Ep 60 How to write a prize-winning novel with James McKenzie Watson, author of Denizen

When he was 22 years old, James McKenzie Watson began to experience the first symptoms of what doctors suspected was Guillain–Barré syndrome. To test for this, they gave him a spinal tap (not the rock and roll kind). After the procedure he had to lie on his back for two hours. In that time, he typed out his initial plan for what would become his prize-winning novel, Denizen.

James McKenzie Watson writes fiction with a focus on health and rural Australia. His novel Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. Denizen also received a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship and a 2021 KSP Residential Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Meanjin and the Newtown Review of Books.

James was eventually diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the relapsing form of Guillain–Barré syndrome, and lives with the condition today. Born in Coonabarabran and a past resident of Sydney, he now works as a nurse in regional New South Wales.

I realised early on that the idea I felt very strongly about was probably not marketable or readable in the form it was in. I do believe passionately about the issues that I’m addressing … but I have to have more consideration for the reader.

In episode 60 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, James opens up about the hurt and mentally unwell 22-year-old he was when he started the novel, and the 29-year-old author he’s become.

He also tells us about the process of writing the novel, how it developed over a series of drafts and through feedback from other emerging writers, and why he decided to enter it into the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. James shares his number one tip for aspiring writers.

I feel very lucky to have a physical, tangible thing that people who know me can read and know that I am okay in a way that I’m sure a lot of them were worried I never would be, when I was a teenager.

He also shares what his mum thinks about the book!

Plus, are James and Ashley married?! Or did they just not think through their podcast name? Find out in episode 60, along with the alternative (and even worse!) name they ultimately rejected.

Join us for the the launch of Denizen!
Thursday 28 July, 6:00pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe
Tickets $0-12

A gothic thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. Join me for an in-conversation to launch one of the best books of the year! Get your ticket here >>

You can find all of James’s upcoming events on his website.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– David Vann (of course);
– Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor;
The Liars by Petronella McGovern (from ep 12), out in September 2022;
– The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman (from ep 4);
– RWR McDonald (from ep 32);
– Lyn Yeowart (from ep 39)

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.

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.