Working with Words: Ashley Kalagian Blunt
We spoke with Sydney-based author Ashley Kalagian Blunt about bushrangers, Garfield diaries and bizarre early efforts at speculative fiction.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
I’ve been laughing and crying at books since I was so little, my parents had to read them to me (though I suspect that back then, the crying mostly happened when they stopped reading). A recent book that made me both feel both devastatingly heartbroken and wildly hopeful is Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. In his revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, the Aboriginal author reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture truly were. It’s distressing to glimpse how much human knowledge was destroyed as a result of colonial arrogance. Yet the book also makes clear how much could still be learned from the continent’s Indigenous communities.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
As a Grade One student on the Canadian prairies, I wrote a story called ‘The Wizard Who Had a Cat’. Its publication in the annual school district compilation, Young Saskatchewan Writers, convinced me that I was a writer. I wrote little stories alongside collections of rhyming poetry, despite having no sense of metre.
At the grandiose age of 14, I started a novel. It was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars. The best thing that can be said about the four-year endeavour is that I never inflicted it on a publisher (unlike much of the poetry).
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My first job was in a second-hand bookshop, and six years there made me an eclectic reader. It also deepened my love of books, words and fellow readers. When I graduated university, I moved to South Korea to teach English, and then continued teaching in Peru and Mexico for a couple of years. Back in Canada, I worked with migrants, and then moved to Australia, where I taught in the multicultural classrooms of Western Sydney, learning as much from my students as (I hope) they took from me. These experiences made me fascinated by cultural identity, by how we understand ourselves in relation to the places we find ourselves in.
I also did stand-up comedy for a while. I wouldn’t call it a day job (it was mostly evenings; also I never got paid), but it reinforced the value of humour in navigating daily life. All of these experiences channelled themselves into my writing.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
In How to Be Australian, I write about the struggle of not having a more traditional career path. I like to think there’s an alternate reality where moving from province to province during my childhood (my dad was in the military) didn’t impact my maths and science development, and instead I followed my passion for infectious disease research and became a virologist or epidemiologist. Who knows? Maybe I could be curing coronavirus right now. In the current reality, the closest I’ve come was a writing project for Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, where I had the privilege of interviewing scientists working on an Ebola vaccine.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.
'I do find it interesting that my two books look like they’re from completely different authors.'
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
When I was 14, my aunt gave me a purple journal with Garfield on the cover (the cat, not the president). This indicates how cool I was at 14. Having barely any friends gave me heaps of time to write in my diary. I’ve kept up that habit for more than two decades. The older volumes are filled with emotional introspection and are as engaging as reading a car-repair manual.
Then, I read Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One by American essayist David Sedaris, and learned how interesting diary entries can be. I drew on my diaries to write my new memoir, pulling out all those small, wonderful details of exploring new places across Australia.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I’ve been singing the praises of Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities since it came out in 2016. I wouldn’t exactly call it underrated – Koh was a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year – but it deserves to be among Australia’s modern classics. It’s everything I want in a book, intelligent cultural critique bound up with humour and colourful characters.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
If I receive an important email that I can’t bear to read, such as competition or grant results, I’ll ask my long-suffering husband to read it for me. For some reason not having to open the email myself makes the moment of revelation more bearable.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
Not yet, I’m happy to say, but I do find it interesting that my two books look like they’re from completely different authors. My first book, My Name Is Revenge, has a darkly serious cover, and explores Australia’s connections to the Armenian genocide of World War I. My new memoir, How to Be Australian, is a fun and quirky exploration of Australia, traversing the realities of adulthood, marriage and how we find our place in the world. Its cover is bright and cheerful. While the two books look like they come from separate authors, I think they’re having an interesting intertextual conversation about how we understand ourselves and our history.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
My favourite bushranger (because of course I have a favourite bushranger) is the Birdman of the Coorong, a tiny Irish guy who rode around on an emu stealing gold necklaces on the coast of South Australia. He stole a million dollars’ worth of jewellery, and got away with it for years thanks to his habit of retreating into the Coorong. The area is a sandy marsh, and while horses struggled over that terrain, the emu could tear across it. One day the Birdman was shot and rode off into the Coorong, wounded and trailing blood. He was never seen again. Legend has it that his jewel-clad skeleton is still out there somewhere. The Birdman is likely the creation of a magazine writer, but whether he was a real person or a fictional character, I think he’d be a real trip to have dinner with.