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.

An exceptionally generous gift you can give anyone

Think of a book (or movie, album, whatever) that you really love. Now imagine someone says to you, ‘Let me take the time to read that book, and then let’s talk about it. For an hour.’

Which, if you think about it, is an incredibly generous thing to do.

Image

This is the premise of Ben Hobson’s podcast, Burgers, Beers & Books. Or, part of the premise – the other bit is sitting around enjoying beers and burgers while talking about books. Clearly, Ben’s a genius. He’s also the author of Snake Island and To Become a Whale, and has a new novel forthcoming in 2022.

The chipotle burger I ate an hour before I spoke with Ben, because I forgot that Queensland doesn’t have daylight savings time.

When Ben invited me on his podcast, I knew exactly which book I wanted to talk about – John Sandford’s Certain Prey.

Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, Sandford has become the author of more than 50 books, most of them crime thrillers. His first book, Rules of Prey, introduced Minneapolis Police detective Lucas Davenport, one of my all-time favourite fictional characters.

There are now 31 books in Sandford’s Prey series. I’ve been reading it for over 20 years, since I worked in a secondhand bookshop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and would hole up in the back stockroom listening to audiobooks on cassette.

(I’m also obsessed with the series’s narrator, Richard Ferrone, whose voice is synonymous with the characters for me.)

It was hard for me to pick a favourite for Ben to read. Ideally we would have read the whole series together and spent 31 hours talking about it, but I had a feeling Ben wasn’t going to go for that.

I ended up choosing Certain Prey because I love the antagonist, Clara Rinker. She’s a hit woman for the St Louis mob, and the novel centres around her burgeoning friendship with Minneapolis defense attorney and sociopath Carmel Loan.

I find this particularly interesting because not a lot of thrillers explore female friendship.

There were so many authors and books I could have chosen for this guest interview with Ben (a title from my list of great reads, for instance). I chose Sandford because I’ve recently realised that I don’t know anyone else who reads them, so I’ve never really had an opportunity to discuss them in depth. (So if you’re a Sandford fan, please email me!)

In this very fun interview, Ben and I discuss the different ways to approach a writing practice, the 10,000-hour theory of mastery, and Ben’s Nana’s reading preferences.

We talk a lot about Sandford, Davenport, and Certain Prey, and this is the only series I’ve loved for years.

I also get into the less-violent perpetrator strategy, which I used in my first book, My Name Is Revenge. I explain it in more detail here.

At the end, our conversation devolves into a Con Air love-in, although Ben and I disagree about the film’s fundamental brilliance. For Ben it’s Nicolas Cage and his Alabama accent, whereas I’d prefer a cut that was nothing but John Cusack as US Marshal Vince Larkin.

One correction to our chat: I said the original title for Winter Prey was The Iceman, but I’ve since learned that this was only true in the UK. In the US the title was always Winter Prey.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary
Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Redemption Point by Candice Fox
Will by Will Smith
The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
– Rachel Howzell Hall (check out my recommendation on this summer reading list)
– Anne Perry
– Patricia Cornwell
– Jane Harper
– Dervla McTiernan
– Lee Child
– James Patterson
– and My Name Is Revenge

Listen to episode 11 of Burgers, Beers & Books with Ben Hobson, a spinoff series from Words and Nerds with host Dani Vee.

My only resolution for 2022

Happy New Year! This morning I woke up early and went for a swim, and while the ocean waves slapped me in the face, I resolved to not complain about anything.

Couple standing on the beach, holding takeaway coffees

To be clear, that was my resolution for the day, ie January 1. There’s no way I’m going all year without complaining. Have you seen the weather forecast?

Sydney fireworks over harbour bridge

On New Year’s Eve, I watched the 9pm fireworks and pretended they were the midnight fireworks (this is easy if you ignore all the small children running round), and thought about the year past and the year ahead and the 21,000 covid cases reported in NSW that day.

Since I was diagnosed with CFS, I’ve mostly given up making resolutions. Last year I planned to use the word absquatulate more (more than never) and then promptly forgot about it. I still like this plan, but it’s tough to leave abruptly when I no longer go anywhere thanks to covid.

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt in Santa hat at the beach, holding a pomeranian in a santa outfit

In 2020 I made some earnest resolutions, which was a real joke. And in 2019 I made probably the best set of resolutions of my life.

The fatigue improved significantly in 2021, much more than in 2020. It’s still a major factor in my life though, and an unpredictable one. I spent most of Christmas Day so unwell that I could barely sit up. Trying to eat was miserable.

From left: me, Petronella McGovern, RWR McDonald, Anna Downes, Sarah Bailey, Dani Vee & Laura Elizabeth Woollett

On the other hand, at the start of December I attended the Bad Sydney Crime Writers Festival. I had a tremendous time with some of Australia’s most talented crime authors, and actually stayed awake until midnight for the first time since I got sick.

So, progress.

Between the CFS and covid (and my concerns about the possible combination of those two conditions for me personally), I think the only reasonable resolution I can make is to accept that the year ahead will be as capricious and unforeseeable as the previous five.

The motto of 2022: subject to change.

That said, I do have some fun and (thankfully!) online events coming up. In January, I’m teaching two more workshops with Laneway Learning.

Make 2022 the Year You Write Your Book
Monday 10 January 2022, 7:45-9pm AEDT

The Joy of Creative Writing
Monday 31 January 2022, 7:45-9pm AEDT

Both workshops are on Zoom, open to everyone, and are only $14 (or $9 if you get an early bird ticket)!

Author Anna Downes headshot and book covers

And in February, I’m doing a free online talk with author Anna Downes on Thursday 3 Feb, 11am AEDT, about her new novel, The Shadow House. (If you don’t know Anna, listen to episode 5 of James and Ashley Stay at Home to hear about her internationally acclaimed debut novel, The Safe Place.) RSVP here >>

So come and join me online sometime. I’d love to see you! You can ask me how 2022 is going.

Sandy pomeranian smiles with a double rainbow over the ocean in the background

Wishing you a year of double rainbows.
xo

My big acting debut

Like everything else this year, my big acting debut happened while I was alone in my apartment, staring into the tiny green dot glowing above my computer screen.

And here it is!

Okay, yes, it’s just a quick video highlighting the great audiobooks available from my first publisher, Spineless Wonders, and the best app to get them from, Authors Direct.

But the raw emotive quality of my performance is clearly what carries the video, right?

Plus it’s no secret that Hollywood actors have larger than average heads, and mine definitely qualifies. It’s not just the hair! Although that does add several inches on top.

In conclusion, you should definitely listen to My Name Is Revenge on Authors Direct (or any good audiobook app) (or request it from your local library) and also don’t be surprised when I announce my role in the next Thor movie (probably playing a giant floating head intent on destroying New York City or at least lower Manhattan, I haven’t seen the script yet).

Ep 45 Writing the book you need with Jacinta Dietrich, author of This Is Us Now

When Jacinta Dietrich’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to fiction to find this new terrain explored on the page.

Except she couldn’t find her story.

While there were lots of narratives involving cancer, Jacinta was looking for a story that involved a young couple involved in a newer – but crucially, established – relationship, who had to navigate the progression of their romance while one of them also went through cancer treatment.

Jacinta Dietrich is a writer and editor who holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her first book, This Is Us Now, was published in 2021 by Grattan Street Press.

In episode 45 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Jacinta talks about fictionalising her story, writing confronting emotions, and telling her partner that the book she’d written based on their relationship was going to be published.

Plus, things go off the rails as we get into a heated and cryptic discussion of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, and also exactly which co-host asked author Lyn Yeowart what she was wearing. (If you’re looking to give James a gift, maybe don’t go with a photo book.)

Books and authors discussed in this episode

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott
  • The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
  • Lee Kofman (featured in episode 3)
  • Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  • Late Bloomer by Clem Bastow
  • Kay Kerr (featured in episode 37)
  • The Rúin by Dervla McTiernan
  • Tana French
  • Dinuka McKenzie
  • Andrew Solomon, of course
  • Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom (featured in episode 38)
  • Lyn Yeowart (featured in episode 39)

You can order This Is Us Now from Booktopia and bookshops across Australia.

Listen to episode 45 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.

Operation Caroline and the bomb that shook South Yarra

At 2.16 am on 23 November 1986, a car bomb exploded at 44 Caroline Street in Melbourne, outside the Turkish consulate in South Yarra.

Because it was the middle of the night, the only person injured was the bomber himself – he died, blown to pieces by his own bomb, which wasn’t part of the plan.

In theory, the bomb was supposed to go off hours later, when employees of the consulate would be at work. Reports at the time estimated that anywhere from 50 people to ‘hundreds’ could have been killed.

That morning, the police faced what’s been described as the first-ever investigation of terrorism in Victoria. They formed the Operation Caroline bomb task force, and within days had discovered the identity of both the bomber, Hagob Levonian, and his accomplice.

This was part of the series of international attacks perpetrated by Armenian terrorist groups against Turkish diplomats, in the hopes of pressuring the Turkish government to acknowledge and redress their ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.

Two main groups, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, committed nearly fifty acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s.

Strangely, Levon Demerian, the accomplice, was charged with the murder of the deceased bomber, along with conspiracy. He was initially convicted of both, and sentences to 25 years. However, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction (if two people set a bomb together and one of them dies, is that really murder) and Demerian served 10 years for the conspiracy conviction.

When he went to prison, he was Australia’s number-one high-risk security prisoner. Prison guards told reporters he was a gentleman, the kind of person you’d want as a neighbour.

My Name Is Revenge audiobook Ashley Kalagian Blunt

When My Name Is Revenge came out, I visited Melbourne to give a talk about the book. Melbourne seemed like the kind of place where people would be interested in Australia’s historical connections to the Armenian genocide, and author Toni Jordan kindly agreed to be part of the event.

On the night, it poured rain and the train lines were down in the suburb where the bookshop was, and only a handful of people turned up, most of them friends.

One man who I didn’t know waited until the end of the book signing to speak to me. He was Armenian Australian, and had brought a photo album full of newspaper clippings about both the 1986 bombing, and the 1980 assassination of two men in Sydney that I’d written about.

He wanted me to have the archive. I could see how much time had gone into it, articles cut from a variety of newspapers over almost a decade, and carefully arranged. And I could see that wanted someone to have it who was interested, who might do something with it.

44 Caroline Street in May 2021

It turned out Australia didn’t ‘need worry’ about the ‘Turk terror’, as one headline called it. That was the last attack here, and the attacks had ceased everywhere by the early 1990s.

Earlier this year, I was in Melbourne again, and visited 44 Caroline Street. It’s just an ordinary building on an ordinary street corner, with no hint of the violence that happened there 35 years ago.

There was some measure of justice done in the case of the bombing, with the success of Operation Caroline, unlike in Sydney, where there’s now a $1 million reward for information about the still unsolved 1980 assassination.

And unlike, too, for the victims of the genocide and their descendants, who still live with the legacy of the genocide.

Author Toni Jordan (right) with Ashley Kalagian Blunt

A more hopeful view of humankind

Around the world, the vast majority of people believe things are getting worse. But in Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman shows us that “The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. So why don’t we realise this? It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional.”

Humankind: A Hopeful History: Rutger Bregman: Bloomsbury ...

I raved about Bregman in episode 42 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, and I’m not done. Here are a few of the passages that resonated most with me, though every chapter was vital and fascinating and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I. “In times when immigration or violence declines, newspapers give them more coverage … There seems to be none, or even a negative, relationship between news and reality.”

II. “When it comes down to it, the presence of bystanders has precisely the opposite effect of what science has long insisted. We’re not alone in the big city, on the subway, on the crowded streets. We have each other.”

III. The 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese became infamous after The New York Times erroneously claimed that none of the 38 witnesses who saw or heard the attack outside their apartment building in Queens called the police or came to her aid. In fact, she died in the arms of a friend. Her story “teaches us three things. One: how out of whack our view of human nature often is. Two: how deftly journalists push those buttons to sell sensational stories. And last but not least: how it’s precisely in emergencies that we can count on one another.”

IV. “A realistic view of human nature can’t help but have major implications for how you interact with other people.”

V. “Cynicism is a theory of everything. The cynic is always right.”

VI. Because Wunsiedel, a town in southern Germany, is home to the grave of Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess, Neo-Nazis gathered every year to march on the anniversary of his death, “hoping to incite riots and violence.” Anti-fascists would come along to clash with the Nazis, which only reinforces their adherents – “it validates them in their worldview, and makes it that much easier to attract new recruits.” So in 2014, the town of Wunsiedel turned the march for Rudolph Hess into a charity walk. “For every metre the Neo-Nazis walked, the townspeople pledged to donate to an NGO that helps people get out of far-right groups.” So the townspeople secretly marked off start and finish lines, and they made banners to say thanks to the marchers. The Neo-Nazis had no idea this was going to happen. They showed up expecting protest and violence, and instead received loud cheers, and they were showered with confetti when they crossed the finish line. The event raised more than 20 thousand euros.”

Wishing you a hopeful week ahead.
xo

Ep 41 When you get it this young, you have it forever with author and editor Heather Taylor Johnson

When she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at age 25, one of the many things it meant for Heather was that she’d have to quit skydiving – though not until she’d injured herself trying to hold on the person she was before.

Heather Taylor Johnson is a writer and editor. Born in Minnesota and now living in South Australia, she has written novels and poetry collections, and is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Westerly, Griffith Review, Island and TEXT. She lives with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.

In episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she discusses how more than two decades of living with chronic illness have inspired her writing and led to the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Illness and Chronic Pain.

She also shares Van Gogh’s misdiagnosis with her condition, describes how a year of studying art has changed her writing process, and tells us about her latest book, Rhymes with Hyenas

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability by Jennifer Bartlett (ed)
Prosopagnosia by Sonia Hernandez
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

Listen to episode 41 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.