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Wildest dreams

Sam Cooney
Emily Bitto's second novel raises compelling questions about writing and living.

We’re on Zoom. Again.

Emily Bitto and I gaze at our screens, looking at each other’s pixelated faces — very much not the same as looking into someone’s eyes — both of us occasionally sneaking glances at each other’s pixelated surroundings. I’m sitting at my dining table, kitchen in the background; Bitto is in the study of her Brunswick West home, a hot-pink Jackie Marshall tour poster stuck to the door of a vintage standalone wardrobe, reminding me of a time when musicians toured and audiences danced. Bitto’s bleached short pixie haircut is even lighter in the afternoon sun.

In my zigzagging research for this piece I found several profiles Bitto wrote herself a few years ago, including one in which she met Eileen Myles for a coffee — the US author’s handshake firm and smile warm — and another where she drank cloudy white wine with American singer-songwriter Angel Olsen in a Fitzroy bar.

But we’re in 2021, and there’s no way for us to meet up in person. Bitto lives in one Australian state and I in another, but even if we lived within cooee of each other we’d still be connecting virtually. It’s one more day of wishing for a return to normal, for a time when we can meet over coffee, drinks, even food, with other human beings milling around.

I mention this not only to whinge, but also because one of the first things I tell Bitto when we begin talking about her new novel, Wild Abandon, is that I had to break off several times while I was reading it because of the emotional tides it moved within me. It wasn’t the many shocking or heartbreaking scenes that affected me so much, but the long, lyrical passages where the protagonist travels to New York City (and later the Midwest), wandering the streets, eating at packed restaurants and drinking at crowded bars, meeting wonderful strangers (wonderful simply for being strangers) and partaking in all kinds of beautifully ugly hospitality, him often drunken and drugged.

Bitto seems thrilled that I had such a visceral experience. ‘So much of the book is about the idea of travel and encountering another culture and the misunderstandings and fantasies and projections that are involved in that,’ she says. ‘Sure, all this takes on a different slant in lockdown, but hopefully at least on one level it makes people want to read for escapism.’

Photo of Emily Bitto
Photo by Sarah Enticnap.
There are many more and better reasons than fights of fancy to read this haunting and bewitching second novel from Bitto. Wild Abandon is the tale of a heartbroken young man, Will, fleeing Australia for the United States, arriving in the excessive glamour and plenitude of New York City in 2011, and diving deep into anxious hedonism. By chance, Will’s journey soon takes him deep into the American heartland, where he meets Wayne Gage, a troubled Vietnam veteran and collector of exotic animals. Things grow truly wild from there.

Wild Abandon was conceived and written before our pandemic. I wonder if Bitto has any thoughts about how it might be received by those still in the middle of it all, even if the book is set a full 10 years ago. ‘I did have those worries about the book being a bit dated,’ she says. ‘Not so much about the pandemic; it was more because of the political situation we were living through the whole time I was writing the book. It’s set in the Obama era, and then of course in the middle of writing it Trump got in, and so there was a point when I was writing it and I just thought, This has become obsolete.’

Obsolete how? ‘There are such different things that are pressing now than were pressing then. Luckily, it eventually took on a different feeling for me: of the almost-nostalgia of this very recent past, of the level of carefree decadence back then in 2011 that seemed sort of impossible in the Trump era. And then you know Trump was out by the time I finished the book ... I think as you’re writing or publishing a book there’s always things constantly happening that will impact the way that it is read, but hopefully it just allows the book to grow.’

Bitto’s debut novel The Strays, published in 2014, is a work that has bloomed wonderfully over time. Inspired by aspects of the renowned Heide group of modernist artists and writers, which included controversial figures such as Sidney Nolan and John and Sunday Reed, The Strays won the 2015 Stella Prize, well as being shortlisted for a bunch of other awards. It was also published in Britain, the US and Canada, and is set to be adapted into a six-part TV series.

The Strays sprang from a creative writing PhD at the University of Melbourne. It took her three and a half years to complete the PhD, which ‘was made up of the novel manuscript as well a major research dissertation’. Just before she submitted the thesis, she entered the novel into the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards prize for an unpublished manuscript, and was fortunate enough to be among the three shortlisted writers. ‘From that, I managed to get an agent, and she quite swiftly found a publisher for the book, which was incredibly thrilling.’

Along with her PhD and a masters in literary studies, Bitto has taught creative writing at several universities. Today, she still runs short courses here and there; teaching creative writing is something in which she believes passionately, and it’s also a way she keeps learning her craft — though she takes a different tack than most when teaching. ‘I’ve taught a lot of creative writing, and I’ve studied creative writing, and there’s just so much emphasis on content. Sure, there’s a focus on form in terms of structure, but in my experience there is not a lot on prose style as a sort of unit of meaning. It’s like looking at a painting and not paying attention to whether it’s oils or watercolour.’

I note that the writing in Wild Abandon is baroque, and even sometimes quite curlicued. She agrees, saying, ‘In general I’m obsessed with language and sentences. Not to get too political, but I feel there’s an increasing homogenisation of prose style in contemporary fiction — maybe particularly in Australia, although I think it’s kind of swinging back the other way. For me such a big part of the pleasure of writing is playing with the medium itself.’

She pauses, and asks rhetorically, ‘Why not put the medium of writing to use? And not just for the sake of it. For me it’s a way of representing the content through the form, in that I wanted to represent this crazy, hyper-capitalist, wild world that the novel is set in — that we live in. I wanted to mirror that world in excesses of the prose and have that as another level of too-muchness.’

Book cover

I mention that some writers do seem to focus more on sentences than any other unit in their work — like the renowned American writer George Saunders, who has outlined how he revises his sentences by imagining a meter mounted in his forehead, with a ‘P’ for ‘positive’ on one side and an ‘N’ for ‘negative’ on the other. He says, ‘I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might. Where’s the needle?’ The writer’s job is to accept the result without whining, and then edit so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.

Bitto is not dissimilar, though she is less about revising and more about getting the vibe of the sentence as spot-on as possible in the first draft. ‘My writing process is definitely sentence-driven. I write quite slowly, and I write by hand, so instead of writing a sentence and then tinkering and tinkering with it, I will deliberately write the sentence slowly. It will take potentially quite a long time to come up with, say, the adjective that I want to put there.’ A lot of her focus is also on rhythm. ‘That comes quite unconsciously. Like, I’ll go I need an adjective here, and it has to be two syllables, simply because I feel that that’s how the sentence needs to be.’

Bitto is almost as well known in the literary world for running the publishing industry-friendly Carlton wine bar Heartattack and Vine, which she opened with her partner and two friends in late 2014. The bar ended up playing a big role in why she chose her protagonist: ‘I was working with a lot of young guys in the bar throughout this whole time when the novel was sort of germinating. And you know, it just really struck me that where they all wanted to go on their first overseas trip was the States, rather than, say, Europe or London, which was probably the norm for me and my friends when we finished school.’

Bitto is keen to remind me that the major events of the second half of Wild Abandon are based on a true story. ‘The seed was what happened in Zanesville, this real US town — and all long before the Tiger King phenomenon on Netflix.’ I ask her exactly what it was about this news story from 2011 that grabbed her at the time, and she is circumspect. ‘The idea of people being legally allowed to collect huge numbers of animals seemed like it had such metaphoric significance and richness, and spoke to so many things about how very strange is this kind of time that we find ourselves in.’

She’d had no idea that this kind of thing happened in America, and she couldn’t shake the questions it raised. What makes people want to collect wild creatures like that? What does it say about our relationship with animals? What is wildness, and what is kindness? ‘There’s long been a commodification of wildness, as a salve — an antidote — to the excess of civilisation,’ she says. ‘We want to have that as a way of countering ourselves. And this occurs in all kinds of ways in our lives in terms of the natural environment: like, we go bushwalking or hiking. Even our domestic pets in some way keep us connected to that idea of the animal, the wild — it’s all seen as healing, as a counterbalance to our overly civilised world. We need this wildness and we want it to give us something that we lack, even if we can’t exactly name what that thing is.’

Many years ago, Bitto published a poem titled Sleight of Hand. It reads:

These are messages written in dirt
and rubbed away with a quick boot-sole –
even then, the fear of the trace,
the unerasable, the archive that cannot be destroyed –
the way a word written on a foggy mirror returns
with the next flush of humid air.

I think of the tigers and all the other big cats and exotic animals lying in the Midwest mud 10 years ago, leaving a trace in the mind of one of this country’s best prose stylists, and I open to page one of Wild Abandon again.

Sam Cooney is a writer, editor, publisher and teacher, who ran the literary magazine The Lifted Brow from 2012 to 2020 and the independent publishing imprint Brow Books. 

Emily Bitto's new book Wild Abandon is available to purchase from the Library Shop.

This story appears in Openbook summer 2021.

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