Steven Amsterdam grounds What the Family Needed in the tension and tedium of domestic life, then lets readers tread around while the fantastic cracks the story wide open. Throughout the book—his first novel—Amsterdam follows the members of one family across several decades, as one member and then another is struck with a superhuman ability: to turn invisible, to take flight, to play matchmaker with guaranteed results. The work features a range of voices and perspectives, which will be no surprise to readers of Amsterdam’s previous book, the short story collection Things We Didn’t See Coming, or to anyone who’s had a glance at his eclectic C.V.
Amsterdam is a New York native and a Melbourne, Australia resident, as well as an experienced nurse and book jacket designer, among other things. We spoke by phone during the author’s recent return trip to the United States.
The Rumpus: What challenges did you find in balancing the story’s ensemble?
Steven Amsterdam: There were plenty. Putting it all together, I actually made an Excel spreadsheet. Which doesn’t sound like the muse at work, but it was a really good way to focus. I had to keep track of who was how old and how relationships had changed. So on one axis there was each character’s name… There was a way to look at each character’s relationship to each other character, by the year the story was taking place. So I at least knew the chronology.
Rumpus: So continuity maintenance.
Amsterdam: Yeah. I suppose the place where it really becomes an ensemble is the scene where they’re all at the same table, at the end. And in my early fantasy of that, everybody was going full force with their powers, but I don’t know if the novel would have held up if I had done it that way.
The challenge of it was keeping track of people aging. And to some degree you have latitude, because people change, and their attitudes toward others change. So I could imagine that a character could do almost anything at any time, and that was the freedom of the whole thing. But keeping track of what was plausible for certain characters [was the challenge].
Rumpus: Did you find yourself with favorite characters that threatened to overtake the rest? Even when Giordana’s a teenager, for instance, she struck me as the most writerly of the family.
Amsterdam: She is a little more writerly. In both the books I’ve written, I’ve ended up writing the first chapter relatively late in the process. Which I have to recommend if you’re writing a book, because it takes a lot of pressure off of starting a book.
I feel different attachment to each of them. They each demanded a different part [of me], different voices. And it was nice being able to access my inner anxious mother, my grieving older guy. I originally thought of doing it all in first person, but I thought that might actually demand a little too much closeness.
Rumpus: You strike an interesting balance with respect to time and place. Readers get a sense of how characters are aging, but you’re judicious about period signifiers too. It wasn’t until Sasha’s chapter—which has references to mid-period Madonna, the Internet—that period details really jumped out to me at all. So I wanted to know how you weighed a sense of time and place against a feeling of the universal, or relative timelessness.
Amsterdam: I labor over that. I don’t know if you caught it, but in the first chapter, there’s a question of making a long-distance phone call, which we don’t really speak of anymore. I do have a timeline in mind… When I started writing this, there were two stories. One was set in Australia, and one was set in the United States. I don’t know if this is a scam, or a trope, or what you would call it, but I decided on this middle ground.
Rumpus: I had wondered about that, actually. That maybe your Australian readers were reading this as a story that took place in Australia, and your American readers—unless maybe they read your author bio beforehand—will be reading this as a story that takes place in the United States.
Amsterdam: Honestly, the terrain, the city-country relationship, is more America. But I hesitated on saying Chicago. I work with a writing group, and no matter what I write, [my friend] Michelle always says, “I don’t know if I have a strong enough sense of place here.” And Michelle writes place beautifully. She can give you Sri Lanka 1922 versus Sri Lanka 1928. She knows all that stuff. But I get overwhelmed with those details. It’s easy for me to get lost, anchoring things that much.
In some ways it liberates the story to just be a story, like a parable, if you don’t have time and place. Because if I’d said I’d set the whole book in Dubai, what would you have thought of it? It’s a whole different world.
I was conscious in Sasha’s chapter, Ruth’s chapter, that everybody’s on a [cell] phone, and that was with phones just coming in. I had wanted the novel to end around next year. It might in some ways serve as a little bit of a fudge. It’s also because, unless they’re written well, those details tend to be things I gloss over. I’m never going to write a whole paragraph describing what a living room looks like. So the test I always have is, do we need it?
Rumpus: There’s the cliché that those details are a gateway to the universal, but I wonder in practice how often that’s true.
Amsterdam: In some ways those details are a barrier to the universal. There are certain details you would get from this family in terms of their socioeconomic status, their level of consumption—they’re not really worried about shelter, particularly—that you could figure, there are certain places in the world where this family might be. It is something I would say that I struggle with. I feel like I should anchor something. And I’m not sure if I’m actually doing that for my next book anyway.
Rumpus: Each section of your book functions more or less as a discrete story against this larger family history, and I wanted to know if you have guiding criteria for what makes a story effective.
Amsterdam: I’d like to think that a story is going to describe a shift. And it’s one the narrator, the protagonist, might not be aware of, but that the reader will be able to see. But a distinct shift. Sometimes I find those shifts can be too subtle in short stories, and I hope for something more than minor shifts. The last chapter was the one I wrote five times, because otherwise it would’ve had a repetitious feel.
Rumpus: The notion of a major shift and a minor shift is interesting to me, because I was also wondering how you had determined you’d finished a story.
Amsterdam: Now that I’m thinking about a couple of them, I feel like I almost aim for the second before a shift happens. The way Giordana’s chapter ends, she’s being lectured, she’s putting the whole day’s events together, and she’s an adolescent, so she’s still making sense of the world, but I felt that going forward, she would have a clearer vision of her mother and the dynamics in that household—and sex, even—than she did beforehand. But it’s not necessarily something that happens within the last scene.
Rumpus: That’s interesting too, because her encounter with her father has the feel of a climax as well.
Amsterdam: Yeah, that shook things up sufficiently for her. Where the story ends…the one paragraph before you stop typing, I generally find. Do you write?
Rumpus: Yes, I do.
Amsterdam: How would you define where the story ends?
Rumpus: God knows.
Amsterdam: Are you a planner?
Rumpus: To an extent. I got back into writing prose fiction after doing some work-for-hire genre fiction, which compelled me to do more writing on my own time.
Amsterdam: There would be interesting lessons to be learned in doing that.
Rumpus: Yeah. I think for better or for worse, I’m a planner because of knowing, in those genre stories, that I had certain beats to hit and expectations to meet.
Amsterdam: [When] I’m working on something novel-shaped, there’s just so much reverse engineering.
Rumpus: Especially if you write your openings at the end, I can imagine all the work that would entail.
Amsterdam: Yeah. I think you can plant things better if you know where you’re going. Obviously there are different ways that people want to sit down and do it. But I definitely find that that informs where I’m ending. In the same way that I’m not going to tell you what a living room looks like, I’m not going to tell you what just happened, but hope that the reader is engaged enough to imagine the rest.
Rumpus: Now that I’ve mentioned cheapie genre stuff—I grew up on superhero comics, and at a time when the deconstructed superhero story had become a genre in itself…
Amsterdam: What does that mean?
Rumpus: Are you familiar with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, for instance?
Amsterdam: Not the inside of the book.
Rumpus: That’s a high point of this sort of sub-genre. There’s no shortage of less sophisticated versions of that story. The shortest way I can think to put it is people with powers and tights who are also struggling with alcoholism—those easy ironies.
Amsterdam: Right. There’s a term…mundane science fiction, or mundane fantasy. Not mundane as in boring, but the everyday meets the magical.
Rumpus: Sure. With your novel, I saw parallels with that deconstructed superhero genre, but also with magical realism, so I wondered what forms of anxiety of influence you might have experienced while writing it.
Amsterdam: Anxiety’s plenty, but with this and with my first book, I tread with a certain amount of blessed ignorance into an area where I’d read some but certainly not a lot. If I had to think of [reference points]—George Saunders, Judy Budnitz—where the extreme is brought down to its mundane detail…
With both books, I wouldn’t describe it as anxiety. I’d describe it as a kind of…engagement of influence? I certainly had anxieties in writing. The midpoint of anxiety with this particular book was about halfway in. I heard that one of the [major TV] networks was doing No Ordinary Family, and I completely panicked. And by the time I was done panicking it had been cancelled. It wasn’t the same thing at all, and of course I hadn’t invented that idea… You know, it is how it’s carried out, the voice.
It’s this theory I have about charm. We describe a book by working in a certain genre or engaging these kinds of effects, but what we stay for is really the way it’s written, the characters we really like, and is the story put over successfully. But it’s hard to break a story down into that, so you don’t describe it that way. You say it’s a story about this. I mean, often you’d say it’s a story about this but you have to read it anyway… You know, a five-hundred-page novel about baseball—but you really have to read it.
I think I’ve digressed a bit. The anxiety of influence was probably more…the way writing has come to me is more, Am I doing what I’m trying to do? Is this the voice I want to find? Is this the point of the story?
Rumpus: Not to put words in your mouth, but more an anxiety of execution.
Amsterdam: Yes, I like that. That’s fine.
Rumpus: In terms of how the stories are received, what can arise from working with the fantastical…A reader can take the events of the story at face value, or a reader can confine those fantastical elements to the realm of metaphor, and I wanted to know if there are specific ways in which you hope readers engage with a story. Or do you wash your hands of that once you’re finished with the writing?
Amsterdam: I had a very unusual experience with my first book in that it was put on the Year 12 reading list in Australia, which means that I still go to high schools and discuss it. So I’ve really washed my hands of hoping to understand how people understand it. Teachers have their own theories, and students come up to me with amazing theories. And that book, to the same degree, leaves the reader a lot of space to put in their own interpretation.[With What the Family Needed], some chapters probably lean a little more heavily on the metaphor than others, and obviously I enjoy the middle ground. It’s not because I don’t want to commit so much as I like the fact that fiction can do that. I wouldn’t want to whole heartedly embrace the metaphor—wouldn’t want to sell the pop-up version that’s all about superheroes…
What I’m thinking of is discussions with the marketing department, which loves magic. I sat down with the marketing department and said, “There’s actually this metaphorical level…” They’re like, “Yeah, that’s not going on the cover.”
Rumpus: It’s funny you mention the cover. I’m looking at the U.S. version—I don’t know if it was different in Australia—but the red lightning bolt, the bold yellow…
Amsterdam: The needlepointed cover?
Rumpus: Yes. The iconography embedded in that—I’m sure it directed my reading of the book in one way or another.
Amsterdam: I used to do jacket design, and I’m very conscious of covers, and probably meddle more than other authors would. There’s a cover I’ve always had in my mind for this book which seems almost impossible to design, but it had a picture in mid-shift, like the framed pictures in the last chapter [the contents of which change as a character rearranges past events]: the process of a person being erased, doing something with a photograph.
That wasn’t going to happen. So the lightning bolt was taken in some ways from the Australian edition. John Grey designed the Australian and English edition, and Riverhead Books used the lightning bolt but wanted to get the idea of family in there with the needlepoint.
Rumpus: At what point did you realize that superpowers was a trope you could use to explore this family?
Amsterdam: The first thing I wrote was the Ben chapter [in which a young father considers recent failures and learns to fly], and really just because I’ve always thought flight was fun and wanted to write about flight, and because I knew a lot of househusbands who were having a really bad time with it. I thought flight might perk up a marriage here or there.
Not long after that, I was reading The Year of Magical Thinking, and I don’t know if [Joan Didion] says it in there—or maybe I made it up—but it seemed like there was a meditation on, what if all these delusions of grief could come true? And I liked the idea of an older person suddenly discovering a magical power. Because someone in my writing group said to me—he’s seventy-two, seventy-four—”Why’s he just getting his power now?” And I like that. I wanted to see what that would look like. Because, you know, for an older person, that sort of distraction would look [to an outsider] like dementia.
When I got done with Peter’s chapter, that early version of it, I thought, Okay, these guys are related. What’s going on? And then I went, did Natalie’s chapter, moved onwards.
Rumpus: You mention that distraction, the probable appearance of dementia, and I was really intrigued by the Alek chapter. Had you conceived that character as a means by which to write about mental illness? Or did it become clear to you that someone with those abilities to manipulate past events would inevitably be misunderstood by people around him.
Amsterdam: He became the cornerstone of my understanding of the book and this family. I work as a nurse. My first year as a nurse, I worked at a psychiatric ward. And I definitely heard people suggest things to me that, to me, didn’t seem very real, as we’re supposed to reflect back openly and empathetically. And I thought how much more room there was for the magical, or the schizophrenic, in other ages. Today they would be institutionalized and medicated.
I suppose a sense of injustice for Alek—describing that injustice—became important to me in terms of understanding [the characters’] various ages. There’s a line he has about how he was variously perceived—how he was a wild, imaginative child, and on and on, but that the wild, imaginative child that doesn’t stop being imaginative… The play we have when we’re little—if it doesn’t stop, what do you do?