Literature Works caught up with Emily Bitto to discuss her debut novel The Strays, its use of the multidisciplinary relationship between art forms and the importance of memory to the story. Emily also tells us the number one thing she thinks makes a good writer.

Here at Literature Works, we’re interested in interdisciplinary relationships between literature and art. Can you say a little about why the art scene of the 1930s was an inspiration for you in The Strays and do you feel that the subject matter influenced your writing style in any way?

I was particularly interested in the Australian scene of the 1930s because of the stark contrast between the values and way of life that the avant-garde modernist artists were subscribing to, and the very conservative mainstream culture. There were really serious potential consequences for going against the mainstream, even for something that seems as innocuous today as choosing to paint in a non-figurative manner. Artists were being targeted, shut out of exhibitions and opportunities, and there were numerous obscenity trials during this period too. I find it a fascinating period to consider, compared to our current era when it seems there is nothing an artist could do in the Western world that would be seen as genuinely “shocking.” It must have been scary and also thrilling to have been part of the avant-garde at that time, bringing modernism to Australia and being part of something that was genuinely new and radical.

One of the major themes in the novel is that of female friendship, can you tell us how this influences the plot of the novel?

This was something I knew right from the start I wanted to write about. Those early, formative friendships have been so important in my own life, and the lives of my friends, and yet when I look at literature I don’t see much attention given to that. Friendship, especially for women in literature (and tv, film etc) always seems to be trumped by romance, and yet friendships are just as important, longstanding and complex as the relationships we have with our partners, family kids etc. I just wanted to write something that really showed how much of an impact those early friendships can have on a life.

The idea of time’s fluidity is prevalent throughout the novel, can you tell us a little about the process of constructing a narrative across multiple time gaps – how did you decide which time periods would reveal the novel’s central secrets?

I suppose my main way of dealing with time in the novel was to embrace the partial, subjective perspective of the first-person narrator. Memory was something I was very interested in writing about in the novel, and the ways in which we either hold tight to, or revise, particular versions of, or stories about, our own lives. Lily has a particular view of her own past, and I wanted the reader to be free to question that view, and to see how other ways of seeing the same story might also be possible. So the gaps in the novel are really because of Lily’s perspective, and the way she enters a process of going back over the events of the past, because of a certain event that brings it all up for her. She delves back in, but not all at once… she has to remember it bit by bit, I think, because that’s the only way she can face going back there. I wanted to arrange the narrative in this way because I was interested in the past’s “secrets” not just as dramatic events in themselves, but to show how they had impacted on Lily in the present, and also how she is forced to come up against other people’s versions of the same events. Again, those processes of memory itself were really what interested me.

Who is the one writer that inspires your own work?

I don’t think there is one writer I could mention who has inspired me more than all the others. There are so many. Some of my very favourites include Henry James, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, and more recently Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison. The kinds of books that directly inspired The Strays, that were my conscious “predecessors” were what I think of as “outsider novels,” such as, for example, Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, and The Line of Beauty. What I love about each of them is the perspective of the main character, who is both an observer and a participant; part of the action and yet always a bit on the periphery. I find that a really interesting perspective, and wanted to play with it in my own way in The Strays.

If you could offer one piece of advice to writers looking to crack the market with their debut works, what would it be?

Don’t think you are going to become a good writer without spending years reading other people’s work. Reading is the best apprenticeship you can get. Just read, read, read!

Thank you Emily!