Ahead of Steven Amsterdam’s course at Writing NSW—Generating Sparks: Short Stories—we asked Steven a few quick questions.
Alongside your novels, you’ve written a whole range of published and anthologised short fiction. Where do you find the sparks of inspiration for your own stories?
Not to sound too naff about it, but the sparks are everywhere and they are important. I still remember the kernel for each story I’ve written: a detail from a news item about a flooded town; an article I’d read about menial labour that I took to a futuristic conclusion; a single line from a friend’s anecdote about her parents’ honeymoon, “everyone knew your life then” (which made it into a story about a grieving widower). From those elements of truth, the pieces expanded outward and that, as Carly Simon would say, is the way I’ve always heard it should be.
How can a writer make themselves more responsive to the useful surprises that are offered up by life?
The answer is, at least on the surface, simple: slow down. This means sitting with the germ of a story and allowing it to grow—in your mind and on the page. Practically—and this isn’t so simple—it means writing through all the wrong scenes and dead ends, or at least learning how to cut them when the time comes. Mostly, it means developing a sense of what sparks are going to help the story along its way.
Sometimes, as the cliché goes, reality is stranger than fiction. Do you ever find yourself toning down the strange sparks of life to carry them off in your work?
Yes and no. I am not afraid of surreal or imagined scenarios, but the human interactions in them should be recognisable to the reader. Laws of psychology must still apply. That said, I am frequently overwhelmed by the weirdness of the world and the many strange sparks it provides. The challenge is to take the initial spark, no matter how strange, and develop it into something that is new and still somehow true. That is the only job.
Steven Amsterdam is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming (Winner, The Age Book of the Year), What the Family Needed (shortlist, Encore Prize; longlist, IMPAC International Literary Award), and most recently, The Easy Way Out (shortlist, ALS Gold Medal, Prime Minister’s Literary Award; longlist, Miles Franklin Literary Award). His short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The Age, Five Chapters, The Guardian, Heat, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, Salon, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is also a palliative care nurse.
Generating Sparks: Short Stories with Steven Amsterdam will take place at Writing NSW on Saturday 27 October, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here >