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.

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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)

Ep 18: Learning how to learn with Nardi Simpson, author of Song of the Crocodile

“What I would ultimately like, you know, my huge big goal [for the book, is that] people can look back on this and say, ‘You know, there are bits in that – as a non-Indigenous person – I didn’t understand, but that’s okay, and I don’t need to acquire and learn and make meaning for everything in that book,’ because sometimes parts of that book are for Aboriginal people, some parts are for Yuwaalaraay people, and other parts are for Yuwaalaraay senior people.”

Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Our first guest for 2021 is Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson. From North West NSW freshwater plains, Nardi is a founding member of Indigenous folk duo Stiff Gins, and has been performing nationally and internationally for 20 years. Her debut novel, Song of the Crocodile, was a 2018 winner of a black&write! writing fellowship.

Speaking to us from a beach on the Northern Rivers, Nardi delved into the intercultural aspects of the book, and of navigating modern society as an Indigenous person in Australia.

  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Song of the Crocodile is set in the fictional town of Darnmoor, in regional NSW. The story spans four generations of the Billymil family and their effort to sustain their Indigenous culture and community despite the overt and covert racism of the settlers, and the corrosive impact of intergenerational trauma.

Filled with ancestral spirits and Yuwaalaraay language, it presents both an insight into an ancient worldview that understands the healing power of the natural world, and a sharp, affecting critique of Australian society.

Her book reminded me of my own research into my family members’ survival of the Armenian genocide and the process of weaving that research into fiction when writing My Name Is Revenge.

“What happened to those families is basically what happened to my family,” Nardi says. “I wanted to understand that, and I didn’t want to judge it.”

Nardi Simpson on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Going too much into detail on the connections would be a spoiler for both Nardi’s book and my own, but one of the broad strokes points we both explore is how much has been lost due to the violence suffered by both communities – not just lives, livelihoods, homes and land, but also cultural knowledge and worldviews.

It’s a great conversation, and Nardi is a fascinating speaker and well as a powerful writer.

In this episode, we also discuss Bindi by Kirli Saunders, The Road to Woop Woop by Eugen Bacon, and James’s thoughts on reaching the end of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book memoir series.

You can listen to episode 18 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.

2020: The reading year in review

In 2020, I read far more fiction (61%) than non-fiction (39%). This is unusual for me; I generally prefer non-fiction. But it continues a trend that started in 2019. I suspect we all need more escapism these days.

I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors, and aimed to read more authors of colour. That 23% is still a too low, which gives me something to focus on in 2021.

2020 reading breakdown
68% Australian authors
74% women authors
23% authors of colour
39% nonfiction
42% debut authors

This year, a lot of my reading was focused on authors who agreed to be guests on my new podcast, James and Ashley Stay at Home, co-hosted with James McKenzie Watson. Most our guests were writers, and we also interviewed comedian Anthony Jeannot and art therapist Karin Foxwell.

Because we interviewed so many writers, we got a lot of fantastic writing tips. As a special end of year treat, James edited some of the best tips together. Episode 17: The Best Writing Tips of 2020 has useful tips for any writer (and a few good tips for those of us suffering chronic illness as well).

And we’re excited to be planning more great episodes for 2021. We’ll be speaking to Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson about her debut novel Song of the Crocodile, to Josephine Taylor about writing and living with vulvodynia, and lots more!

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

Ep 15: How to write a book in 5 words a day

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

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:

  1. Protect your writing time.
  2. Write about what scares you.
  3. Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
  4. Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.)

You can listen to episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here or on your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!

Ep 14: Moulding stories like clay with Elizabeth Tan

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.

You can listen to episode 14 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

The Bodies History Hides

How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.

Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.

When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Australian author

As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.

There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.

Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.

This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.

The Bodies History Hides >>
Wollongong Writers Festival
Saturday 28 November, 4pm AEDT, online
Tickets $10

Ep 13: Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall

In episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview the legend herself, Kate Mildenhall.

Kate’s debut novel Skylarking was longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017 and the Indie Book Awards 2017. Kate co-hosts The First Time podcast with author Katherine Collette. Her latest novel, The Mother Fault, is out now in Australia and will be published in the UK in 2021.

In 2019, I appeared as part of a First Time podcast panel discussion hosted by Kate, along with authors Cassie Hamer and John Purcell. Now in 2020, we’ve come full circle, and James and I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate.

We were keen to talk about her new book, but in particular I wanted to speak to Kate about creative anxiety (meaning the anxiety inherent to most creative pursuits, not being anxious in creative ways … although that would also make an interesting discussion).

As you can tell from her bio, Kate’s a very successful author. The Mother Fault went into reprint after only eight days, despite the fact that she was launching it during Melbourne’s stage four lockdown.

But here’s why I really wanted to speak to Kate: “I know I come across as a really confident person,” she says. “I am absolutely not, and have many times in my life been absolutely crippled with anxiety.”

On her own podcast, Kate is very open about the challenges around being a writer and a creative. She’s also very aware of her own processes. As we discuss in this episode, she journals her projects, which not only gives her great insight into the project itself, but works to validate the work that she does in terms of reading and thinking and sketching – in other words, all that time when she’s not explicitly writing.

Along with creative anxiety, we discuss procrastination – “It’s getting words on the page that we find a bazillion reasons not to do” – and the unexpected experience of being overwhelmed by niceness: “You get all the nice feedback anyone deserves in their entire life, and you get it in, like, 14 days, and your brain breaks a little bit. You’re just not designed for that.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, Kate is exactly what you need! You can listen to episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.

Ep 12: Magic cures & snake oil with Petronella McGovern

In episode 12 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to bestselling author Petronella McGovern about her new novel The Good Teacher.

Petronella is a domestic thriller author and editor who grew up on a family farm outside Bathurst, NSW. After living in Canberra for a number of years, she moved to Northern Sydney where she now lives with her husband and two children. Petronella’s first novel, Six Minutes, was published in 2019. Her second book, The Good Teacher, came out in September.

Set in a beachside suburb of Sydney, The Good Teacher centres on a young girl undergoing treatment for a rare form of cancer and the school teacher who dedicates herself to helping the girl and her widowed father. It’s a fast-moving, unpredictable plot that urges readers to think about the motivations for compassion, and the desperate measures some people take to improve their health.

While researching, Petronella learned that the original snake oil didn’t contain any actual snake oil.

We discuss alternative healthcare, Petronella’s writing process, her decision to set the book in a fictional suburb, and the challenge of setting the next book in the post-covid world.

Plus, we ask Petronella about her new puppy, Oakley! James and I are big fans of dogs, as we shared on our episode with Kate Leaver, the author of Good Dog. It took Petronella and her family much longer to get a dog than they anticipated – another consequence of the pandemic was a shortage of puppies and dogs.

You can listen to episode 12 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.