Sam van Zweden





Now that I’m able to count down using my very own hands – now that I don’t need to make use of toes, or borrow another person’s body to make up the numbers – now it seems real.

Earlier this year, I was lucky to receive a City of Literature Office travel fund grant. The grant is helping me get to Flagstaff, Arizona for the NonfictioNOW conference from October 28-31. The conference describes itself as “a regular gathering of over 400 nonfiction writers, teachers, and students from around the world in an effort to explore the past, present, and future of nonfiction”. Not quite a festival and not quite a conference, NonfictioNOW was hosted at RMIT in Melbourne in 2012. During that conference, I blogged and soaked up new ideas. I feel like that conference changed the way I approach nonfiction, and energised my writing practice. I wanted desperately to make it to the next one – and now it’s happening.

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I’ve been helping with social media for the conference (hyper-aware of spelling differences, like ‘travelling/traveling’) and blogging on the conference’s own blog up to this point, and am so excited to be blogging the festival. This post is, then, a bookend – preparing you for the posts to come. And not just a bookend for the conference, because the travel keeps going after that.

I haven’t travelled before. Well, I have travelled before. In 2014 I went to Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, and Newcastle – it was a big year for travelling. But that travelling was small-scale travelling. Non-passport travelling. Get in a car, get on a boat, get on a train, get on a plane. Get to your destination in no more than an hour or two. The travelling I’m about to embark on is more ambitious – get on a plane, stay there for 9 hours. Stop over in a city that’s further from home than you’ve ever been, but don’t be too excited about it because this isn’t The Travelling yet, this is just a thing on the way to The Travelling. Get on another plane and stay there for 12 hours. And then you’re there, but you’re not there.

NonfictioNOW is being held in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a 10-hour train ride from LA (or a much shorter flight from Phoenix, but what fun is that?). Speakers I’m incredibly excited about include Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, and Maggie Nelson  – writers whose work has surprised and challenged me. The program has many names in common with my Honours reading list – Steven Church, Judith Kitchen, and Brenda Miller. The conference provides insight to the act of writing creative nonfiction in a way that no gathering in Australia (that I’ve seen) does. What does it mean to craft the world? How do we wrangle it, does it need to be wrangled, what are our lenses, and what are the implications of what we write? These are questions the conference will engage with.

Oh, and me! I’m speaking! I’ll be on a panel called ‘Unusual Foods and the Edible Guests’, discussing food writing with wonderful writers Amy Wright, Matthew Gavin Frank, Elena Passarello and Joni Tevis. These writers are all brilliant, and I’m feeling entirely humbled to be part of such a stellar session. I’ll be delivering a 12-minute paper on the idea of writing food memories, and how difficult that can be, and why – and how we might meet that challenge. MFK Fisher suggested that she couldn’t write about food without writing about a yearning for love and security – “We cannot straightly think of one without the others”. It follows that we can’t straightly write it, either – that’s what my paper looks at. At last reading it was 21 minutes long – I’m in the process of editing it to meet the 12 minute brief, but it’s certainly a big challenge in economy of language and clear communication.

When I pitched the trip to the City of Literature Office, I said that I’d like to investigate the ways that nonfiction – particularly creative and experimental nonfiction – is shared. I want to know how it’s published, presented and sent forth into the world. There are only a handful of journals in Australia which really embrace unconventional nonfiction writing, and I hope to come home armed with some knowledge and ideas that will help open us up to the form. Many, many thanks go to the Melbourne City of Literature Office for making the trip possible, and to the organisers of NonfictioNOW, who’ve embraced my small involvement with all generosity.

After the conference, I’ll be travelling across the United States with my partner over almost four weeks: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington DC, New York. I’ll be blogging the trip, and meeting new people, and trying to write meaningfully about the significance of what I learn.

I have many hopes attached to this trip, and I’m not sure they’re all reasonable. Now that I’m only a handful of days away from leaving Australia for a while, I’m realising that I hope a great deal of my own travel: I hope it helps me meet new people. I hope those people are open to sharing with me. I hope I deliver a good paper. I hope I can meet the world for what it is, and move outside my own small universe. I hope travel makes me simultaneously more and less: more open, more knowledgeable, more capable. Less inward-looking. Less scared. I’m full of questions.

Tomorrow I can get rid of the second hand for counting – there will be only 5 days to go.

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.

Super-Early Heads Up

As you’ve probably gathered from previous posts and publications, I find non-fiction challenging and fun.

The most recent creative non-fiction I’ve read that excited me was by David Shields – his Reality Hunger blew my head clear off my shoulders, and The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead really made me think about family legacies and storytelling, as well as mortality and the way we write and speak about our own experiences. David Shields is exciting to read, and he’s exciting to watch speak. He has exciting ideas, and he presents them in new and exciting ways.

With all this love I’ve got for David Shields and his writing and his practice and his entire being, I screamed when I found that he’s a keynote speaker for RMIT’s  (November) 2012 conference, NonfictioNow. As an RMIT student I’m hoping to smuggle myself in backstage and get to meet the man. And if not, I’ll at least be able to drool on his brain from a distance.

So an early heads up – I’ll post again in a year when the conference is actually happening, but until then – get onto David Shields’ work so you’re all caught up by the time he’s in town.

A Wheely Exciting Program!

Yeah, that pun again. That old chestnut. Oh, but it is! The Wheeler Centre’s September-November program came out today, and it’s HUGE. I’m just going to go through what’s on in the next month, because that’s quite enough excitement for one day. And the start of October, because if you snooze you’ll loose on these tickets.

The big one, the one I’m almost TOO excited about, is that Jonathan Safran Foer is coming to town. (Right, now go and get a towel to wipe up the saliva that you just dripped on the keyboard.
He’ll be here on the 2nd of October, and I’m up to petition for a bit group hug, if anyone’s interested, I’m pretty sure JSF will be down for that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  On the 15th of September, the folks from Meanjin will be arguing about what the “Great Australian Novel” is, this time with a special focus on books by women.

On the 29th of September the Lunchbox Soapbox is given over to the enigmatic EZB, who will be speaking in defence of slam poetry.

On the 30th of September, a HUGE bunch of awesome people (including Marieke Hardy, need I say more) share their teen-angst diaries in “No One Understands Me“.

What’s also great is how many big red “BOOKED OUT” stickers there are on the events website already. Melbourne offers SO many great things to do, and people are excited about going to literary events, so much that they sell out. That in itself is Wheely exciting.

EVENTS! My goodness, EVENTS!

There’s just SO much coming up – my credit card’s getting a decent workout. As is the bit of my brain that controls excitement. I’d almost go as far as saying I’m perpetually excited by all the tickets I’ve got and things that are coming up.

Broadly speaking – two festivals. Melbourne Writers Festival and Overload Poetry Festival. MWF starts tomorrow, and Overload runs from the 9-17th of September.

Excited about the following:

– Tomorrow night’s keynote speech and opening of Melbourne Writers Festival by Jonathan Franzen, and general opening frivolities and Melbourne Town Hall.

Liner Notes, 3rd September – always a thoroughly entertaining night where spoken word artists “cover” (write on the theme of) a particular album. I’m not a huge INXS fan, but I am a fan of the people involved in the event – Emilie Zoey Baker, Omar Musa, Catherine Deveny, Ben Pobjie… The list goes on. And The Toff in Town is a great venue for these kind of writing events, so it promises to be a great night.

–  Melbourne Poetry Map launch – 15th September, at Loop Bar. Last year’s event was really fun, they had a huge range of poets on places that were familiar, and some that weren’t so familiar. This year ten new poets have been commissioned to do ten new poems about ten new places around our fair city – poets include Luka Lesson, Amy Bodossian, Joel McKerrow, Geoff Lemon, and other boys and girls who kick poetry’s butt on a regular basis.

– This is the big one. Shane Koyczan. If you know the fellow and hadn’t yet heard, I apologize if I just made you wet yourself. He’s doing a few gigs in Melbourne – one is some sort of science and rationalism conference at Jeff’s Shed on the 18th, tickets are about $300 and his set is only half an hour. I’m sticking with the two other gigs he’s doing, with Overload. He’ll be at the Tell It Like It Is slam on Friday 16th September, and also at the Overload closing night at the Fitzroy Town Hall on the 17th. Tickets for the closing night are available online, so get onto it, you don’t want to miss this man – the closing event also has a huge lineup of our own Melbourne poets.

If you don’t know Shane Koyczan, try this on for size. Sorry about the uncontrollable crying you’re about to do. Let’s remedy that with some uncontrollable laughing from this one. And just for good measure, this one is one of my favourites. If you watch these and feel as strongly as I do about the man’s brilliance, I’ll catch you at the gigs on the 16th and 17th. (We can talk about how we *completely* dig Degrassi!)

It Started With a Beach Backdrop…

It’s been a big weekend. It started with a beach backdrop about 25 metres long taped to the back of a stage, and the general excitement that comes with Piranha Party – if you ever get an opportunity to see these guys, for the love of God, do it! They’ve only been around for about 6 months, but this party ska band will make your feet move without asking you and your smile will switch on. They’re heaps of fun.

This was the last night of Madonna‘s August residency at the Royal Derby Hotel in Collingwood, and what a month it’s been. I’ve seen Madonna many times, and the once-a-week offering at the Derby hasn’t disappointed. This band has an explosive energy driving their music, and total abandon to making shit work. While this week’s set was a bit short, it was packed full of pure awesome. Somehow crowds give themselves over to Madonna – foot-tapping, swaying, or all-out moshing. This gig there was even something akin to excited galloping. Madonna’s urgent effects-swirl and constant forward push pays off. While they’ve been their best in front of very responsive crowds (more so than any other band I’ve seen), even when crowds are reticent to start with Madonna blow the roof off any venue they touch. Their next gig is at the Birmingham Hotel in Fitzroy, and will be a Joe Strummer tribute night with a slew of other amazing bands – get down there, it promises to wrinkle your skin with how good it is. So good your toes might fall off. (Take spare toes.)

Saturday night was a truly fantastic gathering of RMIT Creative Writing students – we got together, someone bought cupcakes, others bought goon, we read poetry and stories out to each other, astounded as always by how great everyone’s work is.

Sunday night saw the Toff in Town pack out for Dog’s Tales, a storytelling night that usually happens each Tuesday down at Dog’s Bar in St Kilda. For the MWF it’s took up residency at the Toff for the evening, and my goodness it was lovely! I haven’t been down to the St Kilda event yet, so it was very exciting to see the set up there on the Toff stage: a wonderful “real plastic!” chair wrestled for lovingly at an MTC garage sale, and a little green lamp that I think everyone remembers from their grandparents’ study. Such an unassuming set can only mean good things, thought I.

I was right. The night had readings from both local and international artists, and a really wide variety of stories being shared, from Josephine Rowe’s ad-libbed account of her relationship with her father, to DBC Pierre’s tale of the adverse (perhaps…) effects of tequila at storytelling events, where people sprout tails and wings, and step right out of their own skin. Carmel Bird stuck out to me as an incredibly strong reader, with such an obvious love of sharing stories. I discovered Carmel many years ago, when a literature teacher slipped me a copy of Automatic Teller and I fell in love. A few years later Red Shoes confirmed my suspicion that Carmel is freaking amazing, and then it was on. I think she’s great, and absolutely loved the fact that she read as well as I imagined she would.

Kalinda Ashton read a story about a girl working in a Christmas department store hell, which provided many laughs but these were perfectly juxtaposed with some great poignant moments. Kalinda is my non-fiction lecturer at RMIT, so I’ve only ever heard her speak in a lecture setting before. Her reading is really engaging, it sucks you into the story world for the length of the piece and you forget that you’re listening. I’ll be looking out for her events in future.

This evening finished up with a story from Tiffany Murray, which absolutely knocked my socks off. It was brilliantly honest, and Tiffany made me want to quit my course and move to the UK to study under her. I wish I could tell stories half as wonderful as hers!

This bonza weekend finished by scooting around the corner from the Toff to Shanghai Dumpling House (the one with the pink walls in China Town, not the laneway one! I don’t like the laneway one. I know others do. They haven’t discovered the pink walls one yet). $27 dollar feed for two people – a great way to finish a weekend!

Breakable Bags, Zelda and Reframing Rejection

8.30am. It was absolutely freezing this morning, but I got out of bed. I got to the city. I got coffee. When I walked up to the door of the Town Hall, a fatherly looking man in an entirely-too-endearing beefeater-esque hat shook his head and made me finish my coffee outside. There are some serious injustices in Melbourne.

Once safely in those doors, the caffeine starting to do its job, Festival Fever took over. They asked for my autograph (…on the door list), they handed me a WEEKEND PASS necktag, and they pointed me towards showbags. And I have to say, I have mixed feelings about this year’s showbag. Last year, the bag itself was awesome (I still use it on a daily basis), but the contents weren’t so crash hot, with more pamphlets for things not relevant to me than things I was actually interested in. This year, however, the bag itself is incredibly cool (great size and comfy to wear) but dangerously breakable. I can see myself having to carry another bag inside this bag, in wait of its breaking day. Until such time – awesome. And the contents! ABR, Inscribe, Readings’ catalogue, Bookseller + Publisher, Wet Ink. And even the pamphlets are actually relevant and interesting – I don’t know how much of this was planned and how much just came in, but I’ll be busy with its contents for a while.

The day had an insane amount of knowledge on offer, so I came out pretty tired. So much went into my brain, and such is the extent of the notes I took, that I simply can’t recall all of it. I can, however, retrace my steps in terms of rooms and events, and give you a little taste of the glory that was the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Program today.

The day started with “Seven Enviable Lines”, which featured the Festival Ambassadors sharing seven pieces of advice they wished they’d received earlier in their careers. Natasha Campo’s “publish or perish” was quickly written down by me, and affirmed at every panel today. She also stressed the importance of being brave in asking for help from whatever relevant people you can find. Advice I’ll definitely be taking on board.
Sean Riley’s advice was not to be afraid to use the words “no”, “absolutely not”, and “go fuck yourself” – if, as a writer, you’re not backing your own work, then nobody will. He also said to remember to “arrive late and leave early” in scenes. An uproariously funny speaker, and certainly one I’ll jump to see if there’s an opportunity in future.
Jill Jones’ advice was to be aware that “writing is bad for your health – especially your posture”. As soon as she said this, everyone in the room wiggled in their chairs and straightened up self-consciously.
While this panel was on, it was nice to see each of the speakers nodding and each other’s advice. Also funny to see was Julian Shaw taking a photo on his iPhone – which soon appeared on Twitter. It was a reminder of the huge role that Twitter has played in the whole festival this year, and which was hugely present in every panel, whether through people talking about Twitter or just the guys either side of me posting tasty little snippets from their smart phones.

As I moved from room to room, trying to find zany ways to wear my necktag like they do on Survivor, I couldn’t help but feel comforted by the amount of people walking around with notebooks, madly trying to hold on to the pearls of wisdom imparted there. In fact, it was the people without the notebooks that looked somehow out of place.

Dion Kagan hosted the panel on interviewing, titled “The Gentle Art of Persuasion”. Dion cited many of his own “train-wreck” interviews as proof that the only real way to get better is to practise. I must say, I took a lot of encouragement from this – my first two interviews for camera aired just over a week ago – I’m still waiting to see them. I know now, though, that if they’re terrible it’s just a right of passage. Panelist Barb Lemon compared interviewing to adding character voices when reading a children’s book – I’d never thought of it like this, but now that the thought’s been introduced, I’ll be sure to approach story material in a much more interview-y way.
Travel writer Brian Thacker had some insanely wonderful stories, and he approached all his travels in this way – no formal interviews, just approaching it all with curiosity, taking notes, quotes in shorthand.
All the panelists also offered little hints to make interviewing much easier – check, double-check, triple-check all the technical stuff. Press record before you enter the room to make it more comfortable in dictaphone interviews. Have questions in a notebook, but don’t read them out verbatim. Best piece of advice for the panel, though?
Tate Ischia shared his favourite piece of advice about writing – that the whole thing is like Zelda. You have to go on weird quests which seem to have nothing to do with anything, meeting lots of people and doing lots of little tasks. In the end, all of this means you slay the dragon. You win the game.

The “Taking It Online” panel (exactly what the name implies) started with Phillip Thiel’s embracing of the impermanence of the internet. “It’s writing made to fade, and quickly forgotten”, he said. While that’s a scary thing in many ways, Phillip seems to have come to terms with it, embraced it, indeed turned it upon itself: his work centres around “a year of…” projects. This year, Phillip is kissing a different person every day – today it was festival director Lisa Dempster.
Also in this panel Mel Campbell put forward a convincing case for writers not to allow themselves to be taken advantage of just because of the newness of writing for online audiences.

In “Never Surrender”, the amazingly accented and very funny Paul Callaghan encouraged us to “reframe” rejection and accept it as part of the process not only of being a writer, but of being a human being. Elizabeth Campbell echoed this, saying that failure can be treated as something both inevitable and productive. By far the most entertaining speaker of the day though, was Sean Condon, who lamented his failure. Indeed, his failure at even failing saying he “counts actual rejection as something of a success!” – he by far prefers a rejection letter to being utterly ignored.

The final speaker of the “Mining The Personal” panel, Lou Sanz, was an absolute hoot: while her contribution wasn’t rife with advice, it was certainly a nice piece of comic relief when my mind was getting too full of information.

Today’s program ended with “The Pitch” – a panel featuring representatives from different publications and publishing houses. While most of the information boiled down to “read the submission guidelines, be considerate”, some more specific tips from certain publications will hopefully give me a bit of an advantage next time I submit something to them.

It started at 9.00am. It finished at 5.30pm. It was a damn long day, but one I’m so glad I didn’t miss.

The EWF Town Hall program is on again tomorrow, so if you’re free you should come down and soak up some of the fantastic advice and inspiration on offer.

A Wheely Great Program!

Yep, made that terrible pun again. I can’t help it. I just have to!

Today, the Wheeler Centre have released their events program for the next quarter.

I thought it would be hard to top last quarter’s program – Shane Maloney was very entertaining, Irvine Welsh was great, the Meanland panels on eReaders were important stuff. So I was curious to see what they’d be doing to beat that this quarter.

To be honest, I panicked a bit when I saw June. “The Deakins 2010” lectures take up most of June, and they’re not really something that interests me. As important as I know this stuff is.

July, however, is reasonably jam-packed with winners.

The week beginning on the 5th of July is “A Week of Love and Lust” … Most of what’s on during this week seems a little trashy, but no doubt far too enjoyable. Most of interest to me though, is the Lunchbox/Soapbox event about “The Case For Gay Marriage”. Well done, Wheeler!

Also during this week is a night about “Erotic Fan Fiction”, where the fantastic Marieke Hardy and Justin Heazelwood (and others) “turn their craft into a night of smut and hilarity”…

On the 14th of July John Birmingham, author of He Died With A falafel In His Hand will be speaking and promoting his new book.

“Voiceworks Live” on the 22nd of July will be a chance to meet fellow Voiceworks readers, as well as contributors and people behind the scenes of the fabulous publication.

On the 29th of July, Jennifer Byrne will be talking to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a reasonably controversial feminist activist and political. This one is ticketed, and will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre, so probably quite a big night.

And THE big one for this quarter: Bret Easton Ellis. Author of Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho, amongst others, Bret will be in Australia talking about his new book, which is based around the characters from his debut novel Less Than Zero.

All in all – you’ve produced a winner, Wheeler! This kind of stuff is what makes us deserve the UNESCO “City Of Literature” title.

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