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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’smy 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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
When Jacinta Dietrich’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, she turned to fiction to find this new terrain explored on the page.
Except she couldn’t find her story.
While there were lots of narratives involving cancer, Jacinta was looking for a story that involved a young couple involved in a newer – but crucially, established – relationship, who had to navigate the progression of their romance while one of them also went through cancer treatment.
Jacinta Dietrich is a writer and editor who holds a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Her first book, This Is Us Now, was published in 2021 by Grattan Street Press.
In episode 45 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Jacinta talks about fictionalising her story, writing confronting emotions, and telling her partner that the book she’d written based on their relationship was going to be published.
Plus, things go off the rails as we get into a heated and cryptic discussion of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, and also exactly which co-host asked author Lyn Yeowart what she was wearing. (If you’re looking to give James a gift, maybe don’t go with a photo book.)
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
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’.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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