Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!

Ep 14: Moulding Stories Like Clay with Elizabeth Tan

Australian author Elizabeth Tan’s second short story collection, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, is full of humorous and poignant stories laced with pop-culture references and techno-slang, and set in an uncertain dystopian future or surrealities.

Elizabeth’s comedy leaps out from story titles such as ‘Shirt Dresses that Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts so that It Looks Like You Forgot to Put on Pants (Love Will Save the Day)’ and ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’. This belies their cutting emotional depths, the varieties of loneliness depicted, and the incisive exploration of technology’s ability to isolate us while keeping us evermore connected. The book, which came out earlier this year, just won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Fiction.

In comparing Smart Ovens for Lonely People to Tan’s first collection, Rubik, Cher Tan writes: “Sardonic, gentle observations on cultural anxieties as mediated by techno-capitalism have solidified as Tan’s ‘personal brand’, but the terrain is more fantastical, more mischievous.”

One of the themes that links the stories in Smart Ovens for Lonely people is loneliness, but it’s often a special kind of loneliness – loneliness within relationships, loneliness without necessarily being alone. An affecting line from the title story sums this up: “Having someone who loves you doesn’t exempt you from wanting to die.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, loneliness competes with workplace stress, mental illness and sedentary lifestyles as one of the most pressing health epidemics of our time.

Listeners will remember our interview with Kate Leaver in episode 8, when we discussed her new book about how good dogs are for our health. In her first book, The Friendship Cure, she offers some compelling evidence for the dangers of loneliness, drawn from a meta-analysis of scientific research. It concluded: “Loneliness is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and deadlier than obesity … It can tighten our arteries, raise our blood pressure, increase our rates of infection, diminish our heart health, and lead to higher rates of cancer. Lonely people develop tumours faster, have weaker immune systems and lower thresholds for pain.”

We also ask Elizabeth to discuss a story from the collection in terms of its evolution from idea to final draft, which leads to a fascinating discussion of her use of a writing prompt called logogenetics.

And we discuss a whole bunch of writers, including Brooke Davis, Shaula Evans, Alexander Chee, Fiona Wright, Stephen King, Yumna Kassab, David Vann, Laura Bates, and Laura McPhee-Brown.

You can listen to episode 14 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

The Bodies History Hides

How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.

Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.

When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Australian author

As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.

There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.

Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.

This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.

The Bodies History Hides >>
Wollongong Writers Festival
Saturday 28 November, 4pm AEDT, online
Tickets $10

Ep 13: Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall

In episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview the legend herself, Kate Mildenhall.

Kate’s debut novel Skylarking was longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017 and the Indie Book Awards 2017. Kate co-hosts The First Time podcast with author Katherine Collette. Her latest novel, The Mother Fault, is out now in Australia and will be published in the UK in 2021.

In 2019, I appeared as part of a First Time podcast panel discussion hosted by Kate, along with authors Cassie Hamer and John Purcell. Now in 2020, we’ve come full circle, and James and I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate.

We were keen to talk about her new book, but in particular I wanted to speak to Kate about creative anxiety (meaning the anxiety inherent to most creative pursuits, not being anxious in creative ways … although that would also make an interesting discussion).

As you can tell from her bio, Kate’s a very successful author. The Mother Fault went into reprint after only eight days, despite the fact that she was launching it during Melbourne’s stage four lockdown.

But here’s why I really wanted to speak to Kate: “I know I come across as a really confident person,” she says. “I am absolutely not, and have many times in my life been absolutely crippled with anxiety.”

On her own podcast, Kate is very open about the challenges around being a writer and a creative. She’s also very aware of her own processes. As we discuss in this episode, she journals her projects, which not only gives her great insight into the project itself, but works to validate the work that she does in terms of reading and thinking and sketching – in other words, all that time when she’s not explicitly writing.

Along with creative anxiety, we discuss procrastination – “It’s getting words on the page that we find a bazillion reasons not to do” – and the unexpected experience of being overwhelmed by niceness: “You get all the nice feedback anyone deserves in their entire life, and you get it in, like, 14 days, and your brain breaks a little bit. You’re just not designed for that.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, Kate is exactly what you need! You can listen to episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.

Ep 12: Magic cures & snake oil with Petronella McGovern

In episode 12 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to bestselling author Petronella McGovern about her new novel The Good Teacher.

Petronella is a domestic thriller author and editor who grew up on a family farm outside Bathurst, NSW. After living in Canberra for a number of years, she moved to Northern Sydney where she now lives with her husband and two children. Petronella’s first novel, Six Minutes, was published in 2019. Her second book, The Good Teacher, came out in September.

Set in a beachside suburb of Sydney, The Good Teacher centres on a young girl undergoing treatment for a rare form of cancer and the school teacher who dedicates herself to helping the girl and her widowed father. It’s a fast-moving, unpredictable plot that urges readers to think about the motivations for compassion, and the desperate measures some people take to improve their health.

While researching, Petronella learned that the original snake oil didn’t contain any actual snake oil.

We discuss alternative healthcare, Petronella’s writing process, her decision to set the book in a fictional suburb, and the challenge of setting the next book in the post-covid world.

Plus, we ask Petronella about her new puppy, Oakley! James and I are big fans of dogs, as we shared on our episode with Kate Leaver, the author of Good Dog. It took Petronella and her family much longer to get a dog than they anticipated – another consequence of the pandemic was a shortage of puppies and dogs.

You can listen to episode 12 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.

The Viewer Is Present

Collage by Chris Roberts

“The average viewer spends between eight and thirty seconds looking at an art work. To challenge that statistic, Mounted is inviting you to book in one Sunday for an hour … You will be provided with an experience designed to allow you to engage with the work in a deeper and more focused way.”

The Viewer Is Present: an interactive exhibition
Mounted Artist Run Initiative, Springwood NSW
Sundays in October & November
Free, RSVP required >>

Mounted is an artist-run initiative located in the Blue Mountains town of Springwood. On Sundays through October and November, they’re putting on an interactive, covid-safe exhibition of Australian works from both visual artists and writers.

The works will change each week, so you can book in more than once for varied experiences. One of my works of fiction, “The Unicorn”, features in this unique and free exhibition. “The Unicorn” was originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly.

I love the way many of Mounted’s exhibitions combine the work of artists and writers. Another story of mine, “God Bless this Rocket House”, featured in one of their 2019 exhibitions. The story was the result of a collaboration with Sydney artist Paul Mallam.

To book into The Viewer Is Present, visit the Mounted website. You can also find Mounted on Instagram and Facebook.

Ep 11: Stuff it up, we want to hate this too!

In episode 11 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to London-based comedian Anthony Jeannot about getting into stand-up comedy (and what everyone says when you tell them you do stand-up), along with tips for anxiety management.

It was only after Anthony quit six jobs in four months that someone suggested he might be struggling with anxiety and perhaps should seek help for it.

Each time he took a new job, he convinced himself that he was underqualified for the role. Then he quit, found a more junior role, and started the process over.

Mental illness can be a powerful form of self-gaslighting, much like with chronic fatigue. The sick brain shouldn’t be trusted to evaluate itself, but as James points out: “If you can convince yourself (that you’re fine) so successfully that you’re convincing other people, then why would they bother digging any deeper?”

After coping with anxiety for years, Anthony felt (slightly) better prepared than most people when the covid pandemic started. We talk about the ongoing struggle of illness management, and also how gifts from Santa can set up expectations about life.

You can listen to episode 11 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.

Canada vs Australia triple-layered dessert face-off

Caramel kiss

Canada doesn’t have caramel slices. At least, not exactly. When I was growing up, my mom made a dessert called Eagle Brand squares.

These had a graham cracker base (a kind of sweet plain biscuit), not ground up but simply dropped into the pan, like floor tiles. The middle was a sort of oozy, pale caramel made from Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and the top was chocolate.

We had this after-dinner dessert on rotation with a few others, including marshmallow dream squares (chocolate cake base, mini-marshmallow centre and chocolate topping) and whatever it’s called when you coat rainbow mini-marshmallows in chocolate and refrigerate it.

Nostalgia might be a factor in my adult self’s love of caramel slices. That and lifelong sugar addiction.

What Canada lacks in caramel slices, it makes up for in Nanaimo bars. This is a national tragedy.
Stacks of Nanaimo bars
Nanaimo bars (I don’t know why this Winnipeg cafe calls them ‘squares’, this is patently wrong) are named after a small city on Vancouver Island. Their main insult is a middle layer of  custard. Usually the custard is bright yellow, but it can be neon green or even pink. What this has to do with Nanaimo, I don’t know. Maybe it’s custard capital of Canada.

My family never made Nanaimo bars, but whenever I went to potlucks or community events as a kid, there was always a tray of them waiting to disappoint. The base was crumbled nuts and and coconut, and the custard was slimy. The only part worth eating was the chocolate, so I would scrape that off and discard the rest, thinking I was being sneaky.

Discovering caramel slices in Australia felt like the universe making up for a childhood full of Nanaimo bars.  When I wrote my memoir of moving to Sydney, I included a lot of caramel slice references, particularly once I discovered that the caramel slice is as Australian as lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and fairy bread.

If you’re keen to hear more discoveries from expat life in Australia, join me for an online author talk with Katherine Tamiko Arguile. Thursday 1 October, 11am AEST (10:30am Adelaide time) RSVP here >>

Author headshot and book cover

Ep 10: Progressive weakness and loss of sensation

In episode 10 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we get real serious – or as serious as it’s possible for James and me to get.

We talk about our respective diagnoses and how these illnesses erupted in our lives. James has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that’s quite rare.

CIDP has had a significant and ongoing impact on his life, but James is determined not to make it part of his identity. His challenges in even speaking about it are why it took us three separate attempts over multiple months to record this episode.

And while this episode was recorded remotely as usual, we actually got to hang out in person in Coonabarbran, proving that we don’t stay at home all the time (even if it often feels that way).

It’s been a big podcast week! Two interviews about How to Be Australian were also released.

The first, with superhost Dani Vee of the Words and Nerds podcast (which is coming up to 200 episodes), is possibly the most cross-cultural Australian/Canadian conversation imaginable, with a strong focus on the weather and spider stories.

Dani shares an excellent spider story that settles one of the great Aussie debates: whether or not hunstmans bite. She also shares a story about visiting family in the Netherlands, who announced, “We’re all going to the beach today because it’s 16 degrees!” As a Canadian I can imagine myself saying this. As an Australian, I think it’s nuts.

As someone who has grown up in Australia, it was such an insight to see how we’re perceived from the outside. 

Dani Vee, Words and Nerds episode 196

Dani also asks what is perhaps my favourite question ever: why do you write?

The other interview is with Paul Barclay for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas.

This in-depth discussion gets into Australia’s cultural quirks, the concept of belonging, the importance of uncovering and acknowledging buried histories, and of course, the Hollywood kookaburra con.

We also talk about adulthood, and get into the core of the book: ‘Part of the process of really settling into adulthood was realising that these images I’d held in my head, the things that I’d believed were going to make me happy — were not actually going to make me happy.’ 

Paul asks a great question about my search for identity in Australia, and how it connects to a childhood spent moving around.

Something had happened that had disrupted my ability to belong. And I think that’s partly what propelled me to go live in places like South Korea and Peru and Mexico, because of course I didn’t belong there, that was obvious to everyone, and we could just move forward from that understanding.

If these conversations make you keen to get into How to Be Australian, you can get a copy now wherever you are in the world.

Order the book now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia