Ep 8: Talking good dogs with Kate Leaver

Toddler and two shih tzus

Ted and Tiffany.jpgI’ve been a fan of dogs basically since I was born. Ted, the handsome furball on the right, was my parents’ first baby – I came along a little later. I guess they decided they’d rather have a second dog than a second child, because for a while, this was their little menagerie. (Eventually they added a second kid too.)

Ted and Tiffany were purebred show dogs, which meant their coats grew down to the floor. This photo is from off-season. I was raised with the pronunciation sheed-zoo, as per the American Kennel Club. I don’t know when people saying shit zoo, but I’d like to officially campaign for a rebrand.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastMy love of dogs is why I’m especially excited for our latest podcast guest, author Kate Leaver. Kate is a journalist and speaker from Australia, and is also the author of two books. Good dog cover, author Kate Leaver, Bert,I’m been a fan of Kate Leaver since I reviewed her first book, The Friendship Cure. In it, she examines how friendship can help to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness, which competes with mental illness and sedentary lifestyles to be the worst health crisis of our time (pandemics aside). Friendship has powerful health benefits, as many scientific studies show.

Good Dog is an extension of that idea, exploring how our furry friends enrich our lives while providing numerous health benefits that researchers are only beginning to uncover. Along with the 11 stories of especially good dogs – including her own shih tzu, Bertie – Leaver explores research into the impact of dogs on human health. You can read my full review here. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastJames also happens to be a fan of dogs.

James lives with Bonnie, an Irish wolfhound/dalmation cross. Bonnie joined James for our interview with Kate. The one downside of podcasts is their lack of visual component, so James snapped this shot of Bonnie nudging her way into the audio action. James and Bonnie.jpg
This shot allows you to better appreciate Bonnie’s spotiness. Dalmation Irish wolfhound cross dogJames, Kate and I probably could have talked about dogs for, conservatively speaking, 17 hours.

But we had so much more to talk about! Kate lives with bipolar disorder and her experiences with depression, and Bert’s intuitive ability to comfort her during difficult times, inspired her to research other good dogs.

She also speaks about the challenges her health has presented in her career. “I always found being in an office difficult, because you can’t really schedule in time to deal with your mood or your energy levels.” This led her to try freelancing.

“I wanted to give myself the opportunity to take care of my mental health,” she says.  Freelancing means being able to give herself more days when she needs them, work to a schedule that works for her, and go outside for a walk in the middle of the day.

Kate’s coped with chronic illness far longer than I have, so I asked her how she manages to have such a successful career. I was thankful to hear her say she doesn’t know how she manages it. She just keeps going as best she can, which is sometimes not very well at all.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
This was a huge relief , because after four years I certainly haven’t figured out any way of managing my illness either. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
You can listen to episode 8 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, and find Kate’s book online and in bookshops across Australia, as well as in the US and UK in early 2021.

Ep 7: Stepping off the corporate hamster wheel

The Things She Owned Novel by Katherine Tamiko Arguile
Born and raised in Tokyo, Katherine Tamiko Arguile is a Japanese-British-Australian arts journalist and author. She migrated from London to Adelaide in 2008, where she now lives beside the sea. A graduate of Cambridge University, she has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Her award-winning short stories have been published in anthologies in the UK and in Australia.

In episode 7, we talk to Katherine about her first novel, The Things She Owned. The story weaves together the narratives of a mother and daughter: as a young girl growing up in Japan during and after the Pacific War, Michiko is victim to her father’s abusive behaviour, which in turn is linked to PTSD stemming from his time in the Japanese military. Meanwhile, her adult daughter reflects on her mother’s life from present-day London, where a collection of Michiko’s things – a rice bowl, a Wedgwood tea set, a knotted ring from Okinawa – mostly collect dust in the corner, along with her ashes. Arguile crafts the English and Japanese settings with vivid detail, and lovingly describes the many Japanese meals over which her characters argue and bond. Through her two female protagonists, she explores the intractability of intergenerational trauma, turning in the final chapters to Indigenous Japanese concepts of healing.

We invited Katherine on the show not only because she’s a writer, but because she’s also experienced years of chronic illness. She delves into her background and what led her to write The Things She Owned.

Katherine describes how she grew up with a chronically ill mother in a bilingual household – although when her Japanese mother and English father got married, ‘they could hardly talk to each other’. Soon they both spoke each other’s language, and Katherine grew up with two languages. She recreates this beautifully in her novel, mixing  in Japanese terms and proving a glossary.

Although she always loved reading and writing, Katherine worked a corporate career in London before two events made her turn toward writing. The first was the death of her mother, and the second was a speedboat incident that resulted in a broken back and a helicopter rescue.

‘I really did start to question what the hell I was doing, rushing around in London,’ Katherine says. ‘The accident in some ways was something going, “Hey! Just stop doing this thing you’re not meant to be doing.” And of course in hospital, I had plenty of time to think about my future.’

She feels confident in her decision to pursue a more creative life. ‘The writing has become such a purpose for me … That’s my driving force to keep myself healthy, both in mind and body.’

Listen to episode 7 of James and Ashley Stay at home here, and find Katherine’s book online and in bookshops across Australia.

 

If this Australian animal is after you, it might be personal

How Deadly
How Deadly is a series of short videos featuring ABC’s resident ‘nature nerd’, Ann Jones, available on iView. Ann answers all the pressing questions: how realistic are the crocodile scenes in movies like Lake Placid and Crocodile Dundee? Are snakes cannibals? How do kangaroos feel about parachutes? How many people have been murdered by emus? And how did they train Skippy to perform all those stunts?

How Deadly is worth watching to hear Ann refer to snakes as ‘bush tinsel’, and for the revelation that swooping ‘maggies’ have particular proclivities: some hate bike riders, some go after posties because of their hi-vis gear, and – because they can recognise faces – some target specific individuals. So if you’re getting swooped, remember – it might be personal.*

Ann says that emus have never murdered anyone, but emu expert Stephen Schmidt disagrees. According to him, ‘people have been killed by them.’

In a recent ABC article about emus being banned from a western Queensland pub after ‘toileting’ all over the place, Schmidt said, ‘I’ve had them chase me up onto the top of the truck.’ Meaning, presumably, that if he hadn’t managed to get up there, the oversized birds would have murdered him.

Schmidt doesn’t mention how many days he had to wait atop his truck before the homicidal birds finally scuttled off to find someone else to terrorise.

Nor does he offer any evidence of emu murders. But he must know what he’s talking about, since he works with the birds daily. His farm name, Try It Emu, seems like a direct taunt (this might explain the truck scenario). So maybe magpies aren’t the only Australian birds with a personal beef.

These sorts of Australiana facts are among my favourite things to discuss, and soon I’ll be doing just that on Zoom with author Cass Moriarty. Join us! Two female authors and book cover
Ashley Kalagian Blunt in conversation with Cass Moriarty
Thursday 6 August, 6:30-7:30pm AEST, online
Avid Reader
Free, RSVP here >>

*This was first published by Writing NSW

Ep 6: Our Man Booker contenders

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
Episode 6 of James and Ashley Stay at Home features James and I sharing our early experiences as writers – which always make for entertaining stories – and three tips we’ve learned along the way. You can listen to it here.

James wrote his first novel at age seven. Frankly, it sounds like a masterpiece of contemporary Australian realism, akin to Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, but with less slapping and more lost hire car keys.

Even at that age, he was conscious of the need to work hard to attract readers to his writing, and he shares a dramatic story of how he employed his four-year-old brother as a spokesperson. This strategy didn’t work out, probably because it was heavy on audience abuse and profanity.

We’d also love you to weigh in on this hot debate: when James’s dad managed to get one of his manuscripts in front of a publisher (this was a few years later, when James had acquired the worldliness of a teenager and had years more writing experience), he received the feedback ‘James’s writing should be encouraged.’

I thought this comment was kind, but James understood it as ‘James’s writing shouldn’t be explicitly discouraged … but maybe buy him a tennis racket or a worm farm.’

Like James, I started writing early, and leapt into my first novel at the age of 14. Thankfully no-one in my family had any publishing industry contacts to show it to when I declared it finished four years later. For reasons lost to time, I called the novel Infernoatia. It was about killer bees from Mars (uh-huh, makes perfect sense, I hear you thinking).

It was set in 2020, which, back in 1997, must have seemed like THE FUTURE. Obviously we’d have humans on Mars by then.

To give you a taste of how immensely terrible this book was, here is the actual opening, from the printed-out copy I still have in a trunk at my parents’ place, complete with the book cover my dad designed.

The Earth, our planet; home to all creation as we know it, yet swiftly racing towards its unavoidable end. As it slowly orbits the sun, tracing the same pattern around our star as it has countless times before, its life forms, and with them their technology and knowledge, continue to evolve and expand, ever growing to meet the needs of a greedy civilization that believes it has money and resources to burn. But if, in the distant future, all life on Earth is threatened, will it be a superior race who lives millions of light years away, hidden from view of our best astronomers and astronauts, who have finally come to conquer over what would seem such low forms of uncivilized life for nothing more than their own personal amusement, or will it be that we ourselves erupt into war over our minimal and virtually insignificant differences and eventually destroy everything in battle?

Although both these suggestions could be quite possible, or even become reality someday, it seems more likely that a careless mistake, an overlooked error, one simple flaw in a larger, more elaborately worked plan, will one day inadvertently throw the whole world on a path of ultimate destruction, and as the clock begins to count down to our demise, the people of our planet will be forced to ban together to save themselves against the wrath of our sophisticated, highly developed technology, and widespread knowledge or perish.

Prologue
August 18, 2020, 4:09 PM, INFINITY III, MARS

Space is deep. And black. Unlike being on a planet, it doesn’t matter where you look, there is always more black space. No horizons, no coast lines, no mountain ranges. Just a thick black fog dotted by infinite numbers of shining yellow stars. A vast universe full of burning suns, each which may be home to a cluster of tiny planets, which may each have their own groupings of moons which carefully orbit them. And then there are the comets, asteroids and meteors that wander endlessly past the moons, planets and suns. A vast universe full of places to discover and explore, where you could spend an eternity, and barely begin. …

After the bees arrive on Earth (eventually the actual story gets underway), each chapter opens with a global death count. Which, now that I think about it, feels very 2020.

Screen Shot 2020-07-26 at 8.28.57 pm.png
Listen to episode 6 here and please rate and subscribe to help us reach more listeners.

Ashley
xo

 

How do you know if you’re really Australian?

Two memoir book covers
Jay Martin is the author of Vodka and Apple Juice, a memoir of living in Warsaw, Poland as a diplomat’s wife – or more accurately, an undiplomatic wife. Jay also lived in Alberta, Canada, for two years, and has recently moved back to Perth.

I recently had the chance to chat with Jay about Canada, Australia, writing other cultures, pumpkin spice season, being married, and the all-important question: How can you tell if you’re really Australian?

Jay: Both of us wrote books about moving to other countries. I really wanted to introduce people to Poland through writing my book. I felt like it was a really unknown country that had a lot to offer and that there was no one doing it justice. So I wanted to write a book that would make people want to go there. I also think I wrote it as a kind of therapy, processing what had been a very intense period for me with coming to terms with not working, and trying to make sense of myself in the expat world.

Ashley: Your book definitely made me want to go to Poland! Not in winter though. IMG_6517.JPGJay: And that’s coming from a Canadian! Now, of course, you’re an Australian of Canadian origin, and your book is about the process of adding the Australian to that. What was the strangest or most unexpected thing for you about moving to Australia?

Ashley: I still haven’t found a snake hiding in my dishwasher – venomous or otherwise. Australia’s got a reputation to hold up, and frankly, it’s failing. What about for you as an Australian moving to Canada?

Jay: One of the strangest things for me was that it was so similar. It was possibly partly because I moved from Western Australia to Alberta, both of which are described as the Texas of the respective countries. I got there and found crazy right-wing politicians, a boom-bust economy based on digging stuff out of the ground and a city that from some angles looks like an endless series of strip malls and thought, ‘I’ve moved to the other side of the world and this is just like being home’. I tried to introduce the term “cashed-up bogan,” but it didn’t stick. When I explained it everyone knew exactly what I meant, though.

Ashley: How was the process of writing another culture for you? Were there things you felt like you had to modify or leave out?

Jay: Is it too early in this conversation to comment that that’s probably a very Canadian question – because Canadians wouldn’t want to be seen to be impolite? Canadians are polite, though. I used to love the signs in our apartment building that told people they had to not open the door to people. It was like they needed to be instructed how be rude. Is this too stereotypical?

Author Jay Martin in Canada winter

Ashley: That’s funny, because we have the same signs in our Sydney apartment building! Aussies are also very polite, in my experience – although maybe they’re just being very polite around me because they’re concerned their natural brusqueness will offend my delicate Canadian sensibilities? I once had a friend break off in the middle of telling a story about an encounter she had at work, turn to her husband and exclaim, ‘I can’t say the C-word in front of Ashley and Steve!’

And now I’ll politely remind you that you didn’t answer my question.

Jay: Yes, there were so many sensitivities in what I was writing about. The war, Poland’s Jewish population, concentration camps, they all get a mention because they were a part of what I was experiencing, what I was learning. There was also the ridiculousness – to me – of communism. But it’s easy for me to say it’s ridiculous and make a joke about it, when I never had to live under that system. And I did tone the humour down in parts, in deference to that. What about for you? Australia calls you map and tourism adAshley: I felt the same. I felt I couldn’t write about Australia without bringing up topics like Indigenous rights, the treatment of asylum seekers, racism (an Indian reader recently said to me, ‘I can’t believe you used the R-word’). But it was tricky to do this, especially in a book that’s full of jokes about seven-legged spiders, inappropriate tattoos, and Iced VoVos.

Jay: I particularly liked that you covered all the ‘usual’ Australian stereotypes, like sharks and spiders, but you also talk about some of the more complex things, like Australia’s cultural cringe. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about that, and discovered we both had very clear understandings of the term – that were completely different. It prompted me to think about how reading about your own country can help you see it differently.

Ashley: I wish someone had written a book called “How to Be Canadian” that revealed all the magical things that I’d grown accustomed to overlooking as a Canadian. If I could have read that as a teen, I probably would have appreciated everything around me more. Is there anything else in the book that really struck you, as an Aussie?

Jay: Well I’d never thought about the other meaning for the world “bush”. I can almost hear you giggle every time you write it. Although now I’ve seen it, I’ll never unsee it.

Ashley: You’re welcome.

Jay: Hmm. It was sort of the same for me with “beaver”, though, you know. I couldn’t talk about them with a straight face. Maybe Canadian Australians should be called bush beavers? What do you think?Couple with turquoise lake, mountain peak, evergreens
Ashley
: I once suggested at a local trivia night that our team name be the beaveroos and was promptly shouted down. Bush beavers is even better!

Jay: That person has no sense of humour. It’s interesting to talk with someone else about choosing what to include and exclude when you’re writing about a country and culture. I know some of the things I wrote struck a chord with Polish people – like shop assistants never having any change. Some of them cry from laughing at that. I also write about the difference between narodowość and obywatelctwo in Polish, which can both be translated into English as citizenship, but really describe different concepts – one being the nationality you have on your passport, and the other a deeper notion of belonging to a place, a land, which is you carry in your heart. I’m not sure that those of us from settler cultures can really understand this. What do you think?
Couple shadowed on sandAshley: I spent a lot of years researching and writing about Armenia, because my great grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide of World War One. And that research taught me a lot about the deep notion of belonging to a place, which I think in turn helps give me some insight into Aboriginal connection to land. And I agree, for me, especially because my family moved all over when I was a kid, I feel more like a pot plant, able to be picked up and relocated. And yet I am very Canadian (hence the politeness) and in Vodka and Apple Juice, you explore your Australianness.

Visit Jay Martin’s website for the continuation of this conversation, including her definitive quiz testing my Australianness!

Follow her on Twitter at @jaymartinwrites and check out her fabulous memoir,Vodka and Apple Juice.

 

Cross-country caramel slice showdown

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.pile of caramel slices 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.
Laptop and caramel sliceMonique 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. Caramel Slice on How to Be AustralianOne 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.

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

 

Ep 5: The Year that Almost Killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place

Anna Downes The Safe Place.png
The Safe Place begins with a dreamlike escape. A young Londoner in a Ramones T-shirt and worn sneakers boards a private jet and arrives in France, where a chauffeur escorts her to a secluded luxury estate on the coast. Hidden on a forested backroad behind iron gates, the property features two mansions, an expansive garden and a central pool. Emily Proudman gazes at her surroundings in delighted disbelief.

The author, Anna Downes, is originally from the UK and now living in Australia. In a coda to the book, she describes her own journey from struggling London actor to the debut author of a major international book release. After leaving both the UK and her acting aspirations, she moved to Australia with her husband and turned to writing as an escape from postpartum anxiety.

In episode 5 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Anna describes how even as her anxiety began to cripple her, she convinced herself she was fine. Finally, as things worsened, a friend mentioned that she gone through something similar. She “was literally the only person who said to me, ‘I’m struggling, and this is what I did.'”

Anna sought professional help, but she also took up a new creative pursuit. After leaving her acting career and becoming a mother of two children under two, part of her struggle was the feeling of her “identity crashing”.

She describes how she began writing for fun, for herself, and three years later, is celebrating the release of her debut novel. In listening to Anna, it’s clear that she channelled all of herself, her fears and passions, into her writing.

“The book is hard to put in genre pigeon hole, because part of it is thriller/horror, but Emily – she thinks she’s in a romcom,” she says. Anna is a fan of Psycho just as much as she is Mystic Pizza.

You can read my read my review of The Safe Place at Newtown Review of Books, and listen to episode 5, our interview with Anna Downes.

 

Ep 4: ‘Not hiding my scars anymore’

‘I didn’t die because my parents bribed the surgeon that was supposed to operate on me not to operate on me … He had a nickname of The Butcher.’

In episode 3 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to author and writing teacher Lee Kofman about her creative non-fiction book Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become.

James and Ashley Stay at Home episode 3

From her website: ‘By the time she was eleven and living in the Soviet Union, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in a bus accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. But it wasn’t until she moved to Israel and later to Australia that she came to think these markings weren’t badges of honour to flaunt but were, in fact, imperfections that needed to be hidden away.’

Conservatively speaking, I could discuss this book with Lee for nine straight hours, but James and I managed to keep our chat to 45 minutes.

We discuss how her scars affected her growing up, stories from the many interviews with people with diverse bodies that feature in the book, and how her self-perception has shifted through the process of writing and promoting the book.

Lee is the author of five books, including Imperfect, a blend of memoir and cultural critique, and the memoir The Dangerous Bride. She is co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, an anthology of personal essays. Imperfect was shortlisted for the 2019 Nib Literary Award.

You can listen on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or via the website or any podcast app.

 

Invite the author to your book club!

In a book club? I love talking to readers, and I’m happy to make a virtual appearance at any book club meeting.

We can do this via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever technology suits you. If you’re in Sydney, I may even be able to make an in-person visit. Contact me about booking a free online author event for your book club, bookstore or library group.

You can also use the questions here as a discussion guide, or download a PDF version.

As a bonus, you can jazz up your book club event with these cocktail pairings, created especially for the book!

How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt blue banner

1. In the opening pages of How to Be Australian, we step into a minus 40 winter day in Winnipeg. How does this set up Ashley’s experiences throughout the book?

2. Ashley and Steve arrive in Australia on a one-year visa, and Ashley expects this will be her only opportunity to live abroad with Steve. How does this expectation shape her first year in Australia?

3. On her arrival in Australia, Ashley notes, ‘I had the dizzying sensation that this was the start of my adult life.’ But by the time she and Steve are applying for PR, she says, ‘I’d transitioned from onset adulthood into what was, apparently, the rest of my life.’ How is the theme of adulthood explored throughout the book?

4. Ashley describes herself as ‘generations dislocated’ and without a homeland. The theme of dislocation and belonging is raised throughout the book, not only for Ashley, but among diasporan Armenians and for her classmate Noelle and Kamilaroi performer Matty Shields. What insights about home does Ashley’s journey offer?

5. Ashley summaries John O’Grady’s advice from They’re a Weird Mob: ‘Return all shouts. Don’t be a bludger. Don’t lose your temper when your workmates ridicule you – and if they’re Aussies, they will. If someone does you a favour, return it, but don’t overdo generosity. Abuse your friends to their face, but not in private.’ Do you agree with this advice? What would you add?

6. Ashley struggles with the concepts of tall poppy syndrome and cultural cringe. What does she conclude about them?

7. ‘I felt most at home in myself when I was travelling. Perhaps because as a traveller, there was no expectation of feeling at home.’ How does Ashley’s relationship with travel affect other aspects of her life?

8. Although Ashley suffered bouts of depression in Winnipeg, she arrives in Sydney believing that, for her, ‘“Australia” was practically a synonym for happiness.’ Her anxiety builds up gradually. When she does take steps to address it, her recovery is likewise gradual. Why do you think it took so long for her to recognise her mental health struggles?

9. ‘I was afraid. I was inadequate. I was failing at something, even if I couldn’t say precisely what.’ How is Ashley’s anxiety influenced by her perspectives on her marriage, career, and sense of home?

10. Ashley and Steve have very different worldviews. Whose did you relate to more?

11. ‘Life, I’d come to learn, was never resolved. My marriage, my mental health, and my identity were ongoing processes, not moments frozen in time.’ How does this insight apply to your own life?

12. Other than a visit to South Australia, what aspects of Australiana did you feel were missing from the book?

13. ‘As Canada’s Commonwealth sibling, Australia felt distinct yet familiar.’ What assumptions did you have about Canada before reading this book? How were they challenged or upheld?

14. What questions would you expect to be on the Australian citizenship test? What questions would you want to include?