Emily Bitto- author of The Strays
Tell us about your latest book – what inspired you to write it?
There were a number of ideas that all converged when I set out to write The Strays. One was the idea of a group of people who attempt to separate themselves to some degree from mainstream society, which I find really compelling in any context, whether it be religious groups, artistic coteries or hippy communes. I wanted to write about a group like that and it seemed natural to focus on a group of artists because I love art and have grown up around artists. I also wanted to write an “outsider novel,” with a first-person narrator because I was drawn to the complexity that such a perspective offers, particularly in relation to the motives and potential unreliability of the narrator and the way this inflects their telling of the story. The Strays was also loosely inspired by the Heide circle of artists, whose stories and personalities are completely fascinating to me. And I also wanted to write about female friendship, because I think it’s something that is generally neglected in literature in favour of romantic relationships between men and women. All of these threads were there from the start, and I slowly worked out how they might converge in a single narrative.
What do you hope readers will take from your book?
Essentially, I hope that it will spark their imaginations and that they will feel themselves transported into the world of the narrative on a sensory level. I suppose I also hope it might stimulate readers to think about some of the ideas that preoccupy me and that led me to write the novel, including the value of art and the myth of artistic genius; the question of women’s access to the realm of “high” culture; the attraction of living an “extraordinary” life; and the definition of family and belonging, among other things.
Do you use your own experiences when writing?
The Strays is completely fictional, but there are certainly elements that draw on my own experience in an abstracted way. For example, I essentially grew up as an only child, although I have a half-brother and half-sister. I drew on my own memories of the times when I longed to be part of a big, rowdy family when I imagined Lily’s friendship with Eva and her sisters. I feel like it’s impossible not to draw on your own experiences to a certain extent when writing – they shape the way you see the world, what your preoccupations are, what you notice and think about, and therefore what goes into the novel.
Which author/s or book/s have had the biggest influence on your work?
So many it’s hard to know who to mention. I started out writing more poetry than prose, so there would be lots of poets in there who have definitely influenced my focus on language and imagery. In terms of novelists, some of the ones who have influenced me most include Faulkner, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and more recently Michael Ondaatje (his early work at least). The things these writers have in common, in my mind, is their focus on prose style and their preoccupation with exploring the complexities of human consciousness and relationships.
Do you have a message for aspiring writers?
Just the good old fashioned ones: write every day and read widely and constantly!
Also, cultivate your obsessions and follow them as far as you can. Observe everything, and be curious. If you find yourself wondering about something – what kind of tree that is that you pass on your way to work every day, or, as I found myself wondering the other day, why do we constantly hear the terms ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ but never ‘second world’ – look it up!!
How and where do you write?
At some point while writing The Strays I stopped writing on my laptop and went back to pen and paper, because I was getting too distracted by the internet, and also because there is something about the pace of writing by hand that I find works better for me. I write mostly at home, but also out and about, in cafes or parks or libraries. I like to change location when I get stuck.
Do you have a lucky writing charm?
Not really. I have particular albums I listen to when I’m writing – a favourite is Iron and Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days – which I’ve listened to so many times that they act as a kind of Pavlovian stimulus and put me in the right frame of mind.