Artistic licence: Emily Bitto on ‘The Strays’
Emily Bitto’s debut The Strays (Affirm Press, May) tells the story of a young girl ‘wooed by a progressive group of artists living in 1930s Melbourne’. She spoke to reviewer Emily Laidlaw. You can read Laidlaw’s review here.
The Strays can be read as a fictionalised account of the now widely celebrated Heide circle of artists, who, like the characters in your novel, created unconventional art in Australia while leading very unconventional lives. What drew you to their stories and how did you research this period?
I was certainly inspired by the stories of the Heide circle, including John and Sunday Reed, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and others, but I should make it clear that readers shouldn’t expect any direct resemblance to these historical figures or the specifics of their lives in The Strays. What I have drawn on is the idea of a group of unconventional individuals coming together with the idea of separating themselves to some extent from mainstream society, which I find a really fascinating phenomenon and a rich setting for a novel because of the tensions and intrigues that inevitably occur when intense personalities are brought together in this way. In part I steered away from trying to create a direct fictional account of the Heide circle because what happened at Heide was almost too dramatic to fictionalise. It would have read like melodrama. So I’ve read a lot about those individuals, but I created my own distinct characters and story in The Strays.
In researching the novel I consulted a range of sources, including numerous accounts of the rise of modernism in Australia, novels and memoirs set in Melbourne in the 1930s and 40s, and books about the Heide circle, for example Janine Burke’s wonderful The Heart Garden (Knopf), about Sunday Reed, but what I found most useful in terms of getting a sense of the personalities of those now canonical artists, and most resonant for me as a writer, was reading their letters, particularly between Tucker and Nolan and between Joy Hester and Sunday Reed. I also read letters and other documents in the Reed collection in the State Library of Victoria, which is an amazing resource. However, having said all that, I really didn’t want my novel to read as heavily researched historical fiction—I wanted it to have a contemporary voice too, and I hope that has come through.
A fine knowledge and appreciation for art history is evident in your debut. Looking to your own craft, who are the artists or writers who most inspire you, and did any influence in particular the writing of The Strays?
The novel started its life as half of a creative writing PhD, and in the research component that I submitted alongside it I looked at the way artists have been represented in contemporary fiction. I read a lot of artist novels and in that sense I couldn’t help but be influenced by that tradition in writing The Strays, and thinking a lot about the place artists occupy in our culture and the many competing ideas about the nature of creativity. But in terms of the writers who have most inspired me as a reader I’d probably list mainly modernist writers and writers who have a strong focus on language and mood—writers like William Faulkner, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, and more recently people like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, as well as lots of poets. Michael Ondaatje was a particular touchstone for me when writing The Strays because I can tend to get a bit wordy and he is someone whose prose is very imagistic and rich and yet also very economical. I read him to remind myself to rein in my prose and focus on the image.
1930s Melbourne depicted in The Strays is a very uniform and creatively staid city. Through researching this era, how would you compare it to the Melbourne of today, especially in terms of opportunities for artists?
I chose to set The Strays in 1930s Melbourne because it was a time when there were potentially really serious consequences for artists who broke with convention in terms of what should and shouldn’t be represented, not only morally but also in relation to realism vs modernism, figurative art vs abstraction etc. It was a very conservative culture, and a number of obscenity trials happened around the time. But I suppose with that also came the thrill of participating in something genuinely new and daring. I think artists today, whether visual artists, writers, or any kind of creative producers, struggle because there is really no true avant-garde any more. Of course there are places in the world where there are extremely serious consequences for artists who defy repressive regimes of various kinds, but in Melbourne at least, we have our Bill Henson hysterias every now and then, but generally perhaps artists suffer from having it too easy rather than from too few opportunities.
Much anticipation surrounds The Strays since its shortlisting for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. How does it feel to be releasing your first novel?
It feels incredible, and incredibly terrifying.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Jim Crace’s Man Booker nominated Harvest (Picador)—for the incredible rhythm of the prose, which is something that’s so rare for prose writers to pay attention to these days. It was almost written in iambic verse at times. And the way it created such a vivid, self-contained world was magical. Every metaphor and image was taken from that world and worked to build it in the mind of the reader. I’m currently finally reading A Death in the Family, the fist in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series (Vintage), and I’m loving it too.