Bianca Nogrady on death, grief and confronting our fears

 I thought I would ask acclaimed science journalist Bianca Nogrady a few questions abou her work and her philosophy. I think you will agree that she is a most fascinating person:

What is the title of your new book, and what is it about?

My latest book is The End: The Human Experience of Death, and that title pretty much sums it up. The book, which is narrative non-fiction, attempts to answer the question ‘what is death like?’ by exploring the final hours and minutes of life from a range of perspectives. It looks at why we die, namely the physiology and evolutionary mechanics of death; how we define and diagnose death; what we think death is like; what it’s like from the outside/bedside; the timing of death and how we can influence that; and how spiritual and cultural beliefs influence our experience of death.

What kind of people did you imagine reading your book as you wrote it?

This book is partly a study for the curious, partly a guide for those contemplating their mortality, and partly also (I hope) solace for those who have lost someone.
Ultimately, I wrote this book to answer my own questions about my grandmother’s death. I also wrote it because after the birth of my two children, it struck me that we talk and write and share so much about birth but death is still such taboo subject. Which is strange given that not only do we all know we’re going to die, but three-quarters of us will see our death coming with enough time to prepare for it.
So why not understand it better, why not share our stories and experiences and learn from them, why not face our fears rather than run from them?

What did you do before you started writing books?

I’ve always been a writer of one sort or another. I attempted to write my first book in high-school: a painful, awkward, cliched romance that I wrote for the sole purpose of attracting the attention of Hollywood movie makers and my then celebrity crush Emilio Estevez. Needless to say, I failed on all counts.
My day job is freelance science journalist, which I love because it combines my two great passions: science and writing. I’ve been a science/medical journalist since I finished university and I think I’ll be quite happily doing that, and hopefully writing books too, for the rest of my life.

What book or writer did you find most helpful when you were writing “The End?” Any new literary discoveries?

I read Still Here by Ram Dass, when my grandmother was dying, and it definitely influenced how I viewed her dying and death, and influenced how I approached the subject. It made me aware that there can be a ‘silver lining’ to death, and that even in the darkest times of losing a loved one or facing death, there can still be light and hope.

Ram Dass

It made me understand the gift that I received from my experience with my Nan, namely the opportunity to spend some extraordinary time with her, to say things I might never otherwise have had the opportunity or the courage to say. It was a very intense, emotional but also wonderful time.
I saw this often in the stories I encountered while writing The End. No one who had been at the bedside of a loved one dying regretted it, and even amidst the loss and grief and suffering, there was something wonderful and precious to be found.

Did you come to some kind of radical personal realisation while you were writing this book?

It certainly forced me to confront and explore my own fears around death. It was very difficult, interviewing people and hearing such heart-wrenching stories of loss, and I couldn’t help but put myself in every person’s situation and consider what it would be like to lose a husband, parents, siblings, friends, children.
I’m not necessarily afraid of pain or suffering. In researching this book, I have really come to appreciate what palliative care can do, and the extraordinary people who work within this field. I’m fairly confident that when my time comes, these people will do their best to minimise my physical and emotional suffering.
I have come to realise that I fear death because I’m the mother of two small, precious children, and I want to see them grow up and be by their side for all those milestones, big and small. I fear missing out on that, and I fear not being there for them. I fear missing them, and missing my husband. And there’s not really much that can be done about that fear other than to try to enjoy life with them while I have it.

What’s next for you?

I’m putting the final touches on a science-fiction novel - my first attempt at fiction (teen star-struck romances notwithstanding) - which I’m hoping with all my heart will find a publisher. I know fiction is a much tougher business than non-fiction, so I’m bracing myself for a storm of rejection letters secure in the knowledge that they won’t deter me and I already have sequels and other fiction ideas lining up in my mind.
The novel started out from a desire to write something fun after a year and a half of being immersed in death. It has been an interesting journey because I wanted to write a fun novel and instead have a world in which conflicts over resources are fought with bioweapons, so there’s lots of unpleasant death going on.
I also wanted to write a lead character who I saw as an amalgam of Willow (Buffy) and Velma (Scooby Doo) - a kind of sassy, groovy nerd. Instead I’ve ended up with a female version of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine (minus the claws and regenerative abilities) who, rather enjoyably, gets to say and do all those jaw-dropping things I would never have the courage or opportunity to say or do!

What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to take the leap and explore their own creativity?

Start somewhere ... anywhere. Write the first word, then the first sentence, and then you have that loose bit of wool that you can pull on gradually, gently, until you unravel the whole story.
And it really doesn’t have to perfect the first time. It can be total, utter shite and you can roll your eyes over how bad it is, but at least you have something where before you had nothing. And something, you can work with.


Read Bianca's 5 Surprising Things About Death here
Read a review of Ram Dass' Still Here here

Heavenly: An evening of sacred music in Sydney


Stephanie Dowrick

an evening of sacred music and words with seven world-class sacred musicians, led and directed by composer and performer Kim Cunio, with words contributed by Australia’s leading spiritual writer, Stephanie Dowrick.

Heather Lee & Kim Cunio

23 November, 7.30 pm.

Tickets on sale from 6.30 pm. $25.

Venue: Pitt Street Uniting Church, 264 Pitt Street,
Sydney, 2000

This is an exceptional chance to hear individually and in ensemble seven world-class musicians playing music “of the heavens”.

Heather Lee, visionary soprano; Elizabeth Lecoanet, musical director of “Sydney Sings”; Mark Isaac, piano; Nawres Al-Freh, violin; Nicholas Ng, organ and erhu; Julian Wong, cello, voice, Chinese flute; and Kim Cunio, piano, voice and traditional instruments.

Sister Veni Cooper-Mathieson in the latest issue of New Dawn Magazine

The latest issue of New Dawn 141 (Nov-Dec) features an article by me on the all-too-little-known Australian Sister Veni Cooper-Mathieson. It is now available from newsagencies across Australia and New Zealand. Also you can download a digital version from

One of the greatest discoveries I have made during the years of researching my doctoral thesis has been the eccentric writer and metaphysical teacher Sister Veni Cooper-Mathieson.

Sister Veni Cooper-Mathieson - Australian literary pioneer

Sister Veni was an Australian religious entrepreneur who wrote a number of extremely idiosyncratic books promoting the ideas of New Thought she espoused. She was also a serial publisher of metaphysical journals.

One of Sister Veni's journals

She also occasionally fell foul of the law!

The good people at New Dawn asked me to write an essay about my heroine, and it appears in the latest issue of the magazine which is in stores now.

This is the issue to look out for

Grab a copy!

New Books November 2013 - Biography & Autobiography

Here is my nice new pile - I am being sensible this month, and reckon I ought to get through these. From the top:

Victoria Glendinning Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among the Lions - My Edith Sitwell obsession dates back to when I was 17 and first saw a photograph of her. Anyone who looked that fantastic was alright by me. I have read all her books and quite a few biographies, but somehow this one has passed me by.

David Thomson Bette Davis - I am currently undergoing one of my periodic preoccupations with All About Eve and, resultantly, Bette Davis. This slender little bio might offer up some new insights into the great lady's life and career.

Gary Indiana Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World - Another of my historic fixations, I must be close to reading every book by and about Andy Warhol. This looks interesting because I have also followed Gary Indiana's career from Queer-punk erotic short story writer to literary exponent of true crime. His book Three Month Fever, about the Gianni Versace murder, is still one of my favourites. So interested to read what he has to say about Warhol.

Eileen Caddy Flight Into Freedom and Beyond - This is a book I have wanted to read for years. Caddy is famous to New Agers everywhere as one of the founders of the Findhorn community, and her own life is quite intriguing. I am interested to read how she balances her evangelical Christian beliefs against her accompanying belief in fairies, clairvoyancy and nature spirits. Of course, this combination was once a common one, but in the modern world it seems an intriguing impossibility. 

Gloria Swanson Swanson on Swanson - What's not to find fascinating about the glorious Gloria? I remember watching her on Michael Parkinson when I was just a child, no idea who she was, but I was blown away by her glamour and her presence. Naturally I have been a devotee ever since, but I have never read this.

Philippa Gregory The Women of the Cousins' War - I have just done a marathon of watching The White Queen. Enough said.

Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal - More Warholiana. This is the exhibition catalogue for the Asian touring show which I never got to see, but my partner did. He brought this back for me.

Jean Cocteau: Spirit of the 20th Century Parisian Scene - Another exhibition, this one I saw in Hong Kong. It was brilliant, and this book is an exquisite object all on its own.

Where to from Now? 30 Nov in Berry


Instead of asking "What do I want from life?", a more powerful question is "What does life want from me?”            Eckhart Tolle

Global Contact presents:

Be inspired by women who have asked the question & are living their answers.

Stephanie Dowrick
Dorothy McRae McMahon
Susan Murphy
Jane Ewins

Dorothy McRae McMahon

Walter Mason (author of Destination Cambodia) will be our event's Interlocutor.

Walter Mason in Cambodia


Saturday 30 November 2013 
9.30 for 10 am - 4.00 pm

This day may be for you if you have ever wondered:
  • How do we turn problems into opportunities?
  • Is it all too hard and too late?
  • How can I make a difference?
  • There’s something missing - what is it?
  • Why aren’t “they” doing something?
  • How to let go, forgive & move on?
Proceeds from the day go to Sydney homeless women & the Shoalhaven Women’s Health Centre.
Bookings: Global Contact Ph 61. (02) 4462 2121

Speaking of Vietnam at NSW Writers' Centre

Dai Giac Temple, Ho Chi Minh City

Speaking of Vietnam
NSW Writers' Centre
Thursday, 28 November 2013 from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM (EST)
Lilyfield, NSW
Tickets $10

Order Tickets Now

The final Talking Writing for 2013 will focus on writing about Vietnam. Joining us on Thursday 28 November will be Walter Mason, whose travel book Destination Saigon explored the sights, scents and sounds of Vietnam's largest city and its surrounds.

Walter Mason

Emily Maguire's Fishing For Tigers also delved into the world Vietnam, exploring its character and atmosphere through the eyes of fictional ex-pats.

Emily Maguire

Finally, Vietnamese poet Quynh Tram will be joining us, and reading her work in both English and Vietnamese. There will be rice paper rolls, wine and a chance for a Q&A.

Garry Owen House, Callan Park
Balmain Road

Kvak and Kven - a Cambodian folk tale

One of the images you might encounter in temples around Cambodia is this one:

It had me puzzled for a long time, as it didn't belong to any recognisably Buddhist iconography, and yet it was always present somewhere on the grounds of Buddhist temples.

Eventually I asked my friend Kimly and he explained it was a representation of A Kvak and A Kven, the heroes of a popular Cambodian morality tale.

Two escaped slaves, one was blind and one was crippled, and so each was incapable of advancing far. Meeting each other on a riverbank they realised that if they combined their skills then together they could achieve much. And so, relying on one another, they went out into the world and became rich men.

The importance of this tale in Cambodia is significant. Obviously in a country where so many were damaged during long periods of war this tale of coming together for the common good held great moral and psychological power.

If you are in Phnom Penh you can purchase a picture book of the tale.

And here is a youtube clip from a Cambodian movie of the story:

If you would like to hear more of my stories about Cambodia, do come along to my night at Newtown Library on the 26th of November. More details here.

Buddhist monks in Cambodia

Much of my life has been spent in the company of Buddhist monks, and whenever I travel I normally end up in the orbit of monks.
Cambodia is no exception, and I have spent many happy hours in their company, learning as much about human nature as about religion.
In Cambodia almost everyone is Buddhist, and many young men spend a period of time as a monk. People revere the monks and see them as a "field of merit" - the means by which they migh acquire good karma. In respecting monks and helping them to survive regular lay people can accrue spiritual merit.
Here are some of the images of monks I have taken over the years in Cambodia. Each tells a particular story. Indeed, each could be the basis for an entire book all on its own:

Takin part in the recitation of the Jataka Tales

Gathered for Human Rights Day - a scene I write about in "Destination Cambodia"
Kosal - my closest monk friend in Cambodia. He is now a layman.

With Kosal inside his quarters
Battambang monk wears maroon robes, which is unusual in Cambodia

In the January 2014 edition of New Dawn magazine I have a piece about how to create an excellent new year using some of the ideas of New Thought. If you are in Australia make sure you head down to your local newsagent and grab a copy so you can read it.

Zena Shapter on readability, writing and consulting with others

One of the most energetic identities on the Sydney writing scene is the fabulous Zena Shapter

Zena Shapter

I see her all over the place, including at an ill-fated event of my own which saw my entire audience evacuated onto a city street. I am always interested to hear what Zena has to say about writing, so I asked her to send me a post about something she's been thinking about lately. So it's over to Zena:
 Thanks for letting me visit your blog again, Walter – I love chatting with readers and writers online! As a reader myself, I’m always interested in the insights that come with authors’ blogs. As a writer, I’m often after tips and advice. So today I thought I’d chat about one of the biggest mistakes I think an author can make…

You see, the other day, I was chatting with a neighbour about my plans for the day – which involved going through some beta reader comments – and she was surprised to discover there were so many steps involved in getting a book ready for publication. We ended up having quite a long chat about it. She just thought that (a) you write a book, then (b) you publish it. Not so!

Publishing is a highly competitive industry and writers set themselves up for failure if they send out substandard writing - it won’t sell, and publishers/agents won’t be interested in presenting that writing to larger audiences. So writers have to be 100% certain that their writing is ready to be published. It has to be perfect! How do they do this? Well, they check their story in terms of:

•    Readability – it has to have a good plot/subject, engaging characters, and a detailed setting
•    Writing Skill – no info-dumping, it has to be well-edited with a correct structure and polished style
•    An Absence of Flaws – perfect grammar, punctuation, etc
•    Audience Reaction – no false suspense please, but keep readers guessing!
•    Marketability – it’s great if it’s a page-turner with a fresh voice

There’s so much to know and check – it’s no wonder my neighbour was surprised! And she’s not the only one…

As the founder and leader of a writers’ group, I often meet writers who think that just because they’ve spent the last three years writing a book, it must be ready – it must because they’ve invested all that time in writing it. But time doesn’t necessarily translate into readiness. A writer may believe they’ve checked their book for all of the above elements, but inexperience clouds their judgment. They think their story is ready, but it’s not! So please new writers – check your work for each of the above elements and, if you’re not sure how to do that, take a writing course that will show you how.

Even once you’re certain you’ve nailed it, you should still consult with writing others before sending your work out. Most writers use check-points such as:

•    Hiring an editor, consulting with a mentors, or using a manuscript assessment agency
•    taking a creative writing course
•    arranging beta readers (writer-friends who exchange books for feedback)
•    joining a writers’ group

Editors, mentors and manuscript assessment agencies can be costly, but from them writers get tailored feedback on their writing. Creative writing courses are skills investments – if you’re going to build a house, you need to make sure you have all the right tools for the job! With beta readers, a writer needs to be able to trust their fellow writers’ advice, which is why I recommend new writers meet such readers at writers' groups and assess their skills as a writer first.

Experience of course comes into play too. Once you’ve been writing for a while, sending your writing out to readers and having success, you come to know when a piece of writing is more-or-less ready.

Still, a writer would be crazy to send their book out to publishers or self-publish without first using a couple of check-points. I always use a number of check-points so I can be 100% sure – which is what I was doing when I bumped into my neighbour the other day. I’d never leave something so important to chance. Writers who skip some of the above steps and send their writing out before it’s ready make the biggest mistake of them all.

Getting your book ready for readers can sometimes take a bit of time, but then – doesn’t anything worthwhile?

Zena Shapter and her latest publication

If you’d like help getting your own writing ready for publication, Zena runs regular workshops for writers irrespective of age or experience, as well as mentorships. Her next writing workshop is her ‘Writing Safari: The Big Five’ on Saturday 23 November in Sydney. It focuses on skills-building for plot, characters, setting, style and self-editing. For more information, click here.

Zena Shapter is a British-Australian author who has won six national writing competitions (all blind judging), is published in various print and online anthologies and magazines, has written some novels and is represented by literary agent Alex Adsett. She also blogs, here.

Bianca Nogrady in conversation with Walter Mason - Ashfield Library - Friday November 29, 1pm

A few weeks ago I was sent the most remarkable book to review and, having finished it, all I could think was, "I really want to meet this author."

The author in question is Bianca Nogrady and  the book is her extraordinary exploration of the human experience of death, The End.

Bianca Nogrady

And, as I like to make things happen, I have organised, along with the fabulous Ashfield Library, to have an author conversation with Bianca on Friday November 29 at 1pm.

This is a  free event, and I can gurantee it will be utterly fascinating. Bring your thinking hats as we discuss the philosophical implications of death and just how we, as a society, handle this most universal experience.


Authors at Ashfield: Bianca Nogrady in conversation with Walter Mason

@ Ashfield Library

Friday November 29 at 1pm

Totally free - all welcome

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