Ep 27 Writing for connection with Emily Maguire, author of ‘Love Objects’

‘It’s really important to me, as a writer, to get under the skin of my characters.’ In her new novel, Love Objects, Emily Maguire does exactly that, exploring one woman’s experience with hoarding disorder as a way to better understand our relationships with objects – and with each other.

Emily is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident, and three non-fiction books. Her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Observer and the Age. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.

In episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Emily about her interest in hoarding disorder, our relationships to material possessions, and why it’s often so difficult to talk about what causes us pain.

She also draws on her experience as the longtime teacher of Writing NSW’s Year of the Novel course and shares her key advice for writers.

Books (etc) discussed in this episode
Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford (who we interviewed in ep 24)
– The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy
– Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
– Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota
– Writing in your pyjamas: a writing metaphor from Sandra Cisneros

Listen to episode 27 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 secret to fighting project inertia

Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.

If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++

And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.

As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.

I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).

I also talked about project inertia.

This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.

authors-ashley-kalagian-blunt-and-dinuka-mckenzie
With author Dinuka McKenzie, winner of the 2020 Banjo Prize

I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.

After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.

A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:

One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.

But.

In October last year, when I was really struggling to get into my manuscript draft for the fourth time, I was lucky enough to interview author Kate Mildenhall.

Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.

So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.

And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.

I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.

But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.

I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.

And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.

I wish someone had told me that ten years ago!

Ep 26 Raising the Dead with Luke Stegemann, author of ‘Amnesia Road’

‘Sometimes just not knowing can actually be a good thing … but there are other times when you really do have to pursue truth. And when does one apply and when does the other?’

In Amnesia Road, Luke Stegemann explores complex questions about violence, history and society. He doesn’t profess to have answers, which is one of the book’s great strengths.

Luke is a writer, Hispanist and cultural historian based in rural south-east Queensland. He writes on art, politics and history for a wide range of Australian and Spanish publications, and is the author of The Beautiful Obscure. In 2018 he received the Malaspina Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of cultural relations between Australia and Spain’. On weekends, he travels extensively around
Queensland in his role as a referee on the state amateur boxing circuit.

His latest book, Amnesia Road, is a literary consideration of historic violence in two different parts of the world, the seldom-visited mulga plains of south-west Queensland and the backroads of rural Andalusia. It is also a celebration of the landscapes where the violence of frontier conflict and civil war has been carried out.

James and I ask Luke whether it’s possible for Australians to have a common understanding of our history, and how the under-acknowledged histories of colonial violence in Australia, the nationalist violence in Spain (and the many similar contexts in other nations, such as Turkey) impact the societal health of their respective nations.

We discuss the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the impact of social media on our current discourse and effort to understand what the past means for each of us.

At the end, Luke lightens the mood with an anecdote about an Andalusian dog who becomes a harbinger of death. Trust me, we laughed!

Books discussed in this episode
The Possessed by Dostoevsky
– Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias
– A Heart So White by Javier Marias
The Stranger and short stories by Albert Camus
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
When We Dead Awaken by James Robins

Listen to episode 26 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 24: Sea-creature days with Kavita Bedford, author of Friends and Dark Shapes

In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.

In episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview Australian-Indian Kavita Bedford about her debut novel, Friends & Dark Shapes, Kavita has been published in the Guardian, Guernica, and Griffith Review.

A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.

  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’

The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
– Teju Cole
– Olivia Lang
– Sheila Heti
– Rachel Cusk
– Jenny Offill
– Elizabeth Strout
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Deepfakes by Nina Schick

Listen to episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 23: Sinking a hotel room with internationally bestselling author David Vann

When we spoke to David Vann, he was on his final day of a two-week covid quarantine in a hotel room in Cambodia. He had with him an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) and an EPIRB (an emergency position indicating radio beacon), in case of sinking. He wasn’t specifically concerned about sinking the hotel room, but if it happened, he was ready for it.

David Vann is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction. Published in 23 languages, his books have earned him literary accolades worldwide, appeared on 83 ‘best books of the year’ lists and seen him featured at nearly 100 international literary festivals. Among many publications, he’s written for Esquire, Men’s Health, the Observer, the Financial Times and National Geographic Adventure. He’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England.

David spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, a setting which features in much of his work. When he was 13, his father Jim committed suicide by shooting himself. The pivotal event in David’s youth has been explored and alluded to in many of his novels, but never more directly or confronting than in his 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon.

Halibut on the Moon is an excruciating depiction of a downward spiral to suicide, written from the point of view of Vann’s father.

In episode 23, James and I speak to David about his writing process for this novel and others, and what he considers to be great writing (to James’s dismay, it’s not Knausgaard). We also speak about gun proliferation and mental illness in the US, and the current challenges of the publishing industry, even for authors as accomplished as Vann.

Books discussed in this episode:
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Goat Mountain; Aquarium; Legend of a Suicide; Bright Air Black; Last Day on Earth by David Vann
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Shadow Child by PF Thomése
Eight Lives by Susan Hurley
The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

You can listen to episode 23 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. Find out about past episodes here.

Reclamation: Exploring Memory

One of my favourite episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History is Free Brian Williams. In it, Gladwell explores how memory functions, and the way it can be written overtime. If we tell someone else’s story enough, for example, and we’ve had similar experiences, we may eventually ‘remember’ ourselves in the story.

Mounted ARI exhibition reclamation exploring memory

This month, I have a piece of flash fiction in a multimedia art exhibition run by Mounted, an artist-run initiative (ARI) located in Springwood, near Sydney.

In Reclamation: Exploring Memory, 16 visual artists will present work across a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography and video.

Mounted’s curators describe the show this way:

The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze said that “Memory is a past present, it brings the past into the present. The past and present are mingled: the past unfolding, the present creating and inventing.”

Memory, both personal and collective, is fundamental to a knowledge and understanding of both an individual life, and more broadly, the collective historical and cultural impulses of any society.

In this project, artists are participating in a process of reclaiming memory, exploring its diverse expressions and nature by bringing it into the present moment, giving it a physical form through art, a presence that can be examined, shared and reflected upon.

I’ve been involved in a few of Mounted’s previous exhibitions, including The Viewer Is Present, and I love how their hardworking volunteer team combines written and visual works in innovative, engaging ways. Author Arna Radovich, curator of the exhibition’s flash fiction event, writes:

A sculpture or installation is a material representation of something similarly confined within some form of physical boundary. So too when you read or listen to a piece of short fiction, you get the whole of it in one sitting, or one train ride, or one small chunk of time – whether limited by one page or several.

Reclamation: Exploring Memory is open on the following dates, 11am-5pm:
Saturday 13 March: opening event, 2pm
Sunday 14 March
Saturday 20 March
Sunday 21 March: flash fiction event, 2pm
Saturday 22 March
Saturday 3 April

For full details, visit mounted.com.

Ep 22: Are you equating Vegemite to urine? with Nash, artist and author

Nash is not only the owner of a bad-ass mononym, he’s also an artist and now first-time author, and the latest guest on James and Ashley Stay at Home.

A Sri Lanka-born multi-disciplinary designer and artist, Nash has been based in Melbourne since 2012. His work is both cynical social commentary and an account of his personal experience as an immigrant – the ‘other’ in any society.

His first book is What to Expect When You’re Immigrating, and James and I were delighted to talk to him about the book, his career as an artist, his own experience of immigration, and how Vegemite tastes like rotten chocolate.

  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist

Nash is a funny guy, which is why we wanted to talk to him about how laughter can positively impact your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing can improve your immune system, relieve pain, make it easier to cope with difficult situations, and improve your mood. This episode is full of laughs, and how they can also help overcome the challenges of talking to others about sensitive topics.

What to Expect When You’re Immigrating is out now, and you can find out more about Nash and his upcoming events on Instagram.

You can listen to episode 22 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

The Cyclops Horse and other monsters

Steve and I are eating vegan this February, so on the 14th we celebrated what is now known as Vegantine’s Day.

Normally we don’t do much (sometimes the best gift is low expectations). But since the Chau Chak Wing Museum recently opened at the University of Sydney, Steve suggested visiting it together.

It turned out the museum cafe had vegan desserts! It also turned out they were not tasty.

I had no expectations of the museum, and I suppose in that way, it didn’t disappoint me. While it features many historically significant artefacts and culturally significant First Nations artworks, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is also full of monsters.

Check out these little terrors.

This pair of palm cockatoos have been haunting nightmares since 1788. Their latin name is proboscigers, and a fun fact is that their cheek colour “changes according to mood and health”, just like with humans. For example, the colour of these two birds’ cheeks indicates they’re dead.

So Steve and I are wandering around this museum, which is filled with taxidermied animals, Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pottery – you know, museum stuff – and then I spot this front and centre in a display cabinet.

It’s between two pieces of pottery, but unlike the pottery, it’s not immediately obvious what the thing is or how it’s earned shelf space in what is not a particularly large museum.

I examined this fur-covered object from every angle. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet hideously unknown. Finally, I located its identifying sign.

Are you ready?

IT’S THE TAXIDERMIED HEAD OF A CYCLOPS PONY.

Yeah, you read that right. Back in 1758, someone taxidermied the partial head of a deformed pony, and eighty-three years later, in 1841, some other weirdo decided it belonged in a museum.

Its sign reads, “Cyclopism is a relatively common birth defect in mammals: the two eye sockets do not form separately but fuse to create the appearance of a single eye.”

Which is strange justification for including the cyclops pony among the bronze-age spears and butterfly specimens. Also, if cyclopsism is so common in mammals, how come we don’t see more people with optic blast powers?

Other monstrosities include a fruit bat who wants to flash you:

A memorial to eclectus parrots (I doubt there’s any left in the wild at this rate):

And a two-dimensional platypus who looks well over it (granted, you wouldn’t look great if you’d been bathing in formaldehyde since 1799):

You can also find out what the Parthenon would look like if the Greeks had built it inside a disco.

And here it is, possibly the worst monster of all – the graphintegrator!

The graphintegrator is, according to a sign, “a mechanical device for solving differential equations in graphical form”. But I’m pretty sure it’s also a Batman villain.

Lesser Monsters of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include this pangolin. Last year I became obsessed with them, which is how I discovered that if you search the term pangolin too often on Instagram, your account will get flagged.

You might not think this little spotted kiwi is a monster, until you find out it used its own mother’s tax file number to commit identify theft.

Last and strippiest, a Tasmanian tiger with real cute eyes.

When we visited Tassie a few years ago (yes, that trip where I utterly failed to climb Cradle Mountain), Steve said that he planned to find a Tassie tiger. Despite being classified as extinct, there’s still rumours of sightings. I spent the whole trip shouting, “Quick, look, there’s a Tassie tiger!” and then telling Steve it was right behind him.

Would I recommend visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum? Let me ask you this – where else can you see the distingeatrating remains of a cyclops pony head?

After the museum, you can also say hello to everyone’s favourite roogoyle (who of course features in How to Be Australian).

And don’t forget this other classic University of Sydney highlight, the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn!

PS. If you haven’t heard, My Name Is Revenge is now available in audiobook. Sign up for my newsletter for your chance to get a free copy!

Ep 20: Up against the limits of medical knowledge with author Josephine Taylor

“I was pretty well bedridden, unable to move very easily for about the first year … I’d sort of have to shallow breathe into the tops of my lungs.”

When Josephine Taylor first began to experience chronic pain, she started to reduce her commitments. She was a career woman and a mum. But gradually, she had to shut down her whole life. Meanwhile, she struggled to get a diagnosis.

  • James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Eventually the doctors concluded she had vulvodynia, chronic vulva pain lasting three months or longer that is medically unexplained. “That doesn’t mean it’s not real,” she adds. “It’s a very real medical condition.”

Josephine is a writer and freelance editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. She is Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an adjunct senior lecturer in writing. Her debut novel, Eye of a Rook, is drawn in part from her experiences with vulvodynia.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Trapped with condition, she began to learn its history and write about it. “It seemed to me very important that people understand that actually there hasn’t been a great deal of movement forward in understanding or awareness since the 1860s.”

Eye of a Rook is a novel with two narratives, both about women suffering from vulvodynia. One storyline is set in contemporary Perth, and one set in England in the late 1800s. The historical narrative includes shocking details about women’s medicine and treatment at that time, drawn in part from research into “The London Surgical Home for the reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases”, which opened in 1858. Taylor describes the barbaric surgical procedure, called a clitoridectomy, which is proposed in the opening chapter as the solution to one of your main characters’ suffering.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

For both women, their illness affects their personality, and robs them of themselves, as well as affecting Alice’s career in Perth. We discuss how vulvodynia affected Josephine’s life, medical victim blaming, the difficulty of being diagnosed with a little-understood condition and the ongoing confusion of it, and the ‘finitude of possibility’ that chronic illness inflicts on a life.

Josephine is full of excellent advice and reassurance for anyone suffering chronic and/or invisible illnesses, about surrounding ourselves with people who believe us, and not letting our past dictate our futures.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

You can listen to episode 20 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Check out Josephine’s #FridayCookBook on Instagram and join her at this free Avid Reader online event with Lee Kofman on 9 February.  

This episode’s book chat
The Fifth Season by Philip Salem
Wintering by Krissy Kneen
‘The Wife’s Story’ by Ursula K LeGuin
Imperfect by Lee Kofman (who we spoke to in episode 3)
Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse
Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson
Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen
Hysteria by Katerina Bryant
One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner
In the Woods by Tana French

For more information about vulvodynia and support:
The International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease
The Australian and New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society
The Pelvic Pain Foundation of Australia
The National Vulvodynia Association (US)
The Vulval Pain Society (UK)