Evie Wyld interviews Steven Amsterdam

Evie Wyld interviews Steven Amsterdam
Posted 18 August 2010 by Evie Wyld

Steven Amsterdam is a lot of things. His website biography lists the following as examples of what he is:

  • Is a writer living in Melbourne.
  • Was born and raised by lifelong New Yorkers in Manhattan.
  • Wrote his first story about a hamster whose family was starving. A lilac bush in bloom saved everyone.
  • was educated at Bronx Science, University of Chicago, and University of Melbourne.
  • Wrote speeches about the Nissan forklift for the 1988 Tokyo Auto Show.
  • Cast his first vote for Michael Dukakis, absentee from Japan.
  • Once got yelled at by Sean Penn.
  • Couldn't get lost on the Li River in China.

He is also the author of the superlative collection, Things We Didn't See Coming. When asked which writing hero she wanted to interview as part of her residency, Evie Wyld chose Steven. What follows is a conversation that gets to the heart of what we write and why we do. Thanks to Evie and to Steven for such a powerful interview.

> Things We Didn't See Coming explores various conceptions of the future. Did you feel any pressure while writing because of the books and films that have come before that deal with this subject - either to do similar things to them, or to kick out against what's come before and do something different?

The pieces of the story evolved more from worries about the near-future than from imagining the farther future. That is to say that my influences were more likely to come from the science sections of newspapers and The Economist than from traditional apocalyptic preoccupations. Since I saw what I was doing as kind of personal and kind of speculative I didn't really think I was entering a canon. Then I sat down with the good folks at Sleepers, my Australian publisher. They said to me, 'Have you read The Road?' I said 'no.' They said, 'Good, don't.' They explained that people might try to compare my book to it, they'd be wrong, but they didn't want me to have to say that my book was better (up myself) or worse (not worth buying) than the one that won the Pulitzer.

> When I was writing my novel, which has some parts set during the Vietnam war, I decided not to watch any of the films about the war, because I was worried about just transcribing them. Are there any books or films that you were influenced by in either case? Or did you steer clear completely?

As I said, I didn't quite know that the book was going to look like anything else, so my influences came from all over. I particularly remember being wowed by Saramago's Blindness and Roth's The Plot Against America (which is actually retro-speculative). The former helped with the Everyplaceness of my setting. The latter helped me see that the best way to tell the big political story is through the smallest most intimate concerns.

> (I think) you were born and lived most of your life in the US but you moved to Melbourne several years ago. Did being somewhere else allow you to write this book? Does the book firmly take place in the US or Australia for you, or did you want it to be less specific? 

Travel contextualises. Being away from the US provides almost as much new information about my home of origin as it does about my new land. The experience of being an immigrant radicalized me somewhat about the tyranny of nationhood. There's something monopolistic about border checkpoints and visas. I think it will eventually change. But that's not your question. Being elsewhere gave me the time (fewer friends and associations) and the perspective (see above) to think about the changes we're supposed to be concerned with right now, medical advances, climate shifts, etc. The folks at Sleepers did some light denationalising of my original manuscript, but I was fine with it. Not from a marketing standpoint, but from a wish to avoid specific. Some parts of the book were inspired by American landscapes and events and some by Australian, but I wanted to imagine that the story could be set anywhere in the so-called First World.

> One of the things I really admire about your book is the way you explore the relationship between chapter in a novel and story in a collection. I found it really enjoyable how we're taken from one distinct atmosphere, time and place to another each time we begin a new section. I've heard it referred to as 'a novel in stories', which feels a bit redundant as a term - like 'a song in music' or something- but your book definitely leaves more space for a reader to traverse than a traditional realist novel, while being bound more tightly than a traditional short story collection.

It's a great balance as you never feel the need to draw concrete links between the chapters, referring back and absolutely pinning down that it's the same character but I certainly came away with that satisfying novelly feeling of having witnessed the forward progression of one life. I was wondering how this structure came about? Did you always know the chapters/stories would be distinct from one another in this way, and that so much of the dynamic of the reading experience would be about the gaps in between, or did you start with a more traditional novel text and cut away at it?

I did not know I was writing a book at first. I wrote a story, The Theft That Got Me Here, based on a few different threads. As I was writing the last line, I realszed that I wasn't done with the narrator. So I tried him again, about twenty years later. Suddenly I felt I had a frame. Writing story/chapters was a great way for me to work, as I was studying nursing while I was writing TWDSC. I could keep an outline that would provide the 'novel-ly feeling' but do the detail work in short bursts that required less immersion. I also get impatient with novels as they always seem to end up talking about wallpaper. Short stories don't have that kind of time. My goal was to have each section end with something of a cliffhanger or turning point, with enough information in the following story to allow the reader to conjure the in-between. The discontinuous narrative engages the reader in the process of imagining this near-future world.

> What description of your book do you prefer (apologies if it's novel in stories)?

The classification has always mystified me a bit, but I understand that it's needed for marketing. So it's what you said, a novel in stories. No apology required.

> Your book starts with a young boy who is worried about his parents. Throughout the book there's a tremendous feeling of worry, as you might expect in a book about such huge societal change, but the worry is often extremely intimate. Not so much 'How will we rebuild our world?'  as 'where will I sleep and who with, does she still love me?'.

I wondered if you have a chart somewhere with a big timeline and all of the geopolitical and environmental stuff pinned down - '2015: the last polar bears have died out' - and that's what allowed you to focus in on the smaller, human concerns, or whether you only allowed yourself to imagine what people in their situation would realistically know?

I'm in two writing workshops that meet monthly and they are both vital to my writing. After the fourth story was written, someone said to me, 'Ok, what's going on here? I need a timeline.' This forced me to sit down and imagine it all out. It also gave me the excuse to do more research, which sent me to A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, which is a history of 14th century France (which was a generally crap time to be in France). Her book is stocked with personal details, what they ate and what they wore kind of facts, that underscored the preeminence of the personal. Yes, there's a plague, and yes, God has left the building, but how many cows must be slaughtered for your sister's wedding? So although my stories were initially concocted as meditations on current worries (or, 'an extravaganza of wipeout porn,' according to one review), I do know the causes for the events and their sequence.

> Looking at your website, it's obvious that 'worry' is something that really interests you. What are some of the things you worry about? For example, did you buy a millennium bug kit?

Ah, worry. For me, the propensity for media-induced nervousness is taken care of in the first chapter, which is set on the eve of Y2K when the narrator's father is freaking out about leaving the city before the grid goes down. I, myself, left the city for NYE that year, with a similar fear, though I wasn't nearly as sweaty about it. My partner and I were safe in a mountain cabin, which, I made sure, had its own generator. For those old enough to remember, Y2K was a total fizzle. For me, writing that chapter (which I actually wrote last) was setting the stage. I didn't put it there to suggest that Y2K did happen (as it has been sometimes read), but to act as a reminder: None of the things we're worrying about may come to pass. Of course, the corollary is alarming: we're simply not worrying about the right things.

> My favourite part, the bit that scares me the most and that I keep coming back to when I'm thinking about how I want my own work to be, is in 'Cake Walk' when the protagonist is up a tree with a man dying of plague at the bottom, trying to coax him down. The dying man is charming and funny and human, while at the same time being incredibly threatening. The character up the tree is wondering when his girlfriend will come back, or indeed if she will come back at all. The idea of an illness almost wiping out humanity is familiar, but the way that you made it so domestic, almost a comedy of manners at points, brought this home to me in a way previous evocations of that idea haven't. Did you at any level have key tropes of 'the future' that you set out to examine, or did a scene like this begin with the characters?

To a certain degree, I wanted to cover the wipeout porn genre, as a means of exorcising these fears, so I may have set out thinking, Ok, this one will touch on a plague scenario. But I knew these characters, knew the flaws in their relationship, and that's what I planned to write about. It always makes me laugh in action movies when the clock is ticking but the lovers take two minutes to recapitulate some adulterous infraction. It usually has nothing to do with keeping the Eiffel Tower vertical, but they do it. For me, I wanted the human stuff in the foreground. Even with this infected guy coughing up god-knows-what a few feet away, I wanted the driving question to be, Will Margo come back to the campsite?

> I'm always interested when I read a book that allows for the sorts of storytelling freedom yours does - ie you're not tied to historical fact, you can show the result of huge changes in context, without spending all that time filling in the whys and wherefores - if there are any scenes you remember that didn't make it into the final book, or whether you always pretty much knew the ground you wanted to cover?

I am both proud and grateful to report that though it's been through a lot of writing workshops and several persnickety editors (how good a word is that?), no scenes have been harmed in the making of this book.

> On the first page the protagonist refers to his mother by her name, Cate.
'"Almost done, Cate," I tell her.
"I'm your mother. Call me by that name," she says.
I say "Mother."'
This does such a lot all at once, lets us know that the boy is unsettled, that perhaps the mother is struggling to appear as a 'mother' and it bands the child closely with his father who he is helping. This quick and effortless characterisation carries on throughout the book. Do you have a picture of your characters clearly before you write or do you write them onto the page?

What's so nice about you choosing that bit is that it came in very late, because Sleepers wanted me to change 'Mom' to 'Mum' and my American fingers couldn't do it. So it was a quick solution in their office. I chose a name from an article they had on the wall (about the lovely and talented writer Cate Kennedy) and took it from there. In one swoop, I elaborated the narrator and solved an editorial issue. As for all the other quick and effortless characterization, I suppose it happens, not so quickly and not so effortlessly, as I write. Since I tend to know the plot first, I have hints of character but the act of writing is often the act of filling it all in.

> Do you have a writing routine - 800 words a day, every day - or are you more fluid with how you write?

Fluid, yes, that's what it is, I'm fluid. I wish I had a regimen, but I've got another job-I work as a palliative care nurse a few days a week and, more to the point, I am quite procrastinatable. (Should that have an 'e'?) My writing mostly gets done on the sly, around other deadlines and distractions. I have a couple of writing residencies in the next few months and I'm curious to see how long I can keep my head at it without the whole thing turning into The Shining. I've got a friend who turns on her internet every other morning for an hour or something insanely disciplined like that. I keep meaning to do the same.

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