Ep 60 How to write a prize-winning novel with James McKenzie Watson, author of Denizen

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.

In episode 60 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, James opens up about the hurt and mentally unwell 22-year-old he was when he started the novel, and the 29-year-old author he’s become.

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 >>

You can find all of James’s upcoming events on his website.

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)

Listen to this episode 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.

Join me for these upcoming events!

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!

Authors James McKenzie Watson and Ashley Kalagain Blunt

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.)

Man and woman in Australian woods

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 pm
 AEST
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 >>

Writers Unleashed writing festival 3 September 2022

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

See the full program and get your Writers Unleashed tickets here >>

Online or in person, I hope to see you soon!
xo

Ep 58 When your body betrays you with author Rae Cairns

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

Listen to this episode 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.

87 words to cut from your writing

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.

87 words to cut from your manuscript – download this list as a PDF

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

Happy writing!
xo

Ep 57 Experimenting with form and place with author Yumna Kassab

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.

In episode 58 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she speaks to us about her own experiences of rural life, how her science background has influenced her experimental approach to writing, and books as time travel.

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

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

Ep 56 How to survive a stalker with Ellis Gunn, author of Rattled

‘If he wants to follow me, I can’t stop him.’

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

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

Ep 55 A very overcomeable fear with author Katherine Collette

The first time Katherine Collette attended a Toastmasters meeting, she immediately thought, ‘This would be great for satire.’

Toastmasters is a public speaking organisation that started in the US over 90 years ago, and now has over 300,000 members in 149 countries – and both Katherine and I are past members.

Toastmasters is also the inspiration for Katherine’s second novel, The Competition.

Author Katherine Collette James Ashley Stay Home Podcast

Katherine Collette is a novelist, podcaster and engineer living in Melbourne with her husband and two children. Her debut novel, The Helpline, was published in Australia, Germany, Italy and the US and UK. She co-hosts the writing podcast The First Time with author Kate Mildenhall.

Authors Ashley Kalagian Blunt and Katherine Collette pose with a copy of The Competition.

If you’ve ever dreaded public speaking, ep 55 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is for you! We explore why public speaking is so intimidating for most people, and how that fear can be overcome.

We also discuss Katherine’s personal experience with public speaking clubs, and how they can build both confidence and empathy. As she says, ‘You sign up to learn to speak. But the real power is in having to listen.’

Two authors who really like salted caramel gelato

Finally, we answer the question – is some discomfort in life necessary?

Books and authors discussed in this episode
After Story by Larissa Behrendt
– David Sedaris
Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl
– Sarah Krasnostein
Love Stories by Trent Dalton
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
– Ben Hobson

Listen to episode 55 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 54 Living with ambiguous loss, with author Erin Stewart

A lot of true crime cases start the same way – someone didn’t show up at work, or didn’t come home on time. Their family or friends go to the police to report them missing, but the police tell them they have to wait, or don’t act on the information, or don’t believe the family members.

Listening to true crime podcasts, I often find this baffling. If the police had acted sooner, maybe the person could have been found alive, or found at all. But learning about missing persons through the context of one case belies the bigger issue.

In Australia alone 38,000 people are reported missing across the country each year – more than 100 a day.

In her debut nonfiction work, The Missing Among Us, author Erin Stewart explores the issue of missing persons from a variety of perspectives, including the lack of police resources that leave families leading their own searches, the Stolen Generations, and cults.

Erin is a Canberra-based freelance writer who has written for a range of Australian and international publications including Meanjin, Voiceworks, ABC Online, SBS Online, Daily Life, Overland, and many others. She has been an opinion columnist for The Age and made regular appearances on ABC Sydney Mornings to talk about books and the arts. An earlier version of her book was shortlisted for the Portobello Books Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the UK.

And what drew Erin to the topic of missing persons is just as fascinating.

In episode 54 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Erin discusses how the ambiguity of living with chronic illness drove her interest in missing persons. ‘The Missing Among Us’ is ‘about finding a space for those conversations about ambiguous circumstances in order to understand the complex issue of missing persons.’ She also describes her experiences with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the research behind her book.

I also share the story of Michael Kalagian, the man who has haunted me for years.

Michael may have been essential to my family history, possibly as the person who brought my great grandparents over to Canada in 1921. He definitely lived in St Catharines; he’s pictured here with my great grandfather’s older siblings.

But when I interviewed the St Catharines Armenian community, no one could remember him. Supposedly born in 1881, he died in 1943, though no one could tell me how. He didn’t even have a gravestone until 1960, when my grandparents buried their infant son over Michael’s coffin and provided a shared stone.

Michael was likely my great grandfather’s uncle. He may have had no wife and children, or he may have had an entire family that was lost during the genocide while he worked in Canada.

No one could tell me anything about him. How completely forgotten Michael was, how little his existence mattered to anyone still living – that’s what haunts me. He’s missing, but in a different way.

The Missing Among Us made me think about missing persons – and living with the ambiguity of chronic illness – in all kinds of new ways, and I was delighted to speak to Erin about it.

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

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

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

Fiona Robertson lived with migraines for years, writing short stories as a creative pursuit. Now she’s free from migraines and the award-winning author of the debut short story collection, If You’re Happy. Her work explores the lives of lonely people seeking happiness in a turbulent world.

In episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Fiona discusses the common threads that bind her stories, why they’re her chosen form, and how living with unpredictable chronic illness impacted her life and creative work.

Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her collection of stories, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Fiona lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

Plus, Fiona and I talk about our fellowships at KSP Writers Centre in 2017, and how the benefits of such opportunities extend far beyond writing time.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– Louise Allan
The Keepers by Al Campbell, plus her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘The disappointing question I most often got after writing a book
Long Road to Dry River by Jen Severn
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
– David Vann
Denizen by James McKenzie Watson, out 19 July 2022!

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

*

Just announced! I’m teaching a one-day in-person memoir workshop for Writing NSW on Saturday 7 May. If you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or hoping to start one, this is everything you need to know. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>