How do we build community and a sense of self after loss, especially the kind of loss that echoes for generations?
In episode 48, James and I talk to Australian author Shankari Chandran about her latest novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, and how her efforts to find connection in the writing community echo her Tamil family’s work to build community after being dispossessed from their homeland in the Sri Lankan civil war.
As she writes, ‘Possession of land is nine-tenths of the law. Possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’
Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field, before returning to Australia, where she now lives with her husband and children. She is the author of two previous novels, Song of the Sun God, and The Barrier, and has been shortlisted for the Fairway National Literary Award and the Norma K Hemming Award for speculative fiction.
In this episode, we discuss the reshaping of historical narratives, how families live with the legacy of genocide and dispossession, and Shankari’s struggle to find a publisher for her novels in Australia, and how her writing has helped her find a sense of community and connection.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (from ep 18) – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall – David Heska Wanbli Weiden (from ep 40) – Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian translated by Mabel Lee – Amnesia Road by Luke Stegemann (from ep 26)
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.
Think of a book (or movie, album, whatever) that you really love. Now imagine someone says to you, ‘Let me take the time to read that book, and then let’s talk about it. For an hour.’
Which, if you think about it, is an incredibly generous thing to do.
This is the premise of Ben Hobson’s podcast, Burgers, Beers & Books. Or, part of the premise – the other bit is sitting around enjoying beers and burgers while talking about books. Clearly, Ben’s a genius. He’s also the author of Snake Island and To Become a Whale, and has a new novel forthcoming in 2022.
When Ben invited me on his podcast, I knew exactly which book I wanted to talk about – John Sandford’s Certain Prey.
Since winning the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, Sandford has become the author of more than 50 books, most of them crime thrillers. His first book, Rules of Prey, introduced Minneapolis Police detective Lucas Davenport, one of my all-time favourite fictional characters.
There are now 31 books in Sandford’s Prey series. I’ve been reading it for over 20 years, since I worked in a secondhand bookshop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and would hole up in the back stockroom listening to audiobooks on cassette.
(I’m also obsessed with the series’s narrator, Richard Ferrone, whose voice is synonymous with the characters for me.)
It was hard for me to pick a favourite for Ben to read. Ideally we would have read the whole series together and spent 31 hours talking about it, but I had a feeling Ben wasn’t going to go for that.
I ended up choosing Certain Prey because I love the antagonist, Clara Rinker. She’s a hit woman for the St Louis mob, and the novel centres around her burgeoning friendship with Minneapolis defense attorney and sociopath Carmel Loan.
I find this particularly interesting because not a lot of thrillers explore female friendship.
There were so many authors and books I could have chosen for this guest interview with Ben (a title from my list of great reads, for instance). I chose Sandford because I’ve recently realised that I don’t know anyone else who reads them, so I’ve never really had an opportunity to discuss them in depth. (So if you’re a Sandford fan, please email me!)
In this very fun interview, Ben and I discuss the different ways to approach a writing practice, the 10,000-hour theory of mastery, and Ben’s Nana’s reading preferences.
We talk a lot about Sandford, Davenport, and Certain Prey, and this is the only series I’ve loved for years.
I also get into the less-violent perpetrator strategy, which I used in my first book, My Name Is Revenge. I explain it in more detail here.
At the end, our conversation devolves into a Con Air love-in, although Ben and I disagree about the film’s fundamental brilliance. For Ben it’s Nicolas Cage and his Alabama accent, whereas I’d prefer a cut that was nothing but John Cusack as US Marshal Vince Larkin.
One correction to our chat: I said the original title for Winter Prey was The Iceman, but I’ve since learned that this was only true in the UK. In the US the title was always Winter Prey.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary – Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Redemption Point by Candice Fox – Will by Will Smith – The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie – David Heska Wanbli Weiden – Rachel Howzell Hall (check out my recommendation on this summer reading list) – Anne Perry – Patricia Cornwell – Jane Harper – Dervla McTiernan – Lee Child – James Patterson – and My Name Is Revenge
‘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
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 we spoke to David Vann, he was on his final day of a two-week covid quarantine in a hotel room in Cambodia. He had with him an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) and an EPIRB (an emergency position indicating radio beacon), in case of sinking. He wasn’t specifically concerned about sinking the hotel room, but if it happened, he was ready for it.
David Vann is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction. Published in 23 languages, his books have earned him literary accolades worldwide, appeared on 83 ‘best books of the year’ lists and seen him featured at nearly 100 international literary festivals. Among many publications, he’s written for Esquire, Men’s Health, the Observer, the Financial Times and National Geographic Adventure. He’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England.
David spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, a setting which features in much of his work. When he was 13, his father Jim committed suicide by shooting himself. The pivotal event in David’s youth has been explored and alluded to in many of his novels, but never more directly or confronting than in his 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon.
Halibut on the Moon is an excruciating depiction of a downward spiral to suicide, written from the point of view of Vann’s father.
In episode 23, James and I speak to David about his writing process for this novel and others, and what he considers to be great writing (to James’s dismay, it’s not Knausgaard). We also speak about gun proliferation and mental illness in the US, and the current challenges of the publishing industry, even for authors as accomplished as Vann.
Books discussed in this episode: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace The World According to Garp by John Irving Goat Mountain; Aquarium; Legend of a Suicide; Bright Air Black; Last Day on Earth by David Vann Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter Shadow Child by PF Thomése Eight Lives by Susan Hurley The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
“I was pretty well bedridden, unable to move very easily for about the first year … I’d sort of have to shallow breathe into the tops of my lungs.”
When Josephine Taylor first began to experience chronic pain, she started to reduce her commitments. She was a career woman and a mum. But gradually, she had to shut down her whole life. Meanwhile, she struggled to get a diagnosis.
Eventually the doctors concluded she had vulvodynia, chronic vulva pain lasting three months or longer that is medically unexplained. “That doesn’t mean it’s not real,” she adds. “It’s a very real medical condition.”
Josephine is a writer and freelance editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. She is Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an adjunct senior lecturer in writing. Her debut novel, Eye of a Rook, is drawn in part from her experiences with vulvodynia.
Trapped with condition, she began to learn its history and write about it. “It seemed to me very important that people understand that actually there hasn’t been a great deal of movement forward in understanding or awareness since the 1860s.”
Eye of a Rook is a novel with two narratives, both about women suffering from vulvodynia. One storyline is set in contemporary Perth, and one set in England in the late 1800s. The historical narrative includes shocking details about women’s medicine and treatment at that time, drawn in part from research into “The London Surgical Home for the reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases”, which opened in 1858. Taylor describes the barbaric surgical procedure, called a clitoridectomy, which is proposed in the opening chapter as the solution to one of your main characters’ suffering.
For both women, their illness affects their personality, and robs them of themselves, as well as affecting Alice’s career in Perth. We discuss how vulvodynia affected Josephine’s life, medical victim blaming, the difficulty of being diagnosed with a little-understood condition and the ongoing confusion of it, and the ‘finitude of possibility’ that chronic illness inflicts on a life.
Josephine is full of excellent advice and reassurance for anyone suffering chronic and/or invisible illnesses, about surrounding ourselves with people who believe us, and not letting our past dictate our futures.
This episode’s book chat The Fifth Season by Philip Salem Wintering by Krissy Kneen ‘The Wife’s Story’ by Ursula K LeGuin Imperfect by Lee Kofman (who we spoke to in episode 3) Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen Hysteria by Katerina Bryant One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner In the Woods by Tana French