The Stella Interviews: Edwina Preston
Congratulations on being longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize! What does it mean to you to be included on the list?
It’s a huge honour for me to be on the Stella 2023 longlist. My novel Bad Art Mother is about the trials and tribulations facing female writers in the past and the difficult juggling act that women artists still encounter when they also have children (as I do). For Bad Art Mother to be recognised by the Stella, the most important prize for Australian women writers, feels both humbling and incredibly thrilling.
It’s also a significant affirmation for me as a writer, because Bad Art Mother nearly didn’t make it to publication. It was rejected 25 times. It was hard to bounce back from these rejections, which felt a little too much like life imitating art. Now I’m so glad I didn’t give up — my experience is a testament to that feminist adage: ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’.
Your longlisted book, Bad Art Mother, has been described by Nanci Nott (ArtsHub) as “a split-perspective exploration of societal hostility towards maternal creativity”. What would you say are some of the central ambitions or themes of your work?
The book deals with the decade before I was born, the 1960s, a pre-feminist or proto-feminist period in which change was beginning for women, but had not really impacted men, or the institutions they headed. Sexist assumptions kept women ‘out’ of culture in all sorts of ways – from the belief that ‘flower-arranging’ was not an important art-form to the stripping out of the word ‘bosom’ from a woman’s poem and the displacement of women’s art to ‘less-important’ walls.
I wanted to show the difficulties facing creative women, with or without children, with or without men in their lives, and with or without ‘difficult’ temperaments. There is still, I think, a sense that a ‘difficult’ woman should be punished, or at least is deserving of punishment, and this is a theme that plays out in my story.
I was also really interested in examining the gendering of care, and the ways in which masculinity is constructed. The child in the book, Owen, is cared for by a score of different women, but ultimately his masculinity is constructed by the men in his life, all of whom encourage him to deny his sensitivity. There is a terrible tragedy in this and it’s clear that there’s a lot of work still to do here in broader society.
What draws you to the novel as a form?
I like the way, in a novel, I can play with ideas and experiences and observations from my own life, but can expand and extrapolate on them, as well as mix them up. I sometimes think that all of my characters are different parts of myself but in disguise. (Didn’t Flaubert say ‘Madame Bovary? C’est moi!’ or is that apocryphal?)
I like making things up, but I also like the way a tiny observed detail from real life can foster new associations and imaginative threads – it’s a voyage of continual surprise. I’m constantly amazed by the way imagination renews itself, feeds off itself, finds way of making sense of what seems, sometimes, like a big mess.
Novel writing is anxiety producing – especially for me because I don’t plot and I never know where I’m going – but I’ve learned to trust in the serendipities and epiphanies.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process? How do you write, where, when, and on what?
I always used to think I was an extremely lazy writer, but lately I’ve decided I just work according to a different model of efficiency. I’ve read about writers who work 9 to 5 on their writing, treating it like an office job. I can’t do that. I’d rather put a needle through my eye. If I have all the time in the world, I will do anything rather than write. I’ve found that I write best from 5:30 to around 7:30 pm. This way I can allow myself a glass of wine and use my writing as a debrief from my day at the office. With a partner who cooks dinner, this works really well. I chip away and, slowly but surely, the work forms.
What’s on your reading pile at the moment?
I’m a big Margaret Drabble fan. I interviewed her for 3RRR radio in Melbourne some years ago when she’d just published Pure Gold Baby and it was a total thrill for me. I’m always looking out for Drabble novels in op-shops, and just finished her 2002 novel The Seven Sisters (yes, found in an op-shop). Prior to that I stole a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides from my teenage daughter on a camping trip – how had I not read that before? Brigid Delaney’s Stoicism for Beginners Reasons Not To Worry has been my go-to self-help manual. Others on the pile include Julia Prendergast’s wonderful short story collection Blood Rust and Antonia Pont’s poetry collection You Will Not Know In Advance What You’ll Feel. I don’t read a lot of poetry these days but was brought back to it recently by Andy Jackson’s brilliant Human Looking.
Find out more about Edwina Preston’s 2023 Stella Prize longlisted book, Bad Art Mother.