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 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.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

The latest great reads

A while ago, I started a list of great reads. I’m adding new books as I discover them, as well as books I read years ago and loved.

The list reveals that I’m an eclectic reader, flitting between fiction and non-fiction, literary works and lighter stories. I read different genres for different reasons. I don’t hold all books to the same standard. I might recommend one book because it’s incredibly entertaining, another because the writing is sublime, and another for the fascinating perspectives it explores.

Here are the latest additions.

Author Tamim Ansary cover
I read this book the first time for a clearer sense of world history and today’s geopolitics. But it’s one of the rare books I re-read, and that’s because of Ansary’s wonderful writing, his skill at weaving small details into the broad scope of historical events. At one point, he describes a cannon built for the Ottoman army that could fire a 1200-pound granite stone a mile. The cannon was so inaccurate, it missed the entire city it was aimed at, but this, Ansary notes, was beside the point. (Ansary himself reads the audio version, which really picks up on the humour in his anecdotes.)

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Author Toni Jordan cover

I brought this on writing retreat in rural NSW this year, which was a mistake. I kept telling myself “just one more chapter,” until I eventually had to finish the book so I could get back to work.

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Author Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Rarely do I manage to read prize-winning books in the year that they win their prizes; I’m always a little behind the curve. But I’m so glad I read The Erratics a few months after Laveau-Harvie won the Stella Prize, and attended a talk she gave. A fellow Canadian, she is as direct and wry in person as in her writing.

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Author Walter Mason cover

Anyone who talks to me for five minutes knows I’m a huge fan of Walter Mason. His books are wonderful, and he gives excellent talks on a variety of topics. Walter is one of those rare speakers who can take any topic and make it whimsical and entertaining.

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Author Tara Westover

After hearing many people recommend it, what made me seek this book out was Emily Maguire’s reference to it during the fabulous speech she made at my book launch. The connection she made resonated even more after reading Westover’s story.

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

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5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.