In episode 34 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to bookish entrepreneurs and writers Amy and Laura about how Secret Book Stuff evolved from a kindness-generating project into a business, how books have been transformative in their lives, and how reading makes you better in bed.
Secret Book Stuff is an online bookshop specialising in book subscriptions and gifts for book-lovers. For every book sold, Secret Book Stuff plants a tree.
One of this episode’s highlights was learning Laura’s and Amy’s favourite books.
Laura’s Top 5 Books* – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson – Insomniac City by Bill Hayes – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Felicity by Mary Oliver – I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell – anything by Joan Didion
Amy’s Top 5 Books – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Insomniac City by Bill Hayes – Animal People by Charlotte Wood – Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman
*Because why stop at five?
More books and authors discussed in this episode – Hold Your Own by Kae Tempest; – Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson; – Women by Chloe Caldwell; – Samantha Irby; – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien; – The Neverending Story by Michael Ende; – Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; – Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid; – Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid; – Betty by Tiffany McDaniel; – The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay; – Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez; – A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet; – Ghost Species by James Bradley (read James’s review here)
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 It was shortlisted for Best First Novel in the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards, and Highly Commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.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.
‘Sometimes just not knowing can actually be a good thing … but there are other times when you really do have to pursue truth. And when does one apply and when does the other?’
In Amnesia Road, Luke Stegemann explores complex questions about violence, history and society. He doesn’t profess to have answers, which is one of the book’s great strengths.
Luke is a writer, Hispanist and cultural historian based in rural south-east Queensland. He writes on art, politics and history for a wide range of Australian and Spanish publications, and is the author of The Beautiful Obscure. In 2018 he received the Malaspina Award in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the development of cultural relations between Australia and Spain’. On weekends, he travels extensively around Queensland in his role as a referee on the state amateur boxing circuit.
His latest book, Amnesia Road, is a literary consideration of historic violence in two different parts of the world, the seldom-visited mulga plains of south-west Queensland and the backroads of rural Andalusia. It is also a celebration of the landscapes where the violence of frontier conflict and civil war has been carried out.
James and I ask Luke whether it’s possible for Australians to have a common understanding of our history, and how the under-acknowledged histories of colonial violence in Australia, the nationalist violence in Spain (and the many similar contexts in other nations, such as Turkey) impact the societal health of their respective nations.
We discuss the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the impact of social media on our current discourse and effort to understand what the past means for each of us.
At the end, Luke lightens the mood with an anecdote about an Andalusian dog who becomes a harbinger of death. Trust me, we laughed!
Books discussed in this episode – The Possessed by Dostoevsky – Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias – A Heart So White by Javier Marias – The Stranger and short stories by Albert Camus – Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon – When We Dead Awaken by James Robins
We talk about our respective diagnoses and how these illnesses erupted in our lives. James has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder that’s quite rare.
CIDP has had a significant and ongoing impact on his life, but James is determined not to make it part of his identity. His challenges in even speaking about it are why it took us three separate attempts over multiple months to record this episode.
And while this episode was recorded remotely as usual, we actually got to hang out in person in Coonabarbran, proving that we don’t stay at home all the time (even if it often feels that way).
The first, with superhost Dani Vee of the Words and Nerds podcast (which is coming up to 200 episodes), is possibly the most cross-cultural Australian/Canadian conversation imaginable, with a strong focus on the weather and spider stories.
Dani shares an excellent spider story that settles one of the great Aussie debates: whether or not hunstmans bite. She also shares a story about visiting family in the Netherlands, who announced, “We’re all going to the beach today because it’s 16 degrees!” As a Canadian I can imagine myself saying this. As an Australian, I think it’s nuts.
As someone who has grown up in Australia, it was such an insight to see how we’re perceived from the outside.
Dani Vee, Words and Nerds episode 196
Dani also asks what is perhaps my favourite question ever: why do you write?
This in-depth discussion gets into Australia’s cultural quirks, the concept of belonging, the importance of uncovering and acknowledging buried histories, and of course, the Hollywood kookaburra con.
We also talk about adulthood, and get into the core of the book: ‘Part of the process of really settling into adulthood was realising that these images I’d held in my head, the things that I’d believed were going to make me happy — were not actually going to make me happy.’
Paul asks a great question about my search for identity in Australia, and how it connects to a childhood spent moving around.
Something had happened that had disrupted my ability to belong. And I think that’s partly what propelled me to go live in places like South Korea and Peru and Mexico, because of course I didn’t belong there, that was obvious to everyone, and we could just move forward from that understanding.
If these conversations make you keen to get into How to Be Australian, you can get a copy now wherever you are in the world.
I’ve been a fan of dogs basically since I was born. Ted, the handsome furball on the right, was my parents’ first baby – I came along a little later. I guess they decided they’d rather have a second dog than a second child, because for a while, this was their little menagerie. (Eventually they added a second kid too.)
Ted and Tiffany were purebred show dogs, which meant their coats grew down to the floor. This photo is from off-season. I was raised with the pronunciation sheed-zoo, as per the American Kennel Club. I don’t know when people saying shit zoo, but I’d like to officially campaign for a rebrand.My love of dogs is why I’m especially excited for our latest podcast guest, author Kate Leaver. Kate is a journalist and speaker from Australia, and is also the author of two books. I’m been a fan of Kate Leaver since I reviewed her first book, The Friendship Cure. In it, she examines how friendship can help to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness, which competes with mental illness and sedentary lifestyles to be the worst health crisis of our time (pandemics aside). Friendship has powerful health benefits, as many scientific studies show.
Good Dog is an extension of that idea, exploring how our furry friends enrich our lives while providing numerous health benefits that researchers are only beginning to uncover. Along with the 11 stories of especially good dogs – including her own shih tzu, Bertie – Leaver explores research into the impact of dogs on human health. You can read my full review here. James also happens to be a fan of dogs.
James lives with Bonnie, an Irish wolfhound/dalmation cross. Bonnie joined James for our interview with Kate. The one downside of podcasts is their lack of visual component, so James snapped this shot of Bonnie nudging her way into the audio action.
This shot allows you to better appreciate Bonnie’s spotiness. James, Kate and I probably could have talked about dogs for, conservatively speaking, 17 hours.
But we had so much more to talk about! Kate lives with bipolar disorder and her experiences with depression, and Bert’s intuitive ability to comfort her during difficult times, inspired her to research other good dogs.
She also speaks about the challenges her health has presented in her career. “I always found being in an office difficult, because you can’t really schedule in time to deal with your mood or your energy levels.” This led her to try freelancing.
“I wanted to give myself the opportunity to take care of my mental health,” she says. Freelancing means being able to give herself more days when she needs them, work to a schedule that works for her, and go outside for a walk in the middle of the day.
Kate’s coped with chronic illness far longer than I have, so I asked her how she manages to have such a successful career. I was thankful to hear her say she doesn’t know how she manages it. She just keeps going as best she can, which is sometimes not very well at all.
This was a huge relief , because after four years I certainly haven’t figured out any way of managing my illness either.
You can listen to episode 8 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, and find Kate’s book online and in bookshops across Australia, as well as in the US and UK in early 2021.
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.
From her website: ‘By the time she was eleven and living in the Soviet Union, Lee Kofman had undergone several major operations on both a defective heart and injuries sustained in a bus accident. Her body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars that have shaped her sense of self and her view of the world. But it wasn’t until she moved to Israel and later to Australia that she came to think these markings weren’t badges of honour to flaunt but were, in fact, imperfections that needed to be hidden away.’
Conservatively speaking, I could discuss this book with Lee for nine straight hours, but James and I managed to keep our chat to 45 minutes.
We discuss how her scars affected her growing up, stories from the many interviews with people with diverse bodies that feature in the book, and how her self-perception has shifted through the process of writing and promoting the book.
Lee is the author of five books, including Imperfect, a blend of memoir and cultural critique, and the memoir The Dangerous Bride. She is co-editor of Rebellious Daughters and editor of Split, an anthology of personal essays. Imperfect was shortlisted for the 2019 Nib Literary Award.
James and Ashley are staying at home. Partly because there’s a pandemic, partly because they’re writers, and partly because of their health. Through discussions and interviews with other writers, they’ll try to build fellowship and entertain, or at the very least, explore how staying at home has its benefits.James and Ashley Stay at Home is a new podcast, a joint venture with my wonderful co-host, James McKenzie Watson. Learn more about James and the podcast below, or find the first seven episodes here.
We’ll be discussing the challenges of our efforts to write brilliant manuscripts while coping with chronic health issues, and also interviewing other writers who have done the same.
This is what the player for the first episode would look like, if I could embed each episode.
Instead, you can listen to episode 1 here. It introduces the podcast and our major themes, writing and health. We speak about both topics through our personal experience: in addition to my chronic fatigue syndrome, James was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2016. Like me, he also suffers from serious fatigue, among a myriad of other symptoms.
James is a very talented writer of short and novel-length fiction. He’s been recognised in competitions including the International InkTears Flash Fiction Contest, the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Grieve Writing Competition, and featured in publications such as Baby Teeth Journal and Brave Voices Magazine. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. He works as a nurse in regional NSW. Find him on Twitter or visit his website.
James is a member of my Writing NSW writers’ group, pictured here at the 2019 launch of My Name Is Revenge: Jonathon Shannon, James, me, Simon Veksner, Amanda Ortlepp and Andrea Tomaz.Episode 2 is a special episode, which features me reading the first chapter of my new memoir, How to Be Australian.
In episode 3, we launch into our interviews with Australian authors starting with Lee Kofman, author of Imperfect.
In episode 4, James grills me about writing my new memoir, How to Be Australian. (It turns out the secret to getting asked all the questions you really want to answer is to be a guest on your own podcast.)
Episode 5 features debut author Anna Downes discussing her international hit The Safe Place, as well as her experiences with postpartum anxiety.
In episode 6, James and I share the stories of how we came to be writers and share some of our favourite writing tips.
Episode 7 features British-Japanese author Katherine Tamiko Arguile discussing her debut novel The Things She Owned and the health crises that drove her to pursue a writing career.
In episode 8, we interview author Kate Leaver about her new book, Good Dog, and learn about just how excellent dogs are for our wellbeing.
Episode 9 features art therapist Karin Foxwell discussing the profoundly 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
Episode 10 gets personal: James and I explain our health conditions, discuss how these affect day to day life, and explore how illness has impacted our senses of self.
In episode 11, we discuss anxiety with comedian Anthony Jeannot.
Episode 12 features bestselling author Petronella McGovern discussing her new novel, The Good Teacher, and the allures and dangers of fringe healthcare.
In episode 13, we chat with the legend herself, author Kate Mildenhall, about the craft of novel writing, the challenges of penning a second book, and the creative anxieties that plague writers.
Episode 14 features Elizabeth Tan, author of Smart Ovens for Lonely People, discussing the public health crisis of loneliness, the personal experiences that inspired some of these stories, and an unusual but highly effective writing prompt.
In episode 15, James and Ashley share their motivations for writing, writing tips, and more.
Episode 16 features Ada Palmer, historian, composer and author, and how she’s managed to achieve so much while managing a number of invisible illnesses.
Episode 17, the last episode of 2020, highlights some of the best writing tips from the year, and is a great resource for any writer.