Ep 33 Writing yourself back to health with Joanna Nell, GP and bestselling author

Joanna Nell worked as a GP until a 10-pin bowling accident led to her becoming a bestselling author.

Now, she jokes that she works part-time as a GP and full-time as a writer. Her novels feature ‘young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society’s expectations of ageing’.

In episode 33 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Joanna about her focus on on positive ageing. This ep also features what she describes as the most fantastic question she’s ever been asked.

Joanna is a Sydney-based writer, GP and advocate for positive ageing. Her bestselling debut novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village was published in 2018 with rights sold internationally. Her second novel The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker was published in 2019.

Her latest novel is The Great Escape From Woodlands Nursing Home, which James describes as full of warmth, humour and charm.

Want to win a copy of The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing HomeSign up for my monthly author news here and enter the upcoming draw >>

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Providing Good Care at Night for Older People by Diana Kerr and Heather Wilkinson;
The Ripping Tree by Nikki Gemmell;
On Quiet by Nikki Gemmell;
– Beautiful Kate by Newton Thornburg;
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Listen to episode 33 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.

You can find Joanna on her website and across social media, and get The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home from all book retailers – bonus points for supporting local booksellers, who support local authors!

The key to being smarter, healthier and happier

Mark your calendars! This year Australian Reading Hour is Tuesday 14 September. This is a chance to not only make some extra time in your schedule for reading, but also to celebrate reading and all its benefits and joys.

Australia Reads exists to ‘champion reading, promote the many mental health and lifestyle benefits of reading books, and encourage the next generation of avid book readers to significantly increase book reading by all Australians – no matter the format they read.’

As they say,

‘We believe reading is the key to a smarter, healthier, happier nation.’

And I completely agree! I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the books I’ve benefited from reading in my life time: I have a much deeper and broader understanding of the world around me and the complex and unique lives of the people in my community and my country, and around the globe.

Reading also gives me a chance to get off my devices and allow my attention to focus on one thing (it’s basically a type of meditation, in my experience). I generally sleep better on days when I get more reading in.

I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m walking, driving, doing chores and lying down. This keeps me engaged in the world of the book, which stops my mind from ruminating about my own anxieties. (And unlike podcasts, audiobooks don’t have ad breaks!)

And reading has connected to me to all kinds of wonderful people, and brought me joy through memorable stories, beloved characters, and fascinating insights into human life and history.

So there you go – that’s at least one person who’s smarter, healthier and happier. Imagine that to the power of 25 million!

If you’re looking to try new books and authors, check out my Great Reads, where you’ll find write-ups about many of my favourite books.

Or check out James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast that features interviews with a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction authors.

Still not sure? Get in touch and I’ll recommend you a read that I’ve loved!

Ep 32 Writing the story you want to write with author RWR McDonald

When RWR (Rob) McDonald was writing his award-winning debut novel The Nancys, he was working full time in a high-stress job, studying a master’s degree, and was also a dad to two young girls.

Around the time he got a literary agent, he decided to take a step down, career-wise, into a lower-stress role. Which seemed like a great decision for his health and sanity.

But then he ended up with shingles, and a serious chest infection.

Rob is an award-winning author, a Kiwi and Queer dad living in Melbourne with his two daughters and one HarryCat. His debut novel, The Nancys, won Best First Novel in the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards, and was a finalist in the Best Novel category. It was shortlisted for Best First Novel in the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards, and Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Nancy Business is his second novel.

(And you might remember Rob from the fantastic job he did launching How to Be Australian!)

In episode 32 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Rob discusses how pushing himself through parenting, study, high-stress work and creative ambitions was the likely trigger for ongoing health issues.

But, as he reveals, he’s now stepped back from high-stress work and is writing full time.

We also talk about using Nancy Drew as his inspiration for The Nancys, a series very much for adults, and writing his newest novel, Nancy Business.

We get into grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, and my favourite fictional character, Devon (no last name, it’s like Cher).

Want to win a signed copy of Nancy Business? Sign up for my monthly author news here and enter the upcoming draw >>

Books and authors discussed in this episode:
– Harold Robbins (contact Rob for title recommendations);
– The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene;
Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke;
The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart;
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake;
Goat Mountain by David Vann (who we interviewed in episode 23)

Listen to episode 32 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.

You can find Rob on his website or across social media, and get Nancy Business from all book retailers – bonus points for supporting local booksellers, who support local authors!

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.

The relative shape of a human

When I first met up with Monica Michelle via Zoom and asked how she was, she replied “A relative shape of a human.”

I recognised the feeling.

Monica hosts Explicitly Sick, one of the podcasts from the Invisible Not Broken network. She lives with Ehlers Danlos Type 3, fibromyalgia and POTS, and after having to give up a career in photography, she now interviews writers, creators and artists with chronic illness.

Ehlers Danlos syndrome is one of many conditions I hadn’t heard of before I struck by chronic illness myself and discovered a community of millions of people living with a wide range of conditions that prevent them from fully participating in their own lives. Ehlers Danlos is actually a group of related connective tissue disorders that result in pain and fatigue, among a complex variety of other issues.

She started her podcast in part to “help others be kinder and more gentle with each other.”

Even while she’s coping with physical pain, Monica is a delight to speak to. In this conversation, we discuss:
– chronic fatigue syndrome and my experience with insidious onset
– the impact of illness on personal relationships
– marriage counselling
– the challenge of asking for help
– writing about illness
– Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole
– what progress means when you’re sick
the secret to fighting project inertia in creative projects

You can watch the full interview here.

Wishing you your full humanness,
Ashley
xo

Ep 22: Are you equating Vegemite to urine? with Nash, artist and author

Nash is not only the owner of a bad-ass mononym, he’s also an artist and now first-time author, and the latest guest on James and Ashley Stay at Home.

A Sri Lanka-born multi-disciplinary designer and artist, Nash has been based in Melbourne since 2012. His work is both cynical social commentary and an account of his personal experience as an immigrant – the ‘other’ in any society.

His first book is What to Expect When You’re Immigrating, and James and I were delighted to talk to him about the book, his career as an artist, his own experience of immigration, and how Vegemite tastes like rotten chocolate.

  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist
  • Nash author and artist

Nash is a funny guy, which is why we wanted to talk to him about how laughter can positively impact your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing can improve your immune system, relieve pain, make it easier to cope with difficult situations, and improve your mood. This episode is full of laughs, and how they can also help overcome the challenges of talking to others about sensitive topics.

What to Expect When You’re Immigrating is out now, and you can find out more about Nash and his upcoming events on Instagram.

You can listen to episode 22 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

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.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

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)

New Year’s resolutions for 2021

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that there’s no point making plans. I planned all kinds of things last year, including that I would be in Canada over this holiday season to finally visit my family after four years of CFS making the journey impossible.

Instead I’ve spent three damp and soggy holiday weeks in New South Wales, mostly squelching around my neighbourhood, much like I did all year.

At the start of 2020, I sat down in all earnestness and made some actual, genuine resolutions (as opposed to my 2019 resolutions, which included climbing Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie).

I planned to increase my micro swims to tiny swims, and to jump in the pool without hesitation. I was doing great at this in January, but then in February my CFS got much worse, and I wasn’t able to swim. I kept trying to get back to it, but then covid closed the pools, and I got sicker.

Another resolution was to read more, which I’d assumed I’d be able to do as my health continued to improve. But it really didn’t. My CFS recovery tanked in February and March, and again in August and September, and I felt like I spent the rest of the year trying to recover from those months, just to get to where I’d been in January.

I also wanted to develop my listening skills and ask better questions, but between CFS shutting me down and covid shutting everything else down, I gave up on this. If anything, I’m less inclined to ask any questions when I go out these days.

There was one resolution I managed, however: to have a first draft of my new novel by 31 December. I’m happy to tell you I’m already into draft 2, and I’m very excited about it.

Also in 2020 I completed the Lost Hours Project. Every day, I recorded how much time I lost to illness, ie how much time I spent in bed during the day rather than up living my life. I was very optimistic at the start of the year, so I thought it would be an encouraging exercise. I thought the numbers would gradually improve.

I lost 1024 hours last year. If you assume 16-hour waking days, that’s 64 days – more than two months.

But I also realised that this project wasn’t working. I’d wanted to quantify the experience of illness, to find a metric to compare days and months. This isn’t it. In September I lost 89 hours to chronic fatigue and in October I lost 85. But those two months were wildly different experiences. In September (and August) I felt like I was drowning almost every waking minute. In October I was quite functional when I wasn’t in bed, and I was able to do cognitive work without fighting through an ocean of misery.

It turns out it’s not so much the lost hours that matter (though of course they do), but the quality of the hours that are not lost. And that’s much harder to quantify.

I know what you’re thinking – yeah, but look at December. You must be feeling a lot better! Not quite. I was just on holidays. My office closed for the holidays on 16 December, and when I can spend 15 hours a week relaxing instead of doing intense cognitive work, my symptoms become much milder.

So I decided not to continue the Lost Hours Project in 2021. I’m not convinced the data is very useful, and it’s a bit depressing.

Some good news: today I jumped in the pool without hesitation and did a micro swim. If I don’t end up collapsing for several hours in the next two days, I might even do that again.

Still, I refuse to make plans or goals this January. I’m sick of it. I’m going to write a new draft of this book as fast or slow as suits me on any given day.

Actually I do have one resolution I’m very keen on, and that is to use the word absquatulate as much as possible.

Say that out loud and tell me it isn’t the most fun you’ve ever had.

It means to leave abruptly, which is something that can be worked into most conversations, even if I have to do more than my share of absquatulating to ensure I can bring it up.

Wishing you a healthy 2021.
xo

Ep 16: Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian

In episode 16, James and I interview author and historian Ada Palmer about living with chronic pain and studying the past to imagine the future. She offers excellent advice to those managing invisible illness, while also acknowledging how hard it can be.

Ada is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian at the University of Chicago, and a composer and musician. Her book series, Terra Ignota, published by Tor, explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo award. Ada teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and censorship.

Ada has achieved all this and more while living with a number of invisible chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

“There’s nothing more similar than history and science-fiction,” Ada says. “It’s studying long periods of time in which societies change, whether future or past.”

In our interview, she describes her academic research as the history of worldviews, and how she uses her research into the past to imagine human societies hundreds of years in the future, asking, “How does the future think about us?”

Ada also discusses how her Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome have resulted in chronic, sometimes crippling pain, and how she’s learning to cope with living with invisible illness.

“When it’s the same pain in the same nerves over a long time, it causes cognitive trauma damage.”

Ada describes coming to understand herself as disabled as “a powerful and interesting turning point”. The first time that she raised the topic with her university students, she was surprised by their enthusiasm to discuss and learn more.

“It helped me realise how powerful it was as a conversation, how powerful it was for the students for that silence to break, and how powerful it was for somebody’s who’s in a role-model position to talk about it with them.” Her students’ support gave her the confidence to speak to her department head and colleagues about her illness and its challenges.

In this episode, we also talk about authors Arkady Martine, Claire G Coleman, Gene Wolfe, Neil Price, Junji Ito, Julian Barnes, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, and of course, Voltaire and Diderot.

You can listen to episode 16 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.