Trust the process

Trust the Process writing tip stuck on windowRecently I sat down to write an essay. It started off okay, but the more I wrote, the more difficult it got, until I was contemplating dropping my laptop off the balcony just to be done with it.

The first thing I did for this essay was open a blank Word doc called ‘Notes on The Essay’ and write down all my notes and ideas about the topic, as well as quotes I might use, since the essay incorporated a book review.

When I was halfway finished the notes, I got impatient. I really had to get started writing this essay. I opened a new Word doc, named it ‘This Is the Essay,’ and started copying and pasting ideas and quotes.

I wasted a lot of time trying to write the opening. After much faffing, I started working on an idea that I figured would go in the middle of the essay, a part I felt I could dive into.

Which is what I should have done in the first place, but I got distracted by the empty space where the start should be, and tried to start at the start.

Things went well for a few days, but then my excitement dried up and I realised none of what I’d written actually sat together. It had no start and no conclusion, and a lot of the ideas hadn’t quite come together.

I had an almost complete first draft (I was already over the given word count), but it felt like the essay had died on the page. Every word of it was terrible, it made no sense and was nothing like the essay I’d first imagined.

The longer I sat looking at the dead essay, the more I felt like an idiot for thinking I could write about this challenging topic, that I had anything serious or worthwhile to say, that I could do any kind of justice to the book I was reviewing.

I felt like an imposter and a failure and an idiot. I tried to fix things, but it seemed like I was just making them worse.

When staring at all the half-broken sentences in my ‘This Is the Essay’ word doc became overwhelming, I opened a new document and named it ‘Temp’.

At this point I had three word documents going for one essay.

I copied and pasted a couple of sections into my Temp doc. I edited them in different ways. For some reason, it was easier to work on a section in isolation, outside of the main doc. Maybe because I didn’t feel the pressure of the entire essay in every change I made.

I also remembered that I’d never finished the notes document I’d started with. I had a process, but I’d gotten impatient with it. I spent another day copying out quotes from the book I was working with, developing my notes, looking for connections between ideas.

I thought I might be able to pull this together if I followed through on my process. I had to trust that I could bring the essay together as I worked through it, even if the early drafts were terrible.

Eventually I had 8000 words of notes for a 4500-word essay.

I invested a lot of time into those notes, and during that time was when my thinking developed for the essay. That 8000-word notes document is a chaotic mess of colour-coded highlighting, page references and all caps reminders, but that was all part of the process.

Once the essay was published, readers sent the kindest and most glowing feedback my writing has ever received. I wouldn’t have expected this. I think I was too deep inside the mental mess surrounding the essay to approach it with fresh eyes at that time. (Luckily the editor and I went through a couple of revisisions together, which certainly helped.) You can read it here.

My key learning from this experience is that I have a process that I’ve developed over a decade of writing:
– compile the ideas
– always start with the easiest part
– expect the first draft to die on the page
– return to the ideas
– revise one section at a time

When I feel overwhelmed, I just need to remind myself to trust the process.

(Side note: I learned the wonderful phrase ‘trust the process’ from this Sports Sports Sports episode of Reply All.)

Ashley
xo

PS. My fabulous monthly author newsletter is coming out this week, and there’s still time to sign up!

Ten (more) best podcasts

Last year I recommended ten podcasts I love. This year I’m still spending a ludicrous amount of time lying down, which means I’m still listening to a lot of podcasts. Chronic fatigue has basically turned me into a podcast curation service.

Here’s ten more I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

  1. The Shrink Next Door
    This six-episode series tells the bizarre true story of a psychiatrist who came to control every aspect of one of his patient’s lives, including moving his family into the patient’s house and making himself president of the patient’s company. It sounds implausible, but the evidence exists to prove every step of the manipulation, as this series shows.
  2. Reply All
    Reply All is a podcast about the internet. This description made me initially sceptical about it, but Reply All isn’t techie or niche. It explores the human experience of using the internet from all kinds of angles. Like in episode 130, when the hosts try to help a listener whose Snapchat account has been hacked, and end up stumbling onto a ring of cybercriminals in Europe.
  3. The Dream
    Told over eleven well scripted episodes featuring a variety of interviews, The Dream explores multi-level marketing, why so many people get involved with it, and how it’s nothing more than legalised pyramid scheming. At the start of season one, the host signs up to a multi-level marketing company, and everything unravels for her as she tries to make back the money she spent.
  4. Missing Richard Simmons
    This six-part series from Dan Taberski explores the abrupt and mysterious withdrawal of Richard Simmons from public – and seemingly private – life. I didn’t know or care much about Simmons before listening to the podcast, but Taberski is an excellent storyteller, and has a good sense of humour as well. He draws listeners through the series by creating mystery and empathy around Simmons.
    Taberski followed up this series with two more: Surviving Y2K, which weaves together various stories that centred on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Running from Cops, which examines the cultural impacts of the reality series Cops. All three series are absorbing and distinct.
  5. Mobituaries
    A comedian named Mo Rocca is obsessed with obituaries. This doesn’t sound like a compelling concept, but Mo excels at weaving history and facts into fascinating stories. Plus, his obits are inventive. In one episode he tells the story of a JFK impersonator whose career ended with the real president’s assassination. Another looks at the demise of the Neanderthals (and the surprising fact that many people today have some Neanderthal DNA). My favourite is the story of a pair of conjoined twins from Thailand, the original “Siamese” twins, their brush with the American dream, and how they negotiated daily life between the two women they married.
  6. Root of Evil
    I listen and read to a lot of crime stories, and this was the most fascinating true crime case I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. The podcast weaves together two interconnected narratives: a cold case investigation into the Black Dahlia murder, which took place in Los Angeles, 1947; and the story of the intergenerational trauma experienced by the Hodel family. The murder storyline and its investigation are more interesting, although the family storyline adds depth to the series. The Black Dahlia murder is bizarre, but the theory of the crime put forward here was one of the most startling, insane things I’ve ever heard.
  7. Bear Brook
    A short but impressively told documentary crime series that begins in the New Hampshire woods, in 1985, with the discovery of two barrels containing four bodies. Investigations are still revealing new information about this case 34 years later. I especially love true crime podcasts, and Bear Brook is the most impressive of all the ones I’ve listened to, both because of the fascinating way the investigation unfolds, and the superior storytelling skills of its host, Jason Moon.
  8. Direct Appeal
    Like Serial, Direct Appeal explores a single murder trial to consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. “For the last 13 years, Melanie McGuire has been serving a life sentence for the murder and dismemberment of her husband, whose body was found in three suitcases in the Chesapeake Bay.” Criminologists Meghan Sacks and Amy Shlosberg examine the evidence, including their own interviews with Melanie. It took me a bit to get used to the rapid-fire way the hosts talk, but I’ve come to love the show as much for their charismatic interaction as for the gritty, baffling details of the case.
  9. Crime Junkie
    Every week, Crime Junkee summarises a major crime story, including cold cases, serial killers, murders and missing persons. The host delivers the story in a chatty style, while her (largely superfluous) producer provides personal reactions. They often cover less infamous cases, like American serial killer Herb Baumeister, who kept a bunch of mannequins posed around his indoor pool so he could pretend he was having pool parties, and also killed as many as 21 men.
  10. Invisibilia
    This podcast uses documentary-style interviews and storytelling to examine the unseen forces that shape ideas, beliefs and assumptions. Season 4 featured a two-part series on how the human brain processes emotions that was especially interesting.

Bonus: My favourite podcast is still Everything is Alive. Each episode features a scripted interview with an inanimate object, as well as a phone call to an actual person or organisation that is always peculiar and fascinating. All the episodes are enjoyable (and one features Sydney comedian Jennifer Wong playing a copy of The Canberra Times from 24 October 1988). But my absolute favourite episode is Connor, a portrait of US President William Taft. It’s both humorous and incisive, and it features the best monologue on bread you will ever hear.

PS. I’m speaking about my own crime book, My Name Is Revenge, in Brisbane on Wednesday 24 July. If you’re in the area, join us!

 

Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019

When I lived in Mexico, a game people sometimes played, generally over drinks, was to share their stories of getting mugged. Everyone had one, eventually even me. My experience was banal, but a Swedish colleague had a fantastic story that has stayed with me over a decade. She lived in one part of Mexico City and worked in another, across town. She took public transit to work every day. One morning she got off the bus near her work, and a man stopped her, flashing a knife. As she handed over her wallet, she exclaimed that she lived all the way across the city, and if he took all her money, she wouldn’t be able to get home that evening.

The knife-wielding man reached into his pocket and gave her enough change to catch the bus home. Turns out he was a mugger with a heart of – well, not gold. Bronze, maybe.

Asking about mugging stories in Mexico always resulted in a lively conversation. I don’t know what the Canadian equivalent to this would be. Probably something to do with getting your vehicle stuck in the snow.

In Australia, if you want to hear dramatic, horrific and sometimes hilarious anecdotes, you ask about spiders. Everyone has at least one good spider story. I’ve written about Australian spider stories before, sharing some of the best anecdotes I’ve heard, as well as my own.

Recently I had dinner with a group of Australians. We’d all just met each other, so I asked about their spider stories. There were a few standards. Someone told a story about a huntsman in a pillowcase (yes, they do bite!). Another recalled the time a huntsman laid its eggs in the sideview mirror of her car. She discovered this as she was driving down the highway, when the huntsman decided to run across the windshield. She tried to fend it off with the wipers. ‘Then I heard it run across the top of the car. I had to go to a service station to get help.’

I thought that maybe, after nearly a decade in Australia, I’d heard the gamut of spider stories.

And then someone started talking about the spider wasp.

It came in through a living room window, a huge orange and black wasp flying erratically. Its head was tremendous, its mouth fur-covered, with a wildly waving set of pinchers.

Except it wasn’t a set of pinchers at all. The wasp had bitten into a huntsman (which are gigantic and furry, like tarantulas) and was flying around with the still-live spider in its mouth.

The wasp flew into the window pane, dropped the twitching huntsman on the sill, and took off out the open window.

When she recovered from the shock enough to look it up online, the startled victim of the spider delivery learned that the Australian spider wasp’s tactic: it paralyses its prey, then flies off with the spider (which is much larger than the wasp), and lays its eggs inside the spider, for the hatching baby wasps to consume from the inside out.

In case you’re feeling queasy, here’s a koala.A koala in a gum tree in Australia that does not plan to kill you
It’s still early, but the spider-wasp story is a strong contender for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2019.

In other news, I’m at Better Read than Dead in Newtown this week to talk about my book on Thursday, July 4, 6:30pm. You can find out about more upcoming events, and possibly read more spider anecdotes, in my monthly author newsletter.

xo
Ashley

 

Secret highlights of an unknown rural gem

Recently I spent a week on writing retreat in rural NSW, near a place called Clarence Town.  I’d never heard of Clarence Town before. It’s a few hours north of Sydney, and has a population of less than 1000 people. It’s inland, and you have to turn down several side roads to get to it. It’s not a place you’d visit unless you had a reason to, which you probably don’t. But you’re missing out! Here are five excellent reasons to visit Clarence Town.

1. Experience the Williams River Cafe
The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
The Williams River Cafe wants to wish you a happy new year. Even in May, when I was in town. I wasn’t sure if they were still wishing me a happy 2019, or if they were getting in early to wish me a happy 2020. It must have been the latter, otherwise it would have read “Happy Same Old Year It’s Been for Five Months Already.”

Inside the cafe is as knick-knacky as your wildest dreams, with corrugated metal as a decorative flourish.
Inside The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
And of course there are the owl cookie jars.
Owl cookie jars in small town Australian cafe
When I popped into the Williams River Cafe, the only customers were one white-haired couple. They looked to be approximately 145 years old. They had driving maps of Australia open on the table between them, but I imagine them as permanent fixtures in the Williams River Cafe.

2. Visit Lovey’s Grocers – Two Local Blokes
I didn’t get to meet either of the local blokes, which is a shame. I would have congratulated them on having the world’s best IGA name, and also asked which one was Lovey. IMG_1499.JPG

3. Clarence Town is the seventh oldest colonial settlement in Australia.
If you win a pub trivia night with that fact, I expect a cut of the profits. Another Clarence Town fact: the local Aboriginal name, Erringhi, means ‘the place of the little black duck’.

4. This historic passive-aggressive photo collage
The Clarence Town School of Arts was built in 1915 ‘to last and withstand the ravages of white ants’. So far it has. A glass-fronted bulletin board hangs near its front door. The bulletin board was my absolute highlight of Clarence Town, because it featured this photo collage, which reads:
Deb Ball 1993
On the 1st of May 1993 I put a Deb Ball on. I did it under the banner of the Fire Brigade, I did every bit of organising myself and the boys turned up on the day to help put up a few of the decorations – it nearly killed me. … I hired the “ALAN WARD BIG BAND” It cost $1,000 which was a lot of money then but they were worth it.IMG_1490.JPG
The ‘I’ in this collage goes unnamed. I assume the writer expects that her reputation as the woman who put on the 1993 Deb Ball precedes her. I love that she turned her photo collage into an opportunity to publicly shame ‘the boys’ of the fire brigade (perhaps my scare quotes aren’t needed there; in 1993 the Clarence Town fire brigade was possibly staffed by children). I love that she concludes by big noting how much money she spent, but also that she seems to think $1000 isn’t much money today?

Finally, I love that there is no indication how long this faded, curling photo collage has been on the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board. It’s possibly been there since 1993, and I’m sure it will stay there as long as its author is alive.

5. Clarence Town’s reliable annual events
The photo collage wasn’t the only bulletin board highlight. I was also impressed by this poster. There’s an obvious narrative here: the flyer was posted in 2018, and this year, an efficient and eco-friendly organiser thought ‘Why print new flyers? The event is literally the exact same.’ And instead they simply visited the flyer where it has stayed all year (there’s not a lot of changeover in the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board),  whited out the date and final numeral of the year, and wrote over them.  IMG_1493.JPG

And that’s it. Actually, you have less reason to visit Clarence Town now that you’ve seen all the highlights. This is literally it. I wouldn’t recommend going there.

Unless you’re on writing retreat, and you want to lock yourself away with your laptop where there are as few distractions as possible. Then Clarence Town might be the perfect place.

 

Like floating in space, but wet

My doctors advised me to manage my chronic fatigue recovery by taking frequent rests throughout the day. This is fine if I’m home, where there’s no people buzzing around, where I can put on my eye mask and if necessary, noise-cancelling headphones. When I’m not home, it’s harder to actually rest. And sometimes it’s not possible to be home every three hours.

One thing I used to find wonderfully restful was getting a massage. Technically I can still get a massage, but it will leave me as exhausted as if I went for a run. (Obvious conclusion: having a massage is a form of exercise.)

So I’ve been looking for restful alternatives. Which is how I discovered the sleep pod.
Sleep pod in a hotel business loungeI found this particular sleep pod at a Brisbane hotel. The hotel was so futuristic, my room didn’t have light switches (light switches are so 20th century). Instead it had a smartphone on which you could set ‘moods’ for your room. Except that when I arrived, the smartphone battery was dead, so the mood of my room was ‘put your makeup on in the dark’.

The sleep pod was in the business lounge. Sure, I could have rested in my actual hotel room, but the pod promised executive-quality power napping. This turns out to mean that you get in, the pod reclines and vibrates mildly, and some blue lights inside the pod bit imply that your nap is futuristic.

I give the sleep pod a D+.

Next I tried a float tank, also called a sensory deprivation tank. Float tanks are filled with salt water, so you can float like you’re at the Dead Sea, except without all the slick mud and tourists taking photos. So maybe it’s more like floating in space, but wet.
A float tank in a float tank centre
You spend an hour in the tank, floating total darkness and blissful quiet, trying not to get salt water in your eyes.

I give the float tank a B+.

Is it more relaxing than napping in a sunbeam on my own couch with an eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones? No. Sunbeam naps at home are a solid A+.

If I’ve become an expert in anything in the past few years, it’s napping, and this is my expert recommendation. Nap at home, in your pyjamas, with the whole world blocked out by eye masks and headphones and layers of blankets, even if it means you’ll spend far more time there than you ever expected or wanted to.

 

 

So now you’re an author

When I was seven, my school published a story I’d written in a collection called Young Saskatchewan Writers. (My family lived in Moose Jaw, so I was Saskatchewanian.) It was a one-paragraph story about a wizard who turned some school kids into frogs.

Seeing my name in that book made me think I actually was a writer, or at least would be some day. I started a novel when I was fourteen, and another when I was eighteen. The first was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars; the second was apocalyptic magical realism. (All I can say is, thank goodness self-publishing was not so widely accessible back then.)

There were a few years in my twenties when I didn’t write anything but journals, mostly because I was living in Peru and Mexico, and spending my time learning Spanish.

I returned to writing seriously in 2010. I applied for an arts grant, and somehow got it. Around that time, I read a book in which the author mentioned that it took 10 years for her project to go from idea to publication. I found this ridiculous. There was no way my book would take that long.

Almost exactly ten years later, my first book came out. I was 35. Author with stacks of books, My Name Is RevengeWhich is to say, this was a major life goal of mine that I worked very hard on for many years, and achieving it felt really good. And lots of great things have happened since my book came out.

Here I am at Sydney Writers’ Festival with essayists Fiona Wright and Luke Carman, whose new collections explore the impacts of chronic illness. It was a bit intimidating to get up on stage with such skilled, established authors. But it went well, I think. IMG_1463.JPGAfter the talk, all three of us went to the signing tables. I’d joked about how, because I was the panel moderator, no one would come to have my book signed – no one ever goes to see the moderator. And I was right! I sat there all alone while people lined up with Fiona and Luke’s books. It felt like a rite of passage.

Since my book has come out, I also had the pleasure of speaking to Claudine Tinellis, who hosts the podcast Talking Aussie Books about writing Revenge and tips for writers.

I made my first book club appearance, with this incredible group of Armenian women. This was delightful, not only because they had all read the book and we had a robust, three-hour discussion about Armenian identity, but also because it was like being with my aunts and cousins.  Armenian Book Club with copies of My Name Is RevengeAnd I was invited to appear at the NSW Dickens Society annual conference with the wonderful Walter Mason. This time, I signed some books!Literary conference panel from NSW Dickens Society
And I have more events coming up, in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Chronic fatigue has made all this challenging. My events have gone well, but I usually go straight to bed after, sometimes feeling like my head’s being crushed in a vice. But I’m still grateful I get to do it. I know people with chronic illnesses who aren’t well enough to even attend events, let alone speak at them. And I know lots of writers who have been working on their manuscripts for many years, hoping to see them published.

What I’ve learned is you have no idea what’s going to happen: a random illness, a book publication that you didn’t even write as a book. Anything, apparently.

Hoping good things happen for you,
Ashley x

 

Lessons from Australia: You don’t hit sleepy lizards

Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.  Writing retreat bedroom with desk, view of river
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.

Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.

1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.

2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.

3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’

Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’

Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.

It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.

This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Williams River, NSW Australia Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.

xo
Ashley

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It’s scary but nobody cares

I’ve never understood why Australians bother with the drop bear myth. It’s like a morgue trying to freak out visitors with a plastic fly in the complimentary punch bowl. If Aussies want to freak out foreigners, they can simply relate their own everyday encounters with deadly creatures, such as finding a funnel-web spider submerged in an air bubble in their swimming pool, or discovering a brown snake in their washing machine, or being bitten by a redback spider at the age of three and taken to the GP’s office to be told, ‘It’s probably fine.’ These are all actual experiences Australians have related to me, unsolicited.

There was once an African safari park outside Sydney that advertised its lions and tigers and bears with a commercial jingle featuring the refrain, ‘It’s scary but nobody cares.’ While I can’t imagine the phrase inspired many theme park visits, such nonchalance in the face of potential death would be the perfect national motto for Australia. Sure, some Aussies do care, but the national attitude is pride in not caring. Another local once told me – again, unsolicited – about the white-tailed spider bite that turned his arm the greyish pallor of a three-day-old corpse. He related the experience with underlying satisfaction, as though it ranked high among his personal achievements. White-tailed spiders are scary. This guy not only didn’t care, but was damn proud of it.

This is the opening to ‘It’s Scary but Nobody Cares’, an article about coming to terms with Australia’s reputation for deadliness, published by Griffith Review. It’s an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress, How to Be Australian. The full piece is free to read now!

Here’s a little bonus I couldn’t squeeze in:
A Snakey handling a snake at the La Perouse Snake Show in Australia
Australians have a delightfully weird relationship with their deadly wildlife. The La Perouse Snake Show is a perfect example of this.

Running once a month for the past century, the snake show takes place inside this rather low fence. Visitors gather around and dangle their children’s legs tantalisingly into the arena, where a ‘snakey’ (the genuine professional term) hauls a variety of live snakes out of brown sacks and gives a little spiel about each of them.

Steve and I happened upon this by accident while visiting this historic part of Sydney, and we were captivated. Particularly when the man said, speaking directly to a potentially lethal snake in the cutesy voice used for puppies and toddlers, ‘You’ve got tiny little fangs, don’t you?’

This country will never cease to enthrall me. Also, I move that all writers be called wordies; it’s got a real ring to it.

Ashley
xo

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From euphoria to genocide

This month I reviewed the recently released Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Canadian author Wendy Elliott. Drawing on archival documents, including personal letters and journals, the book tells the incredible stories of a group of humanitarians working in central Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

From 1908 to 1923, Ottoman citizens endured ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’ – as well as an unprecedented modern genocide. Elliott traces these events with clarity, intrigue, and a wonderful attention to startling detail.

I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her time in Armenia, what drew her to these stories, and what she learned in the process.

1. What first took you to Armenia? What drew you back?
In 2006 I was asked by a Canadian international development agency to go to Vanadzor as a Volunteer Advisor to train a group of women in skills I’d acquired while working in various executive positions in not-for-profit organizations. I was welcomed by them so warmly I immediately felt at home, and I was eager to return. The next year I was invited to Gyumri, and in 2009 I completed two assignments in Yerevan. Canadian funding for the program was discontinued in 2010, or I would have returned regularly.

Author Wendy Elliot in Republic Square, Yerevan, Armenia
Author Wendy Elliott in Yerevan, Armenia, 2006

2. How did you come to write the story of Susan Wealthy Orvis and her fellow humanitarians?
In 2014, my one-time interpreter and now-friend Kamo Mayilyan heard about Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American missionary who had saved thousands of Armenian orphans after the genocide. We co-authored an article about her, and were contacted by her great niece who had seen it. She offered us access to a hundred-year-old trunk that contained Susan’s original letters from her time in Turkey. From then on, Kamo was determined I should write the book. For many reasons, it took several months of persuasion on his part and research on mine before I accepted.

3. What was the first thing that made Susan appeal to you as a character?
Elliot.jpgI remember the moment clearly. I was reading her unpublished manuscript about her journey to help establish a relief centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Russia in 1917. She travelled more than 7,000 miles from Dubuque, Iowa during World War I and the Russian revolution, and I was impressed by her lack of naiveté, her living-by-example style of evangelism rather than proselytizing, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems. But what tipped the scales for me was when, under armed attack, instead of frantically praying for divine salvation, she thought about the psychology of William James and a bear! I was so startled, I laughed out loud. I realized I liked her very much and could spend the years it would take to write the book in her company.

4. Grit and Grace is full of details that range from surprising to shocking, like the man who treated the bullet wound in his leg by stuffing scrambled eggs in it. What details or moments stand out most for you?
I can instantly think of four:
1) nurses Rachel and Blanche’s befuddled attempt at removing tar caps from children’s heads to cure them of favus (a dreadful scalp disease);
2) the horrible conditions of the conscripted Ottoman soldiers in winter, without coats, forced to wrap their feet in rags or go barefoot, fed only a third of a ration, and housed in filthy, vermin- and disease-filled shelters – and still expected to fight battles;
3) the absurd incident in the Marash hospital when the pharmacist, who had once been in the Ottoman army, screamed across the courtyard at a group of Nationalists, “You know it’s not permitted to fire on a hospital! The Director Doctor Madame is very angry about it, and will hold you responsible. The Director says you are to stop firing at once!” and amazingly they did; and
4) the entire village of brave Armenians, Greeks and Turks who defiantly stood together against the gendarmes who tried to deport the Armenian residents, thus forcing the gendarmes to leave empty-handed.

5. What personal lessons came out of writing this book for you?
My parents, who grew up during WWII, always spoke of the duty of a citizen to pay attention to issues and to vote because society can rapidly change for the worse when there is apathy. I was reminded of that while writing about how the Ottoman Empire went from euphoria in 1908 to genocide in 1915 – only seven short years – and as I listened to daily news reports of radical changes occurring around the world, which continue today. But the most profound lesson was to be careful of my speech. Our brains are programmed to find the fastest, easiest way to do something, so it’s natural to make generalizations. However, I learned that saying everyone or always or never is not only not true, it promotes the concept of Us versus Them. And that’s the first step of a slippery slope towards violence. I was careful not to generalize in the book, but I now watch my words in everyday speech, too. I don’t want to contribute even in a small way to a negative or destructive society.

To read the full review of Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad, visit Newtown Review of Books. Learn more about Wendy Elliott on her website.