Sam van Zweden




Doors Close, Doors Open

Left to right: myself, Jo Day, Tully Hansen and Veronica Sullivan. Writers I’ve been totally lucky to study with, and whose success I’d place bets on.

Last night I graduated. I robed up, and spent hours in stinking hot Etihad Stadium, and got my giant certificate: “Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) with Distinction”.

Done and done!

I’m so glad I made the decision, three years ago, to move to RMIT – and that they were willing to have me! It’s easily one of the best choices I’ve made. I’ve really grown as a writer, and have been so generously supported by my teachers and peers. I’ve had industry opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve been encouraged to follow my passions and obsessions, and I now find myself quietly confident that, while still somewhat aimless, I have a general direction for my future.

I’ve learned a lot about myself: how I work best, which topics I find easy or difficult or fun or challenging to write about, what kinds of practical applications for my work I am interested in. I know now, so much better than I did three years ago, who I am and where I’m headed.

It’s a strange place to be this morning. It’s official: I’ve finished my undergraduate career. I’m now looking in the face of postgraduate study. I’ve got an application pending at one institution, and have deferred an offer from another until 2014. I’ll make up my mind which of those suits me better after my year off. I plan on spending this year saying “Yes!” to everything. This means that today, my first day as a graduate, is being spent writing an application for a mentorship, and thinking about a possible project for a fellowship application.

While my time as an undergraduate has finished, I’m seeing possibilities stretching out in front of me, I just have to be gutsy enough to take them.

This Blog Is A Toddler

If this blog were a child, it would be starting to develop some proper focus skills, able to block out distractions and play more attentively. Its language would be starting to really develop, and things like narratives would be starting to make proper sense. It wouldn’t be so rad with numbers, but because this blog is about books that’s not so important.

This blog is three years old today – I’m celebrating with cider and cake, and I expect you to also! While it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek to draw this comparison between a blog and a toddler, it’s also a kind of nice thought. Three years old is when humans start to really be able to play with language, understand and share stories. For a blog about books, writing and words in general, that’s a pretty significant place to be.

Thanks to all the people who always show up to read my words. I appreciate your time, your chats at events and festivals, your generosity in telling me when I’m doing well, and you engagement with the things I do on here. Here’s to the many years to come!

Brainwash Want YOU!

I’ve recently been talking to Jess Barlow, the creator of The Brainwash Project. Disgusted by the state of the media that young girls often inhale in their adolescence, Jess is on a crusade to create something realistic, helping to encourage strong and confident young women. As part of The Brainwash Project, Barlow recently launched a boycott of Cleo magazine for their unrealistic depictions of women through the use of photoshopped images. The response was huge.

I asked Jess about her reasons behind creating The Brainwash Project. Here’s what she said:

My high school years were negatively affected by the beauty ideals perpetuated by magazines like Cleo and I want to try to ensure that it doesn’t keep happening.

I’ve never been interested in reading about boys, sex, and makeup but in popular magazines like Cleo and Cosmo that’s essentially all there is. Just because I’m female, it doesn’t mean I like those things. 

I want to work with women and girls to create a magazine that truly reflects what we want. I want to help young people have their voices heard and I want to show the mag to the editors of Cosmo and Cleo.

Creating a media outlet that encourages intelligent women, talks about real women’s issues, and addresses the huge amount of negative body-talk there is in mainstream magazines – that sounds brilliant to me!

Click the picture for more details on submitting to Brainwash Magazine

Exciting News!

Often in this writing caper I’ve been overwhelmed by just how generous more experienced writers are. I was first introduced to this incredible generosity through Lisa Dempster, in her role at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Lisa’s been kind enough to extend countless opportunities my way, and she’s always had a lot of faith in my capabilities – often more faith than I have in myself.

Just now (I’m a bit slow on the up-take, moving house means 2 weeks internet-less!) I’ve seen the amazing news on Bookseller and Publisher, that Lisa has nabbed the spot of Festival Director for the Melbourne Writers Festival! Even better, it’s a 3-year position. This is the same amount of time as Lisa reigned over the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and in that role she really went from strength to strength, building on what was already in the festival as well as introducing a lot of new, exciting ideas about what a festival can be and do. Lisa will take over from the current MWF director Steve Grimwade.

So congratulations, Lisa. I can’t think of anyone who deserves this position more, and really look forward to seeing you shine in this role.

Penguin Specials Launch

Last night I was lucky enough to ride on the coat-tails of my more successful friends (congratulations again, Jo Day, Veronica Sullivan and Tully Hansen!) into the launch of the latest Penguin Specials range of ebooks. The launch was for a whole bunch of new shorts available in digital form. The good people at Penguin have included the shortlisted and winner of the Monash Prize as part of the Specials range, and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc etc – all the platforms. Of course, you’d expect a company the size of Penguin to be inclusive of all the relevant platforms when they publish digitally. Less expected is the fact that they’ve given this awesome opportunity to emerging writers – nice work, Penguin!

I’m starting to get used to the faces at the writing events I go to, but when I left the Moat last night I was feeling a little star-struck and small fry. The launch included readings from Sonya Hartnett (tiny! Who knew?!), Robert Drewe, and Tully Hansen. With some familiar faces, many I hadn’t met yet (like… famous people), and the sampler of the publications doing the rounds on iPads, it was a really fun night. Free wine helped. It’s also really nice to know that being published digitally doesn’t mean the publishing company won’t splash out and celebrate your awesome achievement. The writers included in this series of Penguin Specials have a lot to be proud of.

Penguin seem to have their heads screwed on about what the strengths of ebooks are with their new and upcoming releases. There’s a new imprint coming for romance books, which is a smart move – there’s a huge market there, because it allows all the things ebooks do well anyway (cheap, portable collection), but also opens up the possibility for people to read romance/erotica in public, or to read around family and friends without having reading choices scrutinized. Also, the readers I know who are into romance are pretty voracious about it, and finish one book needing to slip straight into the next one. Ebooks make this a little easier than a trip to the book store. I’m not super-excited for myself about the romance imprint, but I certainly think that Penguin are onto where the money’s at, rather than just making their entire catalogue available and hoping for the best. (Though… I think perhaps for the most part they do this anyway?)

What’s relevant for me as a writer, and for all writers of short stories, is that short stories are now being published in single volumes, per story. Portability is a great strength of eReaders, and to make short stories available for this platform plays to this strength. A short story is a great way to spend time on public transport, and unlike a novel, you can possibly finish it in one sitting. For a long time people have been mourning the lack of publishing opportunities for short stories outside of journals – collections just don’t sell the way that novels do. Hopefully this (and, of course, things like Smashwords, where many authors publish single stories) are a way for short story writers to regain those opportunities.

The Specials are available now, and for a short time the sampler (including Tully’s amazing work, and extracts from others) is available for free.

Emerging Blogger, Coming Through!

An exciting announcement! I’ve been accepted as one of the Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (in partnership with Emerging Writers’ Festival). Myself and four other bloggers have been granted the amazing opportunity to go along to the Festival and soak up all the writerly and readerly vibes, and blog about it all. So fear not, I’ll be taking you with me all the way!

Below is the piece I submitted to apply for this opportunity. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking foward to sharing the Festival with you here. Keep an eye out before the festival for my picks, and if you’re a Festival attendee and you need a date, hit me up. We can hang.

Only Connect: 

Think about the last really good book you read. Really good books grab hold of something inside us and don’t let go. The best books are the ones that are close to impossible to articulate in terms of why they are so great.

Give it a go – in that last great book you read, what about it stuck with you? Was it the author’s use of rhythm, alliteration or pastiche? If you’re a really critical reader, perhaps you do take note of the author’s knack with minimalism, or their broad use of literary allusion. But you remember these things because they provoke some sort of feeling inside you.

While we may live in a post-modern world, where the author is dead and reading any cultural artefact becomes a individualist free-for-all, good books don’t exist in a vaccuum. Good books come about through that invisible bond between the reader and the writer. By spinning this story and sending it out into the world, the author has followed EM Forster’s mandate to “only connect!”. There is a lot of wisdom in the idea that a reader’s experience impacts the meaning that they draw from a text, but that text doesn’t come from nowhere.

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. The book is a foodie memoir, made up partly of Wood’s memories of foods and the stories that go with certain foods for her, and partly of recipes that go with the stories she tells. Upon finishing this book, I needed to sit in silence for a while, having had something inside me moved. I needed to be still and interrogate my emotions to figure out what about this book had so grabbed hold of me. I realized that the reason I was so affected by Love and Hunger was because of my own closeness to food, with two chefs in my immediate family. The bond that Wood makes clear between food and stories is something I relate to entirely. In reading this memoir, I felt a connection with the author, despite never meeting, never talking, never interacting beyond the pages of her book.

Finding a good book involves handing yourself over entirely to what you’re reading, trusting the author’s attempt to connect with their readers, and doing your part as a reader by interrogating your emotions. Turn inward and look inside yourself for the answer; the connection.

Being Revolutionary and WTF, Qld?

Crazy mash-up post!

Strand one: I did a post on the Emerging Writers’ blog today about writing that has changed the way I think. I enjoyed writing it. Yeah, this internship is rad.

Strand two: news broke directly onto Twitter today. It was really strange, because I saw it on Twitter about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before I could find any coverage on a reputable news source. I didn’t want to believe it. Remember cyclone Yasi? There was so many crazy rumours on Twitter then, and most of them were totally untrue. I was hoping today’s Twitter-news was too. Later in the afternoon though, Sydney Morning Herald ran an article confirming the rumours.

The news is that the new Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, has cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. When he was elected, he promised to change government spending and get Queensland back on track… Nobody realized that would mean scrapping the literary prize that’s given a huge leg-up and well-deserved kudos to Queensland writers (Anna Krien, Chloe Hooper, Inga Clendinnen, Markus Zusak, Nam Le, J.M Coetzee…the list goes on), and has let people all across Australia (probably all across the world?) what’s worth putting on their To-Be-Read lists. Prizes are exciting and essential. They help bring texts to the foreground that might be overshadowed. And writers don’t get paid anywhere near enough to write – prizes make writing a whole lot more possible. As mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald article, (quoting John Birmingham), “It makes a big difference to the people who are getting [the awards], obviously, but in terms of the state budget, there’s probably bigger tough cuts that he could make, but they’re much tougher to sell”.

I’m not a Queensland writer, and I’m pissed off. I can’t imagine how writers in Queensland are feeling – their state has lost a major prize that would potentially have recognized their hard work.

Chris Currie (@furioushorses) – who is a Queenslander – on Twitter dubbed Campbell Newman a “doucheweasel” – I have nothing more to add.

Did ya see me?

Did ya see me? Did ya? Over on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog. That’s me, there, interning!

I’ve not mentioned it here before, but I’m one of the three interns on board at EWF this year. I’m super-duper excited – this is a genuinely ass-kicking position. As part of the internship I get given an event to run. So I’m instrumental in making the festival happen. And I’m an “Associate Producer” – great title, hey? And I’m SO FREAKIN EXCITED!

No doubt you can expect much more festival love and happiness from me between now and the wrap-up in July.

Aiming for Total Immersion

I’m studying writing, I spend my spare time reading and writing, I write a blog about literature and reading… and now I work in a book shop, too.

On Tuesday I went in for an interview, and by Tuesday afternoon I was hired. I’ve only worked two days, but already I’m hooked. I get to talk to customers about what they might like to read. I get to spend time learning about books and authors and writing – and that’s a legitimate thing to do in my spare time. And even the busy-work of this job is sickly fun for me – shelving books. I love categorizing books! And so I think I’ve found a job I’m happy in.

And I’ve found another way to immerse myself more totally in the world of reading, writing and books.

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