After a broken finger brought on a debilitating illness, author Rae Cairns lost two years as her doctors searched for the right treatment. A bad reaction to drugs caused her hair to fall out. When her health had stabilised enough for her to return to writing, she lost her literary agent.
Undeterred, Rae self-published her first novel. After being shortlisted for a major award, she had a new agent and a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins with a few weeks.
In episode 58, Rae talks to James and Ashley about living with chronic invisible illness, coping with brain fog, and cultivating the resilience to share a story that, in her words, she just had to tell.
Rae Cairns’s debut novel, The Good Mother, was shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for Best Debut Crime Fiction, and was published by HarperCollins in 2022. Her second novel will be out in 2023. Rae lives in Sydney.
Rae’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis came out of the blue. ‘My body had been my strength, and all of a sudden it was betraying me.’ Later she learned that at least one other person in her family had the condition, but when she first began experiencing the onset of symptoms, they came as a shock.
To return to novel writing and go on to achieve the huge success she’s had with The Good Mother, Rae has had to learn how to manage her symptoms, including the brain fog that still causes her to lose entire days and struggle to recall even the simplest words.
She wrote the first draft of The Good Mother by hand – ‘now, with joint issues, that’s not possible.’
‘I had to get a new relationship with everything in my life,’ she says, including her husband, her children, and her writing.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – The Missing Among Us by Erin Stewart (ep 54); – Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell; – Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie; – Autumn by Ali Smith; – The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet; – Negative Space by BR Yeager; – My Name Is Revenge by Ashley Kalagian Blunt; – Goat Mountain by David Vann; – It by Stephen King
For four of the past six weeks, I’ve been on writing retreat, first as an artist-in-residence at Bundanon in rural NSW, and then as a fellowship recipient at KSP Writers’ Centre in Perth, WA.
I love writing retreats because they allow me to focus on my current project to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it’s always a time of new insights and exciting progress. (Unless my CFS is flaring; then it’s just frustrating.)
I’ve been working on a major structural revision to my psychological thriller, and by the end of my two weeks at KSP, I’d made it through to the end of the draft. I still need to review the changes and do some more editing, but the hardest work is done, for the moment.
Now I’m at the point where I’m sharpening the scenes and the line-by-line writing. One of my favourite strategies is to use the find-all function in Word (shift + command + H on Mac) for certain words, and review each use of them one by one.
Instead of reading through the manuscript and getting caught up in the flow of the story, this strategy allows me to encounter sentences out of context. This helps me think about them differently. I ask myself a few questions about each sentence:
Does the sentence really need the filler word I searched? (Ex. Does that question need really?)
Could I rewrite the sentence to make it stronger, more interesting, with more specific imagery?
Do I need the sentence at all – maybe the paragraph/scene is stronger without it.
For example, this morning I searched the following words, and made these edits:
Reduced my use of almost from 31 to 11
Reduced all from 252 to 117 (very happy with this one)
Actually from 29 to 9
Absolutely from 5 to 1
A bit from 19 to 10
A little from 25 to 9
A single from 9 to 3
At least from 23 to 10
Always from 26 to 9
Back from 262 to 113 (very happy with this one too)
Obviously from 8 to 2
Very from 17 to 11
In some cases I simply removed these words, but often I reworked sentences to make them stronger. Where I’ve kept words like very and obviously is usually in dialogue.
I’ve created a list of words and phrases I search, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be working through it while continuing with the revision. I’ve included it below in case you’d like to make use of it too.
a bit a little a single at least absolutely actually again also all almost although always another any as well at the same time back basically because both but certainly clearly completely decide definitely down entire especially even everything exactly extremely feel/feel like first, second, third generally have/had a feeling have/had no idea hear here I think in fact just know/knew/known likewise look/looked/looking make/makes no sense meanwhile nearly next nevertheless obviously of course off otherwise out particularly practically pretty probably quite realise really right see/seeing/saw seem similarly so so much some somehow something sound specifically straight suddenly then think/thinking/thought there too totally truly up very watch wonder yet
In her exploration of life in rural Australian, author Yumna Kassab draws on horror, crime and gothic inspiration to craft a thematically linked experiment in form and style.
Yumna Kassab is a writer from Western Sydney. She studied medical science and neuroscience at university. Her first book, The House of Youssef, was listed for prizes including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Queensland Literary Award, NSW Premier’s Literary Award and The Stella Prize.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au – Karl Ove Knausgaard – Blindness by Jose Saramago – Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez – Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torne – Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler – Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
After a random encounter with poet and author Ellis Gunn at an auction, a stranger decides to stalk her. Years later, she sits down to write about the experience – and realises it’s connected to a lifetime of gendered abuse, including surviving both sexual assault and domestic violence.
Episode 56 features a wide-ranging and compelling interview with Ellis. She discusses what she learned through the experience of writing her debut memoir, Rattled, including the psychological impacts of stalking, the reactions of her family and friends, and the concepts of agency deletion and radical empathy.
Ellis Gunn is a Scottish writer and poet who now lives in Australia. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published widely in the UK and she has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Edinburgh Book Festival and the British Embassy in Berlin. She lives near the beach with her partner, two children, a cat and some ants.
One of the concepts she learned about in researching her experience is agency deletion, the way we use passive language to talk about ‘how many women are raped’, not ‘how many men raped women’. Ellis references #FixedIt, a website where Jane Gilmore dissects agency deletion in newspaper headlines.
Ellis also describes links between gendered violence and physical health, and offers the example of her own deteriorating health condition.
“Shortly after being stalked, I noticed a sudden increase in joint pain. It was painful to hold a book up to read when I was lying in bed, to carry bags of shopping back from the supermarket. When it started to affect my ability to do the cleaning and polishing necessary for my work upcycling furniture, I went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and, some months later, osteoporosis which often goes hand-in-hand with joint inflammation. As far as I know, no one in my extended family suffers, or has suffered, from either of these normally hereditary conditions. As I came to the end of writing this book, I received a further, devastating diagnosis: stage 4 cancer, a rare and aggressive kind. I have no hard evidence that this is a direct result of being stalked, or raped, or living with domestic violence, but I do know that none of this could have helped.”
“In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk shows how the body is changed physically and mentally when exposed to trauma and stress, particularly if we have no outlet for our emotions. These changes can remain in the body and leave us vulnerable to all kinds of autoimmune diseases, including cancer. This has particular significance for women, who are at greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse and/or domestic violence in their lifetimes, but the implications are much wider. Children who live with domestic violence or neglect frequently have no way of processing the resulting trauma and therefore end up living with high levels of stress and often a disturbed view of themselves or the world. Van der Kolk argues that, if things are to change, we need to go to the root of the problem and help parents with their mental health issues, addictions, poverty or isolation. The result would be fewer children growing up with stress and the associated health conditions as well as the type of mental health issues that can lead to abusive patterns of behaviour. Financially, an investment in parenting programmes for disadvantaged families could save the US billions every year in health and criminal justice costs.”
Books and authors discussed in this episode – The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk – ‘Tribes and Traitors‘, Hidden Brain podcast from Shankar Vedantam – Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout by Ginger Gorman – The Writing Life by Annie Dillard – The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood – How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt – Outline by Rachel Cusk – The Break by Katherena Vermette
The first time Katherine Collette attended a Toastmasters meeting, she immediately thought, ‘This would be great for satire.’
Toastmasters is a public speaking organisation that started in the US over 90 years ago, and now has over 300,000 members in 149 countries – and both Katherine and I are past members.
Toastmasters is also the inspiration for Katherine’s second novel, The Competition.
Katherine Collette is a novelist, podcaster and engineer living in Melbourne with her husband and two children. Her debut novel, The Helpline, was published in Australia, Germany, Italy and the US and UK. She co-hosts the writing podcast The First Time with author Kate Mildenhall.
If you’ve ever dreaded public speaking, ep 55 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is for you! We explore why public speaking is so intimidating for most people, and how that fear can be overcome.
We also discuss Katherine’s personal experience with public speaking clubs, and how they can build both confidence and empathy. As she says, ‘You sign up to learn to speak. But the real power is in having to listen.’
Finally, we answer the question – is some discomfort in life necessary?
Books and authors discussed in this episode – After Story by Larissa Behrendt – David Sedaris – Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl – Sarah Krasnostein – Love Stories by Trent Dalton – Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton – Ben Hobson
A lot of true crime cases start the same way – someone didn’t show up at work, or didn’t come home on time. Their family or friends go to the police to report them missing, but the police tell them they have to wait, or don’t act on the information, or don’t believe the family members.
Listening to true crime podcasts, I often find this baffling. If the police had acted sooner, maybe the person could have been found alive, or found at all. But learning about missing persons through the context of one case belies the bigger issue.
In Australia alone 38,000 people are reported missing across the country each year – more than 100 a day.
In her debut nonfiction work, The Missing Among Us, author Erin Stewart explores the issue of missing persons from a variety of perspectives, including the lack of police resources that leave families leading their own searches, the Stolen Generations, and cults.
Erin is a Canberra-based freelance writer who has written for a range of Australian and international publications including Meanjin, Voiceworks, ABC Online, SBS Online, Daily Life, Overland, and many others. She has been an opinion columnist for The Age and made regular appearances on ABC Sydney Mornings to talk about books and the arts. An earlier version of her book was shortlisted for the Portobello Books Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the UK.
And what drew Erin to the topic of missing persons is just as fascinating.
In episode 54 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Erin discusses how the ambiguity of living with chronic illness drove her interest in missing persons. ‘The Missing Among Us’ is ‘about finding a space for those conversations about ambiguous circumstances in order to understand the complex issue of missing persons.’ She also describes her experiences with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the research behind her book.
I also share the story of Michael Kalagian, the man who has haunted me for years.
Michael may have been essential to my family history, possibly as the person who brought my great grandparents over to Canada in 1921. He definitely lived in St Catharines; he’s pictured here with my great grandfather’s older siblings.
But when I interviewed the St Catharines Armenian community, no one could remember him. Supposedly born in 1881, he died in 1943, though no one could tell me how. He didn’t even have a gravestone until 1960, when my grandparents buried their infant son over Michael’s coffin and provided a shared stone.
Michael was likely my great grandfather’s uncle. He may have had no wife and children, or he may have had an entire family that was lost during the genocide while he worked in Canada.
No one could tell me anything about him. How completely forgotten Michael was, how little his existence mattered to anyone still living – that’s what haunts me. He’s missing, but in a different way.
The Missing Among Us made me think about missing persons – and living with the ambiguity of chronic illness – in all kinds of new ways, and I was delighted to speak to Erin about it.
Fiona Robertson lived with migraines for years, writing short stories as a creative pursuit. Now she’s free from migraines and the award-winning author of the debut short story collection, If You’re Happy. Her work explores the lives of lonely people seeking happiness in a turbulent world.
In episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Fiona discusses the common threads that bind her stories, why they’re her chosen form, and how living with unpredictable chronic illness impacted her life and creative work.
Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her collection of stories, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Fiona lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.
Plus, Fiona and I talk about our fellowships at KSP Writers Centre in 2017, and how the benefits of such opportunities extend far beyond writing time.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Louise Allan – The Keepers by Al Campbell, plus her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘The disappointing question I most often got after writing a book‘ – Long Road to Dry River by Jen Severn – All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – Child of God by Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – David Vann – Denizen by James McKenzie Watson, out 19 July 2022!
Just announced! I’m teaching a one-day in-person memoir workshop for Writing NSW on Saturday 7 May. If you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or hoping to start one, this is everything you need to know. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>
I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.
I took creative writing workshops in university and college. I churned out novels and stories and possibly the worst poetry in history of English.
In my early thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.
Finally, in 2019, my first book came out. It only took me 30 years.
Over that time, I collected a lot of writing advice, and thought a lot about the process of going from aspiring writer to published author. If I’d had even half of this advice when I started, I think the process would have been easier and more enjoyable, if not faster.
2. Start by building a creative practice When you’re starting out, engage with your creativity for its own sake, rather than with any specific end goal (like publication) in mind. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop your skills if you want to be an author. Enjoy the process. Plus, engaging with our creativity can be therapeutic – hear art therapist Karin Foxwell discuss the healing power of creativity in this interview >>
3. Remember that your creativity is important Creativity isn’t frivolous, or selfish, or peripheral – it’s a radically powerful act. Author Sarah Sentilles teaches that when we turn toward our creativity, we turn toward the world. Hear more from Sarah in this interview >>
4. Understand that creative work can spark anxiety What if we don’t know what we’re doing? What if the work we’re producing is rubbish? This is absolutely normal, and something many published authors still struggle with. Listen to author Kate Mildenhall share her advice >>
5. Tune out your inner critic Most of us judge ourselves and our ideas harshly, but the truth is you often need to go through a lot of mediocre ideas and drafts before arriving at an exciting one. You can learn to tune out the inner critic that tries to shut you down. Here’s a tip: when I’m find myself second-guessing every word of a new draft, I change my font to trees >>
6. Overcome project inertia Often during a project we can lose momentum, and day by day it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to the work – resistance builds up. I call this ‘project inertia’ and there are strategies to overcome and avoid it. Read more about project inertia here >>
7. Trust the process As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop a process that works for you. But then you’ll get derailed and feel lost. Go back to your process, and learn to trust it >>
8. Get a writers group (or two) Once you’ve started producing work you think might be headed for publication, it’s time to get feedback. One of the best ways to do that is a writers’ group. I credit mine with helping me sharpen the skills needed to get published. Read more about how to get the most from writers’ groups here >>
11. Accept the ups and downs If you want to become published and get paid for your work, the process will have many ups and downs. This is true for practically all writers. Here’s the messy process I went through, summarised into 10 easy steps >>
12. Find your joy, even through rejection For a lot of years, I received a lot of rejections. But I found myself having a wonderful time, because I loved my creative work, and I loved all the fabulous readers and writers I was meeting through the community. During that, I got involved in supporting the writing community as a way to connect with others, and wrote about how much I learned through this process >>
Your lived experience provides the raw material for a memoir – but how do you shape that material into something greater than a series of recollections? How do you craft a cohesive, compelling narrative arc from the quiet moments our lives often turn on?
Join me for a practical workshop filled with writing exercises, analysis of memoir extracts, and discussion. You’ll learn strategies for getting your first draft down and approaches for tackling the serious task of revision, including what narrative structure is and how it works when writing from real life. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>
Writing a memoir is all about taking the mess of life and shaping into a coherent, moving narrative. This is what author Lech Blaine did for his memoir, Car Crash. Then, when writing Top Blokes, a Quarterly Essay on Australian politics, he found himself weaving memoir into his writing once again.
What’s the cost of so much vulnerability, especially when writing about trauma, grief, personal mental health?
Lech Blaine is the author of the memoir Car Crash and Quarterly Essay ‘Top Blokes’. His writing has appeared in the Monthly, Guardian Australia, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. He was an inaugural recipient of a Griffith Review Queensland Writing Fellowship.
In episode 52, Lech speaks about the challenge of writing and releasing these two publications back to back during the pandemic, and the burnout that followed. He also discusses the epiphanies that writing memoir can bring despite unresolved feelings about events that are carefully distilled on the page, and the emotional toll of sharing so much vulnerability with readers.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton – Timeline by Michael Crichton – Sphere by Michael Crichton – Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton – State of Fear by Michael Crichton – Lee Child – John Grisham – Know My Name: A Memoir by Channel Miller – Specky Magee by Felice Arena and Garry Lyon – Harry Potter by JK Rowling – Glory Gardens by Bob Cattell