Mar 23, 2009
Prompts – LiteraryMinded.
Responses – Steven Amsterdam.
I was inspired by a few loose pieces in the news, from life, the partisan splay of the 2004 election in the US, and my nervous mind, so I wrote ‘The Theft That Got Me Here’. When I wrote the last line, ‘I’ll keep going as far as the money takes me,’ I realised that it could be part of something bigger. I sent it out as a stand-alone piece, but started fishing around the pond of my brain for what other excitement this guy could get into.
Around that time, I picked up a copy of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs. He was a general (for the good side) in the Civil War and president from 1869-1877, two presidents after Lincoln. In retirement, he toured the world, very well loved. During a financial boom and bust in the 1880s, he lost most of his savings by investing his money with some scammers. Suddenly in deep debt, he did what people do when they want to make money fast: he became a writer. He serialised his life story for $500 a pop, which is not at all bad. Turned out he was a good storyteller. He finished his memoirs (Mark Twain was his publisher) just before his death from throat cancer. The book earned his family close to half a million dollars in royalties which paid a lot of bills back then.
Reading his stories, I loved the notion that a person of this stature and ongoing national importance was still subject to the times, (war, assassination, financial turmoil). I was also struck by the fact that his stories didn’t always hinge on the importance of the historical moment he was living through. Instead they were often filled with details of interpersonal oddities, behaviour.
At first I was going to ape Grant’s whole thing, take some key moments and storify them in my imagined future. That quickly became too confining and dull. Still, I held onto the idea that the character would become president at the end. I was sure of that.
We all know exactly what the city of the future is going to look like, right? Either shiny and sleek or grimy and run by gadgets gone bad. The first story I wrote (the second chapter) took us out of the city. What would nature look like? What would it look like just outside of the barricades? Who would live there still? What privations would they suffer? The next one, ‘Dry Land’ goes on and explores that idea, with the urgency of a biblical/climate change rainstorm in the background. The narrator is an urban character, by birth, but for most of the book he is roughing it outside of a city. A city boy myself, it was fun to roam the countryside and imagine this changed landscape.
People don’t get sick enough in fiction, unless it’s sick fiction (and then it’s the whole point). But everybody in the real world gets sick sooner or later and one of the major reasons they feel like crap about it (on top of the prognosis or the limitations that come with it) is that they haven’t seen enough people being incidentally sick in fiction and movies. I wanted illness, not just bird flu and the like, to have a part in this future.
Ok, on rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a con. I didn’t write the book to uplift sick people everywhere. This is the problem with interviews, or at least ones you can take your time with. I fabricate too easily. This is why I don’t keep a blog.
Still, there’s a truth in there somewhere and that led me to imagine a scenario, kind of like the world we live in, where people live well beyond their die-by date, but medical technology can keep them going further and farther. It’s not a huge leap to extrapolate adventure tourism for people with advanced cancer.
I wouldn’t have latched onto the various scenarios that the character endures if I wasn’t susceptible to a bit of worry myself. I have been known to worry about many things, including Y2K, pandemic, climate change, war. You name it.
The End of the World: A History (here)
This book by Otto Friedrich was last printed in 1994. Chapter by chapter, he looks at the accounts of people who lived through devastating wipeouts – plagues, earthquakes, Pompeii, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. It’s healthy reading for a worrier, because the point is that the world keeps going (just maybe not with you in it). The book was written in the 80s, so it has this fear-of-nuclear-war spin to it. Remember nuclear war? Remember Chernobyl? How come we don’t worry about meltdowns anymore? Did that problem get all sorted out or did we move on to other concerns?
Getting the future wrong:
I was well aware that trying to write a big dystopian book was a thankless exercise in some regards. I hadn’t read enough to know what had already been done. I didn’t know enough about politics and technology to be able to begin to meaningfully predict what would happen. Remember 1984? Because of that book, so much meaning attached to the year as it drew near. All that remains in my mind now is Reagan’s reelection and a song from the Eurythmics. So what did we learn when New Year’s 1985 came around? Nothing works out, least of all worst-case scenarios.
So I wondered, Why should I get stuck describing one doomsday? This freed me up from getting caught in a particular groove (eg. drought), and let me explore all the terrible futures that are thrown at us every day. It also freed the book from being a standard dystopian extravaganza. Shoot wide, I say.
In ‘The Forest for the Trees,’ where the narrator watches Robocop in some tank-like vehicle ten years from now, and smirks at the poorly-predicted future, that’s my out for everything I get wrong. The book is less of a prediction than an exorcism of my fears.
‘If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.’
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
My narrator, who started as a relatively opportunistic teenager, was never going to be wholly innocent. I wanted to maintain his passive sense of shiftiness in each part of the book. At one point, an early reader suggested that the story would work better in the third person. That’s one of those comments that writers love, up there with ‘why don’t you try rewriting everything from the dog’s perspective and see how it looks?’ I did try it, briefly, and immediately saw that we would absolutely lose sympathy for him if we didn’t have the closest view into his conscience. Additionally, being trapped there is what keeps the book intimate and concerned with the conduct of people, rather than the apocalypse.
In general, one should consider the greatness of Jane Eyre as much as possible. It’s got everything you need from fiction in one handy volume. It’s sugar as well as salt. Likewise Lolita (which has a particularly offensive narrator who we all seem to overlook). They’re both fully balanced versions of their form like The White Album (the Beatles’ and Joan Didion’s). I can think of no greater praise.
Track 29 (here)
Ok, this movie is probably awful and I haven’t seen it for years, but it still gets so much goodwill from me because I loved it when I was in my early 20s. It was written by Dennis Potter who dramatises the conflicted, happy sad moments of life so so so well.
Do you know The Candidate? It’s a Robert Redford movie from the 70s, where this smart, good guy, runs a long, difficult campaign for the presidency. In the last minute, he’s won, and he’s being led through hotel corridors and elevators to make his acceptance speech. (I may be remembering it wrong so, true fans, please forgive me.) He has a moment that I’ve always loved there, kind of like when they’re on the bus at the end of The Graduate. This candidate has gotten exactly what’s he’s been chasing and now he’s at a loss: What do I do next? I wanted the book to end that way, with him finding himself president and bewildered (as any of us would in the same position, really). In the end, Obama became too real a prospect and the American presidency was something that was getting way too complicated by modern-mythology to touch. I had to change my plan for my narrator.
But I liked that What do I do now? moment. Like Wile E. Coyote standing a few feet off of a cliff with a hint of victory still in his smile, in that split second between elation and terror. It seemed like a good feeling for each chapter to end on. Maybe not with the same doom as Wile E. Coyote, but with a similar sense of confusion and chagrin. Plus, the emotional uncertainty provides a more engaging close, I think, than an upbeat resolution or a downturn of events.
‘And all that mother-loving freedom’
– Things We Didn’t See Coming
Mother-loving is a cleaned up version of a much stronger adjective that begins with the same first word. The narrator thinks it when he’s feeling utterly duped, dejected, and dumped. The last thing in the world he wants is freedom. Why he invokes his mother at that moment, I’ll leave to the shrinks.
I like it that readers have to reorient themselves with each new chapter. It seems life-like: In the space of a few years, anyone can wind up with a new world of associates, a new job, a new set of priorities. (I know I have.) It was there in Grant’s Memoirs. You evolve with the times, for better or worse. Every cell in your body is new, and all that. You don’t really have a choice.
This gave me freedom to not write every moment of the character’s life, which let me focus on the exciting bits, which is good for the reader. At the same time, it kept me from feeling like I was working on anything as daunting as a novel, which was good for the writer. In my mind, I was working on short stories, not a novel. I wrote them without a complete plan and out of order (the last chapter was written second, the first chapter was written last). It wasn’t till it was mostly written that I became sure about the chronology. This arrangement, which I’ve since been informed is discontinuous narrative, served my mood, my insecurities, and my purpose.
Nothing Surprises (here)
For a while I kept hearing about couples where one partner worked hard, brought home the bacon and resented the one who stayed home looking after the house and kids. Of course this was the traditional role setup in Western families (of a certain class) for a long time. The resentment seemed strange to me. Another thing I’d been wondering about was heroes and their personal lives. Following these threads, I wondered what would happen if one of these stay-at-home fathers figured out he could fly. That’s ‘Nothing Surprises’.
From that, I’ve written a few other stories about heroes. One was accepted for the Readings 40th Anniversary Anthology, the other I’ve just started sending around. I have no idea where this theme is going. All I know is this: I doubt it will turn into the book I imagine.
These were what I made for the Melbourne launch of Things We Didn’t See Coming. I wasn’t working that day and had to do something.
The recipe I have calls them Mexican Wedding Cookies, but I’ve also seen them called German Wedding Cookies and Austrian Wedding Cookies. I haven’t been to a wedding in any of those countries, so how can I know? The cinnamon is my addition, let’s add a pinch of salt, which never hurts and call them Launch Cookies.
Preheat the oven to 150 C. Paper line cookie sheets.
Take 120 grams walnuts and grind with 60 grams of caster sugar. (Note: The walnuts benefit immeasurably from being lightly toasted first; they give off a caramel-ish unctuousness that, I swear, makes a difference).
In a mixer, cream 450 grams of room temperature unsalted butter with 120 grams of sugar and a few teaspoons of vanilla extract (or a scraped bean).
With the mixer on low, pour in 500 grams plain flour and a teaspoon of salt., and two tablespoons of cinnamon. Mix until just combined, then add the nuts.
This batter doesn’t spread much, so just roll them into the size of small plums or large cherry tomatoes and put them reasonably close to each other on the baking tray.
Baking time depends on the size and the oven, so it’s not exact. Mine take between 20 and 30 minutes. They should just be getting browned around the edges.
While they’re warm, pick them up gently, roll them in icing sugar and put them on another piece of baking paper. When they’re cool, do it again.
This recipe makes about 100 bite-sized cookies. The dough freezes well, so you can bake half a batch and save the rest for another time.
See also Steven Amsterdam’s official website.