4.5 minutes of fame

It’s ironic that my first appearance on national TV would be on breakfast news, since an actual line from my memoir How to Be Australian reads, “The breakfast news was on (it was always on at the gym, like some sort of curse).”

Regardless, here I am! Wearing my Iced VoVo earrings and exposing the Hollywood kookaburra con to the entire country.

In case you haven’t yet read the book, let me summarise: kookaburras have been putting Hollywood monkeys out of work for years.

The first time I heard real live kookaburra laughter, I started looking around for monkeys. Later I discovered I could blame Hollywood for this. At some point, an American producer decided kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves. The birds have been creating jungle ambiance in blockbusters ever since, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park to Jumanji.

Thanks to the power of the internet, however, I discovered that the conspiracy goes way deeper than that.

Or, to be accurate, someone else discovered it, and a third excellent person informed me of it:

It turns out kookaburra sounds effects were used in The Wizard of Oz way back in 1939! I guess at the time, Hollywood producers figured the average American film audience wouldn’t know what either monkeys or kookaburras sounded like, and went about creating their own version of reality … which then seeped into my understanding of actual reality.

But this article breaks down the early Tarzan movies, and finds that kookaburras were conning audiences even earlier than that – in 1938. This means for more than eight decades, overseas audiences have trained to believe that Australia’s riotous avian laughter is actually produced by primates. It’s the ultimate interspecies con.

Now that How to Be Australian is out, people have been getting in touch to share all kinds of fabulous Australiana I wasn’t even aware of, and I’ve been delighting it. Like the fabulous Kristy Diffey, who shared this important revelation with me:  

In 2019, the Royal Australian Mint released millions of $1 coins featuring Australian themes. Not just Iced Vovos, but also meat pies, lamingtons, Vegemite, Weet-Bix and something called Zooper Dooper, which doesn’t sound like something dignified enough to appear on any national currency.

There’s no equivalent to this in Canada. We don’t have loonies (yes, our $1 coins are called loonies. There’s a loon on them. And our $2 coins are called toonies) with nanaimo bars on them, or Timbits, or even tiny bottles of maple syrup. Maybe we should, but we don’t – and I believe that’s a significant cultural distinction.

If you’d like to hear about my upcoming events and other exciting news, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletter.

Ashley
xo

 

‘Not hiding my scars anymore’

‘I didn’t die because my parents bribed the surgeon that was supposed to operate on me not to operate on me … He had a nickname of The Butcher.’

In episode 3 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to author and writing teacher Lee Kofman about her creative non-fiction book Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become.

James and Ashley Stay at Home episode 3

From her website: ‘By the time she was eleven and living in the Soviet Union, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in a bus accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. But it wasn’t until she moved to Israel and later to Australia that she came to think these markings weren’t badges of honour to flaunt but were, in fact, imperfections that needed to be hidden away.’

Conservatively speaking, I could discuss this book with Lee for nine straight hours, but James and I managed to keep our chat to 45 minutes.

We discuss how her scars affected her growing up, stories from the many interviews with people with diverse bodies that feature in the book, and how her self-perception has shifted through the process of writing and promoting the book.

Lee is the author of five books, including Imperfect, a blend of memoir and cultural critique, and the memoir The Dangerous Bride. She is co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, an anthology of personal essays. Imperfect was shortlisted for the 2019 Nib Literary Award.

You can listen on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or via the website or any podcast app.

 

Podcast: James and Ashley Stay at Home

James and Ashley are staying at home. Partly because there’s a pandemic, partly because they’re writers, and partly because of their health. Through discussions and interviews with other writers, they’ll try to inspire, build fellowship and entertain, or at the very least, explore how staying at home has its benefits.

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 7.15.36 pm

James and Ashley Stay at Home is a new podcast, a joint venture with my wonderful co-host, James McKenzie Watson. Learn more about James and the podcast below, or find the first three episodes here.

We’ll be discussing the challenges of our efforts to write brilliant manuscripts while coping with chronic health issues, and also interviewing other writers who have done the same.

Podcast player screengrab

This is what the player for the first episode would look like, if I could embed each episode. It turns out I can’t embed episodes, not without paying several hundred dollars a year in WordPress fees.

Instead, you can listen to episode 1 here. It introduces the podcast and our major themes, writing and health. We speak about both topics through our personal experience: in addition to my chronic fatigue syndrome, James was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2016. Like me, he also suffers from serious fatigue, among a myriad of other symptoms.

James is a very talented writer ofScreen Shot 2020-06-07 at 7.25.48 pm short and novel-length fiction. He’s been recognised in competitions including the International InkTears Flash Fiction Contest, the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Grieve Writing Competition, and featured in publications such as Baby Teeth Journal and Brave Voices Magazine. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. He works as a nurse in regional NSW. Find him on Twitter or visit his website.

James is a member of my Writing NSW writers’ group, pictured here at the 2019 launch of My Name Is Revenge: Jonathon Shannon, James, me, Simon Veksner, Amanda Ortlepp and Andrea Tomaz.Writers group with six people holding booksEpisode 2 is a special episode, which features me reading the first chapter of my new memoir, How to Be Australian.

In episode 3, we launch into our interviews with Australian authors starting with Lee Kofman, author of Imperfect. Next month, we’ll feature Anna Downes, author of the soon-to-be-released psychological thriller, The Safe Place. Make sure to subscribe on your favourite podcast app.

Ashley
xo

PS. Looking for more great writing podcasts? Writing NSW has you covered.

Launching How to Be Australian

If you missed the launch of my new memoir How to Be Australian, officially released this week from Affirm Press, no worries – you can watch it here!

Here I am waving my hands a lot and talking about my new book, How to be Australian, a funny and heartfelt memoir that explores Australian identity and culture through the eyes of a slightly anxious Canadian. A book for everybody, it traverses the realities of adulthood, marriage and how we find our place in the world.

Launching the book is RWR McDonald, author of the debut novel The Nancys. Rob is a Kiwi living in Melbourne with his two daughters and an extended rainbow family including HarryCat and Stevie Nicks the chicken.

I’m drinking a lemon myrtletini, one of the themed cocktails I created to pair with the book. Check them out, along with the free book club discussion guide.

What you won’t see in the video, tragically, is the Lone Pine Koalas. They put on quite a show during the launch, but because they’re the quiet sorts, they weren’t recorded on the speaker view. Here’s a screen grab from the evening. Two koalas on a branch at night

Launch highlights
8’03 – Ashley reads an excerpt from the book
14’00 – Rob asks how Ashley remembers events from her life
15’00 – Ashley takes the audience on a photo highlights tour
25’08 – the legend of the Birdman of the Coorong (aka Ashley’s favourite bushranger)
28’03 – Special guest appearance!
30’51 – Ashley shares an anecdote about writing her husband, Steve
34’03 – the Ashley & Steve meet-cute story
37’50 – Ashley shares a highlight of writing the book
42’45 – caramel slices and book cake!
51’22 – audience Q: what’s your favourite book about Australia?
woman holding cake printed with book cover
I’ll be talking more about How to Be Australian and the journey of writing it in my upcoming events. Hope to see you there!

 

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.

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.

 

Conversations with Friends

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends showed up as a surprise in the post. A friend sent it to me.

Sally Rooney has won multiple literary awards. I’d read her second book, Normal People, earlier in the year, when everyone was talking about it. And while I recognised the writing as brilliant (and so crisp and well wrought, Rooney doesn’t even bother with quotation marks), I didn’t enjoy the book. I don’t enjoy stories about relationships, about love and affairs and divorce and grief. My favourite books generally have at least one murder in them, and no-one gets murdered in Conversations with Friends. Not to spoil it too much, but no-one even contemplates hiring an assassin.

The whole time I was reading it, I wondered what had made my friend choose this book, from the millions of books out there. Even though this book was very much not my kind of book, at the same time it was so well-written it was hard not to find things to appreciate on every page, turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. The main character has embarked on a writing career, and later on is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Many of Rooney’s observations rang true for me. I’ve listed some of my favourites here.

“I had started reading long interviews with famous writers and noticing how unlike them I was.” (Does every aspiring writer do this?)

“I feel like shit lately, she said … You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realise you can’t.”

“Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life, basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.” (This seems especially true this year.)

“After that I put some cold water on my face and dried it, the same face I have always had, the one I would have until I died.”

“I wanted things for myself because I thought they existed.”

“I felt as if I’d glimpsed the possibility of an alternative life, the possibility of accumulating income just by writing and talking and taking an interest in things. By the time my story was accepted for publication, I even felt like I’d entered that world myself, like I’d folded my old life up behind me and put it away. I was ashamed at the idea that Bobbi might come into the sandwich shop and see for herself how deluded I had been.”

“I had the sense that something in my life had ended, my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realized my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.”

“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.”

Those last two quotes seem to sit inside me. Nothing makes my suffering useful, and often my life feels like filling time until I get well. I talk all the time about the things I will do when I’m well – running and hiking and dancing, working a normal eight-hour day. Sometimes I see people out for a run and I become so sad and resentful.

I hope the things you are waiting for happen for you. And in the meantime, I hope your friends post you books.
xo
Ashley

 

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

 

The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here: