Ep 63 How not to write a memoir with author Bronwyn Birdsall

After contracting glandular fever as a child (aka mono), Bronwyn Birdsall ended up with such bad chronic fatigue, she missed six months of school. This was at a time when there was still significant stigma surrounding the illness.

Bronwyn grew up in Sydney. At age 24, she moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and worked as an English teacher. The four years she spent there provided the inspiration for her first novel, Time and Tide in Sarajevo. Her writing centres around contemporary life and finding meaning in the everyday. She writes from her home on Bundjalung Country, in Northern New South Wales.

In episode 63 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast about writing, creativity and health, Bronwyn joins us to discuss her life after chronic fatigue syndrome and the writing of Time and Tide in Sarajevo, which started not as a novel, but as a memoir.

Bronwyn worked on the memoir for years before one day suddenly finding herself writing fiction. he describes how the story opened up from there.

We discuss living with a mindset of rest and recovery, moving overseas and reinventing yourself, and the question at the heart of the book – how do we find hope in a world that feels beyond repair?

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– Sarah Sentilles
– Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
– Indelible City by Louisa Lim
– The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman
– Songs of a Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti
– A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan
– The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis 
– The Whispering by Veronica Lando 

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 60 How to write a prize-winning novel with James McKenzie Watson, author of Denizen

When he was 22 years old, James McKenzie Watson began to experience the first symptoms of what doctors suspected was Guillain–Barré syndrome. To test for this, they gave him a spinal tap (not the rock and roll kind). After the procedure he had to lie on his back for two hours. In that time, he typed out his initial plan for what would become his prize-winning novel, Denizen.

James McKenzie Watson writes fiction with a focus on health and rural Australia. His novel Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. Denizen also received a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship and a 2021 KSP Residential Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Meanjin and the Newtown Review of Books.

James was eventually diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the relapsing form of Guillain–Barré syndrome, and lives with the condition today. Born in Coonabarabran and a past resident of Sydney, he now works as a nurse in regional New South Wales.

I realised early on that the idea I felt very strongly about was probably not marketable or readable in the form it was in. I do believe passionately about the issues that I’m addressing … but I have to have more consideration for the reader.

In episode 60 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, James opens up about the hurt and mentally unwell 22-year-old he was when he started the novel, and the 29-year-old author he’s become.

He also tells us about the process of writing the novel, how it developed over a series of drafts and through feedback from other emerging writers, and why he decided to enter it into the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. James shares his number one tip for aspiring writers.

I feel very lucky to have a physical, tangible thing that people who know me can read and know that I am okay in a way that I’m sure a lot of them were worried I never would be, when I was a teenager.

He also shares what his mum thinks about the book!

Plus, are James and Ashley married?! Or did they just not think through their podcast name? Find out in episode 60, along with the alternative (and even worse!) name they ultimately rejected.

Join us for the the launch of Denizen!
Thursday 28 July, 6:00pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe
Tickets $0-12

A gothic thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. Join me for an in-conversation to launch one of the best books of the year! Get your ticket here >>

You can find all of James’s upcoming events on his website.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– David Vann (of course);
– Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor;
The Liars by Petronella McGovern (from ep 12), out in September 2022;
– The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman (from ep 4);
– RWR McDonald (from ep 32);
– Lyn Yeowart (from ep 39)

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 58 When your body betrays you with author Rae Cairns

After a broken finger brought on a debilitating illness, author Rae Cairns lost two years as her doctors searched for the right treatment. A bad reaction to drugs caused her hair to fall out. When her health had stabilised enough for her to return to writing, she lost her literary agent.

Undeterred, Rae self-published her first novel. After being shortlisted for a major award, she had a new agent and a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins with a few weeks.

In episode 58, Rae talks to James and Ashley about living with chronic invisible illness, coping with brain fog, and cultivating the resilience to share a story that, in her words, she just had to tell.

Rae Cairns’s debut novel, The Good Mother, was shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for Best Debut Crime Fiction, and was published by HarperCollins in 2022. Her second novel will be out in 2023. Rae lives in Sydney.

Rae’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis came out of the blue. ‘My body had been my strength, and all of a sudden it was betraying me.’ Later she learned that at least one other person in her family had the condition, but when she first began experiencing the onset of symptoms, they came as a shock.

To return to novel writing and go on to achieve the huge success she’s had with The Good Mother, Rae has had to learn how to manage her symptoms, including the brain fog that still causes her to lose entire days and struggle to recall even the simplest words.

She wrote the first draft of The Good Mother by hand – ‘now, with joint issues, that’s not possible.’

‘I had to get a new relationship with everything in my life,’ she says, including her husband, her children, and her writing.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Missing Among Us by Erin Stewart (ep 54);
Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell;
Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie;
Autumn by Ali Smith;
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet;
Negative Space by BR Yeager;
My Name Is Revenge by Ashley Kalagian Blunt;
Goat Mountain by David Vann;
It by Stephen King

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 54 Living with ambiguous loss, with author Erin Stewart

A lot of true crime cases start the same way – someone didn’t show up at work, or didn’t come home on time. Their family or friends go to the police to report them missing, but the police tell them they have to wait, or don’t act on the information, or don’t believe the family members.

Listening to true crime podcasts, I often find this baffling. If the police had acted sooner, maybe the person could have been found alive, or found at all. But learning about missing persons through the context of one case belies the bigger issue.

In Australia alone 38,000 people are reported missing across the country each year – more than 100 a day.

In her debut nonfiction work, The Missing Among Us, author Erin Stewart explores the issue of missing persons from a variety of perspectives, including the lack of police resources that leave families leading their own searches, the Stolen Generations, and cults.

Erin is a Canberra-based freelance writer who has written for a range of Australian and international publications including Meanjin, Voiceworks, ABC Online, SBS Online, Daily Life, Overland, and many others. She has been an opinion columnist for The Age and made regular appearances on ABC Sydney Mornings to talk about books and the arts. An earlier version of her book was shortlisted for the Portobello Books Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the UK.

And what drew Erin to the topic of missing persons is just as fascinating.

In episode 54 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Erin discusses how the ambiguity of living with chronic illness drove her interest in missing persons. ‘The Missing Among Us’ is ‘about finding a space for those conversations about ambiguous circumstances in order to understand the complex issue of missing persons.’ She also describes her experiences with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the research behind her book.

I also share the story of Michael Kalagian, the man who has haunted me for years.

Michael may have been essential to my family history, possibly as the person who brought my great grandparents over to Canada in 1921. He definitely lived in St Catharines; he’s pictured here with my great grandfather’s older siblings.

But when I interviewed the St Catharines Armenian community, no one could remember him. Supposedly born in 1881, he died in 1943, though no one could tell me how. He didn’t even have a gravestone until 1960, when my grandparents buried their infant son over Michael’s coffin and provided a shared stone.

Michael was likely my great grandfather’s uncle. He may have had no wife and children, or he may have had an entire family that was lost during the genocide while he worked in Canada.

No one could tell me anything about him. How completely forgotten Michael was, how little his existence mattered to anyone still living – that’s what haunts me. He’s missing, but in a different way.

The Missing Among Us made me think about missing persons – and living with the ambiguity of chronic illness – in all kinds of new ways, and I was delighted to speak to Erin about it.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Myth of Closure by Pauline Boss
Brave New Humans by Sarah Dingle
– ‘What if there’s no such thing as closure‘ by Meg Bernhard, New York Times
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Missing Richard Simmons podcast

Listen to episode 54 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 53 Happiness in a turbulent world with award-winning author Fiona Robertson

Fiona Robertson lived with migraines for years, writing short stories as a creative pursuit. Now she’s free from migraines and the award-winning author of the debut short story collection, If You’re Happy. Her work explores the lives of lonely people seeking happiness in a turbulent world.

In episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Fiona discusses the common threads that bind her stories, why they’re her chosen form, and how living with unpredictable chronic illness impacted her life and creative work.

Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her collection of stories, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Fiona lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

Plus, Fiona and I talk about our fellowships at KSP Writers Centre in 2017, and how the benefits of such opportunities extend far beyond writing time.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– Louise Allan
The Keepers by Al Campbell, plus her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘The disappointing question I most often got after writing a book
Long Road to Dry River by Jen Severn
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
– David Vann
Denizen by James McKenzie Watson, out 19 July 2022!

Listen to episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

*

Just announced! I’m teaching a one-day in-person memoir workshop for Writing NSW on Saturday 7 May. If you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or hoping to start one, this is everything you need to know. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>

The top 10 most popular episodes of James and Ashley Stay at Home

James and Ashley Stay at Home, the podcast I co-host with author James McKenzie Watson, is about to hit 50 episodes.

We’ve been exploring writing, creativity and health since way back in June 2020, and we’ve talked to an amazing variety of guests. If you live with chronic illness or have a writing or creative practice, we’re bringing you guests that we hope you’ll love and learn from, as we have.

To celebrate our (almost!) 50 eps, here are our all-time top 10 most popular episodes.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast yumiko kadota

10. Burning out with Yumiko Kadota, author of Emotional Female (ep 28)
Dr Kadota shares shares the devastating effects of burnout, the difficulties women of colour face in the public health system, and the possible future directions of chronic fatigue research. Her revealing memoir is a bestseller so it’s no surprise this ep is so popular.

Author Ruhi Lee on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

9. Recovering from childhood with Ruhi Lee, author of Good Indian Daughter (ep 30)
Ruhi Lee (who recently revealed her real name, Sneha Lees) discusses what it means to be a girl in a South Asian family, the notion of unconditional parental love, and how one generation avoids making the same mistakes as the last. Her memoir is raw and real, and full of unexpected laughs.

Woman in art studio

8. The healing power of creativity with Karin Foxwell, art therapist (ep 9)
In this fascinating interview, Karin describes the profound 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. She also describes a ‘standard’ art therapy session, discusses the therapeutic power of writing, and explains why she thinks everyone should engage in some kind of art therapy.

This is an incredibly heartening episode, and I recommend it every time I teach about creativity.

Man and woman in Australian woods

7. Living with chronic illness: James and Ashley talk health (ep 10)
James and I discuss our own illnesses, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) respectively. We explain these conditions, discuss how they affect day to day life, and explore how illness has impacted our senses of self.

6. Where’s my Man Booker? James and Ashley share writing tips (ep 6)
It turns out we should all listen when James discusses writing tips, since he went on to witn the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize! He knows what he’s doing.

Author Anna Downes headshot and book covers

5. The year that almost killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place (ep 5)
Anna discusses the role motherhood and post-natal anxiety played in the development of her internationally bestselling debut The Safe Place, and how sacrificing one creative career helped pave the way for success in another. Anna’s second book, The Shadow House, is now in bookstores – and I’ll be in conversation with her about it for an online library event on Thursday 3 February. Join us!

Kate Mildenhall author headshot cover

4. Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall, author of The Mother Fault (ep 13)
Kate generously discusses the craft of novel writing, the challenges of penning a second book, and the creative anxieties that plague creatives. This is another episode I recommend in every one of my creativity workshops.

3. Introduction episode! (ep 1)
If you’re new to James and Ashley Stay at Home, this is the place to start. (We hadn’t figured out how to write titles back then!)

michelle-tom-james-ashley-stay-home-podcast

2. How to survive an earthquake with Michelle Tom, author of Ten Thousand Aftershocks (ep 38)
We discuss the captivating and highly original structure of Michelle’s memoir, the strange parallels between childhood trauma and earthquakes, and the transformative power of owning your narrative. This was our most popular episode of 2021.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

1. Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian (ep 16)
Ada Palmer is an historian, composer and author of the Terra Ignota sci-fi/fantasy book series. She’s also an incredible speaker who lives with invisible illness. Here, she discusses how she’s managed to achieve her astonishing body of work while living with chronic pain, and the relationship between identity and disability. Ada offers valuable advice to all creatives who experience illness, so it’s no wonder it our most popular episode yet.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Listen to  all episodes of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

My only resolution for 2022

Happy New Year! This morning I woke up early and went for a swim, and while the ocean waves slapped me in the face, I resolved to not complain about anything.

Couple standing on the beach, holding takeaway coffees

To be clear, that was my resolution for the day, ie January 1. There’s no way I’m going all year without complaining. Have you seen the weather forecast?

Sydney fireworks over harbour bridge

On New Year’s Eve, I watched the 9pm fireworks and pretended they were the midnight fireworks (this is easy if you ignore all the small children running round), and thought about the year past and the year ahead and the 21,000 covid cases reported in NSW that day.

Since I was diagnosed with CFS, I’ve mostly given up making resolutions. Last year I planned to use the word absquatulate more (more than never) and then promptly forgot about it. I still like this plan, but it’s tough to leave abruptly when I no longer go anywhere thanks to covid.

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt in Santa hat at the beach, holding a pomeranian in a santa outfit

In 2020 I made some earnest resolutions, which was a real joke. And in 2019 I made probably the best set of resolutions of my life.

The fatigue improved significantly in 2021, much more than in 2020. It’s still a major factor in my life though, and an unpredictable one. I spent most of Christmas Day so unwell that I could barely sit up. Trying to eat was miserable.

From left: me, Petronella McGovern, RWR McDonald, Anna Downes, Sarah Bailey, Dani Vee & Laura Elizabeth Woollett

On the other hand, at the start of December I attended the Bad Sydney Crime Writers Festival. I had a tremendous time with some of Australia’s most talented crime authors, and actually stayed awake until midnight for the first time since I got sick.

So, progress.

Between the CFS and covid (and my concerns about the possible combination of those two conditions for me personally), I think the only reasonable resolution I can make is to accept that the year ahead will be as capricious and unforeseeable as the previous five.

The motto of 2022: subject to change.

That said, I do have some fun and (thankfully!) online events coming up. In January, I’m teaching two more workshops with Laneway Learning.

Make 2022 the Year You Write Your Book
Monday 10 January 2022, 7:45-9pm AEDT

The Joy of Creative Writing
Monday 31 January 2022, 7:45-9pm AEDT

Both workshops are on Zoom, open to everyone, and are only $14 (or $9 if you get an early bird ticket)!

Author Anna Downes headshot and book covers

And in February, I’m doing a free online talk with author Anna Downes on Thursday 3 Feb, 11am AEDT, about her new novel, The Shadow House. (If you don’t know Anna, listen to episode 5 of James and Ashley Stay at Home to hear about her internationally acclaimed debut novel, The Safe Place.) RSVP here >>

So come and join me online sometime. I’d love to see you! You can ask me how 2022 is going.

Sandy pomeranian smiles with a double rainbow over the ocean in the background

Wishing you a year of double rainbows.
xo

Ep 41 When you get it this young, you have it forever with author and editor Heather Taylor Johnson

When she was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at age 25, one of the many things it meant for Heather was that she’d have to quit skydiving – though not until she’d injured herself trying to hold on the person she was before.

Heather Taylor Johnson is a writer and editor. Born in Minnesota and now living in South Australia, she has written novels and poetry collections, and is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. Her writing has been published in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Westerly, Griffith Review, Island and TEXT. She lives with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.

In episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, she discusses how more than two decades of living with chronic illness have inspired her writing and led to the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Illness and Chronic Pain.

She also shares Van Gogh’s misdiagnosis with her condition, describes how a year of studying art has changed her writing process, and tells us about her latest book, Rhymes with Hyenas

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability by Jennifer Bartlett (ed)
Prosopagnosia by Sonia Hernandez
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

Listen to episode 41 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

And the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize goes to …

Huge congratulations are due to my podcast co-host, writers’ group member and fellow health-challenged friend, James McKenzie Watson, who has won the won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize for his manuscript Denizen.

Launched in 2017, the Penguin Literary Prize was established to find, nurture and develop new Australian authors of literary fiction.

I’ve read a draft of Denzien and loved it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world next year. In the meantime, I thought I’d ask James to introduce the book. And then while I was at it, I asked a bunch of other questions.

Ashley: What is Denizen about?
James: Denizen is an Australian gothic/literary thriller that explores rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. In it, a volatile eight-year-old in Western NSW struggles to subdue the chaos in his head, unaware of how profoundly his actions will one day affect his own fatherhood.

A: When did you start writing it? Do you remember the day you started?
J: Like many of my early manuscripts, Denizen had its origins in a home movie. As an adolescent, one of my creative outlets was short (and far too long) film – a lot of which were feature-length epics whose production and post-production scales go a long way to explaining why my year ten attendance rate was 40 per cent. My earliest ideas for Denizen were that it would be based loosely on a 90-minute film I made when I was 15, called The Creek.

In 2015, when I was 23, I woke up one day to find that I couldn’t feel my feet. Soon after, I was in Royal North Shore Hospital being treated for Guillain Barre Syndrome, a progressive neuropathy that causes rapid paralysis. Part of the work up to diagnose GBS is a lumbar puncture, after which I had to lay flat on my back for two hours. I distinctly remember being rolled onto my back, staring at the ceiling and thinking, “well, now seems as good a time as any to start planning this novel.” I spent the next two hours working it through in my head until I had a clear idea of what the book I would look like. I started the first draft almost as soon as I was discharged from hospital.

In the five years and six drafts since then, Denizen has evolved from being a recognisable adaptation of The Creek into something very different. That said, evidence of its origins remains, particularly in the middle act.

A: What was the most difficult part of writing Denizen?
J: I struggled a lot with characterisation, which I suppose is an expected challenge when writing from the point of view of a deeply flawed protagonist. It took a lot of work to make Parker, the main character and narrator, someone readers could empathise with. In the end, realised it was more important to make him relatable than likable, and so I focused on that.

A: One year into James and Ashley Stay at Home, what’s the best episode for listeners to start with?
J: I’m very biased, but whenever anyone asks me this question, I tell them episode 23. In it, Ashley and I interviewed David Vann, one of my all-time favourite authors and literary heroes. The conversation was everything I’d hoped it would be – a raw and fascinating exploration of his motivations and process, peppered with his insights into literature, philosophy and politics.

That said, there are probably more accessible entry points into our rapidly growing catalogue. Episode 17 (The Best Writing Tips from 2020) showcases just some of the many wonderful writers we’ve spoken to and is also a miniature masterclass in the writing craft. It’s hard to pick out specific interviews from all the amazing conversations we’ve had, but episode 9 (Karen Foxwell), episode 14 (Kate Mildenhall), episode 14 (Elizabeth Tan), episode 16 (Ada Palmer), and episode 18 (Nardi Simpson) would all be good places to start. If you prefer your health and writing podcasts a bit more health heavy, you could do worse than to start with episode 25 (in which Ashley and I discuss our health). It was a hard one to record and listen to, but I was blown away by the wonderful response it received.

A: What’s your favourite Australian animal?
J: The Australian magpie. They’re only bastards if they’re nesting and you’re in their space, and even then, they’re just protecting their babies. They’re gorgeous. They have such a beautiful song. Have you ever seen a magpie sun itself? They lie on their bellies with their wings outstretched – it’s hysterical. And they play like dogs do! They lie on their backs and wrestle with each other. Young magpies look so ridiculous and adorable with their fluffy grey baby feathers, and their weird, spherical bodies. They’re incredibly clever and resourceful. They’re a lot more than just that vicious, swooping bird that takes people’s eyes out. I’d probably swoop at you if you rode a bike through my house too.

You can follow James on Twitter and Instagram, and listen to James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app.