Author Emily Bitto: ‘England is not the cultural centre for Australians any more’

Stella Prize winner’s new novel with its Tiger King-style setting in rural Ohio is an exploration of hedonism in the face of capitalist decline

The hero’s journey is a narrative device as old as storytelling itself. But what does it look like now, when we are running out of days and new places on the map? For a millennial Melbourne man, Will, the protagonist of Emily Bitto’s second novel, Wild Abandon, the hero’s journey is America.

Will has done the bars in Melbourne and the day drinking in the Edinburgh Gardens, so he heads to New York, where he burns money on negronis and expensive brunches. He visits clubs and has sexual experiences that he can’t really recall because of the drugs. He checks in to cool bars on Facebook. He feels himself superior to friends left behind in his home town, while also feeling intensely lonely. In other words, he has the prescribed late capitalist coming-of-age travel experience.

But the hero’s real journey begins when he leaves New York, broke, heartbroken and friendless, and ends up in Ohio, working for Wayne, an unstable Vietnam war veteran and keeper of exotic animals.

Emily Bitto’s first novel, The Strays, won the Stella Prize in 2015 and was set in the bohemian art world of 1930s Melbourne.

Six years in the making, Wild Abandon is a very different and highly exhilarating proposition.

“I knew I didn’t want to write another historical novel,” says Bitto, 41. The author, who co-owns popular Melbourne bar Heart Attack and Vine, was working 90 hours a week there when she started Wild Abandon.

“I really wanted to write something contemporary. I’m constantly struggling to understand the strangeness of the world right now: the hyper-capitalist, overdeveloped west, this Rome-before-the-fall moment, this onwards-rushing not looking back, this more-more-more moment. And I wanted to capture that and the strangeness of how it is manifested.”

Bitto also wanted to imbue this fictional world with “the hospo scene in Melbourne and the cocktail culture and that whole world of bars. And all of that strange culture around drinking, where people consume as much as possible.”

Cover image for Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto

At the time of writing the novel, Bitto’s circle was this hospitality world, including chefs and bartenders – “people who work with the intensity of never really stopping.” She was also working with many young men in their early 20s and began to hear about the world from their perspectives. Many of them had dreams of travelling.

“I’ve always been interested in Australian identity and the relationship between Australia and ‘out there’. The place where a lot of these guys want to travel to has changed. With us it was Europe or London. But it’s all New York for them, and that might be because of the food scene and bar culture. England is not the cultural centre for Australians any more,” she says.

Wild Abandon is told from 22-year-old Will’s perspective, and the reader is practically poured into his skinny jeans, seeing this world of middle America in decline through his unjaded (although often hungover) eyes.

The bulk of the novel is set in an unnamed Ohio town that was inspired by a news story Bitto read about a man who kept a menagerie of exotic animals in the mode of Tiger King’s Joe Exotic. “This story also made me think about where we are at, right now, and the longing for contact with something more wild and animal in nature,” she says.

Awarded a Felix Meyer travel scholarship, Bitto travelled to the States and spent several weeks as a “quiet observer” in this Ohio town. “I didn’t make my presence felt too much. It was interesting going to a place I would never ever visit as a tourist – this town that I felt was in decline – American flags everywhere, boarded up windows with ‘Support Our Troops’ signs,” she says.

“I did visit a sanctuary where there were a lot of exotic animals rescued from random collectors. That was really interesting, surreal even. At that point in time you could have as many tigers and lions as pets as you wanted – no one had to know. Unless you exhibited them or bred them, you didn’t need any kind of permit. The animals themselves sparked my imagination – there’s something so mesmerising and incredible about a tiger.”

The opioid epidemic was raging in Ohio at the time and Trump was yet to become president, although the stage was being set for his chaotic reign.

“I started writing in the Obama era and then we got into the Trump years and I thought, ‘Is this relevant? This journey of absolute hedonism that Will is driving himself into?’ But everyone is always looking for escape whether it is temporary or permanent. In the pandemic, what everyone is focused on is what they are eating and drinking.”

Wild Abandon is also, in its way, a novel about the world on the brink of collapse, and although it’s full of brilliant lines, sharply observed characters and humour, there is also deep sadness running through it.

“It was incredibly depressing thinking a lot of these amazing animals in the book are going to be extinct one day soon,” Bitto says. “I feel a real sadness of the world ending – I was very conscious of this [while writing] – but instead of writing an ecological novel, what I was wanting to represent was the way we have by and large approached this ending, which is rushed headlong forward as a species and not thinking about it, but while doing it there is a sense of dread.

“Will’s experience of individual heartbreak, and his thing of rushing forward and throwing himself into an experience of the world to suppress his feelings of loss, was very much a double thing with the experience the world is going through right now.”

• Wild Abandon by Emily Bitto is out now through Allen and Unwin


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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