Interview: Steve Amsterdam, author

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If you click on Steven Amsterdam's website, up pops the question: "What are you so worried about?" It might well be the (rather clunky) subtitle of Amsterdam's debut, Things We Didn't See Coming, a moving and poetic post-apocalyptic novel which won both Australian business magazine the Age's Book of the Year and Fiction prizes and has recently been nominated for the Guardian's First Book Award.

A spare, haunting novel, its nine chapters - the book was marketed in the United States as a collection of short stories - document the life of the narrator, beginning on the eve of the millennium when he's nine.

"Everything will be fine until it's not. Then we can worry," says the boy's grandpa in the first tale. From that point, set against a world in which some unspecified catastrophe has taken place, we witness the boy's transformation from adolescent thief to adult survivor to government official.

Amsterdam's spare prose style is "just something he ended up with", but the decision to tell the story of the boy's life in a fragmented way was very much deliberate. "I wrote the stories almost all out of order; the first one you read is the last one I wrote," he says. "It made sense to me to build a life that way. My life has been a little all over the shop too."

Born and raised in New York, Amsterdam graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Japanese Studies. He worked in California as a film and TV assistant before moving back to New York and into publishing, and followed this up with a stint as a pastry chef. He lived in Japan for a time and is now settled in Melbourne, where he completed a Masters in creative writing and a nursing degree at the University of Melbourne. As well as writing, he works as a palliative care and psychiatric nurse.

"I think some people can relate to that (kind of life] - if you catch up with someone six years after the last time you saw them, everything can be different," he says. "They could be up, they could be down, partners change, they might've changed gender, who knows? I like that aspect of life and in some ways I wanted the book to have that kind of reality, where things move quickly." The backdrop of the novel is one of perpetual rain and ravaging disease, food shortages and fear. Amsterdam chooses not to explain too much, but the strength of the novel is that much of what the boy experiences is familiar, recognisable at some level.And if it sounds unremittingly bleak, then I'm doing Amsterdam a disservice because, although punctuated with moments of despair, the novel remains starkly, resolutely hopeful. Love, family bonds, human relationships in general, Amsterdam plays these out and shows that humanity is, in at least some ways, equal to extraordinary challenges. As the narrator struggles for survival, it's hard not to be moved, and perhaps in some ways reassured, by his adaptability and resilience.

But what about that website query? Is Amsterdam mocking our anxiety-ridden ways? I don't think so. It's more that he's asking for a bit of perspective. "That's why I put Y2K first in the book," he says. "It's been interesting how people have read the book because, of course, you have no control over that, especially when you leave so many gaps. I think a lot of people have read it as something like Y2K happened, but in my mind that isn't quite what I meant. To me, Y2K was an extravaganza of worry. Whatever happened (in the book] didn't happen that night, but clearly something else happened that made the second chapter. I did want it in people's minds that Y2K had been a disappointment. I mean, I was ready for so much." He laughs while telling me that on the eve of the 21st century he was in his back garden prepping the generator, just in case.

Amsterdam started writing when he was ten, but it was always something that was "on the back burner". Why, I wonder, did it take so long to publish his novel, was it a matter of confidence? "It was a bit of that and, erm, lack of sales." He laughs. "It doesn't really spur you on if you send things out and all you get is a rejection letter."

The publication of this book was "a dream", because after the initial knockback of sending the first chapter to everyone he could think of in the US without getting any positive reaction, he came across a tiny publisher in Melbourne, "two women at the back of a furniture store putting out an almanac". They published the chapter as a short story, then put out the next one. From there it was picked up by an independent book buyer who quickly wanted more. Happily, by that time, Amsterdam had written almost all of the other chapters.

"I had this really lucky break," he says. "That's not the way a first novel gets published. Being with a small publisher has been huge. They bat for me for everything. They told me they were putting it in for the Age Book of the Year award and I just said 'good luck with that'."

He laughs, explaining that when he won, the (Aus) $20,000 prize acted as the advance his publisher hadn't been able to afford to give him.

Amsterdam's book has been a huge success in Australia - as well as prizes and critical acclaim, it has been added to high school reading lists (replacing Orwell's 1984) across the state of Victoria.As well as writing a study guide "with essay questions I don't know the answer to", this has meant Amsterdam went back to school for the first time since he was a pupil, to talk about his book and deliver writing workshops.

"Y2K came up and they all just gave me this blank look," he says. "For them, it didn't happen. They will never know about it, it won't even be in history books. It was nothing." That awareness encapsulated Amsterdam's understanding of the way that anxiety infects our age. "I felt sad for them but I also felt, what a fool. What else are we being jackasses about right now? Palm oil?"

Amsterdam is all for writing groups. He has belonged to one since he did his Masters and it's something for which he feels "very fortunate". "I've been writing a long time but up until then the only feedback I got was a rejection letter or an acceptance letter," he says.

"The thing that's made my writing move forward is that I've been able to massage it with other people." He is, he says "the token male" of the group, which has an age range of 34 to 74. "The 74-year-old is a hairdresser for a retirement community - she just had her first novel published.

"You don't have to like the same stuff or write the same stuff, you just have to be committed to telling a convincing story."

What helped him was having an audience who could offer guidance as to how much detail was needed to make the world of each chapter convincing. "I didn't want to tell too much or too little and the writing workshop was invaluable because they could say, 'ok, we know enough' or 'this makes no sense, give me more'. And if three people say 'that doesn't sound like a 12-year-old' you've got to fix it."

The writing group also suits him because he likes social contact, he doesn't want to be "too much in my own head". It's partly for that reason that, despite the success of the novel, he's continued to work as a nurse, something he can't imagine giving up.

"It's like a completely different world," he says. "I do palliative and I do psych, so you're really subject to whatever is going on in someone else's life. They're making you up on most days and on the other days I'm making them up. It's kind of ego-denying. You walk into someone's house and they're dying, or they've got a family member who is dying. Your needs are minor, you're there to serve and to advise and to educate. You're not there to provide yourself."

For what is, he says, a famously thankless job, his nursing work is "life-affirming" and it gives him contact with a range of people that without his work, just wouldn't be possible.

"Compared to when I was in book publishing, when everybody I knew was the same, more or less, they had the same interests, they shopped at the same green markets, I live in the same town with the people I look after but they're all different. I work with every nationality, every income bracket so I get to see so much more of the world."I do feel a little bit like a spy in that regard. I'm just getting more life into me."

• Things We Didn't See Coming is published by Harvill Secker, priced 12.99.

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