‘I went on a post-mortem enquiry. How did we end up here? We were five and now we’re two.’
Michelle Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. Michelle was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2019 program and for a Varuna Memoir Masterclass in 2017. Michelle lives in Melbourne with her husband and two youngest children.
Her vulnerable and cathartic memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, explores two key traumas – the multifaceted abuse she experienced during childhood, and her survival of the 2021 Christchurch earthquake.
Together, we discuss how she began writing the memoir, the process of re-examining trauma, and her choice to tell the story in fragmented vignettes.
The fragmented narrative style wasn’t her initial choice. When she attend a one-week masterclass with one of Australia’s best-known memoir authors, she realised a lot of her early draft wasn’t working.
‘I’d gone to Varuna thinking that week was going to clarify everything and I went to Patti Miller who was running the course and basically said, Tell me how to structure this and she said, Darling, you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.’
This episode also features a record-breaking What Are You Reading segment, in which James recalls the time someone recommended he read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series because the main character is 6’9, the same height as James, and we determine that main character height may be the worst motivation for reading a book we’ve encountered.
Plus, is it going to be just James from now on?! Join us for an emotionally turbulent episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home!
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Memoir Writing For Dummies by Ryan Van Cleave – Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M Johnson – The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch – Lee Child’s Jack Reader series – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – The Return by Rachel Harrison – It by Stephen King – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (of course!)
Plus Michelle’s fellow 2021 debut authors: – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke – The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens – Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua – What Does it Feel Like Being Born? by Jodie Miller – The Sentinel by Jacqueline Hodder – Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor (who we interviewed in episode 20) – Smokehouse by Melissa Manning – Sha’Kert by Ishmael Soledad – Modern Marriage by Filip Vukašin – The River Mouth by Karen Whittle-Herbert
The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.
The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.
I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.
When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to? As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.
The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.
I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.
Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.
I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.
I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.
I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.
As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.
I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.
Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.
Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.
I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.
Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.
What books or authors have inspired your writing? I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.
Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.
I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.
Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this? Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.
I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.
What writing tip have you found most useful so far? Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.
It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.
I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.
Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.
Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker.For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.
In episode 37 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to two neurodiverse authors about receiving diagnoses as adults, oversharing, figuring themselves out through their writing, and so much more.
Anna Whateley is an #OwnVoices author and proudly autistic, with ADHD and sensory processing disorder. Her debut novel, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, is about 16-year-old neurodivergent Peta Lyre, who is the success story of social training until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Her next novel, Tearing Myself Together will be released early 2022 with Allen & Unwin. She lives in Brisbane.
Kay Kerr is a freelance writer and YA author from the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She was writing her debut novel Please Don’t Hug Me when she was diagnosed with autism, and she is passionate about autism and wider disability representation in YA fiction. Her second novel Social Queue is a romantic coming-of-age story featuring an autistic teenage girl, and it’s coming out in October 2021.
Their humourous and recommendation-filled newsletter, The Overshare, features seven sections: Listen Up–for all things auditory and musical All The Feels–for sensory gadgets and neurodivergent products we are loving Off The Shelf–bookish things including what we are reading and upcoming events Uh Oh–life disasters, bloopers and social mistakes Leaving The House–pretty self explanatory Who Put Me In Charge–challenges in parenting, executive functioning, and life admin Scratch Pad–to share new writing bits and pieces.
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Late Bloomer by Clem Bastow; – The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough; – Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Wilde; – Future Girl by Asphyxia; – When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro; – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; – Vodka and Apple Juice by Jay Martin; – A History of My Brief History by Billy Ray Belcourt; – The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
In episode 34 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to bookish entrepreneurs and writers Amy and Laura about how Secret Book Stuff evolved from a kindness-generating project into a business, how books have been transformative in their lives, and how reading makes you better in bed.
Secret Book Stuff is an online bookshop specialising in book subscriptions and gifts for book-lovers. For every book sold, Secret Book Stuff plants a tree.
One of this episode’s highlights was learning Laura’s and Amy’s favourite books.
Laura’s Top 5 Books* – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson – Insomniac City by Bill Hayes – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Felicity by Mary Oliver – I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell – anything by Joan Didion
Amy’s Top 5 Books – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Insomniac City by Bill Hayes – Animal People by Charlotte Wood – Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman
*Because why stop at five?
More books and authors discussed in this episode – Hold Your Own by Kae Tempest; – Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson; – Women by Chloe Caldwell; – Samantha Irby; – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien; – The Neverending Story by Michael Ende; – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; – Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid; – Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid; – Betty by Tiffany McDaniel; – The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay; – Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez; – A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet; – Ghost Species by James Bradley (read James’s review here)
Mark your calendars! This year Australian Reading Hour is Tuesday 14 September. This is a chance to not only make some extra time in your schedule for reading, but also to celebrate reading and all its benefits and joys.
Australia Reads exists to ‘champion reading, promote the many mental health and lifestyle benefits of reading books, and encourage the next generation of avid book readers to significantly increase book reading by all Australians – no matter the format they read.’
As they say,
‘We believe reading is the key to a smarter, healthier, happier nation.’
And I completely agree! I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the books I’ve benefited from reading in my life time: I have a much deeper and broader understanding of the world around me and the complex and unique lives of the people in my community and my country, and around the globe.
Reading also gives me a chance to get off my devices and allow my attention to focus on one thing (it’s basically a type of meditation, in my experience). I generally sleep better on days when I get more reading in.
I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m walking, driving, doing chores and lying down. This keeps me engaged in the world of the book, which stops my mind from ruminating about my own anxieties. (And unlike podcasts, audiobooks don’t have ad breaks!)
And reading has connected to me to all kinds of wonderful people, and brought me joy through memorable stories, beloved characters, and fascinating insights into human life and history.
So there you go – that’s at least one person who’s smarter, healthier and happier. Imagine that to the power of 25 million!
If you’re looking to try new books and authors, check out my Great Reads, where you’ll find write-ups about many of my favourite books.
When RWR (Rob) McDonald was writing his award-winning debut novel The Nancys, he was working full time in a high-stress job, studying a master’s degree, and was also a dad to two young girls.
Around the time he got a literary agent, he decided to take a step down, career-wise, into a lower-stress role. Which seemed like a great decision for his health and sanity.
But then he ended up with shingles, and a serious chest infection.
Rob is an award-winning author, a Kiwi and Queer dad living in Melbourne with his two daughters and one HarryCat. His debut novel, The Nancys, won Best First Novel in the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards, and was a finalist in the Best Novel category. It was shortlisted for Best First Novel in the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards, and Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Nancy Business is his second novel.
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Harold Robbins (contact Rob for title recommendations); – The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene; – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke; – The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart; – Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake; – Goat Mountain by David Vann (who we interviewed in episode 23)
Launched in 2017, the Penguin Literary Prize was established to find, nurture and develop new Australian authors of literary fiction.
I’ve read a draft of Denzien and loved it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world next year. In the meantime, I thought I’d ask James to introduce the book. And then while I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions.
Ashley: What is Denizen about? James: Denizen is an Australian gothic/literary thriller that explores rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. In it, a volatile eight-year-old in Western NSW struggles to subdue the chaos in his head, unaware of how profoundly his actions will one day affect his own fatherhood.
A:When did you start writing it? Do you remember the day you started? J: Like many of my early manuscripts, Denizen had its origins in a home movie. As an adolescent, one of my creative outlets was short (and far too long) film – a lot of which were feature-length epics whose production and post-production scales go a long way to explaining why my year ten attendance rate was 40 per cent. My earliest ideas for Denizen were that it would be based loosely on a 90-minute film I made when I was 15, called The Creek.
In 2015, when I was 23, I woke up one day to find that I couldn’t feel my feet. Soon after, I was in Royal North Shore Hospital being treated for Guillain Barre Syndrome, a progressive neuropathy that causes rapid paralysis. Part of the work up to diagnose GBS is a lumbar puncture, after which I had to lay flat on my back for two hours. I distinctly remember being rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “well, now seems as good a time as any to start planning this novel.” I spent the next two hours working it through in my head until I had a clear idea of what the book I would look like. I started the first draft almost as soon as I was discharged from hospital.
In the five years and six drafts since then, Denizen has evolved from being a recognisable adaptation of The Creek into something very different. That said, evidence of its origins remains, particularly in the middle act.
A: What was the most difficult part of writing Denizen? J: I struggled a lot with characterisation, which I suppose is an expected challenge when writing from the point of view of a deeply flawed protagonist. It took a lot of work to make Parker, the main character and narrator, someone readers could empathise with. In the end, realised it was more important to make him relatable than likable, and so I focused on that.
A: One year into James and Ashley Stay at Home, what’s the best episode for listeners to start with? J: I’m very biased, but whenever anyone asks me this question, I tell them episode 23. In it, Ashley and I interviewed David Vann, one of my all-time favourite authors and literary heroes. The conversation was everything I’d hoped it would be – a raw and fascinating exploration of his motivations and process, peppered with his insights into literature, philosophy and politics.
A: What’s your favourite Australian animal? J: The Australian magpie. They’re only bastards if they’re nesting and you’re in their space, and even then, they’re just protecting their babies. They’re gorgeous. They have such a beautiful song. Have you ever seen a magpie sun itself? They lie on their bellies with their wings outstretched – it’s hysterical. And they play like dogs do! They lie on their backs and wrestle with each other. Young magpies look so ridiculous and adorable with their fluffy grey baby feathers, and their weird, spherical bodies. They’re incredibly clever and resourceful. They’re a lot more than just that vicious, swooping bird that takes people’s eyes out. I’d probably swoop at you if you rode a bike through my house too.
After growing up suffering emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and psychological abuse within what was ostensibly a loving family, author Ruhi Lee decided to speak out.
But before she could do that, she had to learn how to articulate and process her own feelings. Beyond basic terms like happy and sad, she didn’t have a language of emotion. In episode 30 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Ruhi tells us about her childhood, the process of writing her book, and a lot more.
Ruhi articles, poetry and book reviews have been featured in the Guardian, ABC Life, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and the Big Issue among others. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. Good Indian Daughter is her first memoir.
Books discussed in this episode: – Yes Please by Amy Poehler; – This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay; – Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas; – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon; – We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby; – Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Yumiko Kadota was a junior doctor and working hard towards her goal of becoming a plastic surgeon in NSW. But the demands of her workplace became increasingly extreme, and she found herself dealing with bullying, sexism and racism, as well as unreasonable hours. If anyone should know how important sleep is for the body, it should be health care professionals (and the people who manage their rosters). Right?
Instead of sleeping, Yumiko was working longer and longer hours, and was constantly on call. Her health started to deteriorate.
By the time she left her job, she was so unwell that she ended up back in hospital – as a patient.
She recounts her journey from ambitious student to junior doctor to patient suffering burnout and depression in her new memoir, Emotional Female.