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 6: Our Man Booker contenders

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
Episode 6 of James and Ashley Stay at Home features James and I sharing our early experiences as writers – which always make for entertaining stories – and three tips we’ve learned along the way. You can listen to it here.

James wrote his first novel at age seven. Frankly, it sounds like a masterpiece of contemporary Australian realism, akin to Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, but with less slapping and more lost hire car keys.

Even at that age, he was conscious of the need to work hard to attract readers to his writing, and he shares a dramatic story of how he employed his four-year-old brother as a spokesperson. This strategy didn’t work out, probably because it was heavy on audience abuse and profanity.

We’d also love you to weigh in on this hot debate: when James’s dad managed to get one of his manuscripts in front of a publisher (this was a few years later, when James had acquired the worldliness of a teenager and had years more writing experience), he received the feedback ‘James’s writing should be encouraged.’

I thought this comment was kind, but James understood it as ‘James’s writing shouldn’t be explicitly discouraged … but maybe buy him a tennis racket or a worm farm.’

Like James, I started writing early, and leapt into my first novel at the age of 14. Thankfully no-one in my family had any publishing industry contacts to show it to when I declared it finished four years later. For reasons lost to time, I called the novel Infernoatia. It was about killer bees from Mars (uh-huh, makes perfect sense, I hear you thinking).

It was set in 2020, which, back in 1997, must have seemed like THE FUTURE. Obviously we’d have humans on Mars by then.

To give you a taste of how immensely terrible this book was, here is the actual opening, from the printed-out copy I still have in a trunk at my parents’ place, complete with the book cover my dad designed.

The Earth, our planet; home to all creation as we know it, yet swiftly racing towards its unavoidable end. As it slowly orbits the sun, tracing the same pattern around our star as it has countless times before, its life forms, and with them their technology and knowledge, continue to evolve and expand, ever growing to meet the needs of a greedy civilization that believes it has money and resources to burn. But if, in the distant future, all life on Earth is threatened, will it be a superior race who lives millions of light years away, hidden from view of our best astronomers and astronauts, who have finally come to conquer over what would seem such low forms of uncivilized life for nothing more than their own personal amusement, or will it be that we ourselves erupt into war over our minimal and virtually insignificant differences and eventually destroy everything in battle?

Although both these suggestions could be quite possible, or even become reality someday, it seems more likely that a careless mistake, an overlooked error, one simple flaw in a larger, more elaborately worked plan, will one day inadvertently throw the whole world on a path of ultimate destruction, and as the clock begins to count down to our demise, the people of our planet will be forced to ban together to save themselves against the wrath of our sophisticated, highly developed technology, and widespread knowledge or perish.

Prologue
August 18, 2020, 4:09 PM, INFINITY III, MARS

Space is deep. And black. Unlike being on a planet, it doesn’t matter where you look, there is always more black space. No horizons, no coast lines, no mountain ranges. Just a thick black fog dotted by infinite numbers of shining yellow stars. A vast universe full of burning suns, each which may be home to a cluster of tiny planets, which may each have their own groupings of moons which carefully orbit them. And then there are the comets, asteroids and meteors that wander endlessly past the moons, planets and suns. A vast universe full of places to discover and explore, where you could spend an eternity, and barely begin. …

After the bees arrive on Earth (eventually the actual story gets underway), each chapter opens with a global death count. Which, now that I think about it, feels very 2020.

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Listen to episode 6 here and please rate and subscribe to help us reach more listeners.

Ashley
xo

 

Cross-country caramel slice showdown

When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.

And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties.pile of caramel slices Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.

Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.

Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Laptop and caramel sliceMonique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”

(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)

She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.

Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. Caramel Slice on How to Be AustralianOne of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

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5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.

Not the book I set out to write

My Name Is Revenge book cover as chocolate launch cake

Tonight is my first ever book launch. I started writing this book ten years ago. Except it wasn’t this book; it was a different book.

Ten years ago I planned to write a book about my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. I knew they’d both lost their entire families, and ended up in Canada as orphans in 1920. I knew Paravon, my great grandfather, had hidden in a tree while his family was murdered and his village burned to the ground. So, in early 2010, when the Winnipeg Arts Council foolishly encouraged me with a research grant, I thought it would be easy to travel to my great grandparents’ Armenian community near Niagara Falls, learn their story, and write a book about it.

I had no idea that in the coming years I would end up writing two master’s theses on the Armenian genocide, spending two months in Armenia, and interviewing nearly 150 people in Canada, Australia and the Caucasus about Armenian identity.

What’s driven me through a decade of research and writing is that I find Armenia fascinating. I was long fascinated by the genocide, by how a government could callously and blatantly organize the murder of 1.5 million people, and then go on to deny it for decades in the face of overwhelming evidence. But the more I researched Armenia, the more fascinated I became. When I travelled to the Caucasus, I grew obsessed with first the Soviet history, and then the cold and dark years of the 1990s, when much of the country was without electricity or gas. Armenia is full of resilient people with amazing stories. I also became fascinated by Armenia’s history as the world’s first Christian nation. I was astounded when I visited its centuries-old monasteries.
Geghard Monastery, Armenia, in My Name Is RevengeSo I spent five years writing and rewriting a travel memoir of Armenia and everything I’d learned there. That manuscript was shortlisted for two awards, one in Australia and one in the UK.

And in the meantime, I became fascinated by the wave of global terrorism that began in 1973. Conceived as retribution for the denial of the genocide, that wave of terrorism reached Sydney in December, 1980. When I learned about Armenian terrorists targeting Turkish diplomats, I was startled to find that, despite abhorring their methods, I intimately understood their motives. So I wrote the novella that became My Name is Revenge.

When I started writing ten years ago, I had no idea that the book about my great grandparents’ survival would become a travel memoir of Armenia – and until recently,  I had no idea that my first published book would be another book entirely, a book of my collected writing on Armenia that came out of all of that research. My Name is Revenge is an attempt to capture what has fascinated me, and to share the connections between Australia, Canada and the genocide, and the urgency in its historical lessons.

If you can’t make the launch, you can hear me talk about the book in this interview with SBS Armenian Radio.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt on SBS Armenian radio
And if you’re keen on hearing about more of my upcoming author events, plus great reads and book giveaways, sign up for my monthlyish enews.

Ashley
xo

Revenge: The first review!

My Name is Revenge fiction by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, writer

The first review of My Name is Revenge has been published, and it’s come from the delightful Fiona Robertson, an Australian short fiction author, currently shortlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize! Fiona has perfectly captured what the novella does and why. You can read her review here. (Obviously it’s positive, otherwise I probably wouldn’t tell you about it. Or maybe I would, who knows.)

You can purchase My Name is Revenge at any ebook retailer, including Booktopia, Amazon and Apple iBooks.

As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. … My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion.

– Fiona Robertson, Australian author

I’ve also received this endorsement from Katerina Cosgrove, who has likewise written about the Armenian genocide:

Ashley Kalagian Blunt delivers what truly potent novellas are capable of: awakening us to new possibilities of thought and feeling. As with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Garner’s The Children’s Bach, this story raises questions that linger and does not give us easy answers. Raw, intense and at times unbearably tender, Kalagian Blunt gives voice to survivors of the Armenian genocide — voices that cry out to be heard in their power and poignancy, their historic hurts and continuing hope for redemption.

Katerina Cosgrove, author of Bone Ash Sky

I’ve added a page to this site where I’ll continue to share reviews and news about the novella. Of course, you’re welcome to leave a review on Amazon or any ebook site as well. Unless you hate it. Then maybe … don’t?

 

A thousand thank yous

This week my thriller novella, My Name is Revenge, was officially announced as a finalist in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award and published. The judge described it as ‘a remarkable work informed by a passion to express the haunting of almost unimaginable historical crimes, and the tragic shapes that vengeance for those crimes can take’. You can find it on Booktopia and Amazon.

The novella includes an acknowledgements section thanking the many amazing people who have helped me throughout the years I’ve worked to develop my writing skills. I didn’t feel like this was quite enough thanks however, so I’ve excerpted the acknowledgements section and am presenting it here.

Thank you from Ashley Kalagian Blunt
People I really can’t thank enough
My parents have supported my writing since my first story appeared in Young Saskatchewan Writers, when I was seven. My most heartfelt thanks goes to them. My husband began as my sketch comedy co-writer back in 2003, and has supported me in more ways than even an accountant could track. And way back in 2009, my in-laws gifted me a stack of Armenian history books to get this ball rolling. Each of these people also read drafts of the novella and gave feedback, and I can’t thank them enough.

I owe sincere thanks to many people who have helped me along the way, including the extended Kalagian clan, who generously shared their homes, memories, photos and recipes with me when I first began researching my Armenian heritage in 2010, including Bernice Kalagian, Mary Anne Jablonski and Diane Creamer, Trisha Jones, Richelle and Andrea Leahy, Laura Hoogasian Klimek, Robyn Stewart, Richard Hoogasian, Richard and Judy Kalagian, Carol Kalagian, Nancy Kalagian-Nunn and Dixie Petti. Likewise, an incredible number of people in Australia’s Armenian community have shared their stories with me, including most notably Ani Galoyan and her family. In Armenia, I was welcomed with open arms everywhere I went. To the many Armenians, American Peace Corps volunteers and others in Armenia who offered immense kindness and guided my understanding of Armenian heritage, culture and history – thank you. Thank you as well to the Turkish friends who have graciously spoken with me. So many people have provided kindness, support and guidance, and to each of them I’m forever grateful: the incredible Writing NSW staff, Jane McCredie, Julia Tsalis, Jeanne Kinninmont, Sherry Landow, Cassie Watson, Bridget Lutherborrow, Aurora Scott, Dan Hogan, and our many fabulous interns including Suzi ‘Sirius’ Ferré, Claire Bradshaw, Eliza Auld and Cathy Bouris; my amazingly talented writers’ group, Andrea Tomaz, Andrew Christie, Gabiann Marin, James Watson, Simon Veksner, Jonathon Shannon, Amanda Ortlepp, and especially Michelle Troxler and the generous and talented Jacqui Dent; the publishers and editors who have supported my writing, especially Linda Funnell and Jean Bedford, Julianne Schultz and Jerath Head, Rebecca Starford and Hanna Kent, Kirsten Krauth, Catriona Menzies-Pike, Stephen Romei, Paul Ham, Zoe Norton Lodge and Ben Jenkins; my academic advisors, especially Marcelle Freiman and the Macquarie University English Department, and Jane Park; the utterly inspiring Ren Arcamone; Hanna Kivistö, in whose unmatchable company I first forged a writing practise; Marije Nieuwenhuis, provider of early and incisive feedback; my fellow KSP writing fellows, Christine Scuderi and Nicole Hodgson; Fran Giudici, the best fan any writer could ask for; Lindsey Wiebe, for her unflagging support and steadying friendship; Kerry and Janet McLuhan; Helena Klanjscek, Carol Neuschul, Fran Jakin, Rachel Ramberran and Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk; my many incredible teachers and mentors, including Felicity Castagna and Toni ‘The Unpredictable Plotter’ Jordan, who both gave feedback on this novella, Luke Ryan, Claire Scobie, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Mishi Saran, Ethan Gilsdorf, Irene Lemon and Armin Wiebe; the inestimably supportive Walter Mason; and my fellow writers, who are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement, including Lee Kofman, Arna Radovich, Eva Lomski, Robin Riedstra, Sharon Livingstone, Rebecca Chaney, LA Larkin, Adele Dumont, James Fry, Inga Simpson, Katherine Howell, Graham Wilson and Wai Chim.

And finally to Spineless Wonders, Bronwyn Mehan, Carmel Bird, State Library Victoria and Tablo, for bringing My Name Is Revenge into the wider world through the inaugural Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award – my immense thanks.

 

Even gooder news

I’m excited to share that my manuscript, Full of Donkey: Travels in Armenia, has been shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers, in the UK. If it wins, Impress Books will publish Donkey!

Impress Prize for New Writers 2018 shortlist Ashley Kalagian Blunt

I began writing Full of Donkey in 2010, when I received a Winnipeg Arts Council grant to fund a research trip to St Catharines, Ontario. There, I interviewed my father’s family and other members of the Armenian community. I was deeply curious about how my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide of WWI had affected their lives, our family, and my cultural identity.

I continued to research the Armenian community here in Sydney. Then, I travelled to Armenia, where I spent two months interviewing pretty much everyone who would talk to me, with the help of many Armenians, as well as American Peace Corps volunteers. The project received a Varuna PIP Fellowship, which meant I was lucky enough to spend a week at the wonderful National Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains. The manuscript was also shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2017.

You can read an adapted excerpt from Full of Donkey published by Griffith Review and accompanied by my photos.Armenian genocide family memoir Ashley Kalagian Blunt

In July, the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award was announced, and included my other Armenian project, A Flicker of Justice, No More. Set in Sydney in the early 1980s, this novella explores the consequences of the ongoing denial of the genocide. It’s also my first work of crime fiction, a genre I’ve always loved.

Writing about the genocide has been an important part of my life for nearly a decade now. I hope both Full of Donkey and A Flicker of Justice will come to full fruition soon so I can share them with you.

 

Good news, for a change

I know I’ve been whinging about being sick for a while now (and there’s more where that came from!) but I do have some good news.

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My novella, A Flicker of Justice, No More, was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. This means you lucky ducks can read an excerpt on the State Library Victoria Tablo page. This novella is a crime thriller based on true events, including a terrorist attack in Sydney in 1980.

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Also, I’ve had one of my favourite short stories accepted for publication in Verandah issue 33. It’s called ‘Pre-Morbid Status’ and it’s as dark as it sounds! That’ll come out in September, so hold your breath!

Also also, back in 2016 I was the winner at one of The Moth’s StorySLAM events. Which means I’ll be competing in the GrandSLAM at Sydney’s Metro Theatre on Tuesday 7 August. This will probably be your only chance to see me perform live this year (and I know you’ve been lying awake in bed at night, wringing your hands, sweating about when you’ll be able to see me on stage again).

The Moth is a competitive storytelling event that takes place around the world, and you better believe I’m sticking to my oeuvre: a story that involves me almost dying, and also my husband in the role of himself.

Is it a good idea to perform while I’m sick? No, probably not. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes. Yes I am. I personally will only be on stage for five minutes and IT WILL GIVE ME A REASON TO LIVE. At least until 7 August. After that, all bets are off.