Ep 6: Our Man Booker contenders

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
Episode 6 of James and Ashley Stay at Home features James and I sharing our early experiences as writers – which always make for entertaining stories – and three tips we’ve learned along the way. You can listen to it here.

James wrote his first novel at age seven. Frankly, it sounds like a masterpiece of contemporary Australian realism, akin to Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, but with less slapping and more lost hire car keys.

Even at that age, he was conscious of the need to work hard to attract readers to his writing, and he shares a dramatic story of how he employed his four-year-old brother as a spokesperson. This strategy didn’t work out, probably because it was heavy on audience abuse and profanity.

We’d also love you to weigh in on this hot debate: when James’s dad managed to get one of his manuscripts in front of a publisher (this was a few years later, when James had acquired the worldliness of a teenager and had years more writing experience), he received the feedback ‘James’s writing should be encouraged.’

I thought this comment was kind, but James understood it as ‘James’s writing shouldn’t be explicitly discouraged … but maybe buy him a tennis racket or a worm farm.’

Like James, I started writing early, and leapt into my first novel at the age of 14. Thankfully no-one in my family had any publishing industry contacts to show it to when I declared it finished four years later. For reasons lost to time, I called the novel Infernoatia. It was about killer bees from Mars (uh-huh, makes perfect sense, I hear you thinking).

It was set in 2020, which, back in 1997, must have seemed like THE FUTURE. Obviously we’d have humans on Mars by then.

To give you a taste of how immensely terrible this book was, here is the actual opening, from the printed-out copy I still have in a trunk at my parents’ place, complete with the book cover my dad designed.

The Earth, our planet; home to all creation as we know it, yet swiftly racing towards its unavoidable end. As it slowly orbits the sun, tracing the same pattern around our star as it has countless times before, its life forms, and with them their technology and knowledge, continue to evolve and expand, ever growing to meet the needs of a greedy civilization that believes it has money and resources to burn. But if, in the distant future, all life on Earth is threatened, will it be a superior race who lives millions of light years away, hidden from view of our best astronomers and astronauts, who have finally come to conquer over what would seem such low forms of uncivilized life for nothing more than their own personal amusement, or will it be that we ourselves erupt into war over our minimal and virtually insignificant differences and eventually destroy everything in battle?

Although both these suggestions could be quite possible, or even become reality someday, it seems more likely that a careless mistake, an overlooked error, one simple flaw in a larger, more elaborately worked plan, will one day inadvertently throw the whole world on a path of ultimate destruction, and as the clock begins to count down to our demise, the people of our planet will be forced to ban together to save themselves against the wrath of our sophisticated, highly developed technology, and widespread knowledge or perish.

Prologue
August 18, 2020, 4:09 PM, INFINITY III, MARS

Space is deep. And black. Unlike being on a planet, it doesn’t matter where you look, there is always more black space. No horizons, no coast lines, no mountain ranges. Just a thick black fog dotted by infinite numbers of shining yellow stars. A vast universe full of burning suns, each which may be home to a cluster of tiny planets, which may each have their own groupings of moons which carefully orbit them. And then there are the comets, asteroids and meteors that wander endlessly past the moons, planets and suns. A vast universe full of places to discover and explore, where you could spend an eternity, and barely begin. …

After the bees arrive on Earth (eventually the actual story gets underway), each chapter opens with a global death count. Which, now that I think about it, feels very 2020.

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Listen to episode 6 here and please rate and subscribe to help us reach more listeners.

Ashley
xo

 

When life gives you lemonades … just eat them

Woman holds Romanesco cauliflower
Remember back in January, when many of us made new year’s resolutions, as if 2020 was going to be any old year where we could make plans and go about our everyday lives?

I found this especially ironic because, back in 2019, I made a list of resolutions that I planned to fail at (and I did an amazing job of that). In 2020 however, I made a list of genuine resolutions that I earnestly planned to follow.

One of my resolutions was to ask better questions, advice I took from author David Sedaris. My plan was, when I was out and about interacting with people, to try to ask interesting and random questions a few times a week, just to see what people might tell me. This meant breaking out of the usual polite script we use for interactions, which was a good personal challenging.

I’d started getting in a bit of a rhythm with this, and was delighted by many of the resulting interactions. Often people are really keen to talk and have something interesting to tell you, if you give them a chance.

After months of lockdown though, I’ve found this impulse has shut down, and my interactions are really stitled, especially as I’m still not going out much.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about my latest Australiana discovery – lemonades!
4 Lemona
Keen followers of this site will remember that back in January, I asked a fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades, a type of lemon that tastes exactly like lemonade.

I promised to follow up the tip, and here we are.
More lemonades
I went back to the fruit shop and found these beauties.

As my mom observed, lemonades look like lemons crossed with oranges. They’re rounder, and their skin is mottled. According to a random produce website, this fruit is “a hybrid cross between a Meyer lemon and New Zealand grapefruit, though some claim it is a cross of a lemon and a mandarin”.
Woman cuts lemonades in kitchen
Wikipedia claims lemonades were “discovered” in New Zealand in the 1980s, so technically speaking they’re not Australian. But apparently they’re grown here, so I’m counting them among my Australian discoveries.

(Side note: I recently found out that some Aussies call magpies “maggies” and I think that is fabulous.)

You can eat a lemonade just like you would an orange. They’re sweet with a lemony tang. I’ve personally eaten a few bagfuls.

And when I was out searching for lemonades, I also discovered this beast.
Romanesco cauliflower on cutting board
If I’d gone to the store with my usual shopping list, in my usual frame of mind, I might have missed it. But because I was on the lookout for something new, I spotted the one and only monster cauliflower and immediately had to have it.

Turns out it’s a romanesco, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli. I wanted to keep it as a pet, I loved it so much. But it was going a bit off, as you can see on some of the tips, so I whipped it up into one of my favourite recipes, and it was delish.
bowl of cauliflower soup on table
Next time you’re in the produce section, I highly recommend asking what strange and offbeat fruit and veg might appear on the shelves. Unless you’re someone who already knows all about strange fruit and veg, in which case, please tell me about it!

If you enjoyed this post, you’d definitely enjoy one of my upcoming author talks. I’d love to see you there!

Ashley
xo

 

Be the fan you wish you had

Writers at Writing NSW
Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: when I moved to Australia several years ago, I’d never read an Australian author. It wasn’t a purposeful omission. I grew up in small-town Canada, reading mostly Americans and Brits.

It wasn’t the move across the Pacific that changed my habits; it was my decision to pursue writing seriously. I assumed the quality of my writing was the only relevant factor in getting published. It wasn’t, of course, and I learned that at an event at Writing NSW. I’d thought my attendance would be a one-time only commitment: I’ll just spend a day learning about the publishing industry, then go home and get my book published.

I did learn a few industry tips that day but, more importantly, I was introduced to a cornucopia of local writers. This was my first awareness of what Walter Mason referred to as the ‘writing ecosphere’ in his article, ‘How to Be a Literary Citizen’. Mason suggests ways to be a better literary citizen and support the writing community: buy new books — from local bookshops — and read them, subscribe to literary magazines, attend author events, be a fan and campaigner, and embrace generosity.
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By the time Mason’s article appeared in Newswrite, I’d at least started reading local authors. But his suggestions made me realise there was much more I could be doing, and maybe it would help me towards getting published, as it did for Mason. I decided to dedicate a year to following his advice: in effect, I’d give this ‘supporting others’ thing a try to see if it would pay off for me.

A lot of Mason’s advice is straightforward and simple. I immediately subscribed to a few literary magazines I’d been reading online. Having their issues show up in my home as physical objects with heft and texture made their contents more memorable (especially compared to the endless blur of online reading). I got a better sense of what I might pitch to each and even did so successfully.

I scrutinised my reading and shopping habits. On the list where I track my ‘books read’, year by year, I began to highlight the Australian authors in yellow. Over the last year, almost every entry has been as close in shade to golden wattle as Microsoft provides.
Now I specifically buy Australian authors. To increase the number of local books I could purchase, I started giving my favourite local authors’ books as gifts. Not sometimes, but for most gifts I give.

When I mailed my sister an autographed copy of Zoë Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely, she wrote to say, ‘I adore that you had the author sign it for me. Even if I don’t like it, that makes it a definite keeper!’ She’d never had a signed copy before — maybe lots of people haven’t.

Attending a lot of author events, usually one a week, has taught me what works for me. Let’s be honest: I’m shy and am pretty sure people can see the word ‘awkward’ tattooed on my face. I feel more encouraged at smaller author events, where there’s a better sense of community than at larger festivals.

At library talks and bookshop readings there’s much more opportunity to interact with authors. I’ve made some of my best connections this way, including Walter Mason himself, who I first met at a book launch. But I’ve also been able to meet other attendees who are inspired by the same authors, and even ended up in my current writers’ group due to a connection I made at a writing event.

Mason describes the schedule of help and promotion he keeps, his Spreadsheet of Loving Kindness. I decided to try it for myself. There’s a reason it’s a spreadsheet, I discovered. It takes some organisation to pull off. It wasn’t an organic process, but a plotted one. I compiled a list of people I knew who were doing great things and started going through it person by person.

This was time-consuming. I often left it to the weekend, then scheduled a series of posts for the week. This did get me some social media engagement, and it was a great way to keep on top of all the interesting things my favourite people were doing. But scheduling my posts risked making them routine and predictable. Organisation stripped the spontaneity.

Another of Mason’s key points is to embrace generosity, to ‘be the fan you wish you had’. So, instead of giving up when things get challenging, I need to experiment with ways to bring more spontaneity and fun into my efforts.

At the heart of Mason’s article was the idea that if you’re aiming to get published, your efforts to support the writing ecosphere might end up helping you, as they did for Mason himself — and as they eventually did for me. But beyond getting published, everything else else I’ve gained is even more important to me.

I’ve discovered a community of people I connect with, made wonderful friends, learned a lot and felt inspired. My passion ended up leading me to a job that I love. And I feel more at home in the world and confident in myself. In writing this, there was no other way it could turn out than as a love letter to the Australian writing community.


A version of this article was first published in Newswrite back in 2016, before the chronic fatigue hit. Since then, it’s been hard to get to writing events; evenings are difficult, and my energy can be erratic. I’ve missed so many book launches and author talks. But I’m trying to find ways to become more involved in the community again.

Along with author Amanda Ortlepp, I’ve running a monthly writing meet-up. It’s free, you just need to be a member of Writing NSW. You can rsvp for upcoming dates via my events page. If you’re a Sydney-based writer, it’d be great to meet you there. Otherwise, find me online and say hi!

PS. Walter Mason is doing a talk at the Theosophical Society on 20 November. Check it out!

 

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!

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.

 

 

2017’s Hottest Fashion Trends

Ashley Kalagian Blunt hottest fashion trends

  1. Habanero sauce, rubbed everywhere
  2. Skirt made from rings of fire
  3. Miniature Hadron Collider vest, set to 9.9 trillion °F
  4. Actual fireplace strapped to your waist
  5. Paper mâché volcano hat
  6. Suit made of quasars (they’re very hot)
  7. Full-body skin suit of 2017’s Sexiest Man Alive
  8. Gloves that are actually Carolina Reaper peppers
  9. Dwarf star fascinator
  10. The Hope Diamond, after you stole it
  11. Flame-shooting bra
  12. Suit of toast fresh out of the toaster

 

My opinions on dog names will eventually result in divorce

Unless they’re the children of celebrities, human babies are generally stuck with boring people names. But dogs can be called any sort of amazing name at all. It’s insultingly uncreative to give a dog a human name. Like a french bulldog I met, who was named, of all things, Gerald. Gerald could have been named Clams or Seven or Sir Snotsalot or anything other than Gerald.

My husband disagrees. I told him my dream was to have a sausage dog named Saucy. ‘It works on so many levels!’

‘What levels?’ he said.

What levels? Obviously the sauce/sausage connection. Also the fact that saucy sounds like ‘saussie’, an Australianised shortening of sausage. And then imagine if the dog had a saucy attitude. Just imagine.

 

5 life hacks you absolutely must follow or you’ll be dead by Friday

1. Taupe is your colour. That’s right, taupe.

2. Attach paperclips to a hanger, then put in your freezer to avoid thinking about your credit card debt.

3. If you’re driving in snow and spin out, pour a bucket of hot water under each tire. Seriously. Your neighbours won’t laugh at you.

4. Put a piece of white bread inside your shirtsleeve to soak up sweat.

5. Get 37 people to retweet you within exactly 29 seconds, and a unicorn will appear to grant you one wish.

Your muscles: a user’s guide

A user guide to your muscles.png
Hello and welcome to your new muscles! They’re not really new, of course; you’ve had them for 30-some years. But because the only greens in your diet are lime-flavoured jellybeans, and you’ve spent approximately 97% of your waking hours hunched in front of glowing rectangles, your muscles have entered a new phase of deterioration.

The following FAQ will help you understand exactly how terrible the rest of your life will be.

Why are my muscles in constant pain?
You have to understand that your body has upwards of 850 individual muscles and each one of them hates you.

This is how I would have expected to feel at, like, 60.
Yes, your body has effectively given up, which has accelerated your aging process. By 35 you’ll feel like you’re 80, and by 40 you’ll feel like you’re 127.

I see other people doing things like sitting on picnic blankets and carrying everyday items including books, groceries and purses without this seeming to cause them serious pain. Is it appropriate to stare at them as though they’re three-headed aliens who teleported here via a ring of purple fire?
Sure, I guess.

What can I do to make this better?
You can pay a hipster osteopath $97 to stab you in the leg with a needle and call that ‘acupuncture’.

Uh-huh, so you’re saying there’s nothing I can do?
You can spend thousands of dollars and several futile years with physios, massage therapists, chiropractors, osteopaths, yoga instructors, pilates instructors, doctors, reiki masters and a man who believes that muscle trauma can be healed through immersion in pickle brine.

Will any of that help?
The pickle brine guy has a lot of positive Google reviews.

What if I just have a nice hot bath?
Most bathtubs were purposefully designed to fuck up your neck.

Maybe I should just spend the next fifty years lying down.
Lying down causes your lower back to seize. Also, you still haven’t found a pillow that prevents your neck pain. Here’s the secret: no such pillow exists!

What if I ate some broccoli?
As if you’re going to eat broccoli.

No really, I found this soup recipe and also green smoothies are a thing.
And? How is it?

OMG it’s like chewing a pine tree why does my body even want this?
Your taste buds also hate you.