Sam van Zweden



steven amsterdam

Review: What the Family Needed

What the Family Needed, by Steven Amsterdam
Sleepers Publishing, 2011
ISBN: 9781742702117
RRP: $24.95

I loved Steven Amsterdam’s incredibly popular novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming. I think what I enjoyed most about it was Amsterdam’s knack for putting characters in situations that a reader must find foreign, and thus exciting and engaging, while still keeping his finger on the pulse of reality. Even though we can only guess at what it would be like living in a post-Apocalyptic world, we know what it is to be human, and Amsterdam writes that so well that we accept the Apocalypse as the premise.

His latest offering, What the Family Needed, likewise takes some really average human beings and puts them in extraordinary situations, forcing the reader to seriously ponder, What would that be like?

The story follows one particular family over many years, starting when the children are under ten years old, through to when they’re about fifty. This family goes through the regular traumas that all families do: births, deaths, marriages, and all the rest. The thing about this family is that they all develop super-powers. One can fly, one has amazing strength, one can match-make like Cupid. Despite all their amazing abilities, these super-powered people still have problems.

While this kind of premise would usually turn me off a book, I had no idea that was even what I was getting myself into when I picked this one up. I was going by my love of Things We Didn’t See Coming. And I’m glad I went with it, because Steven Amsterdam breathes life into this well-worn idea. What would you do if you had super-powers?

What Amsterdam does is exactly what he did in his previous novel – he keeps firmly in touch with reality, despite a wacky premise, and the true humanity in this book is what made it such an enjoyable read.

At times the moment when characters realise they have powers seems a little thin – but I’m not entirely sure what I would want for these moments to seem more credible. I’ve never developed the ability to fly, so I have no idea what that would be like. The more important bits are where characters exercise their powers and try to improve their lives with them. What matters is the exploration of how human we’d still be, even if we could do anything we wanted.

The World’s Most Affordable Lit Festival

The program for the Willy Lit Fest has been released, and I’ve scoured and circled and am about to purchase tickets.

“But you’re a student!” you may exclaim, wondering how I can afford such things.

Here’s how: tickets to the Willy Lit Fest events are (mostly) $5.50 for concession, $7.70 full price. Isn’t that just nuts? I can’t afford NOT to go!

On my list of must-attend:

A panel with Steven Amsterdam (who, has anyone else noticed, was in the last Big Issue holding chickens?), Jon Bauer and Jonathan Griffiths, titled “Getting Your First Novel Across The Line”. Sure, I don’t have a first novel, yet. But school’s mentioned its importance to my graduation; it’s come up. They’ve even got me taking a course which hopefully insists on referring to “Your Novel” (capitals and all). So eventually, the advice from this panel will surely come in handy. And Steven Amsterdam makes me happy.

Carmel Bird is one of my favourite short-storyists, and she’s running a workshop on writing memoirs, which gets me excited also. Both time with Carmel and the memoir-writing tips.

And a session with Angela Meyer about blogging. As you may have noticed, this here blog has been receiving some re-vamping lately. I’ve been trying, world, I really have. So let’s hope Angela has some tips which will make me (blogger) and you (, dear reader) happy.

Willy Lit Fest, the world’s most affordable literary festival is happening on the final weekend of 30th April-1st May. For those of you who (like me) didn’t know, Williamstown is only 30 minutes train ride out of the city, so not only is this cheap, but accessible also. Write-ups of above events, of course, to follow.

Splashin’ Around

Today I spent the day in a room. With. John. Marsden.

…and THEN. Steven. Amsterdam!


Today was the first “Big Splash” at the Wheeler Centre, run by Express Media. The day was a mini-festival featuring a keynote speech from Jessica Au and writing workshops by John Marsden and Steven Amsterdam. And what a day it was – as the first event of its kind, Express Media got it spot-on first go.

Jessica Au’s opening speech was a reflection on her recent reading of Virginia Woolf, who once said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Jessica talked about what a woman today might need in order to write. Money was still a concern – “they say time is money, but for a writer, money is time,” Jessica said. The means to afford time for our writing is important. And not just time for our writing, but time for everything that goes with it – time to get distracted, time for uncertainty, time for re-writing and editing. Also essential are engagement with critical culture, and a good balance between egoism and pessimism. Later in the day Jessica shared her experience in getting published and dealing with publishers – she’s a very well-spoken lady, and while I haven’t read any of her work yet, I’ll be on the lookout for it!

The next part of the day saw the group of 28 attendants split in two, each going with a different writer, which would swap later in the day. The first workshop for me was with John Marsden.

John Marsden‘s importance to me simply cannot be understated. I was part of that generation who chewed hungrily through the “Tomorrow, When The War Began” series, got to the back cover of the last one, then started it all again because I just didn’t want it to end. “So Much To Tell You” is one of the first books I ever remember buying, and “Dear Miffy” the first thing with really explicit material (I remember the sentence too – “squeeze me like a lemon baby, your juice runs down my legs”) that I snuck past my dad out of the library. He’s been with me for about as long as I can remember reading, and now he’s coming with me into my writing life too.

Some notes on Mr Marsden – swears like a trooper. Natural story-teller. Rambles, but in a totally engaging way. Has a natural fascination in people and playing with status in real-life situations. Watches a lot of different movies – Pretty Woman, Terminator, some avant-garde French thing…

John’s been running workshops for about 20 years – and it shows. He does it incredibly well. While the first 45 minutes or so were a ramble about status, he eventually looked down at his watch and said “Shit, this is meant to be a writing workshop, we better do some writing!”.

His exercises were short and to-the-point. We looked at how stories need solutions, and how solutions don’t have to be absolutely unexpected to be good. We talked about how all stories are essentially “What If’s”. The example I came up with for this was, “What if I go home today to find another family living in my house, and find out that that family has been living there for a long time, just when I’m not home, and today I just catch them by chance?”. It certainly got me thinking(/paranoid)… I’ve been keeping an eye out for clues of their whereabouts since I got home.

John also came out with something really comforting – someone said something about a plot they’d come up with, then undermined it by saying “I know it’s just like (some popular thing) but…”. To this, John said: “Sometimes people are apologetic about their work being derivative, but you shouldn’t be, because everything is. You should only be apologetic if your writing lacks energy.”

Speaking to Express Media’s artistic director later, Bel Schenk, she said that John told her we were the best workshop group he’d ever had. It may have been hyperbole, but I’m claiming it. That’s right, folks, I was part of the best writing workshop John Marsden has ever run. YAH!

 The next part of the day was with Steven Amsterdam. Recently, Steven Amsterdam has wow-ed me with “Things We Didn’t See Coming”, which I picked up at the EWF, and was thankful for every page of. The man writes well. Really ridiculously well. You should pick up a copy.

Steven’s workshop had a lot more “heads-down” kind of writing, but was no less enjoyable for it. We used visual prompts to produce a pretty sizable body of story starters. Steven kept one guiding principle in our minds as a way to always push our work forward – “What’s the core value of your story?” he’d ask. And for the most part, by identifying what that is, there was a logical way forward.

This piece of advice is pretty priceless for me. I so often get stuck with a story, with a beginning and most of a middle – I know where it needs to end, but I’m not so sure how to make everything reach that point. Often I’ve been spending time writing really detailed character sketches outside of the story in order to figure out what would logically happen. This idea of keeping focussed on the core value of a story really helps with this process.

Steven also said something great about making story ideas original. With our visual prompts, we were mashing together seemingly unrelated ideas. Steven likened this to googlewhacking… I very much like this idea.

The day wound up with what was called an “informal panel session” but which was executed in a circle, with people throwing questions to the three writers, who chewed on them for a bit. It was incredibly relaxed, and felt so much better and completely different to any other author/writer event I’ve been to.

Both Steven Amsterdam and John Marsden are so incredibly friendly and approachable that I managed to have a chat with both outside of alloted time. Both were lovely enough to sign their books for me…

"Sam, Best Wishes, John Marsden"
"Sam, Keep it strange, Good luck! Steven Amsterdam"

…and John Marsden signed his using MY PEN… I absolutely loved my pen before, but it’s just taken on a whole new element. John Marsden wrote with my pen!

Beloved Pen, now graced by the hand of Marsden!

Best day I’ve had in quite some time, by far. Thanks Express Media, can’t wait for the next one!

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page.
  •  You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

” ‘You can promise to be as sweet as you want, but picture this: the future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off, and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future.’ ”

From Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (p22).

Page Parlour Haul

Today was awesome. I woke up late, I went to Page Parlour, I met someone I’d only ever known via twitter, I went to an art show, I caught up with friends.

Day three of the Emerging Writers’ Festival saw the Page Parlour grace the heated walkways of the atrium at Federation Square. Page Parlour brings together a bunch of emerging writers and publishers to present their books and zines in a market type setting.

My Haul?

The Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
Miscellaneous Voices: Australian Blog Writing ed. Karen Andrews
Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster

There were other things I wanted to buy – uni student income said no.

But I’m pretty satisfied and itching to get into this haul!

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