Ep 15: How to write a book in 5 words a day

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is out now, and it’s chock full of writing tips. Can you write a bestselling novel through the simple process of 5 words a day? Technically yes, though it would take you 43.8 years to complete a first draft.

We suggest better writing tips, like these:

  1. Protect your writing time.
  2. Write about what scares you.
  3. Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
  4. Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
  5. Try different genres, voices and forms (this is how Ashley created My Name Is Revenge, a novella and collected essays that combine memoir, history and journalism).
  6. Make time for close reading and analysis of writing you admire.

Plus, James gets real about his motivations, and also reveals that he didn’t know what a writing residency was until he was awarded two of them back to back (at the National Writers’ House and KSP Writers’ Centre).

(And if you’re wondering why he bothered applying when he didn’t know what they were, it’s because I sent him the links. I might send James a link to clown college just to see if he’ll apply to that. He’d probably get accepted.)

You can listen to episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here or on your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Fancy a eucalyptini?

Orange-based cocktail with dried orange slicesWhen I said I wanted to create a cocktail for the launch of my new memoir, How to Be Australian, a friend suggested I could just ‘chuck a couple of the eucalyptus balls you buy from the chemist into a glass of vodka. Wouldn’t taste very nice, but it’s definitely Australian!’*

If you don’t fancy a eucalyptini, let me suggest one of the following. These creations all pair perfectly with How to Be Australian. I highly recommend them for book club gatherings.**

Lemon Myrtletini
15 ml lemon myrtle liquor
30 ml Manly Spirits gin
Mix (or shake over ice) and add a squeeze of lime. 

lemon cocktail with lime, wood cutting boardSweet ‘n’ Stormy 
60 ml rum
90 ml Passiona
15 ml lime juice
1 passionfruit
Fill a tall glass with ice cubes. Add rum.
Pour in ginger beer, add passionfruit and lime juice, stir.
Garnish with a lime wedge.

The Caramel Slice
45 ml caramel liqueur
15 ml crème de cacao
30 ml cream
30 ml milk
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice, shake well. Strain into a glass and top with crushed sweet biscuits. Garnish with caramel sauce.

And if you’re in a book club, pair these cocktails with the free discussion guide – and invite me along! I’m happy to Zoom/Skype into any book club meeting. You can contact me directly.

How to Be Australian Book cover

*Seriously, do not try that, you might go blind.
**It’s a good idea to drink responsibly in general (or so I’ve been told).

 

Traveling well or flatchat?

Australia has 10,000 unique words, according to The Story of Australian English by Kel Richards.

In comparison, Canada only has 4,000 unique words, despite having 10 million more people. It’s shocking to me that Canada has even that many specifically Canuck terms, but could come up with three: toque, poutine, and using borrow to mean lend, as in, ‘Will you borrow me your toque? I’m going out for poutine.’
Story of Australian English book cover by Kel RichardsOne of the great joys of living in Australia is discovering its eccentric and creative language. My only disappointment is that it’s not used more. Maybe it’s because I live in the city, but it’s relatively rare for me to receive a g’day.

That was one of the few Australian terms I knew before I arrived, one of the handful of words that appear on every list of ‘Aussie slang you need to know!’ along with arvo, sunnies, barbie, etc, etc. There’s no thrill of discovery in these words, although I’ve certainly come to use them. (And now I can’t understand why the rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t use arvo. Who has time to say all three syllables of afternoon?)

As I started reading more Aussie authors, I’d write out lists of baffling terms, then take them to friends for decoding. One list read:
– having a blue
– let’s get stuck into it
– it was suss
– to have geed up
– he sculled his beer
– possum light
– made a good fist of it
– scabby
– rough as guts
– grunty as
– munted
– smacko
– flatchat
– yonks
– travelling well
– it’s cactus
– people would be dark on him (this sounds a bit racist?)
– Brisvegas
– stitch me up
– furfy
– putting in the hard yards
– hard yakka
– sprucker

I could have looked up definitions on the internet, but it’s much more fun to ask people for their personal definitions. When I asked a friend what scabby meant, she replied, ‘dodge – down and dirty’. Which didn’t clarify anything, but definitely delighted me.

Now I understand many of the words of this list, but I rarely hear them, and use them even less. Which is a shame. What could be more linguistically delightful than calling something cactus, or describing yourself as either travelling well or flatchat?

I’ve lived in Australia nearly a decade and have probably added a few hundred words to my vocabulary. I’d love to learn another few thousand. This week a friend introduced me to the term sportsballer and now I want to use it all the time.

My new memoir, How to Be Australian, explores my journey to become Australian through everything from the language to the beers to the cultural neuroses. You can sign up to my monthly newsletter to hear about upcoming events related to the book.
xo

Getting into complicated relationships, part 2

This post is part two of a list of books that I’ve come to think of as my favourites, most of which I read years ago. As these titles in particular reveal though, my relationship with them is complicated.

Findley

5. Pilgrim by Timothy Findley
Findley is one of Canada’s great contemporary authors. I have a vague memory of one of my bookshop colleagues recommending him to me. I do know that once I’d read one of his novels, I tracked down all his other books. I think they were too mature for me, in that they referenced aspects of history, literature and psychology that I was unfamiliar with. I struggled with them, and in hindsight I’m not sure why I persisted. Maybe because Findley convinced me that writing could be beautiful and powerful and mysterious. Pilgrim tells the story of an immortal man who, tired of living, comes under the treatment of Carl Jung; I found this juxtaposition of historical personalities and magical realism captivating.

~

Maugham6. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
I’ll confess I haven’t read Maugham in years. I enjoyed his storytelling skills and ability to craft scenes and sentences, and went through a phase of reading many of his novels and short stories. This one has stuck with me. I think Of Human Bondage managed to convince me that despite all its challenges, life would be okay. But I think I also appreciated Maugham because, as a young and wildly under-educated person, I felt like I could grasp his writing (though in hindsight, this was only at a surface level). The novel follows a nine-year-old boy into adulthood, exploring the turns of fate he experiences, particularly in his efforts to establish himself in a career and a relationship. It’s considered Maugham’s masterpiece, although he never found critical success, despite his huge commercial popularity. His career in part was a commentary on the various ways of living an artistic life, as this New Yorker essay explores. But I had no context for Maugham’s life or his larger themes when I discovered him. I read what I liked, and what I thought I should read, as if in the cold, empty vacuum of space.

~

funder7. Stasiland by Anna Funder
Living in Germany, Australian author Anna Funder interviewed former members of East Germany’s Stasi (secret police) and anti-Stasi organisations, and wove together stories of those lived experiences and their ongoing legacy. When I was writing early drafts of my book about Armenia, many people recommended Stasiland to me, and so I read it in the context of someone learning how to write. The people Funder meets and the stories she shares are fascinating. Her writing is equally powerful, in the way she positions herself in the story, the way she captures the feeling of a moment. I copied passages of the book by hand into a notebook to figure out how she fit her words and sentences together. My experience of reading it, in the context of the teaching myself to improve my own writing, was different than it would have been had I read it back in my contextless vacuum.

This is partly what I find so fascinating about books, that each reading experience is so personal, that we bring ourselves to the text, not in a holistic sense, but at a specific moment in time in our lives, and that shapes our reading of it.

My new book, How to Be Australian, is out on 1 June! You can pre-order it now from your local bookshop or any ebook retailer (outside Aus/NZ, Book Depository might be your only choice). Pre-ordering makes a difference – those orders help convince other stores to stock the book on its release.

Wishing you happy (if complicated) reading,
Ashley
xo

 

Getting into complicated relationships

Recently, author Walter Mason asked me to share the covers of seven books on social media. The rules were no explanations, no reviews, just covers.

This drove me nuts. I love explanations. I love reviews!

So I’m reprising my seven books here. I chose these books because I consider them among my favourites, though the reasons for that are complicated. Most of them I read years ago, and only now, looking back, does it strike me that they’re almost entirely written by men. These days, I tend to read many more books by women, and more books by POC authors as well.

This list is my usual eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, almost entirely contemporary. Are the books among your favourites as wide-ranging? Or do you stick to certain genres?

Sedaris1. Calypso by David Sedaris

Sedaris is an American humorist, and I’m using Calypso as a stand-in for all his books, most of which are essay collections. I love them all. Calypso is his most recent, and most focused, centred around his family’s time at his vacation home, the Sea Section. There, he makes “one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.” I came to Calypso familiar with Sedaris, his family and their quirks. Maybe this isn’t the book to start with. I’ll also confess I’ve never actually read any of his books. I’ve let him read them all to me in audiobook form, and he is as engaging a narrator as he is a writer. Not all of his essays land for me, but the ones that do haunt me, both for their comedy and for their gutting insights.

~

Ansary cover2. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Born in Afghanistan, Ansary is a lifelong history scholar who wrote high school history textbooks in America. Here he crafts the story of Islam, from its origins through today, into a highly enjoyable read. His prose is lively and conversational, his insights valuable, and his love of history contagious. When people ask about my favourite book, this is the one I emphatically recommend. For someone like me who learned practically nothing about the Middle East growing up, Ansary provides invaluable context for understanding the world today. In his introduction, he notes that Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a thesis: “It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said ‘What’s all this about a parallel world history?’”

~

Coupland

3.  Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland

Coupland has been an acclaimed novelist since the publication of his first novel, Generation X, in 1991. In this biography of fellow Canadian and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Coupland charts McLuhan’s rise to celebrity, subsequent fall from fame, and recent “comeback.” The publication of Understanding Media in 1964, which contains his famous McLuhanism “the medium is the message”, turned McLuhan into “the Super-Marshall of the 1960s”. At the height of his celebrity, he was “everywhere. He was hip and cool … Young people loved him. Talk shows were incomplete without him. … [He sailed on] Greek cruises with millionaires … and [earned] up to $25,000 for corporate speeches and seminars.” Coupland’s perspective as an artist focussed on the way technology changes culture enables him to provide insight into the relevance of McLuhan’s thinking today.

~

Eggers4. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Through high school and university, I worked in a secondhand bookshop. Instead of discovering and reading the new and latest bestselling authors, I read whatever came through our shop and struck my fancy. The title of Eggers’s debut work must have caught my attention. I’d never heard of him or the book, which meant I didn’t know it was a memoir of both his parents dying, of Eggers in his twenties raising his eight-year-old brother. I was also in my early twenties. It was the first time I was captivated by narrative voice as much as any aspect of the story, by the power of the narrator’s language to manipulate the reader through the reading experience.

This post became very long. I will share books 5 through 7 in the next one.

 

Podcasts to see you through

As you know, giant sea monsters have attacked our cities. While it’s not clear how many people they’re eating, it is clear that the safest thing to do is stay inside.  Ashley Kalagian Blunt with Eggpicnic artWhile you’re inside for the foreseeable future, you might as well listen to some high quality podcasts.

Lately I’ve been trying lots of new podcasts, and finding it harder and harder to get hooked into something. So you know if I’m recommending these, they must be excellent – assuming, of course, that you share my preference for true crime, comedy, and the bizarre.

  1. Women & Crime
    My latest favourite, this ongoing series hosted by the criminologists behind Direct Appeal (which I shared in my previous podcast round up). Each episode is a standalone story focussed on women “who have been victims of crime, those who have committed crimes, and those who are involved in the criminal justice system through their work.” One episode traces the story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two teenages from New Zealand who committed a murder; one of the killers went on to become the bestselling crime novelist Anne Perry.
  2. Free to a Good Home
    There are so many great podcasts that offer incredible learning opportunities. Unfortunately a lot of the time, my brain isn’t well enough to learn, either because of my chronic fatigue (poor concentration is one of my cognitive symptoms) or, more recently, because of the world falling apart. So instead I listen to sheer nonsense. High quality nonsense can be calming, and there’s no higher quality nonsense than Free to a Good Home. Sydney comedians Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing, along with a revolving door of guests, read bizarre classified ads and speculate about the circumstances that led to their posting. A sample of one of my favourite ads: “Get paid to kick a guy in the balls!” Like I said, the best kind of nonsense.
  3. How Did This Get Made?
    American actors Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael discuss some of the worst movies ever made, from so-bad-they’re-good movies, like Space Jam and Chopping Mall, to the purely unwatchable. You don’t need to know the movies, though watching the trailer enriches the listening experience. Once again, this is pure meaningless nonsense, which means I can put it on, relax, tune out, and fall asleep. I particularly enjoy the show’s sense of ritual, from the way the live shows open, to the reading of five-star Amazon reviews for each film at the end.
  4. Dragon Friends
    More nonsense: a Dungeons & Dragon comedy podcast. I have no interest in D&D, and heard about this podcast and the Sydney-based live show for years without trying it. But after I listened to all 108 episodes of Free to a Good Home, I thought, ‘You know what would make my life better? More Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing.’ Who happen to be on the cast of Dragon Friends. The story is continuous from season one, with the first and fifth seasons being my favourites. In an alternate reality, where I’m healthy and able to apply my brain more productively, I’m not sure I would have ever listened to this. But as a distraction from the current reality, it’s perfect.
  5. This Is Actually Happening
    While the episodes can be hit and miss, the concept and format of this show is fascinating. With no introduction or commentary from a host, the anonymous guest of each episode describes a personal experience, such as surviving a murder attempt, or having a friend die on a hiking trip, or having a mental breakdown.
  6. Hunting Warhead
    This six-part series traces the investigation of organised child abuse on the dark web, and how law enforcement agencies from around the world are meeting the challenges of tracking criminals without borders.
  7. The Knowledge Project
    When I am well enough to learn, absorb and reflect on new ideas, I enjoy the Knowledge’s Projects longform interviews with experts in a variety of areas of human knowledge. “Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.”
  8. Detective Trapp
    This miniseries centres on the lone female detective on Anaheim’s homicide squad, Julia Trapp, and one of her biggest cases: “When a young woman’s body is found at a trash-sorting plant, Trapp learns the murder may be linked to the disappearance of three other women in nearby Santa Ana.” Trapp is well-deserving of this in-depth profile of her life and work.

And if you miss me, you can always listen to this recent episode of The Bookshelf, in which I chat about American author Kiley Ried’s new novel Such a Fun Age.

Take care, wonderful people.
xo

*Bird art by Eggpicnic

2020 resolutions I might actually stick to

Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.

Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’

I’m in my fourth year.

At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. David Sedaris book signing
For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals

  1. Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
    I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
  2. Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
  3. Jump in the pool without hesitation. 
    This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
  4. Read more books.
    Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
  5. Develop my active listening skills. 
    Which means focussing on what others are really saying to me in conversations, rather than just waiting for them to finish talking so I can share my thoughts. Sheila Heen discusses this in-depth on the Knowledge Project.
  6. Ask better questions.

Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)

Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.

But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.

I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades,  a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)

I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.

I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.

I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.

Wishing you all best for your 2020 goals!
xx

 

19 reasons books make the best gifts

My Name Is Revenge, Ashley Kalagian Blunt,

  1. Books are rectangle-shaped, and nothing’s easier to gift wrap than a rectangle.
  2. Giving someone a book makes you seem smart and attractive.
  3. You can find a book on literally any topic, including Cooking on Your Car Engine, snakey biographies, and Crafting with Cat Hair.
  4. No time to wrap? Books fit well in gift bags.
  5. Every room looks better with books.
  6. Every home looks better with a library.
  7. Books won’t wilt and drop pollen all over your carpet.
  8. It’s difficult to murder someone with a book (and who wants to get embroiled in a lengthy murder trial because they gave someone the wrong gift? Not you).
  9. They fit nicely in stockings too!
  10. They come fully housebroken.
  11. There are so many great books to choose from!
  12. You don’t have to keep them refrigerated (but you can if you want to, I guess).
  13. No really, I mean any topic. Even Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.
  14. Books are made from trees, and everybody like trees.
  15. Reading makes people more empathetic and compassionate, so buying books is the first step to a better world.
  16. Books are zero calories.
  17. Literally any topic. Even Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way
  18. Buying books supports writers.
  19. Books are written by nice people.

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 12.00.05 pm.png
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.