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Sophie Cunningham talks to Steven Amsterdam

I discovered Steven Amsterdam’s work when his publisher, Louise Swinn of Sleepers, asked me to read a proof copy so I could provide a cover line. Things We Didn’t See Coming came out in early 2009 and was Amsterdam’s first published work. It challenged both conventions of form and genre at the same time as being a ripping good yarn. I liked it very much and was particularly struck by the way Amsterdam let the spaces between sections do as much work as the stories themselves. The book was the recipient of 2009’s Age Book of the Year Award.

Sophie Cunningham: I read Things We Didn’t See Coming as a novel but it’s also been called a short-story collection.

Steven Amsterdam: Even on the book itself it’s not that consistent. On the flap copy it says it’s stories and some other place I think it says ‘novel’. But Sleepers has pitched it as a novel. In the States it’s going out as a collection, in the UK as a novel. Marketing departments make some of these decisions and I’m fairly happy with either mode, though I think a reader would be poorly served by reading the last story or chapter first.

Sophie: While there were leaps that meant that we were a bit surprised by where the main—unnamed—character was, I read him as the one character the entire way through. Have the words ‘discontinuous narrative’ been used?

Steven: Only with people who work at university presses. It’s just not one of those phrases that brings in the crowds. I’ve been a little sensitive to it because I’ve seen certain reviews where people seem confused, and to me it’s pretty straightforward that the grandparents reappear, Margo is Margo in three different stories. Time passes and life alters people. To me, that was part of the reward of writing the book. How would they have changed since we saw them last?

Sophie: You’ve spoken about the human tendency to catastrophise and be pessimistic when in fact people tend to rally, no matter what’s thrown at them. Was each chapter intended to work through the implications of a different catastrophe, or were you making a point about the way the personality can change and shift quite dramatically over time? I know I’ve felt like a very different person in different phases of my life.

Steven: Yes, same. I was very conscious of the fact that I could not have imagined my current self five years ago, and letting that growth in character occur offstage seemed like an interesting way to go. In a sense, each of the stories/chapters leaves the narrator on the verge of another 180-degree turn. Not everybody experiences that much change in their life. Maybe this is actually the answer: the readers who have a hard time with that have been in the same place for thirty years, and the people who related better have had more experience with dodging through life. Finding yourself in a new territory and finding yourself surviving things you didn’t think you’d survive, that’s interesting to me. If I set out to make a point, that was probably the point.

Sophie: Well, I wanted to know if you could literally connect these catastrophes or whether you played with different catastrophes and hoped that they created some sense of relationship. Did you try and map out the disasters?

Steven: I hate sounding a little haphazard, but someone in my writing workshop at one point said, ‘You have to give a timeline of what’s happened in all these stories because I’m not understanding it.’

Sophie: You do that with the character’s age.

Steven: That’s about the only thing. When editing it into its final form I was conscious of things that had happened in the past, so was able to call on the post-viral stuff after the plague chapter, for example. But I didn’t have a consistent history for exactly everything that would have happened. I did indulge a lot of these ideas at the same time because I think (and this is maybe a bit of Y2K thinking) it was all supposed to happen at once anyway. It wasn’t like I threw a whole lot of different dystopias at the wall and said let’s try them all. I did come to something of a timeline: the government split and then it rained a lot and then everybody got the plague and then everybody was living in communes and so on …

Sophie: And in the end everyone was getting cancers. Were they post-viral or …

Steven: … exposure to things. And some were post-viral. After that chapter with the senator I started focusing on what could be good, not just the disasters of the future, but what sort of advances might come to help us. It can’t all be bad news. And I kept thinking about medication.

Sophie: I have re-read it and that struck me quite strongly. We’re already a culture that uses medication for most things.

Steven: As much as we possibly can. So I took all the fears and dreams about the future and tried to imagine how different things could be but still be quite recognisable. I was making up a lot of systems for these different futures but I didn’t want it to be fantasy land. I didn’t want everyone to have jet packs and flying around.

Sophie: Were you also making points about class, by which I mean the main character moves up and down classes? Let’s say the current world order does collapse. People in the public service are going to have a very different experience to people on the land, for example. I wondered if you made him a fluid character so you could get away with those kinds of shifts.

Steven: Yes, he’s definitely an artful dodger. He’ll sneak in and he’ll survive at the bottom if needed. In the chapter where he’s the most economically uplifted, when he’s with the senator, I was conscious that he’d been so hungry for so long. I really wanted to give him something plush.

Sophie: I found that one of the most depressing chapters.

Steven: Because?

Sophie: The sexual anxiety. Obviously you’re talking about reconfiguration of personal relationship in that section, ‘The Forest and the Trees’, but there is a sense of being pushed out by Margot and Juliet. Margot just disappears from the narrative after that, doesn’t she?

Steven: Yes.

Sophie: So he felt saddest in that to me.

Steven: In a way that chapter is him putting up his hands and saying, ‘I’m done.’

Sophie: I found the relationship with Margot very interesting because they had a very true relationship, no matter how chaotic it was.

Steven: My sister was a big proponent of their relationship. I thought it was awful.

Sophie: Someone who moves around like him was never really going to land …

Steven: … land someplace? Yes, that’s true.

Sophie: How much was your interest in writing about a survivor? I’m thinking here of Polanski’s The Pianist, and how the main character in that survived by not being brave. There’s a kind of bravery about just doing whatever it takes, I know, but sometimes what it took was to be a coward.

Steven: To weasel out of things. Yes, I don’t think there’s a lot of proud, brave moments in this book. My character’s quite shifty in what he has to do to get by. He does a lot of second guessing other people and uses skills other than sheer brute force that get him though. That personality is, for better or worse, something I relate to a little. Those are skills I am better able to draw on than picking up my shield and running into battle.

Sophie: Why did children become so rare?

Steven: Because sperm counts were down. It’s interesting, sperm counts are already about 50 per cent of what they were in the 1930s. I think it has something to do with diet, it has something to do with pesticides, and it also has something to do with the fact we might not need as much fertility as we once had.

Sophie: His sexuality is interesting. He only seems keen early on where he’s desperate to get laid …

Steven: Right, while he’s a teenager. Then he sort of loses it. I mean, he’s basically straight, he has relationships with women and he just gets more preoccupied with the other things going on in his life and less likely to score as time goes by. Which is kind of sad.

Sophie: He’s a person who is alone for most of the book, really, so I suppose in that sense sexual identity is irrelevant.

Steven: I don’t feel that he fully connects in the course of things. I think he has his moments with Margot and he has a nice time with his dad at either end of the book.

Sophie: Are you trying to make a broader comment about disconnection in our culture?

Steven: That’s one of those funny questions for which the truthful answer is ‘no’. It wasn’t specifically a theme I was thinking about. Basically I was trying to tell the story. Clearly, a lot of unconscious stuff does come up, as well as the more conscious ideas like worrying about the future and the space between years in our lives. That’s the material I was thinking about more abstractly.

Sophie: How interested were you in wrestling with the science fiction genre?

Steven: I didn’t hear the words ‘science fiction’ until very late in the game. I’m more comfortable with the word ‘speculative’. I was on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival with China Miéville and felt uncomfortable being genre labelled. But the American publisher has just sent me the flap copy and it reads like a little more sci-fi than I imagined the book. But I’m sure you’ve had this experience, that the book doesn’t exactly come out as you …

Sophie: It has other lives.

Steven: Yes, and so at some point I just thought, okay, that’s what the experts think.

Sophie: China Miéville is a very cool edge of science fiction to be aligned with. That kind of exploration of utopia and dystopia is something that allows you to be political and think about where we’re going …

Steven: … what systems we’re living in.

Sophie: Yes, more conventional novels don’t necessarily do that. So you’re not into science fiction?

Steven: I don’t have a lot of knowledge of it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the first thing that comes to mind, and that’s fairly basic …

Sophie: And does that get called science fiction?

Steven: Good point. No, it doesn’t.

Sophie: Have you read The Road by Cormac McCarthy?

Steven: When Sleepers first brought me in with this they asked, ‘Have you read The Road?’ I said no. They said, ‘Good. Don’t read it, because then you don’t have to answer questions about it and the similarities … people are going to bring them up.’

Sophie: Well, certainly there’s the father–son thing. I did want to talk to you about the relationship between the father and the son in your book. The emotional shape of the narrative is very much dictated by the relationship with the father.

Steven: That arc only really came up at the very end when I wrote the first chapter.

Sophie: So you wrote the first chapter last?

Steven: Yes. The grandparents [chapter two, ‘The Theft that Got me Here’] was the one I wrote first. The Y2K really came to me somewhere in the writing process. It was the result of something I was worrying about. Remember the West Nile virus? It probably didn’t make a splash here, it was this encephalitis that hit in New York. A mosquito-borne virus that, because of climate change, has become comfortable in the northern United States. Anyway, there was a summer when it just seemed we were all going to die. Not long after that, to ‘celebrate’ Y2K, my ex and I packed the car and rented a house in the country. He was calm, I was the nervous one, making sure the place had a generator and all that.

Sophie: Okay, so there is some autobiography in Things We Didn’t See Coming then?

Steven: Well, it has been pointed out to me that perhaps I worry a little more than necessary at times. I thought that the Y2K thing was a compassionate place to start the reader because it located them in the past. (Actually, Toni Jordan told me it was.)

Sophie: I thought it was fantastic because it blew the book open. That is, you get to the end of the first chapter, and you think, Y2K, wasn’t that a crock of shit! and then you get to the next chapter and you think, Oh! It allowed me to go with you and not question anything you did.

Steven: So this is an argument I’m having with the flap copy in the States … do you think the book suggested that Y2K did lead to the breakdown of things and the things happened after or …?

Sophie: … did I read it as a parallel universe?

Steven: Yes. A kind of variation on a theme.

Sophie: I thought you were saying, ‘Okay, what if in fact it did happen?’ While I didn’t follow all the reasons why the social breakdown might have occurred as a result of Y2K, that didn’t worry me.

Steven: In my mind the Y2K thing was still a fizzle in the book, but something else happened. Something that led to the next chapter. The political stuff in the grandparents’ chapter was based on the awful election we had in 2004 in the States, when it just seemed like the country folk and the city folk were just going to declare a war on each other. I saw the religious fundamentalism as a symptom of that. So between midnight on the turn of the millennium and the next chapter, something broke.

Sophie: Can you give me a little bit about your background, specifically your writing background?

Steven: I was born on the upper West Side of New York, Jewish parents, lifelong New Yorkers, and grew up in New York public schools, University of Chicago, always writing on the side. I worked in Japan for a bit, worked in California for a bit, worked in publishing in Random House for ten years.

Sophie: As an editor?

Steven: First as a map editor for travel guides, then as an editor for travel guides and as a jacket designer for Knopf. And then at that same time I was also cooking a lot, I was making wedding cakes on the side, as you do, and came here [to Australia] because I had contacts here from the travel publishing. I always had a bit of a fantasy about Australia, and travelled here for a month and loved it and vowed to come back, then came back. I struggled in different ways to stay legal for the first few years and then found a way.

Sophie: Is there any of that in the book—I’m thinking about scenes in which he needs all the right papers to exist.

Steven: Yes, there is a scene where he’s going for the job that was drawn from the immigration experience. Certainly it’s sobering for an American to be on the other side of that desk, because they don’t make it easy and they didn’t always make it easy for me.

Sophie: How do you feel about living in Australia?

Steven: To some degree I feel like I’m taking the easy way out by being here, because New York is such hard work. The United States right now is such hard work. I just got the new Best American Non-Required Reading and it’s always an interesting collection, like this year’s Best American Short Stories. But they’re both on really hard subjects. There’s a really horrendous story about someone surviving Katrina and a soldier coming back miserable, and this is what’s in the Zeitgeist there, and I feel quite cocooned from it. I suppose that’s one thing that I do get from my job at the hospital. There’s hard stuff … there’s hard stuff everywhere and people cope in different ways, but in America many people are losing their jobs, many people are losing their grip on their dream. The whole healthcare thing is such a nightmare. It’s an embarrassment to even discuss it with people here. People of my parents’ generation are saying this is the worst it’s been. It’s sad to have people in their seventies saying things like that.

Sophie: Are you a big reader?

Steven: Yes, I read a lot. I’m not so good on the contemporary, but I’m feeling more beholden these days.

Sophie: Who was influential when you were writing Things We Didn’t See Coming?

Steven: Everyone I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t say I was channelling anyone in particular, but I tried to keep voice and story foremost. Lolita is such a good book, Jane Eyre is such a good book.

Sophie: Jane Eyre was a book I used a lot when I was writing Geography.

Steven: I can see that. Capote is a really lean storyteller. That was one thing I always try to do is keep it as lean as possible. Then there’s James Cain; he wrote The Postman always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. He said every book should be 168 pages, no longer.

Sophie: Things We Didn’t See Coming is 174!

Steven: Blame my slack publisher. I think it’s going to be 208 in the US. Cain said every story could be told in that many pages, you don’t need more. His books all have that readability that is so necessary for a book’s success. It can be a wild story with freaky characters, but if the information isn’t delivered and withheld in the right equation, it’s easy for a reader to drift away.

Sophie: Is this the first book you’ve written?

Steven: I’ve been writing for years. I have a couple of unsold screenplays lying around my hard drive. I didn’t start writing fiction in earnest until a variety of circumstances led me to take the post-grad course in creative writing over here and then I got back into fiction. That was 2004, and then I probably wrote the first story of the book in 2006.

Sophie: Given that you started writing slightly older and there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s good to start young or wait until you’re older or whatever …

Steven: I really have been writing for years.

Sophie: I suppose I meant trying to get yourself published.

Steven: Ah. That’s about confidence. I was actually on the phone with my father about this recently. We were talking about … how familiar are you with American colleges? Do you know Bard?

Sophie: No.

Steven: It’s a small liberal arts college. It’s a very indulged little environment, and it was sort of my safety school but I got into the University of Chicago, which is much more rigorous and it teaches you self-deprecation. And Bard really is like Brown, it teaches you ‘everything that comes out of my mouth is wonderful and must be blogged about’. My father went to some event that Bard was having and I said, ‘It’s funny, if I went there my novel probably would have been printed twenty years earlier.’ I thought about that a little bit afterwards, and I don’t know if that would have been necessarily for the better because a lot of the book reflects on detours and insights that only time could give me. Certainly having worked in publishing, that probably put me off the urgency of writing because if you work in publishing you see there are so many books. Nobody is waiting for my book.

Sophie: What’s it been like for you with Things We Didn’t See Coming being so successful?

Steven: ‘So successful’ is a weird term. You can always hope for more. Readings [bookshop] is doing everything, they are geniuses. When I signed with Sleepers I was, like, oh this will be pleasant, two girls and a guitar, they’re great and so on. Then it just kept happening. The reviews, the Age awards. One thing I love about Australia is that a prize like the Age Book of the Year wouldn’t have been given to this book for a small publisher in the States.

Sophie: Are you working on another book at the moment? Do you now see yourself as a writer?

Steven: Nobody used to ask me about what I was working on next, but I am. And yes, almost a writer. I still put down ‘nurse’ when I have to fill out most forms. It’s simpler. About ten years ago I decided I’m not going to call myself a writer if I’m just going to be beating myself up for not writing, so I’ll write when I can write and see how it works. But now that I’ve been legitimised by being paid for it, I’ve gone down to four shifts a week [as a psychiatric nurse at the Alfred Hospital] and am trying to dedicate that other day and parts around the other days to plotting up the next thing.

Sophie: What kind of form is it?

Steven: It’s discontinuous narrative but with more characters.

Sophie: What is it about that form that you like?

Steven: It’s … the first word that comes to mind is ‘easy’. Because you can sneak up on working on it, because you can work really intensely on these twenty pages, you know exactly what’s going to happen and the shape of it, and then you’re out, you don’t have to connect them too closely to the next twenty pages. But now that I know I’m doing it, I am working to make sure the connections are important. I think people like reading something with gaps.

Sophie: It gives them space to insert themselves into the narrative, in a way.

Steven: Yes, every story in Things We Didn’t See Coming ends with a cliffhanger, and I think it’s nice to let the reader work to get the narrator back to safety.

Sophie: Does it relate at all to the notion of hyperlinks and lateral relationships that happen online?

Steven: I remember hypertext was going to change the way we read, but it didn’t really work out. It was like David Foster Wallace: basically footnotes. But at the end of the day I feel like I’m fairly traditional and I like things to move forward. Is that what you were thinking about with hyperlinks?

Sophie: I suppose my point was that to end with cliffhangers and have a lot of space between where the book takes up again does mean people can interpret the ending and then bring that to how they read the next chapter.

Steven: Yes, there’s certainly enough room in time for a variety of things to have happened. In Things We Didn’t See Coming one thing I debated was the way that relationship ends with Margot. I almost wanted him to just say ‘I’m out’ and walk out of the forest. You don’t know if it dragged on for another three years.

Sophie: How much did doing a writing course impact on the kind of book Things We Didn’t See Coming is and the writing of it?

Steven: The main thing it gave me was confidence. I don’t think it gave me the craft. The workshop with my peers is what survived and that’s what’s been completely valuable. That’s given me craft. I can’t stress it enough, especially with something like this where I’m trying to describe this specific world and I’ve only got a chapter to do it because it’s going to be a different world by the next chapter. The workshop is really good at telling you when you’re over-explaining and when you’re being too obscure.

Sophie: How much did you map out the background of the world? With each chapter did you have a very clear sense of exactly what that world was?

Steven: Yes, I could probably answer a lot of background questions in detail, chapter by chapter. How things came to be. But I didn’t think people needed to know all that. Maybe this is the difference with true sci-fi, that I wasn’t so concerned with that aspect, that I was more interested in his behaviour.

Sophie: How much did you research the particular dystopias?

Steven: There were practical things that I had to get into. I have a very useful book called How to Survive in the Wild that helped for a few chapters. Mostly, the Economist led my way. The politics are usually horrendous but their science coverage, their technology news, the book reviews—they get you to think. They tell you about what we’ll be able to transplant, how we’ll be able to secure our possessions, how we’ll communicate across distances. And because they include the social and economic implications in most of their reporting on these things, they force you to imagine what the future will look like.