Q&A with Steven Amsterdam, author of What The Family Needed

Martin Shaw interviews Steven Amsterdam about the new work of fiction, What The Family Needed.


Things We Didn’t See Coming*, your 2009 debut novel, was categorised by some reviewers as a ‘dystopian fiction’, a bit of a catch-all phrase that overlooked the rather ebullient inner lives of the protagonists. Are you having a little joke with those who may have pigeonholed you so by now writing a book on the contemporary family, for many people certainly not one of their favourite of all possible worlds?

If you could call it a little joke, I’m having it over the various elements of TWDSC that have more or less happened since the book came out. I didn’t set out to write a prophetic screed, but whatever. The extremity of weather (see Queensland floods), the permanent class of rescue workers going from disaster to disaster (see Christchurch and Northern Honshu), the increasing scramble for jobs around the world. And recently someone forwarded me news of the latest: Mexico is considering offering two-year marriage licenses to encourage people to at least try it out (see chapter six of TWDSC).

The term I prefer is ‘speculative’. What the Family Needed doesn’t dip into the future at all, but it fits into the same category. What would happen if members of a family, with all of their armour and chinks, found they also had a few special powers?

Each chapter of What the Family Needed takes place at temporal intervals, rather like in the previous book, but this time also with shifts in narrative perspective as well. I notice on the copyright page you mention previously publishing some of these chapters in various literary journals. Is this your preferred method of composition, and did you write them in the sequence we find in the finished book, or was there a process of having a favourite character or storyline, and adumbrating that both forwards and backwards in time?

One minute while I look up adumbrating.

In short, yes, the latter. Both TWDSC and WTFN came about in similar ways: I experimented with a story, then tried a variation on it with another story, and found connections. Soon, I realised I was on my way toward writing a book. In neither case did I write all the chapters in sequence, but I had an idea of the shape of the project as I worked. Writing out of order probably gave me challenges I didn’t need, but I think it also guaranteed that there wouldn’t be a clear flow from one chapter to the next. In most books, you would rely on such consistency, but in mine, where there are broad jumps in time – and as you mentioned, in WTFN, character – the disconnect is part of the journey. WTFN was more consciously constructed than TWDSC but it still uses gaps to tell the story. I’ve been thinking a lot about the predictable rhythms of novels and this has been one way that (I hope) I’ve avoided them.

If this is my preferred method, I don’t know. The thought of sitting down and writing a beginning and middle and end frightens me, though that may be what I need to do next.

The achievement I see upon a first reading of your book is that it treads a wonderfully sensitive line between the humour inherent in the family dynamic and the seriously dark recesses that can simultaneously be swirling around. Is this a story in all its light and shade that is close to home, or that you observed amongst the generation of kids that you grew up with?

Each character is an amalgam of portions of stories I’ve heard, people I’ve met, my imagination and me. Their frustrations in life are real, but I think fiction sometimes overdoes it on the real. I mean, why do you think they call it fiction? That’s why I started imagining hidden powers. My main emotional focus in WTFN is the multiplicity of viewpoints in one simple family. Who is kind? Who is selfish? Who is lost? It always depends on whose head you’re in.

One of my literary idols, W.G. Sebald, says somewhere that ‘all writing should be forensic’. You certainly have a lot of fun with the ‘pathologies’ as it were of a number of the characters here. Which leads me to wonder about your own poetics. Late in the novel there’s a little passage (that for me anyway) might in a small way sum it up – the author as ‘wave-maker’: ‘Without even intending it, there would be waves, curling larger and larger, pulling all of them far from solid land.’ Is this what you hope for with this book: to set off a little depth-charge, to release a little tsunami into our societal dynamics and assumptions?

That’s really nice. You’re right, the role of the creator was on my mind a lot while I worked on this. How much do we create our own lives? How much does the author control their characters? How much of any of that control is imagined? This may be where all of the pathologies come from.

As I’m largely writing to understand things for myself (although with a second book I am distinctly aware that others might weigh in) I don’t believe I’m out to change society. But it’s true, I do like to see the effects of small waves over time. This is the benefit of having a book cover thirty years. You can remember back to little frictions in chapter two and see the people they made in chapter seven.

Fiction is commonly held to involve a ‘suspension of disbelief’. You take this one step further though and make it constitutive of the narrative as a whole – as readers will discover, the ‘slippage’ starts early! Did you fear you might lose your reader along the way?

The satisfied and engaged reader sits on a thin edge of hating what they read. On one side is the book where the author has only written what they know. On the other is writing that seems too made-up, a contrivance. Neither of those sides trusts the reader to share in the imaginative process.

Though I’m too private to veer toward the outright confessional, I do worry about making things too orderly. This is why writing out of sequence keeps me interested. What I’ve tried to do is test the world that I know against the world I’ve created, which maybe knits the two bad tendencies into a good one. This leaves room for interpretation, which I believe is an accurate description of the act of reading.

In fact, the idea of suspending disbelief seems like the negative way of putting it. No one talks of suspending disbelief with a song or a poem, other forms that purport to show us what the world is like. Of course you need to change your expectation for the real when you sit down with a book. Somehow there’s this extra burden on fiction to represent the world more precisely, so people speak of this suspension that a reader must muster. But looking for truth and authenticity in someone else’s creation is a decidedly circuitous way to go about finding it. The most a reader should hope for is to discover what the author’s world is like – emphasis on the word ‘like’. A novel can, and I believe should, be as impressionistic as a Monet iris. The main contribution it asks for is an extension of belief. It requires the reader to make connections, to exercise their imagination, to arrange the scenery themself, and figure out what is going in all of the other rooms.

Several occupations we know you have pursued in your rather varied working life feature in What the Family Needed. I get the feeling you might have hung out in some rather interesting clubs growing up in NYC too! One of the most amusing though is the character of Sasha, who works as a book publicist, and has some rather cutting insights into the book business. You’ve talked before I think about how one of the thrills of the publication of Things We Didn’t See Coming was that you could begin to think of yourself for the first time as a writer, and not just ‘someone who writes’. With another work put to bed, has anxiety set in though that you’re somehow still a fake, not really a writer? Can we as readers give you ‘what the author needed’?

Ah, the publicist. The revelation of having a book out is that after working in various aspects of publishing for years, there were still new experiences to be had and emotions to feel. The limpet author. Fortunately, Sleepers have been brilliant with their patience and hand-holding. It’s a strange business and it will only continue to get more so.

Having finished final corrections on WTFN in July, I haven’t started anything new. Instead, I’m reading a lot of the ‘classics’ on the subject of writing – E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and so on. Some of what I’m reading is affirming and some of it is daunting. As for feeling like a writer, it turns out that one’s insecurities keep mutating to keep one uncomfortable. Until I get started on whatever’s next, I don’t think I’ll feel like a writer. A writer is someone who writes.

I reckon if you write a novel with the word ‘family’ in the title, you’re invariably going to be considered to be referencing Tolstoy’s famous dictum that begins Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ No pressure(!) – but how would you write it?!

If What the Family Needed had one omniscient narrative voice, it could have started with this: A family is an unreliable unit of measure.