Steven Amsterdam, author of What the Family Needed and Things We Didn’t See Coming, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |November 11, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Steven Amsterdam

author of What the Family Needed and Things We Didn’t See Coming

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a rent-controlled apartment. We moved from 9C to 9A when I was four. Formal schooling happened at PS 9, IS44, Bronx High School of Science, University of Chicago, French Culinary Institute, and University of Melbourne. Informal schooling took place everywhere else.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, there was a thought about becoming a senator because they seemed smart and powerful. Then I went to some sort of government camp in Washington and that cured me. I decided to be a senator’s speechwriter because they could be smart and powerful and not have to raise money for campaigns.

The writer thing was always there for me but at eighteen, with graduation (and responsibility) looming, it seemed like the moment to strike. I did writerly things for a few years, like copywriting in Tokyo and script reading in Los Angeles. I collected a lot of clips and small (tiny!) publications.

By thirty, the writing had drifted to the back burner while I was working my way through book publishing, from editorial to design, then from pastry chef to palliative care nurse. I wasn’t clear what the endpoint was back then, but I think I’ve found it in the nursing and the writing. Check in with me in ten years.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That I had to achieve success as a writer before I was thirty. I didn’t and survived to do it later. It takes as long as it takes.

4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Books are what come to mind. In Cold Blood (Capote), Lolita (Nabokov), Mildred Pierce (Cain) and so many more. All of those authors have an economy with their writing that still allows for a delight in the language.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

This is a question I always ask when setting out with a story, “Why does it have to be fiction? Could it be achieved with ceramics, for example?” My answer usually has to do with the relative simplicity of writing as a discipline (I don’t need to have clay or a wheel), the desire to utilise one or more perspectives (which fiction does so well), and my love for the process.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

What the Family Needed began as a question I had about super powers: what if I had some? I didn’t want to be leaping from a building at a single bound and crunching bad guys, I just wondered what some surprising boost would do for a Sunday afternoon. What emerged was this family, where everyone gets a special power for a little while — and their own chapter. The quickest description came from a handy quote from the extremely talented Steven Conte, who called the book, “An Incredibles for grown-ups.”

(BBGuru: from the publisher –

“Okay, tell me which do you want: to be able to fly or to be invisible?”

And so begins the tale of one particularly gifted family as it finds itself. Following his acclaimed debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming, Amsterdam lets each member speak, opening up an intimate wilderness.

From a mystified teenager to an over-tired night nurse to a conflicted exile, he captures their secrets over thirty years, the many voices revealing an uneasy peace. The surprising strengths they each find show them how to change their lives – and what the family needs in order to survive.)

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

Many things. I want people to think about the powers they would wish for and the powers they really need. More than that, I want people to think about the many sides there are to every family.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Any of the writers mentioned in question four, plus the author of whatever book I’m enjoying at the moment. There’s always something to learn. Right now I’m pushing Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, which starts out rough and imaginative in the middle of a child’s funeral. I admire anyone who can get past the familiar rhythms of traditional novel structures and still pull me along.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

Maybe this ambitious, maybe it’s humble, but I’d like to write another book.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read, write, workshop, revise, and submit; rinse and repeat.

Steven, thank you for playing.

P.S. Visit Steven Amsterdam’s site and click ‘Worried?’ up on the top right hand side…. Then keep clicking the responses in grey.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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