I loved this debut novel from US author Kiley Reid. Her writing explores race and class in America in an engaging, distinctive voice. The protagonist, Emira, and the young girl she babysits, are the kind of endearing, vibrant characters that have stayed with me. You can hear me discuss the novel on The Bookshelf podcast from Radio National.
Fiction | debut
The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War came out in 2021, and like always, Gladwell narrates the audiobook splendidly. This is a book for anyone who enjoys deep dives into how history shapes the world we know today. Gladwell pulls together many tangents to explore how the US Airforce developed its strategy in WWII, culminating in the bombing of Tokyo on 10 March 1945. I’ve read all of Gladwell’s books and I’d include this among my favourites.
“I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up everyday life and just zero on on one thing – the thing that fits the contours of their imagination.”
“I also don’t think we get progress or innovation or joy or beauty without obsessives.”
“Transactive memory … is the observation that we don’t just store information in our minds or in specific places. We store memories and understanding in the minds of the people we love. … Little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds.”
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo
South Korean author Cho Nam-joo’s short, punchy novel at times reads like non-fiction, especially because of the occasional footnotes drawn from news articles, government sources and academic papers. The story follows the life of the fictional Kim Jiyoung, opening in her 30s, when she’s started slipping into the personas of other women. The circumstances of her life, and in particular the restrictions she faces as a woman in a hierarchical and patriarchal culture, are all too real, however. Jiyoung is a woman of the modern era, but as Cho notes, ‘The world has changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and custom had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.’
Fiction | debut
Denizen by James McKenzie Watson
A new Australian talent for fans of David Vann and Cormac McCarthy, James McKenzie Watson started his literary career by winning the Penguin Literary Prize in 2021. And yes I’m biased because he’s my podcast co-host and very good friend, but this bullet-train of a novel is already getting fantastic reviews. Set on a remote property in western NSW, drawn from where James himself grew up, the story unravels the disastrous consequences of the main character’s chaotic childhood.
The second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries covers 2003 to 2020. Achieving career success at the end of volume one hasn’t left him anywhere to go, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’ What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’
After so long, I can finally share this news! I’ve signed a two-book deal with the incredible team at Ultimo Press for my new novel, a psychological thriller.
It’s been a long strange journey to get here but it turns out deep in my soul I’m a crime writer. I probably should have guessed when my first book started with an assassination …
I absolutely loved writing Dark Mode and I can’t wait to share this novel with you! Dark Mode will hit bookshops in March 2023. If you’re a fan of JP Pomare, Tana French, Candice Fox, Gillian Flynn (and so many more thriller authors), I wrote this book for you.
You can read the press release, including a blurb about the book below, and hear James and I share the news in a special bonus podcast ep.
Ultimo Press acquires chilling psychological thriller from Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Ultimo Press has acquired ANZ rights for Dark Mode – a highly original and contemporary psychological thriller that shines a light on the sinister side of the web and will make you question every keystroke you ever make. The deal was brokered by Pippa Masson from Curtis Brown.
Compulsive and deeply frightening, Dark Mode is a terrifying exploration of the online nature of the world we live in, misogyny and the intersections between violence online and in real life.
‘I’m a huge thriller fan, and I’m fascinated by all aspects of crime – who commits it, how it’s investigated, and what it tells us about our society. And as I got into the research for this book, what came to terrify me most isn’t a possible serial killer lurking in the shadows. It’s what’s happening in the darkest corners of the internet, how little most of us know about that world, and the risks we’re taking online, every single day.’ – Ashley Kalagian Blunt
‘Dark Mode gripped me from the first page and did not let go. Frighteningly relevant, Ashley’s thriller delves into the way our digital lives capture our every move, and the terrifying implications when it crosses over into real life.’ – Alex Craig, Publisher
About Dark Mode Once you’re online, there’s nowhere to hide
Is it paranoia – or is someone watching?
For years, Reagan Carsen has kept her life offline. No socials. No internet presence. No photos. Safe.
Until the day she stumbles on a shocking murder in a Sydney laneway. The victim looks just like her.
As more murders shake the city and she’s increasingly drawn out from hiding, Reagan is forced to confront her greatest fear.
She’s been found.
A riveting psychological thriller drawn from true events, Dark Mode delves into the terrifying reality of the dark web, and the price we pay for surrendering our privacy one click at a time.
‘When is the last time an actual human interaction made you laugh more than a meme did?’ – Samantha Irby
If I hadn’t been immersed in the Sedarian worldview, I probably wouldn’t have made the offhand joke about ghosts to the ferry attendant. I definitely wouldn’t have caught that his intention, when he asked me about my beliefs regarding first ghosts, then angels, was to propound his own theories on the latter. And that would have meant not learning about how his personal angel recently saved him $18 at the car wash.
The Sedarian worldview is Jack Gilbert’s ‘A Brief for the Defense’, except the poor women laughing together at the fountain ‘between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future’ transform into a man encountering a rodent with a Cheeto in its mouth at Times Square. Somebody in the village is still very sick, and people are still dying in the Syrian civil war. We can’t weep all the time, so thank goodness for mice and ‘crumbled ham dummy’ and the pancake restaurant on Cox Road in Gastonia, North Carolina, that answers the phone with ‘IHOP on Cox!’
In the Sedarian worldview, everyone has the potential to share absurd and shocking revelations, if only we’re willing to listen and ask questions. Those questions can’t be how are you, how was your flight, how’s your day. Forget tedious small talk and jump straight in with ‘What’s your take on sausage?’
Everyone also has the potential to be an inconsiderate chatterbox holding up the queue at the airport Starbucks when you’re rushing to catch a connecting flight. And those people are never sharing their take on sausage, but droning on uselessly. Be compelling or get out of the way.
A Carnival of Snackery is the second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries, covering 2003 to 2020. Volume one begins in 1977, its 20-year-old author penniless and scrabbling for work in his North Carolina hometown, a man with artistic ambitions but only vague plans to realise them. It takes him years to get to art school in Chicago, then to scrounge enough cash to move to New York. By the end, he’s published to wide acclaim, winning major awards, and buying property in France. As a narrative arc, it doesn’t leave anywhere for him to go in volume two, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’
This could be off-putting to those who haven’t read the ‘David Copperfield Sedaris’ installment or his essays on growing up gay in the American South. Juxtaposed with the jet-setting, however, is his hobby of picking up roadside trash attired like a homeless man. That, and his love for his readers, his willingness to stay at book signings until midnight to ensure he engages with everyone. Billy Collins says writing is about the love of strangers, and this is at the core of Sedaris’s work.
What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’ His youngest sister grapples with mental illness and commits suicide. His cantankerous father disapproves of him and crows about Trump. There’s blood in his urine, so a doctor sticks a camera up his penis. Life comes for you, even when you’re number one on the bestseller lists.
If starved, a humpback cricket will chew off its own legs, even though they don’t regenerate. ‘So it eats its legs, and, unable to escape danger, it promptly gets eaten itself.’ Which, Sedaris comments, seems like something he would do. What propels Snackery beyond cleverly crafted introspection and observation is all those conversations with readers and strangers. We get to contemplate the world from Sedaris’s experience and theirs. He tells a friend about someone who, back in the day, chose to defecate into his hand rather than end a call on a corded phone, and she responds, ‘Haven’t you ever shit in your hand?’ This would be the end of it for most authors, but Sedaris uses his book signing to conduct a survey on the matter, leaving us in terror of ever shaking hands again.
But then. After a hearing impaired cashier charges him 10 pence for a bag he doesn’t want, he riffs, ‘When we tell the disabled they can do anything they want in this world, don’t we mean … something, well, that can be accomplished at home?’ It’s the kind of ableist comment that would get him cancelled on social media, if he used it. And I get it, I get jokes, the humour sits in the disparity between the triviality of being charged a tiny sum for an unwanted item and the sweeping generalisation that millions of individuals should stay out of abled-bodied people’s way. Being disabled myself, it jars. Maybe that’s quibbling.
Commenting on the term Latinx, Sedaris says he’s not in favour of rebranding, conceptually. If he doesn’t want be called queer, fine, noted. This comes from the volume’s closing passage, which builds to a joke about forgiving historical figures for being a product of their time and suggests, instead, replacing statues in order to give someone new the chance ‘to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle’, someone like Sedaris himself. This is genuinely funny, and the Latinx commentary isn’t needed to get there. That said, Sedaris isn’t railing against the term, just pointing out that he doesn’t understand the need for it, possibly because he ‘turned old’ – 64 – and is feeling the change in his lack of understanding.
In blood spatter analysis, forensic experts look for voids, places where one would expect to see blood but none is present. Likewise in edited diaries, the question is omnipresent – if you put this in, what did you leave out? Along with approximately 300 mentions of mice, Sedaris excised many of the offensive jokes he collects, lamenting our current culture of touchiness. Still, none of the jokes included in Snackery are about gay men. Most are of the misogynist ha-ha-my-wife-is-terrible variety, though occasionally husbands get bashed for a laugh as well. These aren’t Sedaris’s jokes, but ones shared with him. I’d rather read about a mouse with a Cheeto.
Gay men come up a lot of course, often when Sedaris comments on the news. They’re targeted in shootings, attacked with boiling water, conflated with paedophiles. When Sedaris and his partner discuss their experiences of sexual assault, he reveals he was raped three times, by different men. ‘Rape is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all – didn’t know I had the right to.’ It’s a poignant moment, and still he manages humour, noting that at the time, going to the police would have been ‘like complaining about the blisters the axe brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ’.
Maybe it’s like that with humour. Share enough jokes and you’re bound to offend someone, especially these days. Like all those statues, Sedaris is a product of a time that is slipping into history. All the while, he encourages us to be more curious about the people around us, to open ourselves up to each other even though it’s awkward and we’ll probably misstep and encounter people who dislike us or are arbitrarily cruel.
Babies are still starving someplace, but elsewhere there’s a woman who will tell us about her volunteer work with monkeys, if only we’re willing to ask.
Interested in developing your creative non-fiction skills? Join me for a six-week online course, accessible from anywhere in the world. Full details here >>
When he was 22 years old, James McKenzie Watson began to experience the first symptoms of what doctors suspected was Guillain–Barré syndrome. To test for this, they gave him a spinal tap (not the rock and roll kind). After the procedure he had to lie on his back for two hours. In that time, he typed out his initial plan for what would become his prize-winning novel, Denizen.
James McKenzie Watson writes fiction with a focus on health and rural Australia. His novel Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. Denizen also received a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship and a 2021 KSP Residential Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Meanjin and the Newtown Review of Books.
James was eventually diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the relapsing form of Guillain–Barré syndrome, and lives with the condition today. Born in Coonabarabran and a past resident of Sydney, he now works as a nurse in regional New South Wales.
I realised early on that the idea I felt very strongly about was probably not marketable or readable in the form it was in. I do believe passionately about the issues that I’m addressing … but I have to have more consideration for the reader.
He also tells us about the process of writing the novel, how it developed over a series of drafts and through feedback from other emerging writers, and why he decided to enter it into the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. James shares his number one tip for aspiring writers.
I feel very lucky to have a physical, tangible thing that people who know me can read and know that I am okay in a way that I’m sure a lot of them were worried I never would be, when I was a teenager.
He also shares what his mum thinks about the book!
Plus, are James and Ashley married?! Or did they just not think through their podcast name? Find out in episode 60, along with the alternative (and even worse!) name they ultimately rejected.
Join us for the the launch of Denizen! Thursday 28 July, 6:00pm Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe Tickets $0-12 A gothic thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. Join me for an in-conversation to launch one of the best books of the year! Get your ticket here >>
Books and authors discussed in this episode – David Vann (of course); – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor; – The Liars by Petronella McGovern (from ep 12), out in September 2022; – The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman (from ep 4); – RWR McDonald (from ep 32); – Lyn Yeowart (from ep 39)
I’ve been raving about the award-winning novel Denzien, written by my podcast co-host and friend James McKenzie Watson, and now I get to launch his book!
This event is going to be one of my highlights of the year, so if you’re in Sydney, please join us!
Launch of Denizen by James McKenzie Watson Thursday 28 July, 6:00pm Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe Tickets $0-12 A gothic thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. Join me for an in-conversation to launch one of the best books of the year! Get your ticket here >>
(And if you’re not in Sydney, you can join James, Dani Vee, Petronella McGovern and Lyn Yeowart for the online launch on Thursday 21 July, or for his upcoming events in Dubbo, Melbourne and Aireys Inlet.)
Plus, I’m delivering my popular online creative workshop via Zoom again in July.
The Joy of Creative Writing Monday 25 July, 7:45-9 pmAEST Online via Zoom Tix $9-14 Whether you haven’t written creatively since high school or you’re the author of 12 books, this fun class will help you get your creativity flowing.
Through a series of short, timed writing exercises, we’ll explore different ways to access the creative recesses of our minds and surprise ourselves!
You might be a writer working on a specific project, a poet searching for new ideas, or someone who just wants to give creative writing a try for the first time in years – wherever you’re at, this is the class for you. Get your ticket here >>
And if you’re in Sydney, you can join both James and me for the Writers Unleashed festival, happening in Septmeber.
Writers Unleashed Saturday 3 September, 9am-5:30pm Tradies Gymea Tickets $120 Subverting the Tropes: Women in Crime 9-10am Domestic noir and flawed women characters have become a mainstay of contemporary crime fiction. Join authors Felicity McLean, Rae Cairns, Petronella McGovern, and Anna Downes as they discuss centring women’s stories and exploring female characters beyond the norm in crime fiction. Panel convener: Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Tell Me Where It Hurts: Writing about Mental Health 11am-12pm Mental health can be a difficult subject to tackle, both in real life and on paper. Join authors Helena Fox, Jack Ellis, and Katharine Pollock as they discuss their own experience grappling with mental health issues in their writing and what writers need to think about when dealing with sensitive topics on the page. Panel Convener: Ashley Kalagian Blunt
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