Article published on November 3, 2016.
We subjected Steven Amsterdam to our Quirky Q&A in the new issue of nb magazine (Autumn 2016) and here on nudge he answers some slightly more serious questions from reviewer Teresa O’Halloran about his startling new novel, The Easy Way Out.
Teresa O’Halloran: Your first book was set in a futuristic dystopia and your second book was about a family with special powers. What led you to tackle reality at such close range?
Steven Amsterdam: Funny, I don’t see this book as any more real than my others. Assisted dying is not quite reality – at least not here and not yet – but I wanted to imagine it was. Which is to say that I wanted to look at a somewhat inevitable future from close range. My approach here was the same as with my other books: take something strange and figure out what it would take to normalize it. Right in there is where stories become the most interesting, where you get close to characters who have adapted to situations that are, to readers in the here and now, difficult to picture. So I invented this world, where Measure 961 makes assisted dying legal. I added an underground group that would handle any cases that didn’t fall under its guidelines. All fiction is speculative. Whether it’s the nomad making his way through apocalyptic fire and flood, the househusband who can fly, or the guy handing out the lethal cup of Nembutal, I want to know what it takes to be that person and what risks that person will take to get what they need. That’s the reality.
TH: There have been novels about people assisting with a death, but never one where the protagonist is a ‘dying assistant’. How did you come up with Evan?
SA: Evan grew from my work as a community palliative care nurse – except for the fact that I don’t see people off on as strict a schedule as he does. In my role, I visit people who are very sick and try to give them whatever support they need – clinical, psychological, social. It’s a privilege to be allowed into people’s lives at such a time and profound to be able to make a difference.
Every now and then, a patient will ask me, “Isn’t there something you can do to make this go faster?” There’s a lot going on in these moments, for them and for me and I want to get it right. First, there’s the legal answer – No – and the subsequent discussions about whatever led them to this question and what we might be able to do about it. Inside, my answer has two other parts to it that I can’t say out loud: The first is that, for their sake, I wish there was a law. Before long, I am sure there will be a law. Part two of my answer is that, for my sake, I’m glad there’s nothing I can do. Even though I’m theoretically in favour of it, and even though I work in the area where it would likely happen, that is not a job I would want. This disconnect, between my support and my resistance, made me wonder: Who would be the right person for that job? So I came up with Evan. Through him, I wanted to imagine this future and all of it’s complicated moments.
TH: His life is complicated, not just his job description. He’s got a mother who herself has a poor prognosis but is always ready for a good time. And romantically, he’s partly attached to a couple that keeps prodding him for more attention. Why?
SA: Because life is complicated. Dying assistant is just Evan’s job. As much as it tests him, his relationships test him more. And as much as I wanted to look at this subject, I didn’t want to write a screed. I don’t write because I have answers, I write because I have questions. This is why fiction is the way in. Evan has to be a whole person and his story has to be uniquely his, complete with the over-the-top mother and the seductions of his boyfriends. If he didn’t have them all in his life, the book would be a documentary.
TH: How else has your work as a nurse helped your writing?
SA: A million ways. The work gives all my writing a boost by exposing me to a wide and all-too-human array of situations. I am mindful of not taking any patient details and using them in stories, but during every shift I am presented with acute reminders that my life and my concerns are only mine. There are as many perspectives as there are people, and that is good for a writer alone with the laptop to remember. That said, I like to think my writing improves my nursing skills too. In some ways, the jobs are not that dissimilar. Both are extreme empathy sports. Not only that, they each demand careful observation and the ability to find the right words.
TH: The book has an unexpectedly comic edge to it. Where did that come from?
SA: Humour makes the heaviness of nursing manageable, so I knew it would make the book, with all its deaths, easy on the reader. Really, the ups and downs that our bodies – and the medical system – put us through demands comedy. I’m not talking about laughing at a banana peel in a hospital corridor. I mean a respectful, almost philosophical acceptance that our bodies and our attempts to control our lives are essentially absurd. Humour is a defense mechanism but it’s also a survival mechanism. Without a capacity to laugh at it all, I couldn’t do the nursing and I definitely couldn’t have written The Easy Way Out.
Evan is a nurse, a suicide assistant. His job is legal – just. He’s the one at the hospital who hands out the last drink to those who ask for it. Evan’s friends don’t know what he does during the day. His mother, Viv, doesn’t know what he’s up to at night. And his supervisor suspects there may be trouble ahead. As he helps one patient after another die, Evan pushes against the limits of the law – and his own morality. And with Viv increasingly unwell, his love life complicated, to say the least, Evan begins to wonder who might be there for him, when the time comes . . .
From an award-winning author, The Easy Way Out is a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?
About the author
Steven Amsterdam is a writer and a palliative care nurse. Originally from New York City, he now lives in Melbourne. His first book, Things We Didn’t See Coming was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His second book, What The Family Needed was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam, published by riverrun on 3 November, 2016 in hardback at £12.99