Sam van Zweden




The Inaugural Stella Prize

Last night the inaugural Stella Prize for women’s writing was awarded to Carrie Tiffany, for her novel Mateship With Birds.

ImageThe prize awards $50,000 to recognize fantastic writing by Australian women. The name of the prize comes from one of the most celebrated Australian women writers of all time – Miles Franklin. As mentioned at last night’s ceremony, the prize gives Miles Franklin back her name – Franklin felt the need to publish under a man’s name in order for her writing to be successful. What a long way we’ve come, to now be recognizing women’s writing, and awarding such a bucket load of cash in order to give them the time and space they need to create their work. 

Carrie Tiffany graciously returned $10,000 of the prize money to the Stella Prize to be divided amongst the other shortlisted authors: Courtney Collins, Michelle de Kretser, Lisa Jacobson, Cate Kennedy, and Margo Lanagan. As she made the gesture, she talked about how money equals time for writers. Tiffany’s generosity and goodwill are a representation of the good feeling, positivity, and realistic nature of the whole Stella ethos.

I missed the awards ceremony, but followed along on Twitter via the #stellaprize hashtag. The Stella team, as well as all the writers, readers, booksellers, festival people, and groupies in attendance did a fabulous job of making those of us at home feel like we were actually there. Quotes from speakers, selfies and group photos, virtual drinks with other proxy attendees… Even from the comfort of a tram and my desk at home, it was a fun night.

Mateship with Birds‘ winning status has pushed it further up the reading pile, along with Zadie Smith’s NW, which is shortlisted for the UK’s “Women’s Prize for Fiction” (formerly the Orange Prize). In the middle of awards season as we are, there’s no shortage of things to read, but the hours in a day are sadly lacking.

Popular Penguins

On the 15th March, Penguin announced the new list of 75 Popular Penguins that will be gracing shelves from July 2010 to celebrate Penguin’s 75th year publishing.

A few questionable choices… I think perhaps someone needs to tell the Penguin people that “popular” doesn’t mean “good”… But I guess all they’re claiming for this collection is that they’re “popular”. So a job well done! Having said that, on the whole, a pretty impressive selection…

You can check it out here.

What do you think? Which books should/should not have been chosen?


I’m beat. Bushed. Buggered. Sooooo tired. I feel like I woke up on Saturday, and haven’t stopped since.

Up until this point, I’ve avoided blogging about my latest achievement simply because I was terrified it wouldn’t stick – that I’d get there and the collective psyche would vote me out. However, on Saturday afternoon the first episode of Yartz featuring my pretty porcelain face was filmed.

Yartz is an awesome community TV show on Channel 31, (airs at 10pm Mondays and a repeat I think on Thursday night – also on youtube) which basically acts as a very independent cultural commentator, picking out all the cool things in the world and letting you know all about them…At times fanatical, at other times utterly scathing – which is where I come in.

I have been appointed book-fan extraordinaire, working with the Yartz crew and contributing to the bookish side of things. A more lovely bunch of people you could not find, so a big thankyou to one Misha Adair for his expert casting skills, and to the rest of those I’ve had anything to do with thus far for being so ready to have me on board.

Not having television myself I won’t be able to tell you when I’m on, I’m not sure if it’s this week or next, BUT as soon as it hits youtube you can expect to hear about it.

In other beginnings, today was the first day of my life at RMIT completing their Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing). AMPED! First days are always less productive, and it did enough to get me excited about the course overall. It’s still a very new course, only in its second year, and it’s a very small group. There’s 42 of us in first year.

Today I had Cinema Studies, which consisted of Lumiere shorts and The Wizard of Oz… While it’s a 9.30 class, I get to be all cozy in a Hoyts cinema and watch films, so it’s bearable. Enjoyable, even. The news of needing to purchase a $110 textbook was a little less than welcome, but I’ve since found a filmmaker-friend who is willing to lend me a copy – thank god for commonly used textbooks!

I have to admit, this viewing of The Wizard of Oz was the first time I’d noticed the Wizard calling Scarecrow a “blundering bale of bovine fodder”… That’s the kind of insult I wish I’d penned!

The afternoon saw an “orientation” type talk in the space where Telling Stories would usually take place – and my goodness, the second year students have got me excited! The thing that always discouraged me about Swinburne was the lack of community feeling and a total lack of enthusiasm for writing. It was seen as an easy elective and not something to be pursued outside of what was forced upon us. That didn’t stop me, of course, but I was always chasing the extracurricular opportunities by myself.

Now, writing’s such an alone activity that I feel that this community feeling I’ve been wanting is absolutely crucial to being able to do it. The second year students in my course are so excited about the writing opportunities they have and create, especially those they do outside of school and share. They’re really pulling together as an artists’ collective and making it all work for themselves. Good on them, and I can’t wait to join the ranks!

So, a few new beginnings and much, much, MUCH excitement.

…just a bit proud of myself at the moment.

Gala Soothes Home-Haircutting Aftershock

This morning I cut my own hair. I was feeling out of sorts, somewhat dissatisfied with the world. And my fringe had been hanging in my eyes for weeks.

Being poor and restless, I took up my scissors and gave it a good chop. A very rough, far-too-short chop. A chop that turned out looking not entirely like anything my fringe has ever experienced. It’s trying to be something, but it just looks confused.

To soothe the discomfort which has only been inflated by my hair cutting, (my partner hasn’t woken up to laugh at my uneven hair yet) I decided to sit down and watch some of the footage from the Wheeler Centre’s opening event, “A Gala Night of Storytelling”.

Yesterday the footage of Christos Tsiolkas, John Safran and Chloe Hooper was uploaded. On Thursday the first six writers’ footage was uploaded. There are still a few more writers to go.

Each featured writer was asked to share and discuss “those tales that have been handed down to them through the generations, each giving voice to an inheritance of wisdom, of understanding, of identity”. Some writers took this more seriously than others – some accounts are poignant, some funny, all are pretty enlightening in terms of where such revered literary figures have come from. I can honestly say that I only found one or two of these speakers dull…I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to pick which ones they were.

But at least even the boring ones distracted me from my wonky fringe… Time for round two with my scissors: The Straightening.

Farewell to another Great

Yesterday saw the passing of great American writer JD Salinger. The Age have written a nice article outlining Salinger’s life and controversies.

I have fond memories of Salinger’s writing. In when I was about 16, I was busy getting stuck into novels recommended by my literature teacher – Madame Bovary, The Age of Innocence, and many other novels containing statements about feminism which I was a little too young to fully grasp. I’d heard a bit about “The Catcher In The Rye”, so when I came across a $4 used copy, I grabbed it. It opened up a whole world  of writing to me which I didn’t know existed beyond teen fiction  – I thought only books marketed to teens contained anything that spoke to me, while adult fiction was all about interpreting and puzzle-solving. “The Catcher In The Rye”  began my discovery of what I really enjoy reading. It took me through all the Beats, into contemporary writers who challenge the norm – with political and moral consciences (Chuck Palahniuk), pushing “appropriate” boundaries (Bret Easton Ellis), writing in unconventional forms (Irvine Welsh), and all the postmodern trickery that was more widely conducted around the time Salinger was writing (Jorge Luis Borges, through to Dave Eggers and Mark Z Danielewski). So, JD Salinger was the gateway to a whole world of enjoyable literature (which now includes a nice balance of pomo trickery and afforementioned feminist classics).

I was talking to my partner recently about how authors with one particularly famous book or style take on so much of their characters and their characters’ attitudes. I think to some extent this is in the role of “author”… So while JD Salinger was so reclusive for most of his life, and we haven’t heard from him in many many years, his death feels like I’ve lost an old and distant friend.

RIP, Jerome David Salinger.


I’d like to briefly blog today about the latest fantastic installation in Melbourne’s “UNESCO City Of Literature” status…

This has been a long long time coming, but it’s finally here! In February, The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas opens its doors.

Trying to books tickets for its first event proved disappointing – I had to wait until a pay day, and even then there were still four weeks to go until the event – plenty of time, I thought. However, many many fellow Melburnians are excited about this event, and beat me to it. Sold out. Fail.

However, there’s some really exciting stuff coming up there, (apart from the fact that it’s just going to BE there) – Irvine Welsh will be talking to Alan Brough on the 10th of March. I have tickets for this. I got in early.

Good news; the website is incredibly up-to-date and user-friendly. They daily blog about interesting things reading and writing, and their events calendar is posted pretty far ahead of events – the current calendar already runs up to May.

In other news, I went yesterday to enrol at RMIT. I’m officially itching to start, having talked to lecturers and convenors about what we’ll be working on, the fact that RMIT is across the road from the Wheeler Centre and the State Library, what’s expected from us, and what we can expect from the course. Let me at it! Now!

Literary Tattoos

The mind-alteringly hilarious Melbournian siren otherwise known as Marieke Hardy last week wrote an article on “literary tattoos” for The Age, which you can read here.

“Literary ink,” says Hardy, “is the epitome of the nerds striking back.”

She suggests that tattoos don’t strictly have to be quotations in order to qualify as “literary tats”… I’m not sure if mine would fit into this category, or if my next planned piece of ink will either – something unoriginal (I’ve seen it on someone) yet witty: a set of quotation marks which open on one shoulder blade and close on the other.

While I certainly applaud those who sport quotations, I’d be terrified about putting someone’s words on myself. Some authors have been with me for a very long time – Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, John Marsden, C.S Lewis, Ginsberg, Kerouac… But I’d be so scared of choosing the wrong words, for fear of there being more poignant words I could possibly have printed on the fleshy loveliness that is my body.

“In the end, the only thing that matters is that the words … inspire you on to greater things”

Do you have a tattoo that does this? Do you see another function for having someone else’s words tattoed on your body? Do you agree with it?

The Book Thief

For the last two weeks, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has stolen my undivided attention.


This novel captured my imagination and my empathy, being written in a way that is both imaginative and ruthlessly real – surprising, given that the author’s inspiration comes from stories, and not any personal experience of war or persecution.

The book’s author, Markus Zusak is a 34 year-old Sydney man (bless the occurrance of Aussie bestsellers that don’t belong to Bryce Courtney!), whose parents grew up in WWII Germany. Having heard their horrific stories of what went on during that time, Zusak set out to write an original novel on a much written-about topic, which showed “the other side of Nazi Germany” – that side which was very human, and very heartbreaking.

We all know about Nazi Germany, we’ve all read a book, or seen a film, or been in a history class or two. What The Book Thief does is take us to this place but look at it from a completely different angle – this book is narrated by Death. Death, in Zusak’s imagining, views humanity in a curious way, trying to prove to himself that we’re not so bad.

The novel explores the power of words in that turbulent time in history – both the words of Hitler, and the words that the story’s main character builds a relationship with. This character, Liesel, comes to live with a foster family on a poor street in Munich. She is a generally kind-heated girl, but feels a strong pull toward a life of crime – more specifically, the stealing of books. Her relationship with words grows to be a strong one, and an astounding image in juxtaposition to the power of Hitler’s words at that time.

As the war continues and German citizens feel the pinch, believing they are in the worst state of hardship, Liesel words and her ability to keep secrets help her understand that the hardship felt by German citizens is nothing compared to the Jewish plight.

Throughout the book, Zusak’s language struck me as incredibly tight, with fantastic attention to the narrator’s point-of-view. Zusak’s Death has an  interest in colours, and uses them as a distraction from the horror that humans can create:
“…The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets, and filled up the streets like a bath”

Tiny simple moments and actions are created fully and beautifully through Zusak’s language:
“…Rudy’s voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while, it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later in made its way to her ear”

While plenty of people have written about Nazi Germany in many a novel, play, and screenplay, Markus Zusak brings something truly original and touching to the subject. He treads a fine line between the magical suspension of reality and the crushing realities of the time.

With the exception of the cliche’d use of dictionary definitions to punctuate one chapter of the novel, Zusak handles mood and tone wonderfully, remembering to pace the depressing episodes nicely so that the book doesn’t ever become tiring. Characters are full and convincing, and all strands in this novel come together in a very satisfying way.

This is the only novel of Zusak’s that I have read, but his artful use of words leaves me keen to read more of his work.

As a book on a tired topic, The Book Thief hits all the right notes – convincing, poignant, consistent and tightly written. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.

Poetry Workshop

I was recently asked by an old teacher of mine to return to my high school for a day early in December and run a poetry workshop as an end-of-year activity. I thought about it for a while – 16 year olds can be harsh. How do you teach poetry? What if they don’t buy my “I-know-about-writing” act?

Eventually I accepted though.

Uni is finished for the semester. I’m waiting on a call or letter from RMIT, started this new job, writing… So my spare time now is all about this poetry workshop.

I think the best way to do it is by going through a few conventions/techniques, and attaching an example and an exercise to each. The session only goes for 90 minutes so I can’t get too far into things, but they’re young’uns so that’s probably good.

What I’m struggling with is what to use as examples. These kids are 16, I don’t remember what poetry I studied (if any) at that age. I’m thinking about using some Robert Adamson stuff as an example of the use of metaphor, he does that ridiculously well. Other than this, I’m a bit lost as to what to use.

So if anyone reading this here fine blog remembers what they studied in the way of poetry at the age of 16, please oh please comment and let me know. I’d really appreciate some direction, I’d hate to confuse these kids with non-accessible stuff and scare them off writing, or discussing it with the class…



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