In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.
A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.
Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’
She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’
The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli – Teju Cole – Olivia Lang – Sheila Heti – Rachel Cusk – Jenny Offill – Elizabeth Strout – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi – The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Deepfakes by Nina Schick
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
In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.
I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.
But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.
This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.
Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.
In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.
When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.
‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’
So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.
The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.
We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.
With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.
I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.
I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.
My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.
Episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is out now, and it’s chock full of writing tips. Can you write a bestselling novel through the simple process of 5 words a day? Technically yes, though it would take you 43.8 years to complete a first draft.
We suggest better writing tips, like these:
Protect your writing time.
Write about what scares you.
Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
Try different genres, voices and forms (this is how Ashley created My Name Is Revenge, a novella and collected essays that combine memoir, history and journalism).
Make time for close reading and analysis of writing you admire.
Plus, James gets real about his motivations, and also reveals that he didn’t know what a writing residency was until he was awarded two of them back to back (at the National Writers’ House and KSP Writers’ Centre).
(And if you’re wondering why he bothered applying when he didn’t know what they were, it’s because I sent him the links. I might send James a link to clown college just to see if he’ll apply to that. He’d probably get accepted.)
How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.
Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.
When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’
As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.
There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.
Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.
This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.
Kate’s debut novel Skylarking was longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017 and the Indie Book Awards 2017. Kate co-hosts The First Time podcast with author Katherine Collette. Her latest novel, The Mother Fault, is out now in Australia and will be published in the UK in 2021.
In 2019, I appeared as part of a First Time podcast panel discussion hosted by Kate, along with authors Cassie Hamer and John Purcell. Now in 2020, we’ve come full circle, and James and I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate.
We were keen to talk about her new book, but in particular I wanted to speak to Kate about creative anxiety (meaning the anxiety inherent to most creative pursuits, not being anxious in creative ways … although that would also make an interesting discussion).
As you can tell from her bio, Kate’s a very successful author. The Mother Fault went into reprint after only eight days, despite the fact that she was launching it during Melbourne’s stage four lockdown.
But here’s why I really wanted to speak to Kate: “I know I come across as a really confident person,” she says. “I am absolutely not, and have many times in my life been absolutely crippled with anxiety.”
On her own podcast, Kate is very open about the challenges around being a writer and a creative. She’s also very aware of her own processes. As we discuss in this episode, she journals her projects, which not only gives her great insight into the project itself, but works to validate the work that she does in terms of reading and thinking and sketching – in other words, all that time when she’s not explicitly writing.
Along with creative anxiety, we discuss procrastination – “It’s getting words on the page that we find a bazillion reasons not to do” – and the unexpected experience of being overwhelmed by niceness: “You get all the nice feedback anyone deserves in their entire life, and you get it in, like, 14 days, and your brain breaks a little bit. You’re just not designed for that.”
I’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.My 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. 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. James 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.
This shot allows you to better appreciate Bonnie’s spotiness. James, 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.
This was a huge relief , because after four years I certainly haven’t figured out any way of managing my illness either.
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.
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.
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.