interview by Joe Vaz
From Issue 15 (Nov 2011)
“Steven Amsterdam is a fucking nice guy”, is how Mervyn Sloman, owner of The Book Lounge described him to me before my interview with him for the Open Book panel on Post-Apocalyptic fiction. He wasn’t exaggerating. When I met Amsterdam for this interview, what was supposed to be a twenty minute chat over a cup of coffee turned into a two-and-a-half hour conversation about life in SA and Australia, politics, apartheid, acting, nursing, the multitude of jobs he’s held and a little bit about his writing.
Needless to say my interview was tons of fun. Mervyn was right, he is a hell of a nice guy, and he’s funny. When talking about writing, Amsterdam’s eyes light up with the passion and excitement of a child in a candy store. That excitement is rivalled only by how much he enjoys his other job, that of being a palliative care nurse.
He lives in Australia, but Amsterdam is a native New Yorker, and though he hasn’t lost his New York accent, he’s picked up the Australian inflection rise at the end of sentences. This makes him sound even cheekier, as every reply seems to come across as a question.
We had a great time chatting for hours; I only hope that I managed to turn our conversation into a cohesive interview.
We started out talking about Cape Town and, as one so often does with visitors to our shore, about the racial history of South Africa. After about forty minutes of him interviewing me I managed to ask him about his visit to Cape Town and what he’s been up to.
Other than the Open Book Festival, what have you been up to since arriving?
The Australian High Commission arranged for me to teach a class at the University of Western Cape and to do some workshops in one of the townships and that was fantastic. Due to some miscommunication, we arrived an hour late and instead of there being twenty eighteen-year-olds there were like forty ten-year-olds. I have these cards I use to get people thinking about story ideas, and I just held the postcards up and got the kids to tell stories. At first they wouldn’t look me in the eye, but then they started to really jump to it.
Do you normally teach?
No, but because the book is on the year 12 reading list I get called into schools, so it’s not a regular thing but I go and I do an hour about my book or I do an hour and a half writing workshops and that’s really excellent. So I don’t have a teaching qualification but it’s more free form.
How did your first novel end up as a school set work?
I have, in Australia, a fantastic publisher, they believed in the book. It was the first novel they published. They had been publishing anthologies before, and this is the big argument in favour of being with a small press – they just put [the book] forward for everything. It’s worked out really well, and teacher friends have said they totally get why a teacher would want this on the reading list.
So you’re not a teacher but you’ve worked as a travel editor, graphic designer, film crew… Do you have trouble holding down a job?
[laughs] The move to Australia was a good one for me, and I went there as a pastry cook, really thinking that was what was going to happen, and that I’d end up owning a bakeshop in Melbourne. It turned out that their department of immigration is a lot stuffier than I’d expected, and to work as a pastry chef I had to work at some place that hired a certain number of people and they had to prove that they couldn’t find someone local and I had to be making a certain amount of money, so I ended up working in the sub-basement of a five-star hotel in Melbourne, which was great, [laughs] except that I got fired, because I wasn’t fast enough for a five-star hotel. And then I had basically 28 days to figure out how I was going to stay in the country and my partner said, “Take a writing course.” I had been writing my whole life, and I thought if I take a writing class in Melbourne no-one is going to see if it bombs. But I ended up getting a Masters, and still doing catering and some book-jacket design, but I still needed something that felt like a career, so I thought about social work. Except social workers get fired at a drop of a hat and it’s a very frustrating job. I ended up knowing some nurses and I’m good at science so I thought, “Let’s try a nursing degree too.”
So you just kind of backed into that career – for now, at least. How long have you been a nurse?
And what’s the longest you’ve held a position?
Eight years in travel publishing.
Okay, so you’ve got five years before you need to find another career.
The writing feels like it’s set and the nursing also feels like it’s set. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to do all of these and really fortunate with my nursing gig now because it’s community nursing so I can say, “Look, I’ve got to go to a literary festival in another country,” and so they treat me like a special guest, basically [laughs]. I’ll go back and start working straight away, and do two or three shifts a week and then two or three days doing the writing and that’s my more regular life. And yes, I do have trouble holding down a job, but fortunately the writing is a job that changes. Honestly, it would be different if the school gig hadn’t come along, because my book would have gone quietly down, but now that generations of kids are reading it, possibly for as many as four of five years, that’s actually a meal-ticket, that’s a salary.
It’s very difficult, because the more I interview writers the more I realise…
…there’s no money in it? [laughs]
Yeah. You mentioned nursing… what is a palliative care nurse?
It’s a great thing. My role is in the community, so let’s say someone is given a terminal diagnosis but they’re well enough to carry on living a roughly normal life [at home]. What I do is basically go and have cups of tea [with them] once a week or once a day depending on what’s going on; sometimes there’s a dressing that needs to be done or there’s a medication or injection that we need to give them on a regular basis. But mostly it’s making sure that they, or their caregivers, know what’s going on. We’re there as sort of the eyes and ears of the treating team to say, “Um…she’s looking yellow, you might need to test.” Or if somebody says, “I’ve been vomiting blood for two days, should I go to the hospital?” “Yes!” Economically, for every cup of tea that costs the government this much money, the patients and families feel looked after – and we prevent trips to the emergency department, which are so much more expensive for the system, and miserable for the patient. So if we can come in the middle of the night and give you an injection and get you past whatever pain threshold you’ve got going on right now, we can sort things out in the morning so you’re not waiting on a trolley for five hours just to get the pain medication.
And you’re one person instead of an entire hospital and ambulance and…
Right, we’re a small service, we serve a large group of suburbs so they know us. They know our names and we know their situation and we’re in their homes, which is so much better. So that’s what this kind of palliative care nurse does. On a ward, if somebody gets too sick, or if their family can’t manage, they come into the hospice that we’re connected to and then get round-the-clock nursing. But mostly what we see is families coping incredibly well and actually taking care of someone who is dying, which is what has happened for millennia, and that’s what you do with grandma and your father and so on, and it’s really impressive. A lot of what we do is patient or caregiver education and kind of teaching them that it’s okay to die.
It sounds like an incredibly harrowing kind of job, but the way you talk about it is so positive.
Oh, it’s sacred, it’s necessary. I’ve done this for a couple of years now and I thought I would understand death better, but I don’t and I keep waiting for it to become clearer. I just still feel like all I’m watching is a lot of behaviour, and the behaviour is amazing but I sort of want to unlock the secret of death.
You say it’s sacred.
To be a part of the family’s life at that point, you’re part of that conversation and often you can facilitate really important conversations.
That’s incredible. When my child was born my partner asked me, “Why does it have to be so hard?” and without thinking about it I answered, “It has to be hard. You’re creating life, it shouldn’t be easy.” And I guess on the other side of it, the other side of life, you’re extinguishing life.
It’s not going to be easy, yeah. I think there is a very similar quantity of fear around birth. And some of it is real and some of it is not.
But back to your book. I really found it beautiful and hopeful. It frightened me in the sense of how long forty years actually is and how much can happen in that time frame. We don’t really think that everything we know can change within our lifetime.
But it already has.
Yeah, but you don’t notice it.
You just don’t perceive it, and then suddenly there are ATM cards and that’s okay.
This is your first novel. How did it come about? It sounds as if you’ve been writing as a hobby for a long time.
Writing has always been in the back of my mind. I’ve been writing a little short story here or there, or writing for a small local paper that paid nothing, or writing reviews in exchange for tickets or review copies and things like that. I did get to a point in my early thirties where I was feeling bad for not writing fiction, and I thought, “Why feel bad? Do it or don’t do it, but nobody is waiting for your next book.” Feeling bad about it is just stupid, so I actually just stopped writing fiction for about ten years and did other things. That’s when I was working in publishing and graphic design and pastry and all that, and then slowly I kind of worked my way back into it. It turned out that the somewhat accidental decision to do a creative writing degree led to me to actually doing some creative writing and taking it more seriously. There’s a type of writer known as the ambivalent writer, and that very much fits my profile. It’s a little bit of a defensive measure like, “If I don’t try too hard I can’t fail too hard.” So I wrote one story that came from a very small item in a newspaper, about an elderly couple living out in the bush and getting a bit of dementia. The governing body decided that they shouldn’t have their driver’s licenses any more so they took them away. The couple responded by doing this completely movie thing and they got in a car and drove as far as they could, which struck me as a beautiful start of a story.
Like Thelma and Louise – The Geriatric Years.
With kind of a similar ending. And so I kept that in my mind as a start for a story. At the same time there was an American election on and American elections get very, very nasty, and very polarised. I had the thought, what if they just had a barricade between the country people and the city people and that would sort things out, then the country people could have their president and the city people could have their president. And I took this idea of the barricade and applied it to the couple, because from a story standpoint, that would increase the dramatic tension.
Once I had those two elements together, I realised I was writing in a speculative framework so I could add to it in whatever way I wanted. So I made it that there was a medication that could help with the dementia, and only one of the couple had the dementia, so that the other was a caretaker, which makes for an interesting relationship. And then the last bit was, “Who’s going to tell this story?” I knew it was going to be a grandson because I was close to all my grandparents. If I could have helped them make a getaway from old age I would have, and so I put an alter ego of myself in the back seat. But I didn’t want him to be a passive narrator, so I made him a bit of a thief – so that as soon as they got through the barricade he could help them get by.
I thought that the story I had to tell was about grandparents with this cute little grandson, and literally when I got to the last line I thought, “Ooh, I think there’s more here,” so I started writing the next story… and the novel grew from there.
I think one of the hardest things for a writer to do is to introduce a new environment. Not only are you dealing with things like: “What does the world within the novel look like? Who is your narrator?”, and: “What’s happening?”, but you need to bring all that in seamlessly, without turning into Basil Exposition. You chose to do that nine times, for each chapter.
I completely credit that to working with a writing workshop because it was so common that I would bring it in and they would say, “What the fuck is going on here?” Or they would say, “Okay, pull back on the description, we get it, you don’t need a crowd scene to tell us there was a pandemic”. It’s always about picking the right details and I think people responded to that. There is a lot in the way the book is written that trusts the reader, and people like that; it forces a close reading because there aren’t too many words, so you actually have to keep reading to find out where you’re at and what’s happened.
I found myself dreading the end of every chapter.
[With a wry smile] Why? They’re all so hopeful!
Yes they are, but no matter how good things are right now, you know you’re going to pick up on him a little later and things are going to be shit again.
So you started with the second chapter and that, for me, is really where the book takes off. The first chapter is great…
But it does a very different thing.
Yeah, but it’s a set-up. You kind of go, “Okay, cool, this is what we’re reading, family, kid, blah blah blah, we’re getting there.” And then the second chapter is like, “Okay… something’s wrong here.” Is that when you decided to write the whole book that way?
Actually, the chapter I wrote after the second chapter was the last chapter, and those two stories were published in an anthology by my publisher a year apart from each other. It was the last chapter of the book that led a book buyer at one of the bookstores in Melbourne to call the publisher and say, “See if this guy’s got more stuff, he might have a book in him.” Then they contacted me. The buyer told me later that he was reading the whole book because he loved both those stories. Then suddenly he gets to that last chapter and he’s like, “Oh my God, this is what’s going to happen.” He said it was really just thrilling to be led back to the place and see how it fits in.
Slowly I developed an arc. I think of the book as having kind of three acts, with Margo being the middle act. I don’t think it has a strictly novelistic feel, but that’s one thing I struggle with when I read a novel – there’re these hills and valleys that get very tiresome to me and I feel like one of my projects is to try and figure out how to keep people interested and feel satisfied at the end without those same hills and valleys, like “Oh, here is where everything gets much worse, here’s the bittersweet ending.” And that’s a challenge, because we’re brainwashed with these structures.
So the book was kind of like a puzzle for you.
Yeah, and written completely out of order. The first chapter [in the book] was the last chapter written and that was really there to temper everything that follows it.
The narrator becomes so used to the solitude of the years that even when he is surrounded by people and his life seems to be perfect, he seems incredibly introspective and withdrawn. Was that a conscious decision?
That wasn’t so much a conscious decision. What was conscious was that I wanted him to have his emotional life be a little bit at odds with the world around him, and that really came from the third story because… You know in movies, when it rains, something bad has happened?
Yeah, so actors can cry.
Well, they don’t have to cry because they can look out the window and tears will roll down the glass. I just think it’s the cheapest fucking trick and there’s a name for it in literary terms – it’s called a “pathetic fallacy”, with ‘pathetic’ meaning ‘pathos’, so it’s a false relation of something to the emotions. So when I started to write that chapter I knew I wanted to write something that was all about rain, but I wanted to have everybody be as cold and calculating as possible. No emotions. Everybody is just out to use everybody else, but they gave me a reason to give him this inner life that is kind of at odds with what’s going on. At heart he wants love, and you see that in that chapter, but circumstances are forcing him to kind of conduct himself in this way. So from then on I was really conscious that when he’s got plenty he’s actually quite alone, and I always wanted that to be who he is. I think his being a loner, but needing people at the same time, is something that happened more accidentally.
It’s a phenomenally structured story. How much of that is thanks to the writing group?
They never saw it all in one piece. In fact, my publisher saw it all in one piece before I did. I said, “Look, these are the stories, I haven’t sorted them out yet but I think they’re like this.” So that was… there’s this term I’m working on developing, called the ‘fortunate unconscious’.
You leave large gaps between the chapters, do you know what happens in those gaps?
[With a naughty smile] To some degree…
I think for me the biggest jump is from the first chapter to the second; from the second chapter on, I get it. But how he gets from that New Year’s Eve to living with his grandparents is a jump.
To me, what happens in the middle of those two [chapters] is something like September 11th. We all expected Y2K to be a big deal and it wasn’t, and then the thing we didn’t see coming came, and then that actually did change life. So to me what happens between the chapters is… something.
Thank you, that’s very helpful.
Why did you choose to start a post-apocalyptic piece in the past? It’s very unusual.
Somebody told me, and this is not my answer, that it’s a compassionate thing to do because on one level it’s anchoring things. Maybe it’s an alternate [world], but it’s also flagging for people this disaster that didn’t happen. I mean that chapter on its own is a very strange thing in the book because there’s nothing that’s happened. It’s about a boy and his bi-polar dad. It’s not about any sort of destruction of the world, it’s about panic. That’s the most panicked chapter and nothing has actually happened. So I wanted to put that point into readers’ minds: that sometimes disasters don’t happen.
What’s next for you?
I have a book coming out called What The Family Needed, and it’s kind of evolved in a similar way: I printed two stories about people that suddenly discovered they had powers, special powers, and I decided they were related. Then I decided that everyone in this family gets a special power. This was a much more intentional book. This one I actually thought might see the light of day, whereas the other one I thought I might be able to print these all separately. This one I had to have an organising principle: Okay, why did they get these powers and why now? Who’s the lynchpin? So far the response has been really good. And that comes out in November. But I don’t know if it comes out [in SA] then.
That’s what the internet is for.
It comes out in Australia in November – there’ll be an eBook version. I’m scared of what’s next. I feel a little duty-bound… some of my editors have gently said to me, “Why don’t you grow up and write a book?”
But it is daunting. Practically all artists have their entire life to create their first product, and once it’s successful they have a year to eighteen months to create the next one. That’s what second album syndrome is about.
In some ways I feel like What The Family Needed is my first book, and now I’m about to have second album syndrome. I’m a little bit behind. With literary fiction they don’t expect you to be out in eighteen months. If it were genre they would want the next thing quick, but if, you know, five years go by, I think that would be a bad thing.
Though technically, your work is genre to a certain degree: super-powers and post-apocalypse.
Speculative, but all writing is speculative and I really feel, as with dystopia and super-powers, it’s all metaphor for me. All of this stuff works for me as a metaphor and I think the blessing of being a writer is that you can do all this stuff, you can have all these special effects, you can have magic, you can have the future. You don’t have to hire anybody; you don’t have to check with your producer to see if you’ve gone over budget. So it’s a freedom that writers have and part of me feels like I should just go hard-realist and another part of me feels like, no, this is a very interesting way to tell a story, so those are the stories that stick with me. Like District 9, I thought, “Wow, that’s a metaphor.” I suspect I’m going to stay in this alternative realm, to some degree.
Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.