Joanna Nell worked as a GP until a 10-pin bowling accident led to her becoming a bestselling author.
Now, she jokes that she works part-time as a GP and full-time as a writer. Her novels feature ‘young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society’s expectations of ageing’.
Joanna is a Sydney-based writer, GP and advocate for positive ageing. Her bestselling debut novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village was published in 2018 with rights sold internationally. Her second novel The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker was published in 2019.
Her latest novel is The Great Escape From Woodlands Nursing Home, which James describes as full of warmth, humour and charm.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Providing Good Care at Night for Older People by Diana Kerr and Heather Wilkinson; – The Ripping Tree by Nikki Gemmell; – On Quiet by Nikki Gemmell; – Beautiful Kate by Newton Thornburg; – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.
I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.
But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.
This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.
Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.
In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.
When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.
‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’
So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.
The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.
We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.
With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.
I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.
I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.
My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.
Episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is out now, and it’s chock full of writing tips. Can you write a bestselling novel through the simple process of 5 words a day? Technically yes, though it would take you 43.8 years to complete a first draft.
We suggest better writing tips, like these:
Protect your writing time.
Write about what scares you.
Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
Try different genres, voices and forms (this is how Ashley created My Name Is Revenge, a novella and collected essays that combine memoir, history and journalism).
Make time for close reading and analysis of writing you admire.
Plus, James gets real about his motivations, and also reveals that he didn’t know what a writing residency was until he was awarded two of them back to back (at the National Writers’ House and KSP Writers’ Centre).
(And if you’re wondering why he bothered applying when he didn’t know what they were, it’s because I sent him the links. I might send James a link to clown college just to see if he’ll apply to that. He’d probably get accepted.)
Australian author Elizabeth Tan’s second short story collection, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, is full of humorous and poignant stories laced with pop-culture references and techno-slang, and set in an uncertain dystopian future or surrealities.
Elizabeth’s comedy leaps out from story titles such as ‘Shirt Dresses that Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts so that It Looks Like You Forgot to Put on Pants (Love Will Save the Day)’ and ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’. This belies their cutting emotional depths, the varieties of loneliness depicted, and the incisive exploration of technology’s ability to isolate us while keeping us evermore connected. The book, which came out earlier this year, just won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Fiction.
In comparing Smart Ovens for Lonely People to Tan’s first collection, Rubik, Cher Tan writes: “Sardonic, gentle observations on cultural anxieties as mediated by techno-capitalism have solidified as Tan’s ‘personal brand’, but the terrain is more fantastical, more mischievous.”
One of the themes that links the stories in Smart Ovens for Lonely people is loneliness, but it’s often a special kind of loneliness – loneliness within relationships, loneliness without necessarily being alone. An affecting line from the title story sums this up: “Having someone who loves you doesn’t exempt you from wanting to die.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, loneliness competes with workplace stress, mental illness and sedentary lifestyles as one of the most pressing health epidemics of our time.
Listeners will remember our interview with Kate Leaver in episode 8, when we discussed her new book about how good dogs are for our health. In her first book, The Friendship Cure, she offers some compelling evidence for the dangers of loneliness, drawn from a meta-analysis of scientific research. It concluded: “Loneliness is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and deadlier than obesity … It can tighten our arteries, raise our blood pressure, increase our rates of infection, diminish our heart health, and lead to higher rates of cancer. Lonely people develop tumours faster, have weaker immune systems and lower thresholds for pain.”
We also ask Elizabeth to discuss a story from the collection in terms of its evolution from idea to final draft, which leads to a fascinating discussion of her use of a writing prompt called logogenetics.
And we discuss a whole bunch of writers, including Brooke Davis, Shaula Evans, Alexander Chee, Fiona Wright, Stephen King, Yumna Kassab, David Vann, Laura Bates, and Laura McPhee-Brown.
When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.
And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties. Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.
Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.
Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Monique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”
(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)
She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.
Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. One of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.
James and Ashley are staying at home. Partly because there’s a pandemic, partly because they’re writers, and partly because of their health. Through discussions and interviews with other writers, they’ll try to build fellowship and entertain, or at the very least, explore how staying at home has its benefits.James and Ashley Stay at Home is a new podcast, a joint venture with my wonderful co-host, James McKenzie Watson. Learn more about James and the podcast below, or find the first seven episodes here.
We’ll be discussing the challenges of our efforts to write brilliant manuscripts while coping with chronic health issues, and also interviewing other writers who have done the same.
This is what the player for the first episode would look like, if I could embed each episode.
Instead, you can listen to episode 1 here. It introduces the podcast and our major themes, writing and health. We speak about both topics through our personal experience: in addition to my chronic fatigue syndrome, James was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2016. Like me, he also suffers from serious fatigue, among a myriad of other symptoms.
James is a very talented writer of short and novel-length fiction. He’s been recognised in competitions including the International InkTears Flash Fiction Contest, the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Grieve Writing Competition, and featured in publications such as Baby Teeth Journal and Brave Voices Magazine. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. He works as a nurse in regional NSW. Find him on Twitter or visit his website.
James is a member of my Writing NSW writers’ group, pictured here at the 2019 launch of My Name Is Revenge: Jonathon Shannon, James, me, Simon Veksner, Amanda Ortlepp and Andrea Tomaz.Episode 2 is a special episode, which features me reading the first chapter of my new memoir, How to Be Australian.
In episode 3, we launch into our interviews with Australian authors starting with Lee Kofman, author of Imperfect.
In episode 4, James grills me about writing my new memoir, How to Be Australian. (It turns out the secret to getting asked all the questions you really want to answer is to be a guest on your own podcast.)
Episode 5 features debut author Anna Downes discussing her international hit The Safe Place, as well as her experiences with postpartum anxiety.
In episode 6, James and I share the stories of how we came to be writers and share some of our favourite writing tips.
Episode 7 features British-Japanese author Katherine Tamiko Arguile discussing her debut novel The Things She Owned and the health crises that drove her to pursue a writing career.
In episode 8, we interview author Kate Leaver about her new book, Good Dog, and learn about just how excellent dogs are for our wellbeing.
Episode 9 features art therapist Karin Foxwell discussing the profoundly 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
Episode 10 gets personal: James and I explain our health conditions, discuss how these affect day to day life, and explore how illness has impacted our senses of self.
In episode 11, we discuss anxiety with comedian Anthony Jeannot.
Episode 12 features bestselling author Petronella McGovern discussing her new novel, The Good Teacher, and the allures and dangers of fringe healthcare.
In episode 13, we chat with the legend herself, author Kate Mildenhall, about the craft of novel writing, the challenges of penning a second book, and the creative anxieties that plague writers.
Episode 14 features Elizabeth Tan, author of Smart Ovens for Lonely People, discussing the public health crisis of loneliness, the personal experiences that inspired some of these stories, and an unusual but highly effective writing prompt.
In episode 15, James and Ashley share their motivations for writing, writing tips, and more.
Episode 16 features Ada Palmer, historian, composer and author, and how she’s managed to achieve so much while managing a number of invisible illnesses.
Episode 17, the last episode of 2020, highlights some of the best writing tips from the year, and is a great resource for any writer.
Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.
Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’
I’m in my fourth year.
At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals
Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
Jump in the pool without hesitation.
This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
Read more books.
Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)
Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.
But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.
I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades, a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)
I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.
I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.
I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.
I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.
When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.
This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:
YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies