Steven Amsterdam’s first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, explores a series of post-apocalyptic scenarios through the experience of an ordinary ‘hero’ struggling with everyday dilemmas amidst the extraordinary. Kevin Rabalais spoke to Steven for Readings’ Australian Feature series, showcasing the best of new Australian writing.
He thought it would be a brief fling. But once he got started, Steven Amsterdam couldn’t stop. He read about it in the newspaper. An elderly couple in the first stages of dementia – and on the verge of losing their drivers’ licences – had set off on one last adventure. ‘I imagined the no-win endgame for them as they tried to run,’ Amsterdam says. ‘And then I remember thinking: I hope someone bought the film rights.’
Shortly afterward, Amsterdam began to write a short story based on the news item and his own grandparents’ experience with memory loss. He thought he would move quickly on to something else. ‘But when I came to the last line,’ he says, ‘I thought, there could be more here. I started thinking of it as something bigger.’
Things We Didn’t See Coming, Amsterdam’s debut novel, is that all-too-rare book that will incite a cult following, while simultaneously welcoming popular appeal. This is fiction of high order, and in it Amsterdam establishes himself as a writer of great vision and compassion.
The novel begins on New Year’s Eve 1999. As Y2K fears escalate, the nameless narrator, aged ten in the first chapter, flees an anonymous city with his parents to hole up at his grandparents’ house in the country. In the ensuing chapters, Amsterdam tracks his narrator through an unspecified country that has been ravaged by plague, drought, fires and floods. There are barricades and quarantines.Wars rage across the country’s desolate landscape. Amsterdam invents horses that are bred to ride on water after the melting of the ice caps and throws in a fair share of sex, drugs and guns. This is the Wild West without cowboy hats, science fiction without the science, some kind of radical and daring offspring of Cormac McCarthy and Philip K. Dick.
‘I read The Economist fairly regularly,’ says Amsterdam, who was born in New York in 1966 and moved to Melbourne in 2003. ‘The magazine is always telling you what to worry about and also what new science is coming up ahead. So the novel doesn’t feel incredibly futuristic, even though, chronologically, most of it is set several decades in the future. All of the things that happen could be closer rather than further. It’s by no means a cautionary tale. I’m not saying, Look, if we don’t do something now, this is all going to happen.’
In the process, Amsterdam’s narrative maintains a remarkable sense of immediacy that is due only in part to the recent onslaught of natural disasters here and elsewhere. The fictional world of Things We Didn’t See Coming doesn’t shift into chaos after a cataclysmic event. Rather, as Amsterdam says, ‘It’s just a big, messy future. I didn’t want the reader to get apocalypse fatigue. It’s kind of trying on all these different worries and seeing how they push the characters. These are things that I vaguely could worry about and would rather not. To that degree, the book is an exorcism. For the narrator, the trouble isn’t the plague. The trouble is that he’s got this irresponsible girlfriend. The trouble isn’t the floodwaters. The trouble is where is he going to eat? Where is he going to sleep? When is he going to get laid?’
The novel’s character- and relationship-driven focus provides a hint to Amsterdam’s recent decision to switch careers. Earlier this year, Amsterdam became a nurse at the Alfred Hospital. ‘My main interests in nursing have been palliative care and psychiatry,’ he says, ‘and they both involve patients who tend to be patients for a long period of time, rather than someone who comes in, gets a heart valve replacement and goes on home. When someone gets cancer, the nurse gets to know the family and teaches the wife how to give morphine. In psychiatric care, the family has to learn how to recognise schizophrenia when there’s a relapse coming. It’s a lot more about a therapeutic relationship. My area of interest is family meetings, where nurses and treatment teams get together. We see such a variety of behaviour and knowledge within the family. After 50 years, a wife and husband may know each other very well, or might not know each other at all. I’m not taking notes and then going home and writing about patients, but it’s exposing me to an amazing breadth of behaviour.’
Amsterdam grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, three words that he speaks with the kind of enthusiasm that sporting fans reserve for their local teams. He’s engaging and curious, the kind of coolly intellectual New Yorker one might expect to find as a walk-on in a Woody Allen film. He speaks with a certainty and conviction about his work that falters only when he stops to reflect on his native city. While Amsterdam considers whether New York is still his home, for instance, four seconds pass – an eternity for a native New Yorker. Then at last, the warm smile returns, the confident flash of teeth, and his voice rises: ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But I call Melbourne home, too. When the plane lands in Melbourne, I am always happy. I am always relieved. When the plane lands in Sydney, I think, Ick! Same in L.A. When it lands in New York, I think, God, it’s dirty! But I’m still happy to go back.’
Amsterdam returns to New York at least once a year. His eyes tighten as he ponders what he misses most. ‘There’s a specific cheeseburger,’ he says. ‘There’s a specific whitefish sandwich. And then there are the friends and family you leave behind. I came to Melbourne when I was in my late 30s. That’s a lot of friends and family. The kids are getting taller. The parents are getting shorter. There’s a slight urgency about both of those things. I had a party when I was last in New York. I thought, Why do I live somewhere else? I love these people.’
By the time Amsterdam moved to Australia five years ago, he had already held several, non-medical careers. He spent ten years working for Random House in New York, where he began as a map editor in travel publishing. He then worked as a freelance text editor. ‘I noticed that the designers were happier than the editorial people,’ he says. Knopf, a division of Random House, eventually hired him to do occasional book cover design. Without a full-time position available, however, he soon had to explore other options, and decided to take a pastry course. In the meantime, the book design job finally became available. ‘I basically got the job at Knopf by bringing in pastries from my course on a regular basis,’ he says.
Then came a real estate incident that involved the mob. ‘This is the kind of story that really pisses people off,’ he says. ‘It made a lot of things possible for me, so I don’t mind telling it. When I got the first lease on this sloping studio with the tub in the kitchen (only $507 a month!) in the East Village, [the paperwork] was sent to me from a prison. The landlord was in jail for hiring the janitor to kill his girlfriend’s husband. It didn’t work out. In any case, the [jailed] landlord deeded the building to his mafia princess daughter. She was incompetent at running a building and all sorts of bills didn’t get paid. Finally, the building was bought by a developer who wanted us and our cheap leases gone. I took the money and ran away to Australia.’
Several years after moving to Australia, Amsterdam submitted a section of Things We Didn’t See Coming to Sleepers, the Melbourne-based publishing house and member of SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community). Sleepers accepted the chapter, and its editors soon asked to see more of Amsterdam’s work. Thus began a relationship that, after a decade of work for Random House, one of the world’s largest publishers, gives Amsterdam a unique perspective. ‘I’m quite happy with a small publisher and the attention and enthusiasm I get from them. They’re on the case, from the editorial perspective to the marketing.’
Early next year, Amsterdam will travel to New York for the US launch of Things We Didn’t See Coming. But he has no plans to leave Melbourne. ‘I recently wrote my first Australian story,’ he says. ‘In some ways, I feel like I just got here.’
Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire, a novel which David Malouf described as ‘A bold performance. Lyrical, precise, mysterious'.