For the first time ever one of Australia’s most lucrative awards for female writers has gone to a debut novel.
Melbourne author Emily Bitto who won the 2015 Stella prize for her book The Strays, was awarded the $50,000 prize at an event in Melbourne this week.
Her 1930s-set novel follows Lily, a lonely girl who is infatuated with avant-garde painter, Evan Trentham, and his family.
The story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties was described by the judges as “both moving and sophisticated; both well researched and original; both intellectually engaging and emotionally gripping”.
Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the prize’s judging panel said Bitto’s novel can “hold its head high” among great works such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, or A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.
“The Strays is like a gemstone: polished and multifaceted, reflecting illuminations back to the reader and holding rich colour in its depths.”
Bitto says receiving the award has been a “life-changing honour”.
“Even since being included on the Stella shortlist, I have noticed a clear difference in the kind of attention that my work has received,” she said.
“I am particularly honoured to have won a prize that has grown from a motive so dear to my own heart: the desire to redress gender inequality in the literary world.
“In its three years of existence, the Stella Prize has had a huge impact on the Australian literary landscape and has initiated a vital dialogue about gender within the public domain. As a female writer, I have benefited from this award before even finding myself on the longlist, and I am so grateful for its existence.”
Bitto grew up in what she describes as “a sort of hippy community in Queensland”. It was this aspect of her life she wanted to capture in her novel, where “a group of people cut themselves off from mainstream culture. I’ve always been drawn to that,” she said.
After completing a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne, she wrote for a number of publications, including The Sydney Morning Herald, Meanjin, Heat and the Australian Literary Review.
Before winning the Stella Prize, The Strays manuscript was also shortlisted for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2015 Indie Prize.
So what’s next for this Aussie up-and-comer?
Well, when she’s not writing Bitto runs a new winebar, Heartattack & Vine in Melbourne, where she lives with her partner.
As a reward for winning the Prize she’ll be taking a six-month guilt-free hiatus from writing, and turn her attention to the new bar.
“My dream scenario is to be writing in the morning and working in the bar at night,” she said.
“It’s quite nice to have that complete opposite.”
And to toast the occasion?
“A dirty martini,” she admitted to The Guardian.
But don’t worry, a second novel is the pipeline.
Bitto plans to use the prize money to buy her time to work on a second book which she promises will be more contemporary but still draw on her “interests and obsessions”.
The prize, which was first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds, manifested out of a perception that Australia’s most significant literary prize, the Miles Franklin, was dominated by male writers.
It was named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah “Miles” Franklin, and recognises both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women.
Read the prologue of Bitto’s The Strays here.
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