Debut author Emily Bitto has been announced as the winner of this year’s coveted Stella Prize, a literature prize dedicated to celebrating women’s writing.
Bitto has become the first woman to win the prize for a debut novel. Her first book, The Strays, is about a young girl growing up in the fringes of a society desperately trying to recover from the Depression; in the Stella judges’ words, it is about “families, art, isolation, class, childhood, friendship, and the power of the past”.
“My most important dream has always been to write a novel,” Bitto told Women’s Agenda.
“But for years I put it off. I have an academic background in literature, I did a masters in literature but I had never taken the time to focus on my own writing.”
When Bitto turned 30, she made the decision she had been waiting to make for years – she decided to write her first novel. She enrolled in a PhD in creative writing at Melbourne University and focused all of her energies on creating the piece of work that would become the main submission of her PhD and, later, a Stella Prize-winning novel.
“All of a sudden I just reevaluated a lot of things in my life. I asked myself where I want to be in ten years and I realised of all the things I wanted in my life, the creative side of me was the part I had never been true to, and I knew if I didn’t change that now it would become a lifelong pattern.”
“I just thought to myself, it’s now or never. I thought if I didn’t take a leap of faith and try and write something now, I’d miss it and end up with a lost dream,” she said.
After Bitto submitted The Strays as her PhD work, it was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s prize for an unpublished manuscript. Shortly afterwards, it was picked up by an agent and published. Bitto fulfilled her dream of becoming an author.
“This prize will be so incredibly helpful in terms of getting people to hear about the novel and to read it. Debut authors have such a hard time with these things so I feel incredibly lucky that I have this opportunity as a first time writer,” she said.
The Stella Prize, apart from attracting publicity, comes with $50,000 prize money.
“That will allow me to write my second novel. It will give me at least a year to sit down and do nothing but write and write, and that is truly a dream come true.”
Bitto said she thinks the Stella Prize is crucial to the writing community because female writers – particularly debut female writers – still have a very hard time getting noticed.
“The numbers tell the story – women are still considerably less likely to win prizes, less likely to get reviewed and less likely to get the financial support that male writers get. The Stella Prize is such as important intervention and it is such a great way of redressing that disadvantaged, and also drawing attention to that disadvantage,” she said.
“It’s hard enough to make a go of it as a debut writer, but knowing you face those roadblocks as a woman as well can be very disheartening, so having a prize like this is so important.”
Writing novels isn’t the only thing Bitto has been up to recently – she has also become an entrepreneur. Bitto and her husband have just opened a wine bar in Melbourne called Heartattack and Vine.
“We both needed a long term, steady form of income so we decided to start our own business.” she said.
“I had been teaching at university but I was finding it hard because I was never finding any time to focus on my own writing, so we decided to open this bar to replace our other forms of income.”
“It’s wonderful – I work in the bar at night and it is such a nice counterpoint to writing. It gives me a chance to get out of my own head and get out there in the world. Then when I sit down to write I feel refreshed, and I feel anxious to get back to it. The long-term plan is for me to write all day and work in our bar at night and I think it’s perfect.”
As someone who has overcome her fear, achieved her biggest dream, and then also thrown in opening her own business on the side, does Bitto have any advice for women on the verge of following their own dreams?
“If there’s anything in your life that you’ve always wanted to do but never thought you could, just go for it. Right now. It’s always going to be hard, it’s never going to be easy, but there is nothing worse than ending up with regrets about unfulfilled dreams.”