Sam van Zweden



short story

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.

Daniel Handler reads “Collectively”

I’ve been reading Adverbs by Daniel Handler. He’s hilarious, and poignant, and writes in that ironic, self-conscious/unself-conscious (yes, both at once) way that cool people do.

I just found him reading my favourite chapter (so far, because I haven’t finished the book yet) from Adverbs. I had more fun reading this chapter than I have reading anything in a while. I thought it would be worth sharing.

Check it out:  I wish I could write like this. I haven’t read anything this hilarious in quite some time.

Consider this something of a teaser, and chase up Adverbs.







The Hilllllls Are Aliiiiiiive!

And so is Paper Radio, the wonderfully original literary journal/audio adventure. The site itself has been up and going for a while now, and it’s fun. There are stories and non-fictional pieces, and they’re all backed by amazing soundscapes.

On Saturday my favourite story by the very talented thinker Tom Cho went up on Paper Radio. The Sound of Music can be read on two levels, and both are equally as rewarding. Full of pop cultural “a-ha!” moments (I love the really cool and handsome finger-clicking guys in the Fonz fantasy), you’ll laugh, but also perhaps give some serious thought to issues of identity, “issues of who you are, or want to be”.

A Story for a Public Holiday…

It is unclear what Leo does, but Camilla suspects that the machinery has something to do with it. Leo’s property is full of machinery. Leo is an old Dutchman, all white hair and mystery. Camilla knows very little about him, only the machinery, and a taxidermy eagle in the corridor of his house, and 8 or 10 sheep he keeps on his small patch of land here in Queensland.

Camilla is 6 years old, and a diminutive 6 year old at that. Her father helps at Leo’s property, though the nature of the jobs is beyond what Camilla cares about. She likes to spend the time at Leo’s looking at the eagle (only later does she realise that its eyes are the unsettling bit), and teasing the sheep.

Today, Camilla is “herding” the sheep with her sister while their father helps Leo. They hold sticks that are as tall as they are, slapping the ground to scare the sheep into action. Camilla’s sister will later insist that they were hitting the actual sheep, but this is not how Camilla will remember it.

Amongst the sheep is a large ram called Bubby. He has a black face, and comes up to Camilla’s shoulder, she guesses, though she hasn’t gotten close enough to properly tell. He is the only male in the pen.

Hitting the ground with their sticks, the sisters send dust flying into the air. The female sheep move into a huddle in the corner of the pen, and the sisters think they are doing a great job. They could be farmers. Then Camilla sees Bubby.

Bubby stands at the far end of the pen, his eyes gleaming at her. He lets out a sinister baa. Camilla looks for her sister. She’s nowhere.

Bubby walks at first. Then he gathers speed, and when he reaches Camilla he knocks her straight down. There is dirt in Camilla’s eyes. All she sees is a black blur, and feels an immense pressure on her chest. Bubby rears on his back legs like a startled horse, coming down heavy on Camilla’s chest. The dirt, the pressure, the oily smell of wool, the dry taste of dust.


Camilla’s father runs into the pen. With the kind of force only an angered parent can produce, he drives a blundstoned foot into Bubby’s flank. He literally kicks the sheep off his daughter. It doesn’t send the hefty animal far, but it is off Camilla.

Later, Camilla will be somewhat casual about the memory. She will not be fond of sheep, and she will remember how it felt when her father told her to walk the few blocks home. But when she recalls the event, it will not be one of trauma, it will just be a story, like any other story, from her childhood.

Bowen Street Blues

I have trouble stilling my mind in order to take in what’s around me, but after a few minutes I manage to push myself back and just be in this space.

I am tucked into the stairwell of building 9, which leads onto Bowen Street and looks onto the basketball courts. Of those boys and men I have joked that they are “majoring in basketball”, but I haven’t ever watched them properly. It seems like a strange kind of suspension out there where nobody is anybody; everyone just plays ball. They aren’t black kids or white kids, or engineering students or sound engineers, or guys in branded clothing or those who aren’t. One guy falls down and another offers a hand to help him up before laughing and lunging for the ball. The basketball courts might be in RMIT, but in a way they aren’t here at all.

These courts and the basketball majors are the only constant in this part of Bowen Street, and I feel a bit connected to them when I force myself still and silent for this exercise.

Everything else moves – people on the way to classes with half-read photocopies in hand, a girl stands next to me and her pocket explodes in sound – she yells something into her phone and hands up without waiting for an answer. A parade of AV students wheel carts of expensive gear across cobbled stones.

Every third person is on their phone. all trying desperately to connect in this hurried place, ignoring those around them. Only the basketball players seem to have got it.


This morning I couldn’t World. I couldn’t Brain. I couldn’t force my mind into any one thing, I couldn’t be.

I wish this black dog weren’t chasing me,
I wish my life sung with symmetry,
But I’m ragged, I’m jagged, I’m hollow and haggard
And I fear it’s how I’ll always be.

After losing myself in tears for too long, I pushed myself into the world. I had a cupcake. And I took myself down to my local book shop. I had a good chat with the lady behind the counter. And I purchased two books with money I certainly don’t have.

The Best Australian Stories – A Ten Year Collection.
I’ve been eagerly waiting for this one since I heard it was happening, and just flicking through the contents pages I feel like the Black Inc crew have made some fantastic decisions of what to include. (My favourite Nam Le story is in there! Just can’t get enough.)

Room, by Emma Donoghue. I read an extract from this somewhere, though I can’t remember where… It really grabbed me. I’ve been looking for something exciting for my next Catalyst review, and I think this is it.

While I’m not quite Person yet, I feel like at least I have something I can put myself into as a distraction for the afternoon.

Hit Me

Hit Me

Tom sits heavy at the table, so heavy that his bum muscles start going numb.

“Hit me,” he says.

Perfectly tuned machines ping around him, he cannot see outside, and pretty soon his arse will lose feeling altogether. Tom sits even heavier.

He says, “Hit me.”

A clock flies across the room, “YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT FUCKING TIME IT IS,” Anna screams, and Tom quickly shuts the door behind him, falling on unsteady feet toward his wife.

He sees his kids sitting in their pyjamas at the kitchen table. Their faces are filled with sleep and they both hold teddy bears.

“Oh, hey guys!” The kids don’t smile. One of them starts crying.

Anna’s picking up her car keys, saying “I’ve had enough of this, Tom. I’m done with this shit.”

She’s picking up already-packed bags and moving towards the door, telling the kids to follow her. Tom steps into the doorway ahead of Anna.

“Put the bags down, sweetness,” to Anna.
“Go back to bed, guys” to the kids, with a confident smile. They stay where they are.
“You’re not going fuckin’ anywhere,” to Anna.

She looks into his eyes with a hard expression, none of the softness she had when Tom married her. The clock’s still ticking, but the second hand’s shuddering in the one place, like time stands still.

“I was out with the boys,” Tom tells his wife, “Time got away from us. No matter. Let’s go to bed, my love.”

Anna shakes her head, glances quickly towards the kids.

“I told you to choose, Tom. We’ll lose the house. There’s no savings. It’s all gone! I can’t stick around for this.”

She moves toward the door again but Tom grabs her by the arm, hard.

“And take my fuckin’ children, woman? No no,” he shoves her back against the fridge, his hands around her throat before he realises what he’s doing.

As Anna’s whole body strains against Tom’s strength, he comes to himself and lets go. He falls back across the room, hits the wall, and slides to the floor. There are tears.

“You piece of shit,” chokes Anna, grabbing their children by the wrists and pulling them behind her to the door.

“Hit me,” begs Tom, “I’m done. I’m sorry. I won’t go back, just don’t leave. You can’t leave! Go on, hit me!”

She’s out the door, and Tom moves after her. The car engine starts, and Tom watches the headlights grow smaller into the night, away from the house.

He screams into the night.


He can’t go home. There’s nothing there, just piles of microwave food baked onto plates from three weeks ago, and bills shoved under the door, spilling across the kitchen floor. There’s no dial tone anymore, and even if there was he wouldn’t know where to call. They’ve disappeared. Pretty soon the house will go too.

“Eighteen,” says the dealer.

Tom nods slowly.

“Hit me.”

“Twenty-five,” says the dealer, scooping up the cards, “Bust.”

“Hit me,” says Tom.

The dealer just stares.

Tom says, “Hit me.”

This piece appeared in Ex Calamus ezine, issue number seven, which can be downloaded here. Support local emerging writers, read Ex Calamus!


On the weekend I went with some friends up to a very cool very abandoned house… when I got back I got to scribbling. And this is what came of it.


It was white once, but that was a long time ago.  There are leaves everywhere. Not just on the path and in the back yard, but in the hallways and staircases too. One whole side is surrounded by a massive balcony, which looks like it’s missing some flappers and cocktails.

It’s not locked. We walk around the back and go straight in, like coming home to this dilapidated old mansion.

Tara thinks it was once a part of Kew Cottages. We all picture disabled kids being tied up and pushed down stairs.

We crunch around on the lino for a while, drifting in and out of rooms. Chandeliers have been stolen and cords hang empty from the ceiling. There are NO SMOKING signs on every bedroom door.

The place is huge. At least 12 bedrooms, two big kitchens, three bathrooms. Hidden walk-in bits – cellars, pantries, something that looks like a jail cell.
“Where they were put when they were naughty,” says Tara. Words that could be a joke, but she’s absolutely serious.

There’s a little door at the end of a living room down stairs, which leads to a cold cement landing. More stairs, into a pointless cold room with a bizarre crevice hidden behind another wall.

The downstairs kitchen reminds me of the way RSLs were before they were replaced by the bright shiny things that flash and swallow pensions, telling us about the brave men who fought hard to give us this life.

In this old demented castle there’s little type-written placards stuck around the place.
“ROOM 12- 3 BEDS”
They must have dormed people in these bedrooms.

There’s something written in an Asian script above a heap of switches, which Ollie flicks a bunch of. They do nothing, of course – electricity left this house years ago.

We wander around downstairs, a weird sort of basement with too many rooms and hidden things nd not many windows.

“Maybe it was a student share house.”
“Wonder what the rent on a place like this would be?”
“That room wasn’t that colour last time I was here. It’s been painted. Maybe someone’s doing it up.”
“But its unlocked”

Something hits the floor upstairs. We all stop talking. I’ve heard that kind of noise few times as we’ve been walking around, but I put it down to wind. I was avoiding creeping myself out.

Tara looks at me, wide-eyed and excited, like she wants some hellish crazy thing to happen and scare the shit out of us all.

We had passed a cop car when we were walking down here.
“That’s always comforting when you’re going to break into a house,” Danny had said.

Maybe it’s the cops, one of the neighbours made a call.

Maybe it’s a squatter.

A Bird?


Ollie creeps up the stairs super-slow, making it lookke a farce, but nobody says a word.

“We should probably go soon,” I mumble, and everyone falls over their agreement as we slide out th nearest door and find an open gate.

When we’re safely back on the road we explode into adrenaline-fuelled rants of how cool and creepy that all was. We feel manly and brave.

That night I dream about it though, about a mean Neanderthal-looking man dragging himself around that dirty art-deco villa with its missing chandeliers a awkward rooms.

When we get home I look the place up. It was an aged-care facility, assisted housing. This makes the place both more and less scary.

Part of me wants to go back there, to chill out in its ancient emptiness. But the rest of me thinks of that Neanderthal dude that my mind invented and I’m just too scared.


She develops a twitch. It’s something that happens between her eye and her cheek. Nobody knows, so she has to pull this Popeye face when nobody’s looking. She doesn’t want it, so she tries not to do it, but she keeps catching herself clenching and squinting and frowning. She didn’t ask for this twitch.

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