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
I started last year with a pack of lies.
I told you that, because of my chronic fatigue, I wasn’t going to set any genuine new year’s resolutions. Instead, I made a list of absurd resolutions that I intended to fail at –climbing Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie, catching a serial killer, and growing a third arm.
That last part was true – I didn’t achieve any of those resolutions. I don’t even own a Pikachu onesie.
The insincere part was that, after the first few weeks of having no ‘real’ resolutions, my poor goal-oriented brain got desperate. It loves setting challenges and tracking progress, hence why I can break down my annual reading stats, why I have a list of every book I’ve read in the past 19 years, and why I can show you exactly how many steps I’ve walked since 2018. Tracking my steps is part of my chronic fatigue recovery process; graphing them is not. (But it helps!)
So in mid-January, I quietly skulked off and made a secret three-point plan for the year. It looked like this:
Write the first draft of a new novel, 70-80,000 words
Over the year, I steadily chipped away at all three goals as my fatigue allowed. Some months I could barely do anything, and I let myself be okay with that because I had told everyone that I was planning to fail at my resolutions.
But when I was well enough, I tried to make the most of my energy and work only on those goals. The first two went really well. (And boy do I have the spreadsheets to prove it!)
I made it 50% of the way through goal number 3, meaning I have 40,000 words of a new novel draft. They are 40,000 terrible words, but the machinations of a plot are tangled up inside them.
Normally I’d be disappointed that I didn’t complete all three goals. In fact, I was on track to complete goal number 3 by the end of the year, but something interrupted me. And for once, it wasn’t illness.
But for that news, and the 2020 resolutions that go with it, you’re going to have to wait.
Artist Katie Holten has created a living tree alphabet for New York, based on NYC trees. Each letter is its own tree: A for Ash, B for Birch, C for Crab Apple, etc.
You can download the font free from nyctree.org! As they explain, ‘The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette’ and they’re planting submitted messages around the city with actual trees.
The font is lushious and a joy to play with. Here’s a short excerpt from my current manuscript in progress, How to Be Australian, written in nyctrees, and with the translation beneath. The page looks like a forest!
Unlike the birds, trees didn’t factor into our conversations beyond ‘wow, a lot of these trees have some sort of bark disease.’ Walking through my neighbourhood surrounded by anonymous trees was a reminder that I was a stranger here. As an elementary school student on the Canadian prairies, I had to collect leaves, glue them to paper, and draw and label the trees those leaves were once part of, like the world’s most boring CSI episode. But the exercise ensured that my adult self knew Canada’s birch, pine and Douglas firs without knowing this mattered. No-one in Sydney was going to force me to collect leaf samples and label them, though I wished they would. I kept telling myself I’d buy a book of Australian trees, but I was drowning in academic theory on diasporan cultural identity.
‘Do you think they’d let me sit in on a grade three class for a few days?’ I asked Steve toward the end of May, peering at him from behind the pile of textbooks on the kitchen table. ‘Just to learn about the birds and the trees?’
It’s fascinating thinking about our knowledge of trees as a type of literacy. I’d love to see an Australian version of this alphabet, with banksia, eucalypt, moreton bay figs, wattle (my person favourite). And maybe then I could finally develop my Australian tree knowledge!
I did make some progress on my Aussie flower knowledge lately, thanks to some lovely people who taught me about pink heath, flannel flowers and gum blossoms:
I can identify all the Aussie birds on my skirt, but not all the flowers. I had a theory they were state emblems (warahtah for NSW, Sturts desert pea for SA) but banksia isn't a state flower. There's also what I think is blue gum (?) + little white flowers + little pink ones! pic.twitter.com/zrmfvl36ta
By now I’m sure you’ve read my thriller novella, My Name Is Revenge, and are desperately looking around for more of my fiction writing.
You’re in luck! I’ve had a number of short fiction works published this year, including some flash fiction, and most of it you can read online for free from these fine publications. Enjoy!
in SmokeLong Quarterly
A tiny story about a larger-than-life woman. The Unicorn inspired this amazing artwork by US artist Chris Roberts.
Your Results Are In
in Baby Teeth Journal This story, inspired by several true events as well as my ever-growing stack of medical lab results, has been described as ‘creepy and fabulously funny’ (so definitely on brand).
in Stylus Lit
A tiny story about how rotten people can be.
in Verandah 33
The story of a woman discovering the bureaucratic horrors of nursing home life. (This is the only story listed here without free access, but the journal is available in both PDF and print.)