Ep 56 How to survive a stalker with Ellis Gunn, author of Rattled

‘If he wants to follow me, I can’t stop him.’

After a random encounter with poet and author Ellis Gunn at an auction, a stranger decides to stalk her. Years later, she sits down to write about the experience – and realises it’s connected to a lifetime of gendered abuse, including surviving both sexual assault and domestic violence.

Episode 56 features a wide-ranging and compelling interview with Ellis. She discusses what she learned through the experience of writing her debut memoir, Rattled, including the psychological impacts of stalking, the reactions of her family and friends, and the concepts of agency deletion and radical empathy.

Ellis Gunn is a Scottish writer and poet who now lives in Australia. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published widely in the UK and she has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Edinburgh Book Festival and the British Embassy in Berlin. She lives near the beach with her partner, two children, a cat and some ants.

One of the concepts she learned about in researching her experience is agency deletion, the way we use passive language to talk about ‘how many women are raped’, not ‘how many men raped women’. Ellis references #FixedIt, a website where Jane Gilmore dissects agency deletion in newspaper headlines.

Ellis also describes links between gendered violence and physical health, and offers the example of her own deteriorating health condition.

“Shortly after being stalked, I noticed a sudden increase in joint pain. It was painful to hold a book up to read when I was lying in bed, to carry bags of shopping back from the supermarket. When it started to affect my ability to do the cleaning and polishing necessary for my work upcycling furniture, I went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and, some months later, osteoporosis which often goes hand-in-hand with joint inflammation. As far as I know, no one in my extended family suffers, or has suffered, from either of these normally hereditary conditions. As I came to the end of writing this book, I received a further, devastating diagnosis: stage 4 cancer, a rare and aggressive kind. I have no hard evidence that this is a direct result of being stalked, or raped, or living with domestic violence, but I do know that none of this could have helped.”

“In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk shows how the body is changed physically and mentally when exposed to trauma and stress, particularly if we have no outlet for our emotions. These changes can remain in the body and leave us vulnerable to all kinds of autoimmune diseases, including cancer. This has particular significance for women, who are at greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse and/or domestic violence in their lifetimes, but the implications are much wider. Children who live with domestic violence or neglect frequently have no way of processing the resulting trauma and therefore end up living with high levels of stress and often a disturbed view of themselves or the world. Van der Kolk argues that, if things are to change, we need to go to the root of the problem and help parents with their mental health issues, addictions, poverty or isolation. The result would be fewer children growing up with stress and the associated health conditions as well as the type of mental health issues that can lead to abusive patterns of behaviour. Financially, an investment in parenting programmes for disadvantaged families could save the US billions every year in health and criminal justice costs.”

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
– ‘Tribes and Traitors‘, Hidden Brain podcast from Shankar Vedantam
Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout by Ginger Gorman
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood
How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Break by Katherena Vermette

Listen to this episode 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 52 Epiphanies, obsession and vulnerability with Lech Blaine, author of Car Crash

Writing a memoir is all about taking the mess of life and shaping into a coherent, moving narrative. This is what author Lech Blaine did for his memoir, Car Crash. Then, when writing Top Blokes, a Quarterly Essay on Australian politics, he found himself weaving memoir into his writing once again.

What’s the cost of so much vulnerability, especially when writing about trauma, grief, personal mental health?

Lech Blaine is the author of the memoir Car Crash and Quarterly Essay ‘Top Blokes’. His writing has appeared in the Monthly, Guardian Australia, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin. He was an inaugural recipient of a Griffith Review Queensland Writing Fellowship.

In episode 52, Lech speaks about the challenge of writing and releasing these two publications back to back during the pandemic, and the burnout that followed. He also discusses the epiphanies that writing memoir can bring despite unresolved feelings about events that are carefully distilled on the page, and the emotional toll of sharing so much vulnerability with readers. 

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Timeline by Michael Crichton
Sphere by Michael Crichton
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
State of Fear by Michael Crichton
– Lee Child
– John Grisham
Know My Name: A Memoir by Channel Miller
Specky Magee by Felice Arena and Garry Lyon
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
Glory Gardens by Bob Cattell

Listen to episode 52 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.

If you’re interested in writing memoir or joining for any of my upcoming writing workshops, check out my events page.

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 >>

Ep 50 How to remake the world with author Sarah Sentilles

“We have these narrow stories about what it means to be a human being,” author Sarah Sentilles says. But we have the power to expand them, just as we have the power to remake the world.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Draw Your Weapons, Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own and Taught by America. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Her latest book is Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours

Stranger Care is a memoir of Sarah and her husband’s experience with the foster system in Idaho and the ten months they parented an infant named Coco, only to return her to her loving but vulnerable mother. She describes the book as “a keening, a song of grief, a love letter”.  

In episode 50, Sarah joins us to discuss coping with unexpected loss, who counts as family, and how at heart, all of us are baby monkeys.

She also shares how each of us can use our creativity to remake the world around us. She believes being an artist is urgent and reparative work. When we turn towards our creative work, Sarah teaches, we turns toward the world.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
– ‘The abortion I didn’t have‘ by Merrit Tierce
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Listen to episode 50 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 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.

Listen, be interested and be brave: Q&A with Samia Goudie, Boundless Mentorship runner-up

The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.

The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.

Samia Goudie, 2021 Boundless Mentorship runner-up

I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.

When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to?
As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.

The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.

I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.

Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.

I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.

I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.

I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.

As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.

I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.

Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea.
Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.

Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.

I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.

Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.

What books or authors have inspired your writing?
I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.

Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.

I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.

Jane Sullivan reviews 'Too Much Lip' by Melissa Lucashenko

Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this?
Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.

I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.

What writing tip have you found most useful so far?
Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.

It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.

I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.

Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.

Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker. For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.

Ep 30 Recovering from childhood with Ruhi Lee, author of Good Indian Daughter

After growing up suffering emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and psychological abuse within what was ostensibly a loving family, author Ruhi Lee decided to speak out.

But before she could do that, she had to learn how to articulate and process her own feelings. Beyond basic terms like happy and sad, she didn’t have a language of emotion. In episode 30 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Ruhi tells us about her childhood, the process of writing her book, and a lot more.

Ruhi articles, poetry and book reviews have been featured in the Guardian, ABC Life, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and the Big Issue among others. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. Good Indian Daughter is her first memoir.

Books discussed in this episode:
Yes Please by Amy Poehler;
This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay;
Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas;
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon;
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby;
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Listen to episode 30 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 28 Burning out with Dr Yumiko Kadota, author of Emotional Female

Yumiko Kadota was a junior doctor and working hard towards her goal of becoming a plastic surgeon in NSW. But the demands of her workplace became increasingly extreme, and she found herself dealing with bullying, sexism and racism, as well as unreasonable hours. If anyone should know how important sleep is for the body, it should be health care professionals (and the people who manage their rosters). Right?

Instead of sleeping, Yumiko was working longer and longer hours, and was constantly on call. Her health started to deteriorate.

By the time she left her job, she was so unwell that she ended up back in hospital – as a patient.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast yumiko kadota quote

She recounts her journey from ambitious student to junior doctor to patient suffering burnout and depression in her new memoir, Emotional Female.

In episode 28 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Yumiko about putting your health first, how burnout affects empathy, and the stigma of invisible illness.

We also discuss Yumiko’s experience with chronic fatigue and the research it inspired: ‘I knew that what I’d experienced was real, and I wanted science to back it up.’

We also discuss why the working conditions of doctors are important for everyone: ‘One of the features of burnout is a lack of empathy [which] really affects the quality of care given to patients.’

Books discussed in this episode
– ‘A Room Called Earth’ by Madeleine Ryan
– ‘Earthlings’ by Sayaka Murata
– ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy
– ‘Thus Spoke the Plant’ by Monica Gagliano

Listen to episode 28 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.

Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!