Interview with Fiona Sussman

Like Fiona I also left South Africa to move to the cooler climes of New Zealand. So I was very glad to have an opportunity to ask a fellow ex-pat some questions about her writing.

What got you started writing?

I was born into a world filled with books – my father headed William Heinemann Publishers, South Africa, for many years – so my love of the written word began at an early age. I wrote my first play at the age of seven for Brownies! However, it would be many years before I would formally consider myself a writer.

I remember Brownies myself though only as a visitor as I was too antisocial for anything more.

What challenges did you face when you first started writing?

Thirteen years ago I decided to take time out from my career as a family doctor to write a novel. Little did I know this would be the beginning of a new and exciting career. At the outset, the solitude, structureless days, and self-doubt, were my biggest hurdles.

Who in your life is your greatest cheerleader or support in your writing?

My family has stood tirelessly on the sidelines, cheering, comforting, and cajoling. I couldn’t do it without them. Before I was published, my then ten-year-old son assured me we could sell my books from the boot of my car!

What is it like writing in New Zealand that would be different if you lived anywhere else?

The distance from major publishing houses and agents can be perceived as a disadvantage. However, in this era of the internet, that distance has largely disappeared; both my publishers and agent are based overseas. While ‘in-person’ publicity over there is more difficult, there are other ways to maintain an international profile, such as writing pieces for international publications and blogs, and engaging with fans on social media.

Where do you get your ideas? Is there anything about New Zealand that has inspired you to write?

Usually an image or news clip captures my attention, moves me, touches me viscerally in some way. I tend to file it away in my head and leave it to compost. The idea either dies quietly, or my subconscious keeps working on it, and one day, out of the blue, a story declares itself.

Why do you think readers are fascinated by books written about New Zealand?

Geographically we are far away from so many other countries, and with that distance comes a bit of mystery. Also, for a small country, we punch well above our weight on the international stage with Booker Prize winners, the All Blacks, great cinematic successes, sailing . . . Readers are perhaps eager to learn what’s in our water!

You aren't the first to say we punch above our weight.

Who is your favourite New Zealand author and why?

It’s very hard to pick just one. Ian Cross, Alan Duff, Lloyd Jones and Patricia Grace are amongst my favourites – authors with unique, arresting voices who have explored different aspects of New Zealand life in their writings. All have skilfully addressed universal themes within settings peculiar to New Zealand.

What advice would you give for other writers in New Zealand?

Be proud of your rich and unique cultural heritage. Don’t be intimidated by the bigger players. Your story has relevance. The human condition is not defined by geographical boundaries.

Do you get to network or meet up with other New Zealand authors?

Yes. Writers festivals, panel discussions, workshops and media events have brought me into contact with other NZ authors. It is great to be able to share experiences and learn from each other.

What was the first thing you did after your first book was published?

After the celebrations I sat down and started to write with greater confidence. I think I became a better writer overnight. The power of validation! Which goes to show how important believing in yourself is on this journey.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you handle the good and the bad ones?

Yes, I usually do. The good ones serve as reinforcement and validation. The less favourable ones . . . well, if I feel there’s validity to the criticism, I make a mental note of it. If not, I get mad, sad, go for a long run, and then try to get back to work.

How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have any secrets to productivity?

Both my novels have taken years to write. Shifting Colours had many reincarnations and took about ten years from inception to publication. The Last Time We Spoke took about six years. I don’t interest myself in daily word counts etc. I simply sit down at my desk most weekdays between 9am and 2pm, and write. Somedays I achieve a single paragraph. Others, an entire chapter. Then there are the chunks of time when I leave a manuscript alone and allow the sediment to settle. When I come back to it, it is always with fresh eyes. If I am getting bogged down with a novel, I sometimes change tack and write a short story. It demands a different mindset and the change usually recharges my battery.

Where did you get the idea for your first or latest book?

There were a series of high-profile crimes in NZ in the 1990s which captured my attention both for their the brutality and the youth of the perpetrators. Long after the news cycles had ended and the stories had disappeared from our national consciousness, I found myself still pondering them. They had left their imprint. I had so many questions. How could the victim of an awful crime ever go on to navigate some sort of meaningful life again? And what had happened in a youngster’s life to set him/her on a path to murder? Very early on I had two voices in my head – that of a victim and that of a perpetrator. I knew I wanted to explore the aftermath of a crime from both perspectives.

What is your best experience meeting a fan?

A fan contacted me from overseas. She had been the victim of a brutal crime in her youth and said that reading my book had offered her hope and some healing.

If any of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you pick and who would you have play the main characters?

Many people have suggested Shifting Colours would lend itself to the widescreen. I’d love to see it made into a film; it’s a story very dear to my heart. In terms of actors, I prefer unknown actors to big Hollywood names. An unknown actor brings an individual authenticity to his/her role, which is harder to achieve with a celebrity. I’d like to be surprised.

How important do you think marketing is for authors today?

Really important. Marketing is about getting your book in front of the right readers. Unfortunately, it can take up a lot of time – valuable writing time. It is not my style to market aggressively, but I rarely turn down an opportunity to engage with readers, be it in person at bookclubs for example, or on social media. I try to keep my profile current.

Do you have any book you have written that won’t ever see the light of day and why?

No, though both my books had very long evolutions, and each spent a significant amount of time in the bottom drawer. Fortunately, they both made it out!

Often writers get to approach some serious subjects. Which serious subject are you most proud to have written about or was the hardest to write about?

I have written in the voice of characters whose life experiences and culture were so different from my own. While I am aware of the potential for criticism to be levelled at me on this front, I believe writers should be able to write fearlessly about what moves them, so long as they do it with sensitivity and integrity. For both my books I did a huge amont of research, immersing myself in the worlds my characters would inhabit. And then I sat down and wrote as a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and hoped that the common denominator I shared with my characters was our humanity. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine]

I think being able to walk in the shoes of thousands of characters is the true art form of a writer. Thank you for your time.[endif]

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