Ep 38 How to survive an earthquake with Michelle Tom

‘I went on a post-mortem enquiry. How did we end up here? We were five and now we’re two.’

Michelle Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. Michelle was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2019 program and for a Varuna Memoir Masterclass in 2017. Michelle lives in Melbourne with her husband and two youngest children.

Her vulnerable and cathartic memoir, Ten Thousand Aftershocks, explores two key traumas – the multifaceted abuse she experienced during childhood, and her survival of the 2021 Christchurch earthquake.

Together, we discuss how she began writing the memoir, the process of re-examining trauma, and her choice to tell the story in fragmented vignettes.

The fragmented narrative style wasn’t her initial choice. When she attend a one-week masterclass with one of Australia’s best-known memoir authors, she realised a lot of her early draft wasn’t working.

‘I’d gone to Varuna thinking that week was going to clarify everything and I went to Patti Miller who was running the course and basically said, Tell me how to structure this and she said, Darling, you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.’

This episode also features a record-breaking What Are You Reading segment, in which James recalls the time someone recommended he read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series because the main character is 6’9, the same height as James, and we determine that main character height may be the worst motivation for reading a book we’ve encountered.

Plus, is it going to be just James from now on?! Join us for an emotionally turbulent episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home!

Books and authors discussed in this episode:
Memoir Writing For Dummies by Ryan Van Cleave
Trespasses: A Memoir by Lacy M Johnson
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
– Lee Child’s Jack Reader series
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Return by Rachel Harrison
It by Stephen King
Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (of course!)

Plus Michelle’s fellow 2021 debut authors:
Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke
The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens
Echoes by Shu-Ling Chua
What Does it Feel Like Being Born? by Jodie Miller
The Sentinel by Jacqueline Hodder
Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor (who we interviewed in episode 20)
– Smokehouse by Melissa Manning
– Sha’Kert by Ishmael Soledad
– Modern Marriage by Filip Vukašin
– The River Mouth by Karen Whittle-Herbert

Listen to episode 38 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.

PS. Looking for more great bookish podcasts? Ep 382 of Words and Nerds introduces you to FIVE.

Ep 37 ‘The diagnosis was everything to me’

In episode 37 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we speak to two neurodiverse authors about receiving diagnoses as adults, oversharing, figuring themselves out through their writing, and so much more.

Anna Whateley is an #OwnVoices author and proudly autistic, with ADHD and sensory processing disorder. Her debut novel, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal, is about 16-year-old neurodivergent Peta Lyre, who is the success story of social training until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Her next novel, Tearing Myself Together will be released early 2022 with Allen & Unwin. She lives in Brisbane.

Kay Kerr is a freelance writer and YA author from the Sunshine Coast, Australia. She was writing her debut novel Please Don’t Hug Me when she was diagnosed with autism, and she is passionate about autism and wider disability representation in YA fiction. Her second novel Social Queue is a romantic coming-of-age story featuring an autistic teenage girl, and it’s coming out in October 2021.

Their humourous and recommendation-filled newsletter, The Overshare, features seven sections:
Listen Up–for all things auditory and musical
All The Feels–for sensory gadgets and neurodivergent products we are loving
Off The Shelf–bookish things including what we are reading and upcoming events
Uh Oh–life disasters, bloopers and social mistakes
Leaving The House–pretty self explanatory
Who Put Me In Charge–challenges in parenting, executive functioning, and life admin
Scratch Pad–to share new writing bits and pieces.

Books and authors discussed in this episode:
Late Bloomer by Clem Bastow;
The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough;
Henry Hamlet’s Heart by Rhiannon Wilde;
Future Girl by Asphyxia;
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro;
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro;
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro;
Vodka and Apple Juice by Jay Martin;
A History of My Brief History by Billy Ray Belcourt;
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Listen to episode 37 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 34 Secret podcast stuff

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)

Listen to episode 34 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 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.

Ep 26 Raising the Dead with Luke Stegemann, author of ‘Amnesia Road’

‘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

Listen to episode 26 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 10: Progressive weakness and loss of sensation

In episode 10 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we get real serious – or as serious as it’s possible for James and me to get.

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).

It’s been a big podcast week! Two interviews about How to Be Australian were also released.

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?

The other interview is with Paul Barclay for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas.

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.

Order the book now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

Ep 8: Talking good dogs with Kate Leaver

Toddler and two shih tzus

Ted and Tiffany.jpgI’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.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastMy 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. Good dog cover, author Kate Leaver, Bert,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. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcastJames 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. James and Bonnie.jpg
This shot allows you to better appreciate Bonnie’s spotiness. Dalmation Irish wolfhound cross dogJames, 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.Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
This was a huge relief , because after four years I certainly haven’t figured out any way of managing my illness either. Kate Leaver on James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
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.

Ep 5: The Year that Almost Killed Anna Downes, author of The Safe Place

Anna Downes The Safe Place.png
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.

You can read my read my review of The Safe Place at Newtown Review of Books, and listen to episode 5, our interview with Anna Downes.