At home with Sam van Zweden

Sam van Zweden is a freelance writer interested in experimental nonfiction, essays, mental health, body writing, food, and memory.

Her collection of personal essays, Eating With My Mouth Open, won the 2019 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award. Sam’s writing has appeared in the Saturday PaperMeanjinThe Big IssueThe Lifted BrowCordite and The Sydney Review of Books.

In this interview Sam mentions Fiona Wright, Meera Atkinson and Kate Richards - all of whom have appeared on The Garret before.

At home with Sam van Zweden


ASTRID: Hello, Sam. Welcome to The Garret, and thank you so much for joining me on a Saturday morning.

SAM: Thanks so much for having me, Astrid.

ASTRID: Congratulations on your debut memoir. It's not even a memoir. I feel like Eating with My Mouth Open is genre defying. So, my first question to you, Sam, is how do you place your own work?

SAM: I think that genre defying label is a really lovely one. I'm thinking of all of the writers that I love that are labelled genre defying and how wonderful they are. So, I'm happy to take that label. I've seen it put in a number of different spots in bookshelves. Sometimes it's in biography memoir, sometimes in essays, sometimes just in a general nonfiction section. How I would define it would be, maybe I would call it collage in a way and something like a giant braided essay.

ASTRID: That's a great description.

SAM: Thank you.

ASTRID: That is a great description because, as I read it, this is very clearly a collection of pieces, a collection of essays, some of which are one page, some of which are much longer. But it's also very clearly a narrative that twists and weaves and braids, I guess, but it is very much taking the reader somewhere.

Now, Sam, after that very hard first question, we have met a handful of times in person. We are recording over zoom right now. And the last time we actually met in person was at the 2019 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. And we were both attending a panel session that had Lindy West as well as Clementine Ford and Kelly Findlay and a bunch of other writers. And the reason I bring that up is firstly, for the days of in-person literary festivals, but more importantly, Lindy West is one of the other authors that you refer to in your work, and I guess I can say is one of the influences in your work. And she's of course, an American writer. Can you tell me about the experience for you as you were working on this memoir, seeing Lindy West in-person in Indonesia? What was that like for you?

SAM: Surreal? I think we think of all, or I certainly do, think of all American writers as somehow being untouchable, like inaccessible, a little too famous. But on that Indonesia trip, I was actually lucky enough to sit down with Lindy West for an hour on this edge of the jungle podium and just have a chat about fat liberation and body politics and the new season of Shrill that was just about to come out. She was excited to tell me that it had been renewed for a second season. So, it was so lovely to meet her and to have her be all the things that I hoped she would be. Because I think often it's easy, you know, don't meet your heroes. Apart from Lindy West, to meet Lindy West is great.

ASTRID: I love that description. Actually, I think you're right, Sam. American authors have this perception of being huge and untouchable and very famous. And that's simply because their market for books is so much bigger than ours. And so, they have reached more people than we often reach in Australia. But you also refer to so many other authors that have influenced you and that have given you... That had made you pause and think including Fiona Wright, Meera Atkinson, Michael Pollan. So many from Australia and abroad. And I wanted to ask specifically about your work with Fiona Wright. Fiona has appeared on The Garret before, as has Meera. And I believe Fiona saw early versions of your manuscript and did a manuscript assessment. Was that part of the Kill Your Darlings unpublished manuscript award that you received or was that separate?

SAM: That was separate. So, the mentorship with Fiona came about because I was writing a grant application for Ausco and a friend said to me, ‘This would be so much stronger if you had a really definable outcome, like what you're going to do with the money’. And she said, ‘Why don't you ask someone that you really love to mentor you?’ And of course, Fiona's name came up. So, I approached Fiona and she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I've read your writing. I love it. Let's do it’. And super enthusiastic and super generous. And yeah, so that was, I think 2017, 2018, we did that. And she gave me a manuscript assessment where she just went over the draught for me, gave me some high-level notes about structure and tone. And then also went through and did some light line edits that sort of picked out bits of problems within the manuscript.

And then we had a handful of follow up sessions after that, where I was able to send her reworked versions of certain chapters that were good examples of a problem that I was having within the work that we were then able to sort of pick out and use that as representative of what was happening overall.

ASTRID: I really wanted to ask you about this because sometimes I think as readers and as writers who are at the beginning of their career, it's often unclear how much work goes into developing a long form piece of work, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. And how often various steps of the process are collaborative. And the idea that there are writers in Australia, like Fiona, who are engaged in that critique development, creative input, you're at a loss and there's a bit of direction given to you by someone further along is, I find, a really beautiful part of where we get our words from and the creative dialogue between public intellectuals in Australia. I personally find it fascinating, but look, I spend a lot of time speaking to writers. So maybe I'm just odd. But I also wanted to ask about the Kill Your Darlings unpublished manuscript award. That's quite prestigious. I believe you received that in 2019. I love Kill Your Darlings. It is such a part of the literary culture in Australia. How did that help your manuscript?

SAM: I love Kill Your Darlings, too. They're amazing. And they're such a specific piece of the puzzle within the Australian lit community and they do so much community building and connecting between creative people. It's amazing. I applied for that. 2019 I sent in my manuscript in, I think about March. We were lucky on the shortlist for that award. That mostly when you get shortlisted for an award, you don't really get anything other than your name on the short list, which is nice and usually results in some sort of contact from a publisher or... People keep an eye on those lists so it's useful, but in more concrete ways to do with development, you don't really get much beyond that. KYD was different in that everybody that shortlisted for that award got time at Varuna, the writer's house in the blue mountains.

I got to go with a group of four other short listers and Beck Stafford, the publishing director from KYD. And we spent a week out at Varuna and we all had our own little rooms and we went for walks and we looked at views and we lit the fire and we did lots of writing and we just had time and space to only write Varuna is really amazing in that they have... It's such a sacred space.

They've got all these signs out the front that say, ‘Shush, writers at work’. And the property is so still. And there's this chef on-site, Sheila, who cooks every night for you. And she cooks in such a way that there are plenty of leftovers that you can never ever get through. So, you're always set for breakfast and lunch as well. And you don't have to think about anything. You just put your body there and you do what needs to be done. So yeah, the time at Varuna was so, so amazing. And the relationships that I got to build there were really special. And beyond that, the KYD unpublished manuscript award puts your name in front of the right people,

ASTRID: Always so very important. I've seen you described as, and I'm quoting here, a writer of memory, mental health and the body. That is a great summary of your work. And it also somehow encapsulates so many very big and very broad areas of thought into one little sentence. And this is a weird question to ask I know, Sam, but I do an exercise in my class with my university students where I'm like, ‘Describe yourself in a few adjectives or a few phrases’. And it's incredibly difficult. And everyone looks at me like I'm the horrible teacher. And I'm wondering, this is a very serious question. How did you get there? Like how do you get to the point where you are able to take all the diverse and disparate things that you do and say memory, mental health and the body?

SAM: I think for a long time, that bio said something along the lines of ‘Sam van Zweden is excited about experimental non-fiction’. And that was enough. The more writing I did, the more I was able to figure out what those threads were that I kept coming back to. I've always had a preoccupation with writing mental health. My family history involves a lot of mental health stuff. My own history involves a lot of mental health stuff. And I'm really interested in creating a bridge for people to share those experiences. So mental health kept coming up. Food kept coming up for me and food is tied to the body.

And memory is such a tricky thing to write that I think I've had to really engage with a lot of intentional stuff about how to write memory from really heavy memory theory to lighter sort of, ‘What's a memoir?’ Type stuff. I think over time, it's just an accrual of noticing the patterns of what I kept coming back to in my writing and being able to distil those. And of course, that comes through things like writing grant applications and writing synopses for book proposals and all of that stuff that makes you distil your ideas and figure out what it is that you're saying. It's all really useful.

ASTRID: The dreaded grant application, it is a horrible, horrible rite of passage for any writer in Australia.

SAM: Truly.

ASTRID: Sam, I found your writing incredibly enjoyable and also quite intimate. Like I was having a conversation with a close friend. Not all writers can put that on the page. So firstly, that was a very pleasurable thing to experience. But I was wondering... It's a deliberate act to write essays and put them in a collection and then put them into the world. Who do you want to pick up the book?

SAM: I think there's a lot of small things that I hope that the book does. Among those small things is I hope that people are able to think about their own food memories and understand why they're so compelling and so insistent. I hoped that people are able to think about their own family dynamics. In a bigger way, I hope that people are able to see their own stories represented in the book. For me, while I was living through a lot of what Eating with My Mouth Open encapsulates, which is sort of figuring out why food and memory are so insistent and so central to the way that we engage with our own bodies and with the world. I wasn't able to see anyone that I felt was stuck halfway in the same way that I was.

There are a lot of narratives, particularly coming out of the US and the UK at the moment, that are very strong and like calls to arms around diet culture, and fat liberation and body acceptance. And that's not quite what I was doing. And there's also a number of food memoirs, and that's also not quite what I was doing. And I wanted something that would help people that were in the same position as I was in to see themselves represented in some way.

ASTRID: I started this interview by saying I felt that your work is genre defying because it touches on so many different areas. You kind of kind of go from Lindy West and referencing Lizzo to Michael Pollan or cookbooks or Nigella Lawson or everything in between. And, this is my biases, I really enjoyed that critique of everything, not one area, but like so many of us do, we are multitudes and we go across different things all in the space of a sentence or a thought. One thing that did catch my eye is you critique Dr. Karen Hitchcock, and critique is probably too strong a word, but you do reference Karen Hitchcock's work. Karen Hitchcock is a Australian GP who has written several works, including essays and a longer work. I wasn't aware of her essays, but I did enjoy her book, The Medicine: A Doctor's Notes. And I am a person with a chronic illness.

I went into that with my own preoccupations and issues with my body. And I loved reading your thoughts, which are different to mine, but also made me open my eyes and consider my response to Karen Hitchcock's work. And this is something I sometimes don't always see in Australian literature, that conversation between writers and conversation between works and public, very respectful, but disagreements. And I was wondering, this is a long-winded way of getting to my question, Sam, but I was wondering. As a writer in Australia, do you ever feel that you were constrained in doing that? Because we have what sometimes looks like a very happy literary culture where we can't disagree?

SAM: I think this book is not the first time I've come across the idea of the difficulty of speaking back to work by your peers. So my history of writing includes a bit of criticism and it's a difficult critical culture in Australia because so many literary critics are also authors and there is a long documented difficulty of criticising the work of your peers, of being perhaps nicer to Australian authors because it's such a small community and we... I'm tangling myself in this, sorry.

ASTRID: Don't apologise. This is a tangle of issues in Australian literature. And I asked you a question without notice.

SAM: It's okay.

ASTRID: It is difficult.

SAM: Yes.

ASTRID: Have you read Declan Fry's recent?

SAM: Yeah. As soon as you asked that question, that's actually what I thought of. I haven't read it yet. I put it on my pocket reading app for this afternoon, in fact, but I haven't gotten to it yet. But I'm really interested to see what Declan has to say because it's definitely a problem that you can't criticise something from inside the house.

ASTRID: Well, those listening, I was so blown away by Declan's piece. I tweeted him and asked him if he can come on The Garret. So hopefully there'll be an episode discussing this particular piece on The Garret soon. And I do recommend that you look up, Kill Your Darlings and Declan Fry's piece on criticism in Australia.

But Sam, after I asked you a very difficult question, which really doesn't have an answer, I'm really interested in the process that you went through over several years of bringing Eating with My Mouth Open to life. So, for the writers listening, this is an essay format, but the essays are different lengths and although separate and jumping from idea to idea, this is very much a cohesive narrative that takes you from a beginning to an end, with all sorts of paths inside.

ASTRID: When you sit down to write, and I know you have written many short pieces for other publications, Sam, how do you choose what goes into a collection like this? And do you ever find yourself too scared to put something into the world? Too scared to publish?

SAM: Yes. Yes. For Eating With my Mouth Open, I went through a series of edits wearing different hats. One of those hats was potential damage to family relationships. Another of those hats was the light and shade in the narrative. Another was one that I was encouraged to don, I guess by Carol Major, who works at Varuna. She was someone that we were lucky enough to consult with during our time there. And she is, what they call at Varuna, the writing whisperer. So she holds these consultations where you go into her office and it's literally like therapy for writers. Like you sit down and you tell her... You just tell her what you're struggling with. And then you talk it out and she helps you go back upstairs and continue writing in a less terrified way, it's magic. She gave me this idea of a corridor that she felt, or that we felt, the story was lacking a cohesive narrative through line.

And that through line needed to be where I am now, what I understand now, and you walk down the corridor and you take a door to the left, and then you come back to the corridor before you continue on and then take a door to the right, you know, you branch off, but you keep coming back to the central corridor. And I really, really resisted the corridor for a long time.

I just wanted it to be associative. And I wanted it just to hang together in a really organic way. I felt like tying it together with this very neat, ‘Here's what I know and here is what I learnt’. Kind of structure was something that I really was scared of doing, and I resisted it for ages. So to answer your question about what goes in and what comes out, it's kind of weeding around all of those things as to what makes the reader's experience more manageable and what it is that I'm trying to say and how to get there.

ASTRID: I'd like to go back to what you said at the beginning there, Sam, about potentially hurting family relationships. In the work you actually start the second chapter with what used to be the opening of the entire work. And as a reader, we get to read that and it does mention your mother and it does mention your father. And then you kind of take us through how you felt about the original words and why it's no longer the original, but of course, you've made the conscious decision to give it to the reader anyway, and to tell us why. And that made me stop and think, ‘How would I have that conversation with my mom or my dad?’ It's such a personal thing that the answer is personal within your family. But that decision to be public is something that many writers face and struggle with. And I guess I'm just interested in that choice to reveal what you had taken out and then put it back in for us and tell us why.

SAM: Part of it was that one of the opportunities I was given along the way of writing this was a Wheeler Centre hot desk fellowship. And one of the outcomes of that fellowship is that they published an extract. The extract that I had published was the cancelled second beginning. I felt kind of tied to it, in a way, but also I felt it was important not to sweep my own and past sort of poor understandings of this stuff under the carpet. So the second beginning that you're referencing, here we are. My father was a chef for 25 years, my mother is morbidly obese. When I wrote that, they seemed like very simple, factual statements.

As I continued writing the book, I realised that, particularly, ‘My mother is morbidly obese’. Is medicalizing. It makes moral judgments. It says a lot more about my own fatphobia than it does about my mother. So partially I felt like I needed to stick with my story that had already been made partially public. But also my thinking is flawed. The thinking that a lot of people will go into the book with is flawed. And I think it's important to recognise that.

ASTRID: That was an excellent answer. I mean that quite sincerely, Sam. I work with a lot of emerging writers, and emerging writers is a problematic term, but you know, I work with a lot of people who want to get published and the very idea that they would look back on their own work and realise that they don't fully believe it anymore or they got it wrong or they've changed their mind. Anything along that kind of spectrum is very difficult and horrifying. And I just genuinely want to applaud you. I think it was... It greatly amused me and intrigued me. I also want to say we were the in the same year, back in 2015, my goodness, that feels a long time ago, Sam.

SAM: It does. But also it was so nice to share. We were desk buddies. We were side-by-side. So it was nice to share that space with you.

ASTRID: Back in the days, six years ago, when you were allowed to go into strange buildings and sit there with people that you didn't know very well, with no masks. For that time to come back, Sam.

SAM: What at a time to have been alive.

ASTRID: We really shouldn't laugh. I have a question. Eating with My Mouth Open was delayed because of COVID-19 and many, many books in Australia and around the world were delayed because of that reason, a very good reason. But now that it is out, I walked into Readingsyesterday, and I saw your book face out on the shelves. How do you think about the feedback that you get and does feedback come by Twitter or by people having conversations with you? Or do you feel exposed because you have written about intimate thoughts that you've had and now the world can pick them up in one book?

SAM: I was listening to your interview with Kate Richards yesterday, and she did a really great job of talking about going through a process before Madness came out into the world of sort of breaking up with the idea of it as hers and handing it over to the reader. And I think that is so admirable. And in some ways I've sort of done that. Fiona had readied me in a sense to think of the book as sort of a container that you put experience into. And at a certain point, the container is sort of closed and put on the shelf and becomes an object over there. And that's kind of difficult. It's difficult to come from a place of writing that's so immediate and that gets published so quickly to something that is so static. Because this as an object, I don't get to add to it anymore. I don't get to put any marginalia in there or follow up in any comprehensive way. So that is kind of a challenge. Also, recognising that I'm now promoting something that I finished writing 18 months ago because of the COVID delay. I've continued living and sinking in that time. It's definitely a vulnerable experience. I appreciate that a lot of people... And this is something that I've experienced before.

SAM: So a few years ago I wrote a piece for The Lifted Brow about self-harm and my own experience of self-harm and how I make sense of that as a piece of my personal history, rather than something that I'm still living, but also something that I am still living in that it's written on my body. And after publishing that piece, I had quite a number of people slide into my DDMs with their stories as well. And that has only in the last few days, started happening with Eating With my Mouth open. And I think that there is a portion of the work to do with holding space for other people's stories. And that's sort of where I'm at right now. So that's confronting, vulnerable, important. All of those things, big mixture of feelings.

ASTRID: You used the word important there, and it really is, Sam. I have a very different life experience from you, but I felt that Eating with My Mouth Open helped me, particularly when you were talking about not relying on your own body or wondering how you were in this body you can't not be in, as is the case for all of us. I have chronic illness and I have grappled with finding language to describe what it's like to be tethered to a body that does not serve me well. And I think that people with chronic illness will start to slide into your DMs, too. Because it is something that is not well captured in literature.

ASTRID: So, thank you, Sam.

SAM: Thank you, Astrid.

ASTRID: Thank you so much for talking to me today.

SAM: No worries. Thanks for having me.