Sam van Zweden




Cover reveal!

If you were keeping an eye on my social media feeds yesterday, you will have seen the cover for Eating with my Mouth Open.

I’m so, so thrilled to be able to share this beautiful design by Lisa White. She’s put so much hard work into getting it just right, and my publishers at NewSouth have done a wonderful job engaging the right designer and communicating the vision for this book. That they took a risk and said ‘yes’ to this book is still and probably will always be a little miracle to me.

I think the cover is eye-catching. The food collage is bursting out of the head, echoing the story’s enduring preoccupation with food. The statue alludes to the philosophical nature of the book, while its small imperfections knock expectations slightly askew. I love the typography, I love the colours, I love the drop shadow. There’s also a beautiful quote from Australian essayist Rebecca Giggs on the cover, for which I’m very very thankful.

I’m so lucky that this is the cover I’ll get to look at on my work!

Eating with my Mouth Open will be in bookstores from 1 February 2021.

Research and Relish

I have just finished reading Lucy Knisley‘s Relish. It’s a gorgeously drawn graphic memoir.

Last year at MWF, Estelle Tang waved Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother around before a panel, and when I chased that up, I discovered that graphic memoirs are amazing things. I loved Bechdel’s work, so when I heard about Knisley’s graphic memoir, I couldn’t say no. I love Knisley’s book. I’m not an avid comic reader, so I’m not judging with any kind of criteria other than, “it spoke to me”. 

ImageRelish is a collection of Knisley’s memories that are tied to food. The daughter of two foodies, she’s grown up around a lot of tasty things, but food functions here as something way more than sustenence or source of wonder. Food, for Knisley, provides a trigger for memories, and a framework through which she can understand her life. Experiences can be categorized by their food allegiances – Mexican sweets and coming of age. Choc-chip cookies and comforting rituals. French jammy croissants and losing her mind in pursuit of recreation. Many of Lucy’s food triggers are tied to family members, like her pearl-wearing grandmother, “the pickle whisperer”. 

Also scattered throughout the book are recipes and cooking tips. Last week I made carbonara according to Knisley’s graphic recipe and it was delicious. Books that pair recipes with memories are delightful (I was also a big fan of Charlotte Woods’ Love and Hunger), and Knisley’s consistently beautiful, funny drawings make this book a warm and welcoming reading experience. 

I’m currently (sporadically) working on a memoir project which looks at the connections between food and words. My father and brother are both chefs, and food has played a big part in our relationships. As a writer, I constantly look for the places where food and words meet – these are the things that potentially be exciting to all three of us; a meeting-point of sorts.

In researching for this project, I’ve had no trouble finding memoirs written by chefs, or by people who’ve stumbled across cooking and food as some kind of saviour. There are far fewer books that are closer to what I’m trying to do. Knisley’s Relish has been a thunderbolt moment for me – I’ve found someone who’s done what I’m trying to do, talking about family relationships with foodies, from the perspective of someone who’s not a great gastronome, but a perfectly adequate cook. 

I had this point with my memoir work about my mum, too. Reading Sandy Jeffs’ Flying With Paper Wings showed me that there is space for intellectual ideas in mental illness memoirs, and that a balance can be struck between the personal and the broader world of ideas. Similarly, Knisley has shown me that a memoir concerned with food can be about much more than direct experiences involving food, and that there is a way to combine my own non-foodie interests with the foodie stuff that has shaped me.

By combining her growing-up and food stories with a love for art and drawing, Knisley has produced an honest, non-food-porn-y memoir. I love her. I love this book. Thanks, Lucy Knisley, for your amazing work and for helping my research along at just the right time!

The Line Between Book and Life: On Public Personas

One of the panels on the Thursday of NonFictioNow was called Writ Large: On Living The Lives We’ve Made For The Page. The panel featured Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang, Mira Bartok and Barrie Jean Borich – all memoirists, talking about how they negotiate writing from life, and continuing to live that life when it’s been written.

Are we always wearing masks? Are we always mediated?

One thing that emerged as a common experience for all of these writers is that of having readers confuse the constructed, written memoir with the actual, lived life.

“[Readers] don’t see the book as an artifice,” said Sukrungruang, “they see it as your life.”

All of these authors had been approached by readers and spoken to in a way that implied that there was no gap between author and work; between the story and the world. This kind of simplistic view of memoir (that it’s a process of slapping life down on a page) is simplistic, and worrying. It concerns me that readers are expecting verbatim information – it’s fraught for so many reasons. Writing is a creative process, it’s filtered through perspective and memory, it’s forcing something non-linear or sensible into a linear narrative with… a point. As a writer, I am aware of this when reading any piece of writing that comes from life.

In a later conversation with fellow blogger Alice Robinson, we considered what kinds of personas we create online for ourselves. I feel like this blog is reasonably transparent, and that there isn’t a large gap between myself (lived) and myself (written). But there is a gap, no denying it.

I’ve had people recognize me before. “Oh! You’re Little Girl With a Big Pen!”

…Am I?

This Writ Large panel really made me think about where that gap lies for me. I won’t bother to explain it here; those who know me well no doubt can see the space far better than I myself can.

It could be a site of tension, if I let it be. I refuse to let it be that though, I just know that it’s something I’m very interested in. I find the decisions I make in crafting myself interesting, both in blogging and in my current memoir project. I also find it interesting to hear about how people understand those decisions, and whether the divide between public and private, written and lived personas is a problem.

Maybe it’s similar to the way that we all wear different masks in different situation. No situation is maskless, life being a constant performance. It’s just that when it’s written, it’s more static and dissect-able.


Goodbye, Old Friend

On Monday we had to say goodbye to Mac, our 12-year old Cavelier King Charles. As an old dog, Mac had a lot of health problems. Everything inside him was swollen and sore. He wouldn’t lay down in his last few days, because he found it too hard to breathe, his heart was working so fast overtime. It was cruel to keep him going.

“They’re so easy to pick up,” said Dad, “But so hard to put away.”

Mac sat with me on the couch all afternoon on Monday, even managing to rest his head for a little while. He sat with each of us and let us say what we needed to. As always, he listened. He went outside and got some sun. He knew, I think, and he seemed to be saying goodbye at the same time as we were.

“Goodbye, front yard. Goodbye, favourite tree. Goodbye stone dog statue that I am jealous of. Goodbye cats. Goodbye Mum.”

I cried as he walked slowly inside, and he turned around to comfort me, leaning his whole body against my leg and offering up an ear for a scratch. Even though he seemed to know he was saying goodbye, he still needed to come and comfort me. He was always so good at that.

When we got in the car to go to the vet, he didn’t cry as he always had in cars. As we walked up to the door of the vet’s, he didn’t squirm in my arms. I wanted to turn around and run away with him. He wasn’t upset with me for carrying him in there though – he understood.

After the vet put the catheter in, Mac tucked his tail under his bum and lowered his head. He’d always done this head-hanging thing when he knew he was in trouble, looking up at you past his big old-man eyebrows, swallowing really slowly. His big brown eyes would look at you and say “sorry” in a really personal way. Only on Monday, we weren’t punishing him for anything. And his eyes weren’t the same brown any more, they’d been much darker for days.

The vet asked us to hold Mac when the injection was given. Mac buckled under the anesthetic, and sighed deeply as he lay down for the last time in the position we knew him for – front legs straight out under his big ears, head resting on the sides of his paws.

He didn’t close his eyes. Those eyes were always so full of expression, his eyebrows twitching away even as he slept, his eyes opening at any potential ‘walk’ or ‘food’ noises. But when I put my hand on his head to say goodbye, his eyes did nothing.

I’ve been thinking about what death does to memory, and what memory does to a life. In death, the final pain of life softens. This seems only partly natural, and partly a forced action of my mind: I am determined to focus less on the feeling of Mac’s bones through his baggy skin, and the way his breath didn’t even smell like dog food toward the end – he’d stopped eating the way he always had (WOOLF!) because of what food did to his insides. In the sentimental light of memory, I am in constant rewind. Mac has been coming back to me younger and younger this last week – when he was happiest, cheekiest, liveliest:

Mac looking up at me from the bath, peeking under wet eyebrows (the same as that final look – a very personal apology, despite his doing nothing wrong), those slow licks, and the way he was perfectly patient while he was in the bath. As soon as he was out though, it was a struggle to dry him before he was zooming around the lounge room nose-diving the length of the curtains to dry his long, flopsy ears.

Mac on my 18th birthday, when everyone was drunk and left plates of chocolate mud cake all over our house. Mac must have eaten every one of them, because we found him the next day at the back of the yard shaking. He was sad for a few days after that – dogs and chocolate just don’t mix. He loved a good sneaky-treat though. I have many “when-Mac-ate-that-dumb-shit” memories.

Mac as a puppy, right after he’d been neutered. He had one of those raised dog beds. He lay on it for days feeling sorry for himself – we had him sleeping in the bathroom at that stage, which was right across from my bedroom. I sat with him all weekend, and read to him. We got through all of Tomorrow When The War Began, and by then he was well enough to come sulk on my bed.

And less concrete memories: snuffles and snorts under the covers, as he ended up sleeping under my doona with me right through my adolescence. Just the word “Bed,” and he was all over it. The rising-pitch cry, along with the inability to park his bum firmly on the ground, when he wanted whatever you were eating.

One of the first memories I have of our puppy is when we got him home, and he was so utterly tired that he fell asleep on his feet and fell over, waking himself up. It matches one of the last memories I have of him, sitting on Dad’s couch, falling asleep on his feet and waking himself back up, because his body hadn’t let him sleep in days. My memory has softened this later memory though, because all the happy memories in between are so alive and real. They’re so much easier to recall. They’re the way I’d rather remember my friend.

RIP, Mac.

The Luminous Quality that Memory Bestows

Saturday’s MWF program was all about non-fiction for me. First I went to the session Memoir: Fact or Fiction?, followed by one called Fact, Fiction, Truth. Both sessions were concerned with the line between fact and fiction in memoir and creative non-fiction. The day finished with the launch of the Australian-themed issue #46 of Creative Nonfiction magazine.

In Memoir: Fact or Fiction, panelists discussed their motivations for writing memoir. Sydney Smith’s memoirs help her “put … life in perspective”, with the process of writing uncovering deeper feelings that she wasn’t even aware she had. Barry Dickins expressed an enviable kind of euphoria that he gets from writing his story – “It’s too delicious not to write,” he said. All panelists agreed that therapy precedes writing, with memoir successfully happening after the cathartic process, not as an instrument of it.

Both the Memoir: Fact or Fiction panel and Fact, Fiction, Truth discussed the unreliability of memory. Claire Bidwell Smith recalled being told that her memories differed from those around her, while Sydney Smith talked about “the luminous quality that memory bestows.” I love that idea – and I’m sure you know what Smith meant. That strange glowing realm where everything in the past exists in a memory-haze.

The disjuncture between memory and reality was a concern for both panels. In Fact, Fiction, Truth, Robin Hemley talked about an exercise he does with creative writing students, where he gets them to close their eyes and describe the room to him. Often, he said, students would miss things that were very obvious, or recall things that were never there. One student swore there was a flag-pole and flag in the room, when there was no such thing present. Research is a proposed way around this unreliability of memory – go back and check facts from your life, corroborate your story with other people. In the Memoir session, however, Claire Bidwell Smith rejected this method, prioritizing the authenticity of her own lived experience and rememberances. “I didn’t want the ‘facts’,” she said, “I only wanted memory.”

This idea of ‘authenticity’ was raised in Fact, Fiction, Truth also. Kate Holden used this notion of ‘authenticity’ when talking about the fact that memoirs can’t really be fact-checked. While characters and situations might be conflated, what really matters is that the story is authentic. Because memoir is a construction, and because it focuses on an individual’s experience, the space between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ is inherently blurry. As long as the story does itself justice, as long as it’s “the emotional truth”, as long as it’s authentic – that’s what a memoirist owes to their readers.

This line between fact and fiction is something that really interests me. It’s frustrating that the only answer to it all seems to be, “It’s complex”. Yeah, it is complex. What’s most exciting is writing that’s willing to splash around in the grey area. Hopefully readers can suspend their expectations about “The Truth” for long enough to really enjoy that kind of writing.

Review: Flying With Paper Wings, by Sandy Jeffs

Sandy Jeffs’ autobiography, Flying With Paper Wings: Reflections on living with madness is an enlightening memoir and exploration of the experience of schizophrenia. Sandy Jeffs takes readers through her diagnosis and early experiences, through hospitalizations, and her later life negotiations with her identity as schizophrenic.

There are many misery memoirs out there on the subject of mental illness, and I can’t say they interest me too much. There’s dangerous territory there, where the writer can wallow in their own interior mess, and with a subject like mental illness that’s not constructive at all when it comes to communicating exactly what the experience is.

Sandy Jeffs’ account of her illness makes no attempts at speaking for everyone with the same or similar diagnoses, but her representations of what goes on in her head during an episode are fascinating. This includes whole pages of her interior monologue. These don’t take over the book though, and more interesting are Jeffs’ meditations on the very real political issues she faced, as well as philosophical considerations of the mind/body divide and the ways in which trauma and obsession manifest themselves in psychosis.

While Jeffs underlines the individuality of her experience, she also raises some larger issues which are in need of some serious attention. The end of the book looks at the ways that care for psychiatric patients has changed over the years, and the gaping holes that still exist in the mental health system.

A family member of mine suffers from a mental illness which has much in common with schizophrenia, and in reading this book it’s a bit impossible for me to make a judgement separate from that experience. But that’s probably the best endorsement I could possibly give it – I felt like this book helped me understand a bit more. In this book, Sandy Jeffs gives a strong voice to people who are misunderstood and often ignored. She makes some meaningful steps toward bridging a very big gap.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

I’m great at making resolutions. Not New Years’ Resolutions, I just make them all the time. I’ll exercise more, I’ll be up at a certain time, I’ll do a writing exercise every day, I’ll read a hundred books a year… I’m really great at breaking the resolutions that I set for myself.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin makes lots of resolutions for herself, and what I like about the book is Rubin’s systematic approach to making herself follow through on her promises.

The basic premise of the book is that Rubin makes a mission of studying happiness, and spends a year making systematic resolutions that will supposedly make her happier. Following Benjamin Franklin’s idea of perfecting himself by focusing on various virtues, Rubin focuses on a different facet of her happiness every month.

It sounds trite, but I found this book inspirational. There was a lot of stuff that Rubin tries that I took on board. I found myself energized by how specific her resolutions are, and in putting some of them into practice for myself I’d have to say that I think specific, accountable resolutions are the key. Rubin doesn’t just decide to focus on lifting her energy in January of her happiness project; she breaks this focus on “vitality” down into achievable, concrete ideas: “go to sleep earlier”, “exercise better”, “toss, restore, organize”, “tackle a nagging task”, and “act more energetic”. She does this for a different virtue, every month for a year.

By breaking down her aims into these little specific ideas, Rubin has instilled in me a weird kind of tendency to think in mantras. By the end of the book, she recognizes that she does this herself. I’ve started trying to employ the resolution to “act more energetic” – and whenever I find myself tempted to be lazy, that phrase pops into my head. “Act more energetic!” – truisms are helpful.

While I found this book on the “memoir” shelf in the book store, it would probably fit just as well under “self-help”. It’s a funny little book though: Gretchen Rubin’s just an average woman. Before starting her happiness project, she’s pretty happy – she simply decides that her happiness is important, and that she should know what it’s all about, especially in preparation for the possibility of bad times in the future. So it’s not any kind of misery memoir of overcoming the odds and finding happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s not depressed, she’s not hard done by, she’s not even very unhappy. She’s utterly regular. I liked that about the book.

I wasn’t so sure about the way the book treads the line of being overly positive. I know that sounds ridiculous, reading a book about happiness and being unsure about how positive it is, but perhaps because of the utter normalcy of Rubin’s life, I sometimes felt like the obstacles she overcame weren’t very convincing as genuine obstacles. But I guess that’s how life is. Sometimes achieving something isn’t very dramatic, but the fact that you get there in the end is important.

There’s a terrifying endorsement on the back of the book: “An enlightening, laugh aloud read” – from Christian Science Monitor. Don’t let that scare you off. The book isn’t trite, and it isn’t hardcore self-help. It’s a regular lady’s story about figuring out who she is, and what makes her happy. Rubin’s overly-organized approach to that task really appealed to me, and I’d have to say I picked up a lot of good ideas from this book. We spend so much of our lives trying to be “happy” – Gretchen Rubin recognized her own happiness as a priority, and wrote a really enjoyable book about it.

Blog at

Up ↑