Working with Words: Emily Bitto

Image by Tim Grey

Image by Tim Grey

Last year, Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. This year, it was the first to be published in Affirm Press’s new fiction list, headed by former Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield.

We spoke to Emily about her love of Peter Pan, the self-loathing that comes when you haven’t produced anything tangible after a bout of writing, and why a literature degree is just as good an education for a writer as a creative writing degree.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

It was a poem I had accepted for a great poetry journal that no longer exists called Blue Dog, which was very supportive of young and previously unpublished poets. The poem was about butterfly collecting, and was inspired by a character in Lord Jim, which I’d just read at uni. It was probably a pretty bad poem, but I was completely thrilled to be published.

What’s the best part of your job?

Writing? I think it’s probably the fact that so many wonderful things are part of the ‘work’ of being a writer: reading, most importantly and wonderfully; thinking; walking; talking to people; traveling; sometimes even drinking, or sleeping, can be important parts of the job.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Probably the pressure that comes from the fact that we live in a world in which only quantifiable outcomes seem to be valued as ‘productive’, and therefore the self-loathing that can come at the end of a day, or week, or month, when you haven’t produced anything tangible.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Having my first novel published last month!

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I like something I read by Colm Toibin – something along the lines of ‘give yourself permission to stay in your mental pajamas all day’. It captures two things for me: one is the importance of cultivating a state in which your unconscious mind can work for you (and for me that state is often just after waking up); and the other is similar to what I was saying above, that sometimes, when writing, the things that are the most productive are things that seem completely at odds with productivity in the commonly accepted sense of the word.

I also like the advice that was apparently given to Bob Dylan: ‘No fear, no envy, no meanness.’ This is pretty good life advice in general, but especially good advice for entering the sometimes defeating and world of writing.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I read in not one but two recently published interviews that I have half-siblings who are much older than me, which is untrue. They are actually quite a bit younger than me. It wasn’t a big deal, but it did make me realise how easily false information can proliferate, and made me even more wary of Wikipedia than I was before!

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

My partner is always laughing at me because of the long list of things I say I ‘wish I could be’. Everything from stunt waterskier to chef to marine biologist to perfumier to racing-car driver to dog whisperer… So probably one of those. Actually I’m about to open a bar with my partner and two other guys, not to replace writing but because I don’t, strictly speaking, ‘make a living’ from working with words. I’m hoping that in the long term this will be conducive to writing, but I may just turn into an alcoholic instead.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I certainly think you can learn to write, and to some extent I think it can be taught. But of course, not in the same way as you can be taught long division, or how to make short-crust pastry, where you have no idea how to do something and then someone gives you the formula and suddenly you can do it.

I firmly believe that the main way of learning to write is through reading. But what I think can be taught is how to read as a writer, for the purpose of learning to write, which is different from reading for leisure (although I think if you do enough of that you will still absorb the information anyway), and the things to pay attention to – a vocabulary and understanding of the technical elements of both language and narrative – such as structure, imagery, voice, story and plot etc.

I think, if you’re interested in writing, you can probably learn as much, if not more, from doing a literature degree as you can from doing a creative writing degree. But that’s not to say that one is ‘being taught to write’ and the other isn’t. They’re both ‘being taught to write’ in different ways.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read read read read read read read read read read read read read read read

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Mostly in physical bookshops, unless it’s out of print, in which case I use Abebooks, which is kind of like buying from a physical second-hand bookshop anyway, but amazingly allows you to browse any second-hand bookshop in the country from the comfort of your own home.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Peter Pan. So I could learn to fly!

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Maybe Peter Pan, although I may not have thought of that without the previous question. I had a crazy, uncontrollable imagination as a child, and that book somehow allowed me to both enjoy it and come to terms with it. I used to make my mum read out the bit where Tinkerbell got poisoned over and over again; it was like I was working out how to accommodate frightening or confusing things, as well as how to wrestle with the capacity of my own mind to over-identify with whatever it touched on. I think I’m still trying to deal with that, but Peter Pan showed me that it’s both terrifying and the best thing in the world.

Really, there are so many books that have had a profound impact on my life and writing that I wouldn’t know where to begin listing them.

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