, then that's enough. Like, I'm never going to get to 100 percent. But if it's carrying the energy, even if it's a bit kind of maybe messy or not quite fully formulated, if it's carrying the emotion or I can recognise that it's carrying the emotion then I can I can be happy with it and I can move on to the next thing.
ASTRID: I love that description – ‘if it's carrying the emotion’. A good writing lesson. Can you tell me about how an editor works with you and your work?
ELLENA: I guess I've had lots of different editing experiences. You know, it's so amazing working with trained books editor on Blueberries. Alaina at Text Publishing is amazing because she's been to editor school and she's edited a bunch of books. Prior to that I've mainly been edited by literary journal editors, who are not trained editors necessarily, they're often more like curators and they have ideas. So, working with those kind of editors – and I used to do that kind of editing myself – it's a really kind of fun process, where you're mainly talking about ideas and you're talking about structure and how to tie ideas together. But, when it gets to the sentence level, I don't love writing for newspapers and magazines because they often just rewrite my sentences when I'm doing something that is grammatical but it's a bit odd, and I thought very hard about the sentence and I know that it's grammatical and it's doing exactly what I want to be doing, but it's an odd sentence, and so it'll be just rewritten into ordinary plain prose, which I understand but I don't like.
So yeah, having a edit a work on my sentences with a really clear idea of what I was doing, she just made it 10 per cent better than it would have been. And I just felt so safe and so held, but also pushed. She pushed me to write better, and she corrected my mistakes and it was so wonderful to feel held like that.
ASTRID: That's a really beautiful description of an experience with an editor. I talk to a lot of writers and they don't always describe it that way.
ELLENA: I don’t feel held by magazine editors, I feel brutalised by them. (Laughter)
ASTRID: Fair enough too. Now, you are a teacher. You come into contact with a lot of students. You, in Blueberries, you reflect on the process of being a writer, the pain of being a writer, the sheer insanity of aspects of the industry and the publishing world and just how it all hangs together and often it hangs together really poorly. I'm interested in the advice that you give to aspiring writers, young writers, new writers, about how you make a career out of it in whatever way you choose to define a career.
ELLENA: I guess in my own life I've coupled together lots of different points of information, little conversations that I've had with people that have stuck with me. I remember talking to a man who worked in educational publishing when I was about 25 or 26, and he had trained - he'd gone to art school and he'd trained to be a beautiful artist – but he wasn't pursuing his art. And I asked him why. And he said, ‘I really like having money, like I really like wasting money, and all of the all my peers from art school, the ones who are still doing it are people who can live off the smell of an oily rag basically and be really careful with money, or just know how to live a life without much income really, without completely ruining their health’. And I remembered that because I just thought like am I a person who likes money and likes kind of wasting money and having fun with money? Because it is a real pleasure really, when you have money it's amazing. Or am I you know… So, there's this choice that you have to make. And hopefully you can find a balance where you have enough money and you also have enough time. But it seems to be that you are trading time for money in this system and there's no way around that. So, the main thing is finding enough money to make you comfortable in the ways that you need to be comfortable, or learning how to live without as much money. And that's what my husband I have been trying to do for the past few years, to establish a life where we don't need to earn a middle-class Australian salary to have enough time to write.
ASTRID: I want to thank you Ellena for the different ways you made me think and critique my own choices. I am a teacher. I am a writer. I work in industry and I am involved in writing festivals, and there is a few paragraphs in Blueberries where you explicitly critique that and take that down and basically point out that everybody makes money off a writer apart from the writer, and you are right. You've given me a lot of thinking to do.
ELLENA: I hope you don't feel scolded. I had a really good time chatting with you.
ASTRID: I don't feel scolded, I feel depressed actually. But I'll get over that.
ELLENA: It's an interesting to be alive, let's be honest.
ASTRID: Oh, it really is. Ellena, thank you so much for your time today.
ELLENA: Thank you Astrid. It's been great talking to you.