Success story – Curlews on Vulture Street

‘Plenty is going on between humans and wildlife. This intersection of realms is where I have been dwelling now for several decades; the strange, exhilarating place where people and nature mix, often uneasily, trying to understand what the heck is going on.’
– from the introduction to Curlews on Vulture Street

Curlews on Vulture Street: Cities, Birds, People and Me is the newest book from urban ecologist Darryl Jones. Darryl has published a number of popular science books on his area of expertise, Australian birds, including The Birds at My Table, and most recently, A Clouded Leopard in the Middle of the Road.

But Curlews on Vulture Street is special. And not only because I played a tiny part in its creation.

Curlews blends Darryl’s highly engaging writing about birds with a splash of memoir, told with his wry humour and natural storytelling talent.

If Bill Bryson were an urban ecologist, this would be his masterpiece.

The book traces Darryl’s interest in birds from his childhood in rural New South Wales, growing up near Wagga Wagga, to his first lessons in ecology as a university student-researcher, and then through his highly successful and fascinating career.

When Darryl began his university studies, there was still a clear divide between ‘the natural world’ and urban centres. If you wanted to study anything to do with nature, you could only do so by going out into nature. Whatever animals and other creatures might be doing in the city, no one knew, and no one wanted to know.

Darryl was one of the ecologists at the forefront of a new paradigm, asking questions about how birds live in cities, and why? How can we live better with them? And, you know, maybe not get swooped so much?

The answers he discovers are fascinating – and his methods for getting there are often quite humorous, like the time he tried to build a crow trap. No surprise, the crows very nearly outsmarted him.

Through the book, he explores the behaviour of magpies, lorikeets, cockatoos blackbirds, mousebirds, peaceful doves, curlews, ibises, and more.

And if you’re wondering what a curlew is, it’s this ‘strange, lanky, awkward-looking’ creature, as Darryl describes. They all have they that unensettingly bug-eyed stare; it’s their thing.

I discovered Darryl’s books a few years ago, when what we thought were two rainbow lorikeets were visiting our apartment in Camperdown. It turned out to be a whole flock.

We know this because one day they held their annual conference on our balcony. We had 16 lorikeets squabbling at the top of their surprisingly powerful lungs. I suspect I suffered permanent hearing damage.

Because I knew Darryl was a talented writer, I was surprised when he signed up for a six-week memoir course I ran at the start of 2020. Like all good writers, he was pushing himself to further develop his skills – he wanted to learn techniques particular to memoir, and push his writing into new territory. It was a delight working with Darryl, and when the course ended, we continued on into a mentorship that lasted throughout the early draft of Curlews.

He very kindly mentioned me in his acknowledgements, in this overly generous statement:

‘No one has had a bigger influence on this book than Ashley Kalagian Blunt. At a crucial early stage I was lucky enough to participate in a memoir workshop run by Ashley for Mirrabooka Writers. She provided an extraordinary level of personal feedback as well as invaluable advice and encouragement. She is an exceptional writer and teacher as well as a generous and constructive critic. … When the workshop concluded, I plucked up the courage to ask Ashley if she would act as a style editor for a book I was trying to write. If any of this works, it is largely due to Ashley’s incisive, critical yet gentle touch (and ‘appropriate’ sense of humour). Ashley, I apologise deeply, pointedly and embarrassingly for the overabundance of adverbs that remain. You tried your best.’

(For the record, I don’t believe ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ as Stephen King has famously said. See? I used one right there. But I do think they’re best used in moderation. Darryl really did try!)

Curlews on Vulture Street is in stores now. It’s a great read for anyone interested in Australian birds (and who isn’t interested in them? They’re so bizarre!) and fauna, but also for anyone who enjoys smart humour and great storytelling.

~

If you’re interested in nonfiction writing, whether that’s essays or book-length work, including memoir, check out my upcoming online course with Writing NSW.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>

An onlooker at the Carnival of Snackery

‘When is the last time an actual human interaction made you laugh more than
a meme did?’
– Samantha Irby

If I hadn’t been immersed in the Sedarian worldview, I probably wouldn’t have made the offhand joke about ghosts to the ferry attendant. I definitely wouldn’t have caught that his intention, when he asked me about my beliefs regarding first ghosts, then angels, was to propound his own theories on the latter. And that would have meant not learning about how his personal angel recently saved him $18 at the car wash.

The Sedarian worldview is Jack Gilbert’s ‘A Brief for the Defense’, except the poor women laughing together at the fountain ‘between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future’ transform into a man encountering a rodent with a Cheeto in its mouth at Times Square. Somebody in the village is still very sick, and people are still dying in the Syrian civil war. We can’t weep all the time, so thank goodness for mice and ‘crumbled ham dummy’ and the pancake restaurant on Cox Road in Gastonia, North Carolina, that answers the phone with ‘IHOP on Cox!’

In the Sedarian worldview, everyone has the potential to share absurd and shocking revelations, if only we’re willing to listen and ask questions. Those questions can’t be how are you, how was your flight, how’s your day. Forget tedious small talk and jump straight in with ‘What’s your take on sausage?’

Everyone also has the potential to be an inconsiderate chatterbox holding up the queue at the airport Starbucks when you’re rushing to catch a connecting flight. And those people are never sharing their take on sausage, but droning on uselessly. Be compelling or get out of the way.

A Carnival of Snackery is the second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries, covering 2003 to 2020. Volume one begins in 1977, its 20-year-old author penniless and scrabbling for work in his North Carolina hometown, a man with artistic ambitions but only vague plans to realise them. It takes him years to get to art school in Chicago, then to scrounge enough cash to move to New York. By the end, he’s published to wide acclaim, winning major awards, and buying property in France. As a narrative arc, it doesn’t leave anywhere for him to go in volume two, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’

This could be off-putting to those who haven’t read the ‘David Copperfield Sedaris’ installment or his essays on growing up gay in the American South. Juxtaposed with the jet-setting, however, is his hobby of picking up roadside trash attired like a homeless man. That, and his love for his readers, his willingness to stay at book signings until midnight to ensure he engages with everyone. Billy Collins says writing is about the love of strangers, and this is at the core of Sedaris’s work.

What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’ His youngest sister grapples with mental illness and commits suicide. His cantankerous father disapproves of him and crows about Trump. There’s blood in his urine, so a doctor sticks a camera up his penis. Life comes for you, even when you’re number one on the bestseller lists.

If starved, a humpback cricket will chew off its own legs, even though they don’t regenerate. ‘So it eats its legs, and, unable to escape danger, it promptly gets eaten itself.’ Which, Sedaris comments, seems like something he would do. What propels Snackery beyond cleverly crafted introspection and observation is all those conversations with readers and strangers. We get to contemplate the world from Sedaris’s experience and theirs. He tells a friend about someone who, back in the day, chose to defecate into his hand rather than end a call on a corded phone, and she responds, ‘Haven’t you ever shit in your hand?’ This would be the end of it for most authors, but Sedaris uses his book signing to conduct a survey on the matter, leaving us in terror of ever shaking hands again.

But then. After a hearing impaired cashier charges him 10 pence for a bag he doesn’t want, he riffs, ‘When we tell the disabled they can do anything they want in this world, don’t we mean … something, well, that can be accomplished at home?’ It’s the kind of ableist comment that would get him cancelled on social media, if he used it. And I get it, I get jokes, the humour sits in the disparity between the triviality of being charged a tiny sum for an unwanted item and the sweeping generalisation that millions of individuals should stay out of abled-bodied people’s way. Being disabled myself, it jars. Maybe that’s quibbling.

Commenting on the term Latinx, Sedaris says he’s not in favour of rebranding, conceptually. If he doesn’t want be called queer, fine, noted. This comes from the volume’s closing passage, which builds to a joke about forgiving historical figures for being a product of their time and suggests, instead, replacing statues in order to give someone new the chance ‘to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle’, someone like Sedaris himself. This is genuinely funny, and the Latinx commentary isn’t needed to get there. That said, Sedaris isn’t railing against the term, just pointing out that he doesn’t understand the need for it, possibly because he ‘turned old’ – 64 – and is feeling the change in his lack of understanding.

In blood spatter analysis, forensic experts look for voids, places where one would expect to see blood but none is present. Likewise in edited diaries, the question is omnipresent – if you put this in, what did you leave out? Along with approximately 300 mentions of mice, Sedaris excised many of the offensive jokes he collects, lamenting our current culture of touchiness. Still, none of the jokes included in Snackery are about gay men. Most are of the misogynist ha-ha-my-wife-is-terrible variety, though occasionally husbands get bashed for a laugh as well. These aren’t Sedaris’s jokes, but ones shared with him. I’d rather read about a mouse with a Cheeto.

Gay men come up a lot of course, often when Sedaris comments on the news. They’re targeted in shootings, attacked with boiling water, conflated with paedophiles. When Sedaris and his partner discuss their experiences of sexual assault, he reveals he was raped three times, by different men. ‘Rape is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all – didn’t know I had the right to.’ It’s a poignant moment, and still he manages humour, noting that at the time, going to the police would have been ‘like complaining about the blisters the axe brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ’.

Maybe it’s like that with humour. Share enough jokes and you’re bound to offend someone, especially these days. Like all those statues, Sedaris is a product of a time that is slipping into history. All the while, he encourages us to be more curious about the people around us, to open ourselves up to each other even though it’s awkward and we’ll probably misstep and encounter people who dislike us or are arbitrarily cruel.

Babies are still starving someplace, but elsewhere there’s a woman who will tell us about her volunteer work with monkeys, if only we’re willing to ask.

~

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Interested in developing your creative non-fiction skills? Join me for a six-week online course, accessible from anywhere in the world. Full details here >>

But how does your HUSBAND feel about your memoir?!

When I started writing, one major thing I had absolutely no idea about was narrative structure. I thought I just had to write a good story – and that’s true, but it was only later that I discovered how essential structure is to good stories.

It took me an embarrassing number of years to even realise this, and then I had to learn how to actually do it. That took a less embarrassing number of years.

In fact, once I started microplotting, scaffolding scenes and applying story structure to my writing, that’s when I suddenly started getting interest from publishers.

That’s why I was so excited to delve into these aspects of writing with the fabulous Michelle Barraclough on the Writers Book Club podcast.

I loved her concept from her very first episode: “It’s a no-holds-barred insight into an author’s writing craft and process, applied to a real-life novel.”

Or in this case, memoir.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

In Writers Book Club episode 11, I walk through the process behind writing my memoir How to Be Australian, including how to shape your voice on the page, how I structured the memoir to best reflect the narrative and character arc, how I plot scenes and specifically focuses on scene turns, the role of truth in memoir, and the lessons from fiction writing that help with writing memoir.

Michelle asks great questions, including why I decided to write a memoir in the first place, what that process looked like, when I decided on the themes.

We also talk about what lessons I took from fiction, how to include conflict and stakes in memoir, and the pesky concept of “truth”.

I give some readings How to Be Australian to illustrate my approach to some of these topics.

Caramel Slice on How to Be Australian

Plus we talk about the eternal question – what does my husband feel about my memoir?! (He’s the other major character.)

Michelle is a writer whose first novel, As I Am, a contemporary drama, was Highly Commended in the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and earned her a 12-month mentorship at Hachette. She’s also a lot of fun.

And if you’re interested in starting a memoir, or would like to get some more insights into the process now that you’ve delved in, you’re in luck! I’ve got an upcoming online workshop just for you.

Tips and Tricks to Writing Your Memoir
Tuesday 22 February 2022, 6:15-7:30 pm AEDT
Online via Zoom
Tix $9-14

So you’re thinking of writing a memoir and you’re not sure how to start. Or you’ve already started and you’re not sure how to keep going.

Writing a memoir can be a therapeutic process. But it can also be challenging, whether you’re doing it to better understand yourself and the events of your life, or with the aim of publication.

In this workshop from published author Ashley Kalagian Blunt, you’ll learn tips and tricks to make the process easier and rewarding.

This is a workshop for novice writers in the beginning stages of writing a memoir or thinking about starting one. Get your ticket here >>