EMILY SPURR’s novel A Million Things was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Prize. Her latest novel, Beatrix & Fred is an off-kilter love story wrapped in a satisfying layer of moral complexity. Good Reading caught up with Emily to discuss her new novel.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Beatrix is a loner. She has a love-hate relationship with her one friend, Ray, a hate-hate relationship with everyone else in her office and a genuine attachment to a stuffed canary named Horatio. She drinks alone far too much. Lately she’s been finding the edge of the railway platform dangerously seductive.
Her life needs to change. Then she crosses paths with an old woman who seems to be stalking her, and that’s exactly what happens. Eighty-something Fred is smart, earthy, funny and not the harmless elderly lady she appears to be. She is, in fact, quite literally something else. But what?
When something happens to Ray, Fred decides to reveal herself. And Beatrix realises she has some agonising choices to make.
Beatrix & Fred is an off-kilter love story wrapped in a satisfying layer of moral complexity and tied up with a ribbon of sheer fun. Warm, witty, more than slightly weird – it takes the age-old question of what it is to be human beyond humanity itself.
MEET THE AUTHOR
What was the inspiration behind your book Beatrix & Fred?
There were so many things that fed into this book. A germ of this story has been kicking around in my head for the last 15 years. Which would make you assume I knew what I was doing when I started writing it – but I really didn’t. Beatrix & Fred was written, mostly, in a dark cold little room in Melbourne in between work, home-schooling and a general feeling of unreality – while the city lost it collective mind around me. It was a time defined by a virus that emerged and spread because of human population expansion and behaviour. Yet this virus, forcing us to retreat, also exposed our animal vulnerability. Against this backdrop, with a lot of research, my own experience of perimenopause and a brain that felt like it might never slow down, my thoughts kept coming back to us – humans, what are we, really?
I think the book became a way to peer at us, to play with what we know and what we think we know, to explore the interactions of the body and mind and, perhaps, as a way back to acknowledging our animal selves. That said, I think we humans have a tendency to laugh into the dark and there’s certainly an element of Beatrix & Fred that is me doing just that.
How did the process of writing this book compare to that of your debut A Million Things?
I’ve heard it said that writing books is like having children in that each is unique. You create one, you think, yep, OK, I get this. I can do it. And then the next one is nothing like the first.
I can now say that this is a fairly accurate description. Beatrix & Fred It is such a different book to A Million Things and this tortured me. I wasn’t interested in writing another A-Million-Things-esque book – I’d done that. But this was so different. Certainly A Million Things was in some ways an unusual novel, but this was something else. The writing journey to bring the reader with me, to make this world feel real and reasonable was a genuine test of my self-belief. I cried over it more than once. There were days the self-doubt was debilitating. It was a difficult second book-child that really made me work for it in a way that was very different to my first. But I got there in the end – and knowing the agony that went into writing it somehow makes me love it more.
The unlikely friendship between Beatrix and Fred is central to this story. How did you go about developing it?
Honestly, they developed themselves. I had an idea of who they were, Fred was a lot more menacing, more predatory – Beatrix was, well, Beatrix. Fred for a while at the start was male, and she didn’t have her own ‘voice’ in the manuscript for quite some time. But they wouldn’t let me write it like that. Fred is the most human, kind person – sure she’s also a predator and a little creepy but really, she’s curious, loving and joyful. She loves people, she delights in them – even as she uses them, perhaps especially as she uses them – and she saw something in Beatrix that was beyond a ‘chosen victim’ or depressed jerk. She saw something beautiful and kind and thoughtful in her too, something soft, and delicate. Her interactions with Beatrix helped show me that too. Their friendship developed the way that it did quite organically – it just didn’t work any other way. It’s a bonkers love story on so many levels and in writing it, I fell in love with them too. This book really put me through the wringer as a writer; it was their strange and beautiful relationship that kept me going.
What do you hope readers will take away from Beatrix’s battle with depression?
Beatrix’s battle with depression is intricately connected to her hormonal state. The possible effects of perimenopause on the body, brain and mental health are woefully misunderstood in our society and I think Beatrix’s experience certainly mirrors that. So one thing I hope that readers take is some knowledge of that.
More broadly, I suppose I hope readers take an inner and outer view of her depression. I suppose I hope that it offers a gentle suggestion that small steps can be enough. That small changes can accumulate into something. And for those on the outside, perhaps an understanding that even when it doesn’t look like it, there’s someone fighting in there, fighting to find some sort of equilibrium.
Beatrix & Fred unfolds through multiple perspectives – was there a particular character’s perspective that you found more challenging or enjoyable to write from?
Fred was an utter delight. The more I wrote her the more I loved her. Beatrix was probably more difficult as most of her perspective is written in third person and that was a departure from the style used in my first book. That said, once I had the ending settled and I was clear in my mind where her perspective was coming from, writing her became a smoother experience. I didn’t find her depression problematic to write, nor her anger and frustration. Writing her was a bit of a release, really. I had a lot of fun with Beatrix, she’s a prickly delight and the more I slipped into her the more I loved her. Even though the writing of this book at times tortured me the characters were not part of the torture. Quite the opposite. I love them fiercely.
Beatrix is a loner and finds companionship from a stuffed canary – do you have a personal connection to taxidermy?
I do not. Though, for this book, I certainly spent many more hours watching detailed how-to taxidermy videos – and researching carpet beetles, moths and dermestid beetles – than any non-taxidermist should. I do find the compulsion to collect, stuff and display the removed skins of animals fascinating, in terms of what it says about us as a species, but I’ve never had (or wanted) a taxidermy mount of my own.
Your novel steps into the realm of speculative-fiction – did you draw inspiration from any authors or books?
No. honestly, I wish I’d found something to guide me, it probably would have made the process less fraught. I worked really hard to try and bring the reader on this journey. It’s a strange story that’s firmly grounded in reality, despite its oddness. Likely or not, I like to think it’s certainly possible.
I suppose in moments of doubt, I took comfort in the fact the there is a long history of love and suspension of disbelief for the literary ‘super genre’ that is speculative fiction. Really, it can be anything and that was quite freeing.
As a young adult I read a lot of Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint and Margret Atwood, and I love the work of Ruth Ozeki, Rumaan Alam and Louise Erdrich. These authors weren’t front of mind while writing but their existence was certainly an antidote to the ‘can this be done?’ voice in the back of my head. They showed that it can be done, I just needed to find the way that worked for me.
What do you hope readers take away from your novel overall?
My big question when writing Beatrix & Fred was ‘what is human?’ And I certainly hope reading the book opens space for contemplation of that. Beatrix & Fred is warm, darkly fun and a little bit weird, it deals with the choices we make and the people we love and I hope readers take something contemplative and joyful from it.