Sam van Zweden




Monday Mix Tape: The NaNo Mix

I’ve just been writing about NaNoWriMo for Writers Bloc, and the general excitement of more than 150,000 writers putting down 50,000 words each in a month is kind of getting to me.

So, today’s mix tape is a handful of songs about the act of writing.

Paperback wriiiiiterrrrr! Classic. The other day this song started playing over the shopping centre speakers the second I stepped into the centre. They knew I was there… Despite my never having written a paperback, per se.

It’s just the one line, but god it captures the feeling. “A white blank page, and a swelling rage” – I know this feeling. And Marcus Mumford in a book store! Who needs porn?

Yeahhhh, I know, a lot of people find her whiny. But I think she’s elfin and gorgeous. This one’s all about writing, and not being able to write, and thinking you’re able to write and then ending up with a heap of nonsense.

Ah, writer’s block. “Send that stuff on down to me” – please!


What are your favourite songs about writing?

Inspirational Settings

Certain settings really inspire me. I don’t mean settings for myself to write in, but settings for my stories to take place in.

Many of the settings that get my imagination going are foreign to me. Perhaps I can be creative with these settings because I’m doing all the work in my head. If the fundamental element of place is true for me largely because of what my imagination can do with something foreign but interesting, then other elements like character and plot flow on much more smoothly. Putting faith in my imagination for place and setting means that the rest becomes more pliable and willing to follow suit.

Some of the places I find inspirational:

Image credit Moyan Brenn
Image credit: Moyan Brenn
Image credit: aylamillerntor on Flickr

The food tinted with rosewater and pistachio, the call-to-prayer, djinns and mosques… Istanbul isn’t somewhere I’ve ever been, but I’ve read it evoked so beautifully by other writers that it holds a special place for me. My favourite evocation of Istanbul is Alice Melike Ulgezer’s The Memory of Salt. Istanbul exists in my mind as a place where a certain kind of story happens. The version of Istanbul that I have in my head, is tinted with some magic.

Image credit: Ollie T on Flickr
A building in Chernobyl from Pedro Moura Pinheiro on Flickr

Abandoned anything:
I guess this one’s kind of foreign to everyone. We live in a world where we have conquered just about every space that can be conquered, and we seem to want to develop everything.  Once we’re in a place, we don’t leave. So it’s rare and very creepy when for some reason, a place is abandoned. Chernobyl fascinates me, because it’s one of the very rare instances that even squatters won’t brave – we can see what happens when the land takes back. 

Over the weekend, Scott Westerfeld posted a link on Twitter, to this amazing collection of pictures of abandoned theme parks. For a place that once created so much joy and happiness to be abandoned – well, I don’t think there’s anything much more melancholy than that. 

Image credit: Patrick Donovan on Flickr

I only heard about Macau yesterday, during an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. He’s interested in Macau because the cuisine is a melting pot of Chinese, Portuguese, and the stuff that happens organically over time. I’m interested in Macau because it seems like a place that operates entirely outside of any worlds that I know. It’s not quite an Asian country, because its Portuguese heritage still has such a heavy influence on it. It’s not a Western culture, because it’s still very Asian in many ways. I like that a whole culture can sit in that ‘neither/nor’ space.


What settings do you find yourself drawn to in your writing?

On Ideal Circumstances

Photo from Odalaigh on Flickr Creative Commons

Occasionally two entirely unrelated pieces of reading will clash, and they result in wonderful breakthroughs, ideas, or realizations. The other day I bought myself a copy of A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie. It’s a bit of an awesome book.

The first entry in the 365 Days of Writing section of the book talks about Abercrombie’s attachment to this little cabin she’s got up on a mountain. She loves to go out to that sacred space, cosy herself up in it, and get her work done.

On the same day that I read this, while going through my Feedly content I came across a new post from Ruth Fields. Fields is the author of the fantastic guide for baby runners like myself, Run Fat Bitch, Run! She’s more recently published a new book called Get Your Shit Together, which is about organization and working efficiently. As promotion for the new book, “Grit Bombs” have been going up on her blog, which give a taste of what the book offers.

This grit bomb appeared on last week: the basic message is that we need to stop making excuses about having the ideal circumstances, and just get on with things.

Fields and Abercrombie connected in my mind. I think that I too often wait for is the ideal circumstances to write, and unfortunately they’re rare.

My week is currently (and for foreseeable future) structured so that I don’t have two days off together. I always aim to spend my Wednesday writing, but often it gets spent catching up on washing and dishes, cooking and TV. Sleeping. I get home on work days and only have an hour or two before my partner’s home – he’s pretty loud when he’s home, and I struggle to concentrate when there’s noise. But that hour or two after work isn’t ideal – I’d rather relax, check emails, or watch the news.

Okay, so it’s not ideal, but what the Fields/Abercrombie mash-up made me realize is that it’s never going to be ideal. What matters is that the time is there, and I can use it if I pull my finger out. It’s nice to dream about cabins in the woods, or my ideal, home alone for a whole day with no other commitments, but it just doesn’t happen.

We’re all busy people. How do you make your writing work despite your other commitments?

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.

White Night Game Plan

Last year, I learned to love the Extreme Writing Event.

As part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I took part in some of the writing-time at the Rabbit Hole. A few weeks later, I spent a day doing something similar, and wrote 10,000 words in a day at the Future Bookshop. And the last semester of uni was really an Extreme Writing Event in itself.

In about three hours, Melbourne’s White Night event will kick off. This event will see the city running non-stop for a whole night, with performances, projections, exhibitions, and miscellaneous others happening all over the city. As part of White Night, Emerging Writers’ Festival are hosting a writers-friendly space right through from 7pm until 7am tomorrow morning. There will be performances every hour, and cosy (comfortable?) space to chill out and get some serious writing done. 

For me, it starts with a cupcake. I always feel good about things when I can contribute some delicious treats. I have a fridge full of these bad boys, ready to spike our blood sugar levels and get us through the night.

Chocolate with mint icing. Yummm!

If I learned one thing from last year’s Extreme Writing Events, it was the power of planning. I reached that 10,000 words in a day because I’d planned pretty carefully what I wanted to get written. So again, I’ve armed myself with a notebook full of jottings toward articles, and tweakings toward half-written pieces. This event is much easier, in that there’s no word-count goal. Managing to stay awake and somewhat productive is really the aim. This said, I’m still really keen to use the time to get something done.

I have a writing exercise here that I’ve been given by my mentor, and I plan to knock that over. After that, I’ll be getting stuck into a piece I’ve been planning (but not yet writing) for quite a while. If I can get down a decent draft of that piece before leaving, I’ll be a happy girl.

What happens to people when they get delirious and tired is fascinating, so I’m looking forward to scribbling down some notes for a piece about White Night itself. Other than that, I’ve got a good book, and a notebook, and cupcakes, and I’m now going to go take a nap to help me through the night. Working 10-5 tomorrow!

Hope to see you out at White Night.

Thinking With My Hands

Sometimes I work when I look a helluva lot like I’m not working.

Doing the dishes, I consider how to open my essay in the most engaging way. Eating a nectarine, I ponder whether I need to factor as a character in this one, if this is a personal essay, or just an essay (and get the fuck outta there, writer lady!).

Cross-stitching is my pet lately. It serves two purposes, aside from making something damn awesome. It gives me something to do while my boyfriend watches one of the fifty billion “man” shows on TV at the moment. More usefully, however, it punctuates my day with something both productive and productive. Productive in the creative, making a lovely cross stitch way, but also productive because it gives me space to think.

Sometimes I just need to get in my head, and let my hands do the thinking. There’s something about working with my hands that frees up the mental space for breakthroughs. I’ve heard a theory about physical movement and the way your synapses fire away, but I think perhaps that was in relation to more strenuously physical things, like running or cycling.

Anyway, here’s my project, and it’s helping me think.

Do you have ways of thinking about your work that aren’t writing?

Guest Post on The Emerging Writer Online Journal

Today I’ve got a piece up over on the Emerging Writer Online Journal. It reflects on the process of coming to see myself as a nonfiction writer, and how the recent NonFictioNow Conference made me think even more.

The Emerging Writer Online Journal is a fantastic opportunity for emerging writers. Karen, who edits the journal, is keen to hear pitches for just about anything concerning writing, the writer’s life, process… Etc. It’s a great way of getting your name out there, of having a paid writing gig, and of building up your publication folio. I can’t recommend this organization highly enough, so go make the most of their generosity!

Women In Culture at MWF

MWF badge property of MWF

Susan Hawthorne, publisher at Spinifex Press, opened Women in Culture by asking for a show of hands on names of women writers dating back to 5,000 years BCE. Possibly the first known writer was female – yet not one person in this session knew her name. Out of the maybe fifteen names that Hawthorne called out, only two were recognized. If the same test were conducted with the names of male writers from similar periods (Homer, Cervantes, etc), we can assume that many more hands would have gone up. Hawthorne’s point (which was later echoed by Sophie Cunningham) was that women’s writing slips quickly from history.

Sophie Cunningham (one of the brilliant women behind the Stella Prize) is all over the statistics about women in publishing. According to statistics that she shared in this session, the best that women can currently hope to represent in publishing is 30% of the whole. Even with that nowhere-near-even figure, women’s writing fades quickly in the public mind. One of the concerns of the Stella Prize is to slow that fade. Prize-winning writing often sets VCE reading lists, according mainstream interest to worthy writing by women, and encouraging younger people to pay attention to more than just the dead white men who make up the literary canon. Writers who win prizes are also far more likely to follow writing as a career path. The Stella Prize (like what was until recently the Orange Prize in the UK) affords women part of the “room” that Virginia Woolf pleaded for in “A Room Of One’s Own.”

Sophie Cunningham gets better every time I hear her speak. After attending an addled Germaine Greer’s session earlier in the day, it was fantastic to see a feminist as articulate as Sophie speaking.

Tamil writer C.S Lakshmi (who writes under the name ‘Ambai’) shared an extract from a story of hers which poetically, beautifully, argued for the importance of women’s ability to tell and share stories with other women, rather than having their lives dictated by the stories that men tell to and about women.

Emily Maguire argued that “women’s writing” (a label that nobody felt comfortable with), is different from writing by men, in the way that every individual’s writing is different. “Not better, not worse, not more of less true, but different,” said Maguire.

The thread of conversation (unfortunately, only briefly touched upon) that set my cogs spinning was raised by Emily Maguire. She raised a similar point earlier in the year at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Maguire teaches creative writing to young children. While young girls will write 50/50 male and female protagonists, young boys almost exclusively write male protagonists. Where does this come from? Well, boys read boys’ books with male heroes. Books with female heroes aren’t as common, and when they do appear, they’re marketed as “girls’ books” (complete with sparkly pink cover). Butt-kicking feminine and female protagonists just aren’t represented the same way as butt-kicking male protagonists are. And heaven forbid little boys look up to a strong woman hero character!

This is a really interesting question for me as a reader and a bookseller. It made me think about what books are selling now with strong, feminine heroines. The EJ12 books series is great. I’m not all over kids books as a genre, but what I can think of is mainly about girls chasing boys, or being chased by boys. Trying to think of the strong female characters I admired when I was younger I came up with Ellie from Tomorrow When The War Began, Rosie from Guitar Highway Rose (who, though she’s eccentric, is still really just chasing a boy)… Apart from that, I don’t really know.

What strong women do you remember in books you admired as a child? Who do you hope your children could use as a strong female role model in a book?

Welcome To Gaysia! In Conversation with Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is featuring on both sides of a slew of Melbourne Writers Festival events, both as a panelist and interviewer. His first book, The Family Law, is a hilarious memoir about his very forthright family. His latest book, Gaysia, explores questions Benjamin had about whether life would have been different if he’d grown up gay in Asia. The answer: almost definitely. Reaching this answer is a funny, sometimes shocking, always gripping journey around a handful of Asian countries, looking at how anything that isn’t mainstream heterosexuality is treated.

Benjamin Law. Picture from MWF website.

I enjoy Benjamin’s writing because it’s not just funny. I mean, it certainly is funny. Knee-slappingly so. But behind what he pokes fun at is always an almost childish curiosity, and he has the perspective to pull back from the particular humour to see the wider picture. He’s clever, and this makes reading his work a lot of fun.

In between his crazy MWF schedule, Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions,  and tell us about how other people’s families are strange, how his and David Sedaris’ sex lives are similar, and a possible time frame on his next project.

SvZ- Hi Ben! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new book Gaysia, it’s a hilarious, fun and compelling read. Your first book, The Family Law, was immensely popular. That book was quite different to Gaysia. How has the experience of writing your latest book compared? And what made you decide to move away from writing about your family and into more immersive journalistic territory?
BL– It’s funny: in my day-to-day work life, I tend to write in two different modes. Sometimes I’ll write columns about personal experiences for magazines like frankie or Qweekend, and other times I’ll be writing longform non-fiction for magazines like The Monthly or Good WeekendThe Family Law was this demented, black comedy memoir about my family, so that was an extension of all that comedic column writing. Whereas Gaysia is gonzo-ish adventure journalism, looking at seven different LGBT/queer issues in seven different countries: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India.

SvZ- Your new book, Gaysia, looks at sexuality in Asia. Do you think Australians have misconceptions about sexuality in Asia? How much of our understanding is shaped by mainstream travel?
BL- I think everyone has preconceptions about countries they’ve never travelled to. When we think of Thailand for instance, we always make jokes about ladyboys. We might even travel to Thailand and spot a few. But will we talk to them and have a proper conversation about what their lives are like? Probably not.

SvZ- Your writing is highly personal – a lot of its humour comes from the fact that the things you share would be closely guarded secrets for most people. Bodily functions, sex, awkward things that come out of your mouth. In the Melbourne Writers Festival panel Friendly Fire, you mentioned that this intimate style often means that readers feel like they know you. How much of that is something you willingly signed up for in writing memoir, and how much is kind of creepy?
BL- Meh, my family’s always been pretty comfortable talking about bodily functions, and I’ve always been amused by how easily people are shocked when I bring that stuff up. It’s like, “Dude, if you’re healthy, you’ve done a poo roughly once a day for every day of your life. Surely it doesn’t shock you any more.” So of course, people think you’re revealing these huge secrets about your life, but the story you’re reading represents such a tiny fraction of my life. But if you feel like you know me really well, that’s fantastic, because that’s what all personal essayists or memoirists try to do: create a sense of intimacy. It’s cute: when people come up and tell me they’ve read The Family Law, we often talk heaps about how it reminds them of their own family. That’s what I’ve really dug, how the book makes people realise their own families aren’t that strange either.

SvZ- There seems to be almost nowhere you won’t go for a laugh in your writing. Is there anything you won’t write about?
BL- Oh sure, I won’t describe what I do in bed with my boyfriend. It’s one of David Sedaris’s rules too. I’m not sure anyone wants to be subjected to that.

SvZ- Congratulations, also, on having Gaysia included on the Get Reading “50 Books You Can’t Put Down” list. This list is in bookstores nation-wide, and caters for pretty much every reader on the planet. How does it feel to have your writing placed among that of very mainstream writers like Kathy Lette and Michael Robotham?
BL – I’m not going to lie. My publishers and I have somehow managed to convince people that a non-fiction book about LGBT issues in Asia is super-readable and not at all niche. Pretty stoked about that.

SvZ- Where to from here for Benjamin Law?
BL- Every time I finish a book, I promise myself not to dive into a new one for at least a year or so. And yet, here I am again, drafting out the foundations of another one … Give it a year or two, and you’ll hear all about it.

Coming up this weekend, you can see Benjamin Law at the Melbourne Writers Festival events ‘In Conversation: Germaine Greer’, The Stella Prize Trivia Night, and ‘Inside Asia‘. 

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