Writers On Writing / Emily Bitto on inspiration, self-doubt and the power of showing and telling

Ahead of her course, Showing and Telling at Writing NSW, we interviewed Stella prize-winning author Emily Bitto.


In your Stella prize winning novel, The Strays, why did you choose to make Lily the narrator?

It’s interesting that you should ask that because I’ve been reflecting on the same question quite recently. I’ve been involved in a great series put on by Writers Victoria which features writers discussing a book that has been particularly influential to their writing, and for my session I chose Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Talking about how his book influenced me made me recall some of my initial ideas and intentions for The Strays, and one of them was to write what I refer to as an ‘outsider novel’ (a category The Line of Beauty also fits into, as do novels like Brideshead Revisited, and, probably most famously, The Great Gatsby). The outsider novel often features a solitary, fairly ordinary protagonist who becomes involved with a group of people who are very different from them (often wealthy, aristocratic or ‘glamorous’ in some way), and to which they desperately wish to belong. There is often a sense of ambivalence and dramatic irony in these novels, though, in that the reader is aware that these characters, whom the protagonist romanticises and idolises, are not quite as wonderful as they appear at first to be.

So, one of the things I wanted to do in writing The Strays was to write my own kind of “outsider novel,” but with a young girl as a protagonist, rather than a young man, as the protagonists in the novels I’ve mentioned above are. I also wanted to write about the experience of being an only child, and so Lily, my main character, became a kind of double outsider: she longs not only to be part of the glamorous group of artists that the Trentham family gather about them, but also to have the kind of unbreakable blood-bond that the three Trentham sisters have. I felt that her peripheral perspective offered an interesting way of narrating the rise and fall of the Trentham ‘circle,’ and I enjoyed making her a fairly unreliable narrator, in some ways.

Every writer has heard the common imperative, ‘show, don’t tell’. Why do you think it is so important for writers to show, rather than tell?

I would actually say ‘show and tell,’ myself, rather than ‘show, don’t tell.’ I think telling is also an important part of writing. But I do think that increasing your use of some of the elements that come under the banner of ‘showing’ (for example concrete sensory detail, and building character through description of action, among other elements we will discuss in the workshop), is one of the simplest ways of improving your writing, and something quite frequently neglected or misunderstood by beginner writers. I strongly believe that part of the pleasure of reading comes from the ‘work’ that the reader has to do to in drawing connections, interpreting action and symbolism, understanding implication and subtext, reading between the lines, appreciating ambivalence and ambiguity etc. Too much ‘telling’ takes this pleasure away from the reader. It also doesn’t give the reader enough credit; readers are very capable of understanding things that are implied rather than clearly spelled out, and it can feel quite patronising when the writer over-explains things that you have already picked up from the more subtle clues.

What do you wish you could tell your younger, aspiring-author self?

Don’t get too hung up on trying to become ‘confident,’ as a writer. Self-doubt doesn’t go away and is an inevitable part of the life of a writer. The sooner you accept that and just get on with it, the better. There is a wonderful quote by Izak Denisen, which was told to me by a very experienced writer who I greatly admire, and who still experiences the same self-doubt that I do: write “a little each day, without hope and without despair.” Somehow it’s the “without hope” that I found most helpful – you don’t need to convince yourself that what you are writing is good before you can continue: just write anyway. Be at peace with the possibility that it might not be good, but that you can improve it over time. And the more you practice, the better it will become.

Emily Bitto is an award-winning Melbourne-based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize. She has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne, and has been teaching creative writing for over a decade.


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