At home with Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her debut novel, The Strays, was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize, and in 2021 she released her second novel, Wild Abandon.

Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in various publications, including MeanjinThe Age, the Monthly, the Saturday PaperThe Big Issue, and The Sydney Morning Herald. She is also the co-owner of Carlton wine bar Heartattack and Vine.

At home with Emily Bitto


ASTRID: Emily Bitto, welcome to The Garret.

EMILY: Thank you so much for having me, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, several years ago, I read your first novel, The Strays, and I adored that novel, Emily, and I thought, ‘One day, I'm going to speak to Emily because I want to know how she did it’. And here we are in 2021, several years later, and you have just released your second novel, Wild Abandon. Congratulations.

EMILY: Thank you so much. I have also been listening to The Garret for a long time and thinking, ‘Maybe one day I'll get to talk to Astrid’.

ASTRID: Aw, thank you, Emily. That is high praise. I want to ask kind of a big question and maybe there is a short answer and maybe there is a long answer, but that's been about six years between The Strays and now Wild Abandon. The Strays did very well. You received The Stella Prize. What has changed for you and for the industry that you're publishing into, in that time?

EMILY: Ooh, that is a big question. I mean, I don't know if I have the expertise to answer the industry part of it, but I mean, I think just from my perspective as a reader and observer and book buyer, it seems to me like there's actually been a bit of a kind of renascence in Australian literature. It seems like it's potentially easier to get debut fiction published. It seems like people are really... readers are really embracing Australian writing in a way that certainly like... When I was younger and at uni, studying literature, I didn't feel it was the case. So that is actually amazing. Whether the pandemic has kind of shifted that again probably remains to be seen. Apparently debut fiction is struggling to sort of break through during this time, but I mean, I think it seems to be kind of a positive trajectory from my perspective.

ASTRID: I'm glad that you have a positive experience. I think I agree with you. When I was at uni, it was not the done thing to study Australian literature, or to even be caught buying it. You were supposed to read the Canon and read the classics. Read the cool stuff coming from overseas. And that has changed now, and that is a wonderful thing for all of us, readers and writers alike. I do have another question before we dive into your work and that is about The Stella Prize. It's the 10-year anniversary of The Stella Prize and I follow The Stella on my media, and your face popped up actually this week, because you're part of the celebrations. You did receive the prize and I guess that was your debut work. And my question is what did the stuff that comes with the prize... And I don't mean the money, but I mean, the kudos, I guess, to search for a word. What does that mean for a debut author or more importantly, what did it mean for you in this time before you published your next work?

EMILY: I mean, I think it was definitely career changing. Obviously, I don't know what it would have been like to try and write and release a second novel without having experienced that, but I know that immediately after winning the prize... Just for example, sales just jumped hugely. I think it was almost a year after The Strays was released that I won the prize and I think I sold approximately the same number of copies of the book in the two weeks after the prize was announced as I had in the whole preceding year. It had done pretty well for a debut novel, but it really had a huge impact just on sales and reach, and there was so much promo and I got invited to a lot more writers festivals and things like that.

So I think it has absolutely changed the career that I have been able to have so far and hope to continue to have. I think that second book is a really fraught time for writers because, if your first doesn't sell that well and not selling that well is already like a tiny amount for most debuts... I mean, selling well is already a tiny amount for debuts, but it's quite hard to make that jump from debut to early career or semi-established or whatever the tagline is now. And I think that was just a huge, huge boost for me. I felt like I was kind of letting people down by taking so long to get the second one done, but I wasn't particularly afraid. Well, no. I was afraid that no one would want it to publish it, but mainly because it's so different from the first one, but I think I had that sense that people could put from The Stella winning author of The Strays on the cover and it would make it an easier sell for publishers.

And you know what? It does a lot, I think. Yeah, I don't know about other prizes, and with the Stella being 10 years old as well, how that will continue in the future. What the kind of bump in sales is, people who win it now. But yeah, in my experience, it was definitely life changing.

ASTRID: Your second book, Wild Abandon, is quite different in a delightfully surprising way than The Strays. The Strays was set in Australia 1930s, writers and artists seen as kind of rambunctious rolling house, and Wild Abandon is a young guy goes to America and what is America? You have better words than I do. Emily, can you introduce us to Wild Abandon?

EMILY: So Wild Abandon follows a young, heartbroken Australian man called Will. He's just gone through his first terrible breakup. He's been dumped. He's actually like... I say that lightly, but he's genuinely heartbroken, as I'm sure we've all been after that first absolute kind of crushing of ego and heart and soul that often happens when you're around that age. And he flees Australia for America, and he first goes to New York and then he embarks on what he hopes is going to be a kind of road trip, but it stalls fairly early on various reasons, in Ohio. And he ends up working for a man there called Wayne, who has a private zoo or menagerie of exotic animals. I started writing it pre-Tiger King and was expecting to have to really explain this world to people, but you just say ‘Tiger King’ now and people know what you're talking about. And then things get pretty dark from that point.

ASTRID: They do get dark. Now I am going to briefly insert myself into this conversation. I married an American and I have... And he comes from the Midwest. And I have sat in McDonald's on the highway in the Midwest of nowhere, and I have thought, ‘How would an Australian write about this place? It's alien and familiar at the same time’, and you have done it Emily. And so, I really wanted to tease out why and how? Because I have been that random Australian thinking, ‘What is this place?’.

EMILY: There's sort of two parts, I guess, to my answer to that question. One is that the desire to write specifically about that place came out of a true story, which I won't go into the specifics of, because it'll be a spoiler for people who haven't read it, but it was a news story I read that was about a guy who did actually have a huge collection of wild animals. About 56, I think. Lions, tigers, grizzly bears, primates, wolves, leopards. And I read about this in 2011. I was just... I don't know. There was something about it that really sparked my imagination. I just couldn't stop thinking about it. So that was sort of the seed and that's where Ohio and the Midwest came in, but at the same time, I also had this preexisting desire to write about the relationship between Australia and America.

I was also working in a bar. I co-own a bar, and working with a lot of young guys and young women as well. But something that really struck me was the way that, when they were talking about where they wanted to travel, it was not the UK or Europe, which was sort of where my friends and I were all keen to go to when we first left school and wanted to go on our first overseas trip. That really started me thinking. And obviously they were not talking about travelling to Ohio. They were talking about travelling to New York, but these things kind of came together, I guess, for me, and in this interest in the relationship between Australia and America. America as this sort of new cultural centre, and then ideas about travel, this place it occupies in the Australian identity. The way that, even though there's been a shift from maybe Europe or London to New York, there's still this idea of sort of ‘the elsewhere’, that is very, very alluring to the young Australian traveller.

The Midwest part sort of fitted into that, and I knew that I was not going to be able to write about America from the inside. It was never going to be a quote-unquote ‘true, accurate representation of American culture’, but I sort of embraced that. I wanted it to be about the fantasy of America and the fantasies around travel and the sort of quest narrative. All of these ideas we have from reading road narratives and watching road movies and things like that.

ASTRID: Jack Kerouac, On the Road, yes.

EMILY: Oh yeah.

ASTRID: Makes a feature. I am not an American and I have decided I will never understand America or Americans, but you give a wonderful exploration in this novel of what it is like to be an Australian in America. Now, about the first third of the novel is set in New York. New York, the international city, which is one type of America, and then the Midwest, which is a very different type of America. In New York, you go into the art scene and the bar scene and the drug scene, and there are some questions there that you raise about modern art. And that did make me think of The Strays in a tangential fashion. You're still exploring creativity and art and the kind of people who engage in that world. Have you been to New York?

EMILY: I have, yeah. A few times. Yeah. I had a couple of really close friends that lived in New York at different periods and I went and stayed with them and yeah. I do love New York.

ASTRID: Who doesn't love New York? But I guess my question is, where were you when you wrote this? Because it is so much about America and we all know exactly what New York looks like, even if we haven't been there, because it's everywhere in our culture. On our TV screens, et cetera. But where were you? I know you had an international residency in Rome at one point.

EMILY: I think that the New York section, I wrote in Australia, but I got some funding to travel to the States to research this book in, I think it was end of 2016 or early 2017, I think. I had a trip, both to New York and Ohio, where I knew I was going to write this book. And so, I did a lot of very detailed note taking when I was in New York and just recorded everything I saw and ate and thought about, noticed, and then came back and... I think it was better for me to write it here because of that... the distance that I wanted to create in a way between the fantasy of New York and the reality. I sort of let it become this almost nostalgic memory and put into it all of that nostalgia, but also the questions and things that ideas of travel and tourism and particularly the sort of young man's quest narrative, the journey as a narrative structure, all of those things that I wanted to explore.

ASTRID: One of the feelings that you gave me reading Wild Abandon was existential dread. I don't know if you meant to give that to me, but that is what you left me. And I do remain that kind of existential, ‘What is capitalism? Will America last? Do I want America to last? What does that mean for Australia?’ Those kinds of unanswerable questions. But I guess you set this book in 2011, which is not that long ago, but it does feel a lifetime ago. It was the time of Occupy Wall Street. It was a different time of angst.

EMILY: Yeah.

ASTRID: And I guess, as you were releasing this book into 2021, 2011 feels nostalgic. It feels like the good old days.

EMILY: It was quite an interesting process writing it over such a long period, because even now, it's kind of post Trump, hopefully, but I remember, because it's set during the Obama era and I started writing it during the Obama era, and then when Trump got elected, I did go through a period where I thought, ‘Oh, should I just be abandoning this project? Everything seems to have kind of shifted. Everything I'm sort of thinking about seems so small and sort of tinged with this nostalgia for, 'Oh, if only these were our kind of problems', but then I think that I reframed that for myself and I realised the fact... Or well, reminded myself of the fact that every book has to endure history and, even if I had put it out then, you just don't know what's coming. And I think it actually made me think in a more deep and nuanced way about the time I was writing about.

And I think it did seem that the kind of things that Will gets up to in New York during that Trump era seemed almost unconscionably naive, but then at the same time, I think as the Trump era dragged on, I think I also started thinking more about the way that those feelings of existential dread, whether it's political or environmental, or even just personal, often do make people respond by just throwing themselves headlong forward into a sort of nihilistic hedonism. And it was that idea of the party at the end of the world, and that became another theme, I guess. And then as Trump got out, again I had to sort of shift how I thought about this, but yeah, I think that just became something else that was part of it. And I think I did put in a few little crumbs about, ‘This is 2011. We don't know what will come next, although we do know what will come next’.

ASTRID: My favourite one of those was... You have a line in there. I should have written it down, Emily, and it said something like, ‘Who'll be next? What, like Bush the third?’

EMILY: Yeah.

ASTRID: If only. I'm sorry if I implied that you took a long time to write this novel. That was not my intention, Emily.

EMILY: I did take a long time.

ASTRID: Where I was going, clumsily, is the idea that it takes a long time for people, for creatives, for writers, to actually come to an idea or an understanding or an interpretation of what has happened. And I guess the depression of 1929, 1930 took about 10 years for the literature that has stood the test of time, for example, Grapes of Wrath... It took like 9, 10 years for that to be published. If you're writing about the years after the GFC and how we all felt the world might be falling apart back then... Turns out it can fall further, but nevertheless, how we all felt like things were out of control and capitalism wasn't paying us or supporting us or looking after us and all of the rest of that. It takes time to tell those stories.

EMILY: Yeah.

ASTRID: And I feel like, along with my existential dread that you pumped in me, Emily, I feel like... I actually feel like I want to come back to Wild Abandon over the summer when everything is shiny and happy and maybe I'm like outside in the sun and re-interpret what you've written, because I feel like I need to read it again to really understand what happened a decade ago and where that puts me now going forward with all of my current existential dread about 2021.

EMILY: And I hope that that does not discourage you or pump you full of even more existential dread.

ASTRID: No, I mean that as a real compliment, Emily. I don't normally want to reread something so soon, because I do re-read books, but I don't normally plan to reread them like two or three months later to reinterpret them. I really enjoyed Wild Abandon. I feel like we can't go any further without really exploring the animals. Again, so many feelings. I know that you said earlier that this was prompted by a very real news article and you know, people do have these private menageries around the world, including in the Midwest of America, but while animals in cages is a very clear metaphor, what did you want to prompt in your reader?

EMILY: I guess what it made me feel at the time when I read that story apart from just absolute horror and despair, it was not a good news story, was... I mean, I think I'd already kind of decided at that point that I wanted to write something contemporary. I wanted to write something about the strangeness of the world that we were living in, there at that point in time. And it's even stranger now, but in a different way. And I think I wanted to write about capitalism. The excesses and sort of surreal, over developed and very specific and niche cultures that existed and still exist in, what I would hope to refer to as the kind of the sunset days of uber capitalism. Again, I was in this bar hospitality world. I was thinking about how strange that was, how pretty much any sort of world, little clique that you become involved in, just opens out to be this endless possibility of specificity and really ability to try and make money by making it more and more and more specific and niche.

And I just wanted to write about things like that. The kind of food culture. Contemporary art culture is another one that seemed like it epitomised something about the apex of hyper capitalism. And then I saw this story and it fell into place for me that the idea of the desire to, or the ability, to own 56 wild animals in a rural Ohio. It just seemed like it was another very, very strange and very powerful metaphor of something about our time and about our relationship to all animals, obviously, but also to what I would think of as more theoretically, our relationship to ideas about wildness and nature.

And I think that there is something very deep in us that craves a connection to those ideas of wildness, and we look for that in lots of different ways. So that's sort of what fell into place for me and what I was feeling, reading that news article, and then I just started thinking more and more about the specifics of that. What it is that makes someone want to collect animals and how that might function as a metaphor or even a kind of allegory, even though that's a daggy word, for something about our time.

ASTRID: There are no daggy words on this literary podcast. One of the scenes that I am going to remember... One of the images that you have prompted in my mind is, and this is no spoilers to the plot, but essentially at one point there are three men, pretty buzzed, sitting on a porch, feeding hot milk to baby tiger Cubs and being really kind of high on the affection experience that that is giving them. That it's giving them a love buzz, shall we say, in addition to the beer and stuff that they've just drunk. Weird and hideous and phenomenal at the same time. Changing track, Emily, I would like to really explore how you write and what... Like how do you sit down to get the words on the page? Sometimes it's in Australia. Sometimes it was in an international residency, but for you, how do you make it work?

EMILY: I have a very specific method that I've developed over time, which is that I write the first draught. I mean, I wouldn't even necessarily call it the first draught. The first notes? No, I guess it's more than that. The first sentences, I write by hand. I returned to writing by hand as a way of basically stopping myself from procrastinating by checking my email every time I was looking for a word that I couldn't quite grasp. And I always write in the morning. I've got my little rituals around sitting down and putting on... I might have an album that I just play over and over and over again. There's kind of almost Pavlovian conditioning tricks that I try and use to get myself into the zone. I will read back over like maybe the two to three pages that I wrote yesterday, and then I just start writing by hand.

The other thing apart from the lack of distraction that writing by hand gives me, is that I do a lot of tentative listing of multiple options for verbs or adjectives or whatever it is. I'll write on the right side of the page and leave the left side blank and then I often go back and read it and do arrows going over to the right side and adding more sentences there, or like, ‘Not quite right word here’, or like list another five options for the one adjective that I might replace later. But I think I wouldn't feel comfortable with that level of draftiness if I was typing that first version. Something makes me feel a bit panicked to have three options of an adjective on a word document, because I might just not notice them and leave them all in there or something. I don't know what it is.

And I write with a pencil as well, because it feels less permanent. I think you're just getting an insight into how quirky my process is. It needs to feel impermanent and just playful and not too serious. And then, maybe a couple of days later, I will go and type up that. I'll pick my one out of five adjectives or in this case, four out of ten, and leave them there in a row. In this particular novel, there's a lot of strings of adjectives. So that's kind of like almost the first edit.

ASTRID: I love that you write by hand. Almost no one has ever told me that when I ask that question, Emily.

EMILY: Really? That's very interesting.

ASTRID: Yeah. Maybe they're all just lying to me. That's an option.

EMILY: Yeah. It just works for me. I think a lot of... I've taught creative writing a lot and I can see how important it is and how long it takes to just work out what works for you as a way of producing. It's such a big part of just getting yourself to actually write is working out, ‘Do I produce better in the morning or the evening? Is it better to have a word count or a time limit? Is it better to write by hand or type straight into the computer?’ All of those things have a big impact, and I think once you sort of find your way that works for you, you just... For me, I just stick to it now, even though I get a sore shoulder from writing by hand. It's almost become sort of superstitious for me now that this is how I do it and I just have to stick with it.

ASTRID: Is there anything that you can tell me about your poetry collection?

EMILY: Well, it is even more long standing a project than the novel. I've been writing poetry for a long time. I started my writing, writing poetry, way back in my uni days. And when I enrolled in my creative writing PhD, which is when I wrote The Strays, I actually initially enrolled to write a poetry collection, because I'd written about poetry for my masters and I had to do a research project alongside that PhD and I was going to do poetry. And then I sort of... I don't know. Something happened six months in or something also, and I thought, ‘I know I want to write a novel. If I don't do it now, when I've got a three and a half year PhD structure of that, then I probably will never do it’. I sort of switched. I think that actually had more of a negative impact on my poetry writing than I thought it would.

I thought, ‘Well poetry, it's such a short form. I can keep it going on the side’, but I do find it really hard to write poetry while I'm writing a novel. I think it was... I can't remember who it was. It might've been Michael Ondaatje whose poetry I've written about. He said, ‘Every novel is like a thousand lost poems’, because I think things that you would notice or think about just as you go about your daily life, that in the past, I would have turned into a poem, they just all get sucked into the novel. It's such a sort of vacuum cleaner of a form. Jeez, a very strange metaphor. But it just sort of sucks everything into it, and I have struggled, really, to keep the poetry writing going, but I have been doing it very slowly.

So the poetry collection, I've got quite a number of poems that I'm sort of happy with, but I'm just still tinkering away on it. But I'm actually hoping, now that I've put this novel out into the world, that this will be a time when I can go back to poetry without the novel, and the next novel sucking it all up.

ASTRID: I do hope that is the case, Emily. Congratulations, once again, on Wild Abandon, and thank you so much for talking to me today.

EMILY: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.