Ep 54 Living with ambiguous loss, with author Erin Stewart

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 An earlier version of her book was shortlisted for the Portobello Books Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the UK.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.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Myth of Closure by Pauline Boss
Brave New Humans by Sarah Dingle
– ‘What if there’s no such thing as closure‘ by Meg Bernhard, New York Times
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Missing Richard Simmons podcast

Listen to episode 54 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 53 Happiness in a turbulent world with award-winning author Fiona Robertson

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!

Listen to episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

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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 >>

The 13 top writing tips I wish I’d had before I started

I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.

My Name Is Revenge cover with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt
At my first book launch, April 2019

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.

A stack of journals, a writing project
A selection of my journals, circa 2012 to 2020

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.

So here it is, my gift to you.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
My Name Is Revenge book launch, April 2019

13 tips on building a writing practice

1. Don’t wait for inspiration or the ‘right’ mood
Learn to unleash your creativity through generative exercises and build a consistent practice. More advice on accessing your creativity >>

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 >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author

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 >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Writing in 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 >>

Three people in front of shrubs
One of my writers’ groups

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 >>

9. Learn your craft
Like any craft, writing has technical elements. If you want to produce publishable writing, you need to learn these skills. In this interview, I talk about applying scene structure to my memoir and other craft aspects >>

On stage at Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2019

10. Build your confidence
Submitting your work means getting rejected. Don’t let that dissuade you, or take up too much of your emotional energy. You can learn to handle rejection! Here’s my advice on building up your confidence >>

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 >>

Writers group with six people holding books
My other writers’ group

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 >>

13. Get ready to be surprised
You never know what will happen. I wrote four full-length books – two novels and two memoirs – and couldn’t get any of them published. Then my publishing career began with a 25,000-word novella and essay collection, which also became my first audiobook >>

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I’m teaching an in-person memoir workshop in Sydney, and I’d love to see you there.

Crafting Memoir: An Introduction
Saturday 7 May 2022, 10am-4pm
In person at Writing NSW, Callan Park, Sydney
$135-$210 (see website)

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 >>

Ep 52 Epiphanies, obsession and vulnerability with Lech Blaine, author of Car Crash

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

Listen to episode 52 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

If you’re interested in writing memoir or joining for any of my upcoming writing workshops, check out my events page.

Ep 51 Finding something purely for yourself with award-winning author Dinuka McKenzie

When Dinuka McKenzie first sat down to write a novel, she had no dreams of publication – or understanding of the craft of fiction. She was the working mother of two young kids, feeling like everyone wanted something from her all the time. All she wanted was to do something that was purely for herself.

Now she’s the award-winning author of The Torrent, a police procedural set in small town Australia.

In episode 51, we talk to Dinuka about why she chose a pregnant small town detective as her main character, how her own experience as a working mum influenced her story, and how she even managed to find time to write with everything else going on in her life (especially when she had a grumpy four-year-old hiding her phone after a Very Important Call)!

Dinuka also shares what it was like to win the 2020 Banjo Prize, the anxiety that comes with achievement, and how she needs to remind herself to step back and enjoy it all.

Dinuka McKenzie is an Australian writer and book addict. Her debut crime-fiction manuscript The Torrent won the 2020 Banjo Prize. She works in the environmental sector and is part of the Writers’ Unleashed Festival team. She lives in Southern Sydney with her husband, two kids and their pet chicken.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Housemate by Sarah Bailey
The Others by Mark Brandi
The Shadow House by Anna Downes (from ep 5)
The Good Mother by Rae Cairns
Wake by Shelly Burr
Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor
Her Pretty Face by Robyn Harding
How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998 by Helen Garner
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris

Catch Dinuka at her upcoming events!
Thurs 17 Feb 6.30 pm AEST via Avid Reader online
Thurs 24 Feb 6pm AEDT via Bad Sydney Crime online

Listen to episode 51 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

But how does your HUSBAND feel about your memoir?!

When I started writing, one major thing I had absolutely no idea about was narrative structure. I thought I just had to write a good story – and that’s true, but it was only later that I discovered how essential structure is to good stories.

It took me an embarrassing number of years to even realise this, and then I had to learn how to actually do it. That took a less embarrassing number of years.

In fact, once I started microplotting, scaffolding scenes and applying story structure to my writing, that’s when I suddenly started getting interest from publishers.

That’s why I was so excited to delve into these aspects of writing with the fabulous Michelle Barraclough on the Writers Book Club podcast.

I loved her concept from her very first episode: “It’s a no-holds-barred insight into an author’s writing craft and process, applied to a real-life novel.”

Or in this case, memoir.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

In Writers Book Club episode 11, I walk through the process behind writing my memoir How to Be Australian, including how to shape your voice on the page, how I structured the memoir to best reflect the narrative and character arc, how I plot scenes and specifically focuses on scene turns, the role of truth in memoir, and the lessons from fiction writing that help with writing memoir.

Michelle asks great questions, including why I decided to write a memoir in the first place, what that process looked like, when I decided on the themes.

We also talk about what lessons I took from fiction, how to include conflict and stakes in memoir, and the pesky concept of “truth”.

I give some readings How to Be Australian to illustrate my approach to some of these topics.

Caramel Slice on How to Be Australian

Plus we talk about the eternal question – what does my husband feel about my memoir?! (He’s the other major character.)

Michelle is a writer whose first novel, As I Am, a contemporary drama, was Highly Commended in the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and earned her a 12-month mentorship at Hachette. She’s also a lot of fun.

And if you’re interested in starting a memoir, or would like to get some more insights into the process now that you’ve delved in, you’re in luck! I’ve got an upcoming online workshop just for you.

Tips and Tricks to Writing Your Memoir
Tuesday 22 February 2022, 6:15-7:30 pm AEDT
Online via Zoom
Tix $9-14

So you’re thinking of writing a memoir and you’re not sure how to start. Or you’ve already started and you’re not sure how to keep going.

Writing a memoir can be a therapeutic process. But it can also be challenging, whether you’re doing it to better understand yourself and the events of your life, or with the aim of publication.

In this workshop from published author Ashley Kalagian Blunt, you’ll learn tips and tricks to make the process easier and rewarding.

This is a workshop for novice writers in the beginning stages of writing a memoir or thinking about starting one. Get your ticket here >>

Ep 50 How to remake the world with author Sarah Sentilles

“We have these narrow stories about what it means to be a human being,” author Sarah Sentilles says. But we have the power to expand them, just as we have the power to remake the world.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Draw Your Weapons, Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own and Taught by America. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Her latest book is Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours

Stranger Care is a memoir of Sarah and her husband’s experience with the foster system in Idaho and the ten months they parented an infant named Coco, only to return her to her loving but vulnerable mother. She describes the book as “a keening, a song of grief, a love letter”.  

In episode 50, Sarah joins us to discuss coping with unexpected loss, who counts as family, and how at heart, all of us are baby monkeys.

She also shares how each of us can use our creativity to remake the world around us. She believes being an artist is urgent and reparative work. When we turn towards our creative work, Sarah teaches, we turns toward the world.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
– ‘The abortion I didn’t have‘ by Merrit Tierce
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Listen to episode 50 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 48 Building community after loss with author Shankari Chandran

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.

This episode connects to our conversations with previous guests Nardi Simpson (ep 18), Luke Stegemann (ep 26), David Heska Wanbli Weiden (ep 40), in which we explore the legacy of mass traumatic events on the health of communities and society.

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)

Check out Shankari’s essay on writing and resilience published by Writing NSW, and get your copy of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens from Booktopia or your local bookshop or library.

Plus, join Ashley for her Laneway Learning online workshop, The Joy of Creative Writing (Monday 31 January, 7:45-9pm AEDT) and her upcoming online event with Anna Downes (Thursday 3 Feb, 11am AEDT).

Listen to episode 48 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

The top 10 most popular episodes of James and Ashley Stay at Home

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.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast yumiko kadota

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.

Author Ruhi Lee on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

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.

Woman in art studio

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.

Man and woman in Australian woods

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’s my 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.

Author Anna Downes headshot and book covers

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!

Kate Mildenhall author headshot cover

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!)

michelle-tom-james-ashley-stay-home-podcast

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.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

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.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Listen to  all episodes of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.