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 It was shortlisted for Best First Novel in the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards, and Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.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.
‘It’s really important to me, as a writer, to get under the skin of my characters.’ In her new novel, Love Objects, Emily Maguire does exactly that, exploring one woman’s experience with hoarding disorder as a way to better understand our relationships with objects – and with each other.
Emily is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident, and three non-fiction books. Her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Observer and the Age. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
In episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Emily about her interest in hoarding disorder, our relationships to material possessions, and why it’s often so difficult to talk about what causes us pain.
She also draws on her experience as the longtime teacher of Writing NSW’s Year of the Novel course and shares her key advice for writers.
Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++
And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.
As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.
I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).
I also talked about project inertia.
This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.
I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.
After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.
A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:
One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.
Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.
So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.
And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.
I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.
But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.
I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.
And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.
So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.
‘Sometimes just not knowing can actually be a good thing … but there are other times when you really do have to pursue truth. And when does one apply and when does the other?’
In Amnesia Road, Luke Stegemann explores complex questions about violence, history and society. He doesn’t profess to have answers, which is one of the book’s great strengths.
Luke is a writer, Hispanist and cultural historian based in rural south-east Queensland. He writes on art, politics and history for a wide range of Australian and Spanish publications, and is the author of The Beautiful Obscure. In 2018 he received the Malaspina Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of cultural relations between Australia and Spain’. On weekends, he travels extensively around Queensland in his role as a referee on the state amateur boxing circuit.
His latest book, Amnesia Road, is a literary consideration of historic violence in two different parts of the world, the seldom-visited mulga plains of south-west Queensland and the backroads of rural Andalusia. It is also a celebration of the landscapes where the violence of frontier conflict and civil war has been carried out.
James and I ask Luke whether it’s possible for Australians to have a common understanding of our history, and how the under-acknowledged histories of colonial violence in Australia, the nationalist violence in Spain (and the many similar contexts in other nations, such as Turkey) impact the societal health of their respective nations.
We discuss the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the impact of social media on our current discourse and effort to understand what the past means for each of us.
At the end, Luke lightens the mood with an anecdote about an Andalusian dog who becomes a harbinger of death. Trust me, we laughed!
Books discussed in this episode – The Possessed by Dostoevsky – Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias – A Heart So White by Javier Marias – The Stranger and short stories by Albert Camus – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon – When We Dead Awaken by James Robins
In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.
A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.
Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’
She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’
The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli – Teju Cole – Olivia Lang – Sheila Heti – Rachel Cusk – Jenny Offill – Elizabeth Strout – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi – The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Deepfakes by Nina Schick
When we spoke to David Vann, he was on his final day of a two-week covid quarantine in a hotel room in Cambodia. He had with him an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) and an EPIRB (an emergency position indicating radio beacon), in case of sinking. He wasn’t specifically concerned about sinking the hotel room, but if it happened, he was ready for it.
David Vann is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction. Published in 23 languages, his books have earned him literary accolades worldwide, appeared on 83 ‘best books of the year’ lists and seen him featured at nearly 100 international literary festivals. Among many publications, he’s written for Esquire, Men’s Health, the Observer, the Financial Times and National Geographic Adventure. He’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England.
David spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, a setting which features in much of his work. When he was 13, his father Jim committed suicide by shooting himself. The pivotal event in David’s youth has been explored and alluded to in many of his novels, but never more directly or confronting than in his 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon.
Halibut on the Moon is an excruciating depiction of a downward spiral to suicide, written from the point of view of Vann’s father.
In episode 23, James and I speak to David about his writing process for this novel and others, and what he considers to be great writing (to James’s dismay, it’s not Knausgaard). We also speak about gun proliferation and mental illness in the US, and the current challenges of the publishing industry, even for authors as accomplished as Vann.
Books discussed in this episode: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace The World According to Garp by John Irving Goat Mountain; Aquarium; Legend of a Suicide; Bright Air Black; Last Day on Earth by David Vann Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter Shadow Child by PF Thomése Eight Lives by Susan Hurley The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright