If a snake wants you, he’ll get you

One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.

George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.   La Perouse Snake Show Sydney Australia
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is an fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.

Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.

‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘

Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’

As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’

But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘

The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

I highly recommend both the book and the show.

 

Surviving small talk with hairdressers

April 26 [journal excerpts]
Sydney
When I finally decided that the broken, miserable tangle past my shoulders needed to go, I made an appointment with a new hairdresser. He’d been recommended as someone who knew how to deal with thick hair. I loved my long hair – pulling it up in a bun, braiding it – but it was exhausting to look after. So I made a special trip to Surry Hills.

1. The salon was very bright and the music loud. One staff person greeted me. Another brought me a cup of tea. A third, a scrawny guy with bleached hair circa 1999 washed my hair. When he towelled it off, he stuck his fingertips in my ears. They were inside a towel, but still.

2. The hairdresser had the shoulders and arms of a weightlifter and the beer belly of a devoted drinker. He was probably late fifties, with salt and pepper hair, a black v-neck t-shirt, jeans and a single silver earring. He cut me off every time I talked, so I stopped talking. The only time he listened was when he asked what type of cut I wanted. He described the sort of thick, wavy hair I happen to have as “one of the evils of the world” and I thought, he gets it.

3. Am I terrible at small talk? Or just terrible at small talk with hairdressers? If you love hair styling enough to devote your career to it, chances are you and I have very little in common to start with.

4. He cut me off even when I tried to tell him that he came highly recommended. It was like our dialogue was on separate soundtracks playing out of sync.

5. He was hesitant about the cut I wanted. “It’s a dramatic cut,” he kept repeating. Finally I managed to convince him I’d had it quite short before. “Some women are fine to get a dramatic cut. Others, you cut their hair a millimeter and they’re devastated. Your achilles heel is very thick.” (Yes, and so is my hair.)

6. “My housemate a while ago was a guy from Canada. He said he was from the US, from New York, I guessed he was ashamed to be from somewhere so cold. One time I asked him if he wanted a margarita. He gave me a funny look and said, ‘We don’t really know each other that well.’
“I asked him what he thought I’d said.
“‘Do you want to marry me?’
“I said ‘No, a margarita.’ He was laughing so hard he fell to the floor.”

7. He stepped away for a moment, and one of the many staff came over to sweep up the piles of discarded hair. When he came back, he said to her, “Oh no, you’ve ruined it.”
“I was just sweeping it into a pile,” she said, confused.
“I was going to Instagram it, but that’s fine, next time.”
“I could put it back, spread it out.”
“No, it was all about letting nature take its course, being organic.”
“Well, I could –”
“No, it’s fine.”
He wasn’t rude exactly, but he wasn’t friendly either.

8. The cut cost $145, and to maintain it, he said I’d have to get it trimmed every 12 weeks. I said I’d see him in a year.
Not out loud, of course. In my head.

2019 update: My new hairdresser has two dogs that hang out in his salon and sometimes I can pat them, and it turns out that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a hairdresser.

 

I am curious about your tattoos

Noosa beach, Australia

August 9 [journal excerpts]
Noosa, QLD

Shopkeeper referring to a whale-watching cruise: “The water out that way becomes chuck city.”
The same shopkeeper: “The best way to leave Noosa with a million dollars is to come with ten.”

August 10
The most Aussie sight: two teenage boys on the pavement, three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once.

August 11
On Noosa’s main beach: an older woman, maybe 60, with a single dreadlock starting at the base of her skull and hanging down past her knees. It swung as she walked, like a tail.

August 12
Tattoos spotted today:
1. a tiger face, full colour, the size of my entire hand, with a knife sunk between the eyes, the handle sticking out, on a man’s shin (he may has well have tattooed the words ‘creepy as’)
2. three slash marks with dripping blood, almost like the Zorro symbol, on a man’s chest
3. the word ‘serious’ in a cutesy font, not quite cursive, surrounded by little hearts, on a young man’s inner arm. Was he in love with someone named serious? The word wasn’t capitalised. Did he love being serious? Or did he take love seriously? Our burger order arrived, so I didn’t have to talk myself into asking him.

August 14
Waiting for burgers again, a skinny pale guy with shoulder-length hair came in. He had a tattoo that started at his wrist, and in huge cursive letters, ran toward his elbow, reading “Death before dis—”. I couldn’t read the rest, but he was running out of space, unless the third word wrapped right over his elbow. It might have been “Death before dishonour”, but he really didn’t have enough space, so I assume it read “Death before dishes”.

He also has a bunch of roses on his shin, and a cartoon cat face with a knife through the crown of its head, the blade coming out its mouth. What is it with dudes and tattoos of stabbed cat heads? Is it a secret code signalling membership in some sort of club? Obviously not one that actually stabs cats, that would be too obvious. So perhaps it’s men who refuse to do the dishes, and have sought solidarity in this via symbolic tattoos. When they spot each other on the street, they raise their eyebrows and exchange a slight nod of encouragement, maybe even tap two fingers against the centre of their chest if they do so slyly.

I can’t see any other potential explanation.

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

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5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.

Thefting by finding

Sedaris Diaries vol 1When I was 14, my aunt gave me a purple journal with Garfield on the cover (the cat, not the president). This indicates how cool I was at 14. Having barely any friends gave me heaps of time to write in my journal. I’ve kept up that habit for more than two decades.

I sometimes wonder what will happen to the diaries when I die. I doubt someone will go back and read them. They’re incredibly boring. When I mentioned this online, author Annabel Smith described her own diaries as ‘right on the boring/excruciating boundary’. I thought that was the perfect description.

I’m a huge fan of American essayist David Sedaris, whose work is hilarious and illuminating. When he came out with Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One in 2017, however, I thought ‘this feels like too much. Do I really need to read this guy’s diary excerpts?’

I was pretty certain the answer was no. But then I got sick for years and Theft by Finding came out in audiobook, and I was desperate for entertainment I could consume while lying down with my eyes closed. I was surprised to discover I loved Theft by Finding. It’s become one of my all-time favourite books. Sedaris weaves in his own story, and it’s actually quite interesting (from working odd jobs straight out of high school in his home state of Carolina to art school in Chicago to huge success as an author in New York). But what really made his diaries was his observations about the world around him. It seemed like a technique worth developing in my own diaries.

To be clear, I think Sedaris’ diary excerpts are brilliant and fascinating and reflect the sociopolitical issues of their times. Whereas mine are mostly things I found entertaining. I started posting a few excerpts. My journals still feature lots of boring/excruciating bits, but thanks to Sedaris, I think there’s a few good bits too.

*

May 14, 2018
Recently I was complaining about houses and dogs having people names like Gerald. Today, a friend mentioned that she’d met someone at work whose name is B’rit. ‘With the apostrophe,’ she said. That’s a bit strange, I replied. ‘My sister went to high school with a girl named Haloumi Sparkles,’ she added. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Sparkles was her middle name or her surname, because someone else cut in.
‘A girl from my high school named her kids Tiger and Sabre.’
A third woman among us topped even that. ‘My dad is a pediatrician and he has a set of twins as patients,’ she said. ‘One is called Bladeinjail, because his dad is in jail for stabbing someone. The other is called Captain Dangles.’

May 29, 2018
There’s a huge billboard advertising a space for lease, near my office. It features an image of a cat with a third eye photoshopped into the centre of its forehead. The cat is giant, the size of a car, and its three eyes stare down at you, as if trying to hypnotise you into leasing the building.  I have been looking for a large commercial and/or office space…

June 1, 2018
Saw a man wearing one red sock and one blue sock. Society is really falling to pieces, with our reliance on fossil fuels, the election of Trump, and now this.

 

Book club discussion guide

Zorats Karer, Armenian Stonehenge
A literary thriller novella set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.

1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?

2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?

3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?

4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?

5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?

6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?

7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?

8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?

9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?

10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
Ashley Kalagian Blunt plus book cover of My Name Is Revenge
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?

12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?

13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?

14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?

15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?

 

The bear likes ice cream

A stack of journals, a writing project
April 24, 2018
Walking home on Saturday, I passed ten guys all dressed as Luigi. They had identical Luigi hats and big black moustaches, but also shorts and loafers without socks. They were trying to find a pub, and though it was only three pm, I got the impression that they’d just left a pub. I hope they were going to meet ten Marios, and perhaps get in a brawl with at least one guy dressed as Bowser.

April 26, 2018
Steve nominated me for Employee of the Month at Home!

April 27, 2018
The latest house names: Wiltshire and Elvira. Elvira! It seems one of the naming conventions is old-fashioned human names (Elvira, Elton, Shirley, Valerie, the two Ednas). I wish there was more imagination put into these things. Why should people, dogs and houses all have the same name? As if there’s a finite supply.

There’s a new shop called Cheer Tea. Their slogan is “the best cheese cake foam tea drinks”. Perhaps the world record for longest series of nouns strung together into a beverage? Still, I’m curious.

May 7, 2018
Are we drawn to confident people because we are awkward and hopeless, and we think these confident people have figured out how not to be awkward and hopeless, and perhaps we can learn from them?

May 9, 2018
In the park yesterday, an older man – fifties, balding, pot-bellied – shouting to a jack russell: “Heidi, get back here. Mate! Maa-aaaaate!”

May 11, 2018
A zookeeper in Alberta took a black bear from its enclosure, drove it to Dairy Queen, and bought it an ice cream for its birthday. The zoo was later fined, I guess for either endangering the welfare of the bear, or the welfare of the public. Maybe both. The bear reportedly enjoyed its ice cream though.

 


In other news
My Name Is Revenge has received a couple of new reviews. Monique Mulligan writes, “Reading Ashley’s tightly written narrative, and the following essays, opened my eyes to pages of history I was blind to. What I experienced was a compassionate but balanced re-imagining of real-life events in Sydney, and an education (or at least the beginning of one). Ashley’s writing is taut and assured – there’s an enviable economy of words that says so much. At the end, I was left to ponder questions of my own (why don’t we learn about this?) as well as those raised indirectly throughout this short collection.” Read her full review here.

Elaine Mead’s review for Feminartsy describes the book as “an exceptionally moving and informative collection of writing. More than its historical emphasis, it is a story of family, community, and the importance of telling the stories of those who have, and continue to be, denied a voice.”

And I shared some writing advice in a guest post for Louise Allan, and my first-ever Melbourne event was officially announced. If you’re in Melbourne, I’d love to see you there!

Ashley
xo

 

Trust the process

Trust the Process writing tip stuck on windowRecently I sat down to write an essay. It started off okay, but the more I wrote, the more difficult it got, until I was contemplating dropping my laptop off the balcony just to be done with it.

The first thing I did for this essay was open a blank Word doc called ‘Notes on The Essay’ and write down all my notes and ideas about the topic, as well as quotes I might use, since the essay incorporated a book review.

When I was halfway finished the notes, I got impatient. I really had to get started writing this essay. I opened a new Word doc, named it ‘This Is the Essay,’ and started copying and pasting ideas and quotes.

I wasted a lot of time trying to write the opening. After much faffing, I started working on an idea that I figured would go in the middle of the essay, a part I felt I could dive into.

Which is what I should have done in the first place, but I got distracted by the empty space where the start should be, and tried to start at the start.

Things went well for a few days, but then my excitement dried up and I realised none of what I’d written actually sat together. It had no start and no conclusion, and a lot of the ideas hadn’t quite come together.

I had an almost complete first draft (I was already over the given word count), but it felt like the essay had died on the page. Every word of it was terrible, it made no sense and was nothing like the essay I’d first imagined.

The longer I sat looking at the dead essay, the more I felt like an idiot for thinking I could write about this challenging topic, that I had anything serious or worthwhile to say, that I could do any kind of justice to the book I was reviewing.

I felt like an imposter and a failure and an idiot. I tried to fix things, but it seemed like I was just making them worse.

When staring at all the half-broken sentences in my ‘This Is the Essay’ word doc became overwhelming, I opened a new document and named it ‘Temp’.

At this point I had three word documents going for one essay.

I copied and pasted a couple of sections into my Temp doc. I edited them in different ways. For some reason, it was easier to work on a section in isolation, outside of the main doc. Maybe because I didn’t feel the pressure of the entire essay in every change I made.

I also remembered that I’d never finished the notes document I’d started with. I had a process, but I’d gotten impatient with it. I spent another day copying out quotes from the book I was working with, developing my notes, looking for connections between ideas.

I thought I might be able to pull this together if I followed through on my process. I had to trust that I could bring the essay together as I worked through it, even if the early drafts were terrible.

Eventually I had 8000 words of notes for a 4500-word essay.

I invested a lot of time into those notes, and during that time was when my thinking developed for the essay. That 8000-word notes document is a chaotic mess of colour-coded highlighting, page references and all caps reminders, but that was all part of the process.

Once the essay was published, readers sent the kindest and most glowing feedback my writing has ever received. I wouldn’t have expected this. I think I was too deep inside the mental mess surrounding the essay to approach it with fresh eyes at that time. (Luckily the editor and I went through a couple of revisisions together, which certainly helped.) You can read it here.

My key learning from this experience is that I have a process that I’ve developed over a decade of writing:
– compile the ideas
– always start with the easiest part
– expect the first draft to die on the page
– return to the ideas
– revise one section at a time

When I feel overwhelmed, I just need to remind myself to trust the process.

(Side note: I learned the wonderful phrase ‘trust the process’ from this Sports Sports Sports episode of Reply All.)

Ashley
xo

PS. My fabulous monthly author newsletter is coming out this week, and there’s still time to sign up!

Ten (more) best podcasts

Last year I recommended ten podcasts I love. This year I’m still spending a ludicrous amount of time lying down, which means I’m still listening to a lot of podcasts. Chronic fatigue has basically turned me into a podcast curation service.

Here’s ten more I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

  1. The Shrink Next Door
    This six-episode series tells the bizarre true story of a psychiatrist who came to control every aspect of one of his patient’s lives, including moving his family into the patient’s house and making himself president of the patient’s company. It sounds implausible, but the evidence exists to prove every step of the manipulation, as this series shows.
  2. Reply All
    Reply All is a podcast about the internet. This description made me initially sceptical about it, but Reply All isn’t techie or niche. It explores the human experience of using the internet from all kinds of angles. Like in episode 130, when the hosts try to help a listener whose Snapchat account has been hacked, and end up stumbling onto a ring of cybercriminals in Europe.
  3. The Dream
    Told over eleven well scripted episodes featuring a variety of interviews, The Dream explores multi-level marketing, why so many people get involved with it, and how it’s nothing more than legalised pyramid scheming. At the start of season one, the host signs up to a multi-level marketing company, and everything unravels for her as she tries to make back the money she spent.
  4. Missing Richard Simmons
    This six-part series from Dan Taberski explores the abrupt and mysterious withdrawal of Richard Simmons from public – and seemingly private – life. I didn’t know or care much about Simmons before listening to the podcast, but Taberski is an excellent storyteller, and has a good sense of humour as well. He draws listeners through the series by creating mystery and empathy around Simmons.
    Taberski followed up this series with two more: Surviving Y2K, which weaves together various stories that centred on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Running from Cops, which examines the cultural impacts of the reality series Cops. All three series are absorbing and distinct.
  5. Mobituaries
    A comedian named Mo Rocca is obsessed with obituaries. This doesn’t sound like a compelling concept, but Mo excels at weaving history and facts into fascinating stories. Plus, his obits are inventive. In one episode he tells the story of a JFK impersonator whose career ended with the real president’s assassination. Another looks at the demise of the Neanderthals (and the surprising fact that many people today have some Neanderthal DNA). My favourite is the story of a pair of conjoined twins from Thailand, the original “Siamese” twins, their brush with the American dream, and how they negotiated daily life between the two women they married.
  6. Root of Evil
    I listen and read to a lot of crime stories, and this was the most fascinating true crime case I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. The podcast weaves together two interconnected narratives: a cold case investigation into the Black Dahlia murder, which took place in Los Angeles, 1947; and the story of the intergenerational trauma experienced by the Hodel family. The murder storyline and its investigation are more interesting, although the family storyline adds depth to the series. The Black Dahlia murder is bizarre, but the theory of the crime put forward here was one of the most startling, insane things I’ve ever heard.
  7. Bear Brook
    A short but impressively told documentary crime series that begins in the New Hampshire woods, in 1985, with the discovery of two barrels containing four bodies. Investigations are still revealing new information about this case 34 years later. I especially love true crime podcasts, and Bear Brook is the most impressive of all the ones I’ve listened to, both because of the fascinating way the investigation unfolds, and the superior storytelling skills of its host, Jason Moon.
  8. Direct Appeal
    Like Serial, Direct Appeal explores a single murder trial to consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. “For the last 13 years, Melanie McGuire has been serving a life sentence for the murder and dismemberment of her husband, whose body was found in three suitcases in the Chesapeake Bay.” Criminologists Meghan Sacks and Amy Shlosberg examine the evidence, including their own interviews with Melanie. It took me a bit to get used to the rapid-fire way the hosts talk, but I’ve come to love the show as much for their charismatic interaction as for the gritty, baffling details of the case.
  9. Crime Junkie
    Every week, Crime Junkee summarises a major crime story, including cold cases, serial killers, murders and missing persons. The host delivers the story in a chatty style, while her (largely superfluous) producer provides personal reactions. They often cover less infamous cases, like American serial killer Herb Baumeister, who kept a bunch of mannequins posed around his indoor pool so he could pretend he was having pool parties, and also killed as many as 21 men.
  10. Invisibilia
    This podcast uses documentary-style interviews and storytelling to examine the unseen forces that shape ideas, beliefs and assumptions. Season 4 featured a two-part series on how the human brain processes emotions that was especially interesting.

Bonus: My favourite podcast is still Everything is Alive. Each episode features a scripted interview with an inanimate object, as well as a phone call to an actual person or organisation that is always peculiar and fascinating. All the episodes are enjoyable (and one features Sydney comedian Jennifer Wong playing a copy of The Canberra Times from 24 October 1988). But my absolute favourite episode is Connor, a portrait of US President William Taft. It’s both humorous and incisive, and it features the best monologue on bread you will ever hear.

PS. I’m speaking about my own crime book, My Name Is Revenge, in Brisbane on Wednesday 24 July. If you’re in the area, join us!