If you’ve stopped in at Heartattack and Vine, chances are you’ve already met Emily Bitto.
Since opening the Lygon Street favourite late last year with business partner Nathen Doyle, Bitto has been clocking in 80-hour weeks working behind the bar. For a while her first love, writing, had to be put to one side.
That changed last week when her debut novel, The Strays, was announced as the winner of this year's prestigious Stella Prize.
“I'm in a total spinout, I haven't quite come back to Earth yet,” she says, after a week of events and media appearances. “It was just an insane longlist, so many amazing writers. I was just shocked to be on the short list, let alone to win.”
Established in 2013 to recognise the work of Australian female writers, the $50,000 Stella Prize has since been awarded to Clare Wright and Carrie Tiffany. This year’s group included established writers, such as Christine Kenneally, Joan London and Sofie Laguna, as well as the impressive debuts of Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and, of course, Bitto.
Melbourne’s bohemian history served as inspiration for The Strays, with Bitto drawing loosely from the intertwined lives of the Heide Circle of artists. The novel tells the story of Lily, an only child from an ordinary family who is drawn into the fray of an enigmatic school friend, Eva.
"I was really interested in exploring female friendship, which I think is something that doesn’t get much of a look in in literature. It’s always sort of overshadowed by romantic relationships,” Bitto says. “It’s something that's been of huge significance in my life and all my female friends’ lives.”
Much of the novel was written over the three-and-a-half years of her Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. Then there was an intensive editing process, working closely with her independent publisher, Affirm Press.
The good news came, as it often does, with an unexpected phone call. “They gave me a few days notice before the actual ceremony, partly because they wanted to make sure I could get away from the bar,” Bitto says, laughing.
Bitto says another novel is definitely on the cards, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to strike a better balance between her two loves. For now though, she's keen to get back to Lygon Street.
“I did a day of interviews and things, which not to sound too falsely modest, I don't really enjoy that side of being a writer,” she says. “It was nice to know I was back to work the next day, back to the bar and normal life.”
The Strays is available at bookstores and through Affirm Press.