How do we build community and a sense of self after loss, especially the kind of loss that echoes for generations?
In episode 48, James and I talk to Australian author Shankari Chandran about her latest novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and how her efforts to find connection in the writing community echo her Tamil family’s work to build community after being dispossessed from their homeland in the Sri Lankan civil war.
As she writes, ‘Possession of land is nine-tenths of the law. Possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’
Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field, before returning to Australia, where she now lives with her husband and children. She is the author of two previous novels, Song of the Sun God, and The Barrier, and has been shortlisted for the Fairway National Literary Award and the Norma K Hemming Award for speculative fiction.
In this episode, we discuss the reshaping of historical narratives, how families live with the legacy of genocide and dispossession, and Shankari’s struggle to find a publisher for her novels in Australia, and how her writing has helped her find a sense of community and connection.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (from ep 18) – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall – David Heska Wanbli Weiden (from ep 40) – Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian translated by Mabel Lee – Amnesia Road by Luke Stegemann (from ep 26)
James and Ashley Stay at Home, the podcast I co-host with author James McKenzie Watson, is about to hit 50 episodes.
We’ve been exploring writing, creativity and health since way back in June 2020, and we’ve talked to an amazing variety of guests. If you live with chronic illness or have a writing or creative practice, we’re bringing you guests that we hope you’ll love and learn from, as we have.
To celebrate our (almost!) 50 eps, here are our all-time top 10 most popular episodes.
10. Burning out with Yumiko Kadota, author of Emotional Female (ep 28) Dr Kadota shares shares the devastating effects of burnout, the difficulties women of colour face in the public health system, and the possible future directions of chronic fatigue research. Her revealing memoir is a bestseller so it’s no surprise this ep is so popular.
9. Recovering from childhood with Ruhi Lee, author of Good Indian Daughter (ep 30) Ruhi Lee (who recently revealed her real name, Sneha Lees) discusses what it means to be a girl in a South Asian family, the notion of unconditional parental love, and how one generation avoids making the same mistakes as the last. Her memoir is raw and real, and full of unexpected laughs.
8. The healing power of creativity with Karin Foxwell, art therapist (ep 9) In this fascinating interview, Karin describes the profound therapeutic power of art, as she’s observed in her work with military and emergency services personnel who’ve sustained PTSD in the course of their service. She also describes a ‘standard’ art therapy session, discusses the therapeutic power of writing, and explains why she thinks everyone should engage in some kind of art therapy.
This is an incredibly heartening episode, and I recommend it every time I teach about creativity.
7. Living with chronic illness: James and Ashley talk health (ep 10) James and I discuss our own illnesses, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) respectively. We explain these conditions, discuss how they affect day to day life, and explore how illness has impacted our senses of self.
6. Where’smy Man Booker? James and Ashley share writing tips (ep 6) It turns out we should all listen when James discusses writing tips, since he went on to witn the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize! He knows what he’s doing.
5. The year that almost killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place (ep 5) Anna discusses the role motherhood and post-natal anxiety played in the development of her internationally bestselling debut The Safe Place, and how sacrificing one creative career helped pave the way for success in another. Anna’s second book, The Shadow House, is now in bookstores – and I’ll be in conversation with her about it for an online library event on Thursday 3 February. Join us!
4. Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault (ep 13) Kate generously discusses the craft of novel writing, the challenges of penning a second book, and the creative anxieties that plague creatives. This is another episode I recommend in every one of my creativity workshops.
3.Introduction episode! (ep 1) If you’re new to James and Ashley Stay at Home, this is the place to start. (We hadn’t figured out how to write titles back then!)
2. How to survive an earthquake with Michelle Tom, author of Ten Thousand Aftershocks (ep 38) We discuss the captivating and highly original structure of Michelle’s memoir, the strange parallels between childhood trauma and earthquakes, and the transformative power of owning your narrative. This was our most popular episode of 2021.
1. Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian (ep 16) Ada Palmer is an historian, composer and author of the Terra Ignota sci-fi/fantasy book series. She’s also an incredible speaker who lives with invisible illness. Here, she discusses how she’s managed to achieve her astonishing body of work while living with chronic pain, and the relationship between identity and disability. Ada offers valuable advice to all creatives who experience illness, so it’s no wonder it our most popular episode yet.
When Jacinta Dietrich’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to fiction to find this new terrain explored on the page.
Except she couldn’t find her story.
While there were lots of narratives involving cancer, Jacinta was looking for a story that involved a young couple involved in a newer – but crucially, established – relationship, who had to navigate the progression of their romance while one of them also went through cancer treatment.
Jacinta Dietrich is a writer and editor who holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her first book, This Is Us Now, was published in 2021 by Grattan Street Press.
In episode 45 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Jacinta talks about fictionalising her story, writing confronting emotions, and telling her partner that the book she’d written based on their relationship was going to be published.
Plus, things go off the rails as we get into a heated and cryptic discussion of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, and also exactly which co-host asked author Lyn Yeowart what she was wearing. (If you’re looking to give James a gift, maybe don’t go with a photo book.)
When she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at age 25, one of the many things it meant for Heather was that she’d have to quit skydiving – though not until she’d injured herself trying to hold on the person she was before.
Heather Taylor Johnson is a writer and editor. Born in Minnesota and now living in South Australia, she has written novels and poetry collections, and is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Westerly, Griffith Review, Island and TEXT. She lives with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
In episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she discusses how more than two decades of living with chronic illness have inspired her writing and led to the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Illness and Chronic Pain.
She also shares Van Gogh’s misdiagnosis with her condition, describes how a year of studying art has changed her writing process, and tells us about her latest book, Rhymes with Hyenas.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability by Jennifer Bartlett (ed) – Prosopagnosia by Sonia Hernandez – No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
‘People come to me all the time and tell me about the metaphors I built in, and I tell them, “Man, I just threw it in there.”‘
David Heska Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation and the author of Winter Counts. His debut novel, Winter Counts was the winner of the 2021 Thriller Award for Best First Novel, the Spur Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and Best First Novel, the Barry Award for Best First Novel, the Lefty Award for Best Debut Novel, and the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing. He lives in Colorado.
Winter Counts is the story of Virgil Wounded Horse, a hired vigilante on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through a compelling crime story, David reveals the profoundly broken criminal justice system on American reservations.
In episode 40 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we ask David what it means to be a Super Indian (and discuss the term ‘Indian’ in the American context), his starting place for the novel’s narrative, Lakota and Indigenous cuisine and food culture, and the surprising and heartening reader responses to the book.
Plus, if you’re ever in Nebraska, David recommends checking out Carhenge, a replica of Stonehenge made of out actual cars. Seriously.
Books and authors discussed in this episode: – Jim Thompson, US noir author – Don Becker, Denver comedian – Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall – They Can’t Take Your Name by Robert Justice – The House of Ashes by Stuart Neville – The Shadow House by Anna Downes (our guest from episode 5) – The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright – Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.
I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.
This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?
But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.
It was too many.
Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.
More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.
Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.
Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.
In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.
In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.
‘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
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)