Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Feature: the stroppy crime fighter


The stroppy crime-fighter
On the cups of her third Sam Shephard novel being released, Kiwi crime writer VANDA SYMON talks to CRAIG SISTERSON about creating a memorable heroine, juggling motherhood and storytelling, and life imitating art. 

Budding authors the world over have heard the advice ‘write what you know’ – well-meaning sentiments not to be taken too literally of course, as few of us encounter spies or serial killers, boy wizards or Victorian gentry, in our everyday lives. But what writers can do is inject what they do know about life into their tales, imbuing even the most fantastical stories with authentic and recognisable viewpoints, emotions, and humanity.

Dunedin-based crime writer Vanda Symon certainly wasn’t acquainted with many cold-blooded killers when she sat down a few years ago to write what became her debut thriller Overkill; but what she did ‘know’ was the swirling emotions and do-anything protectiveness felt by new mothers. And a few things about rare drugs, thanks to her pre-family life career as a pharmacist. The result: a gut-punch of a prologue where an intruder forces a young mother to submit to her own death, later staged as suicide, to save her baby.

“You know, I wrote that first chapter, and I still cry at the end every time I read it,” says Symon, who’d wanted to be a writer since she was a child, but didn’t seriously take it up until she had children of her own. “[It] was born out of borderline hysteria due to sleep deprivation. Major paranoia… just at 2 o’clock in the morning waking up, eyes wide and thinking what is the worst possible thing that could ever happen… honestly it just represents a mother’s fears.”

After taking a creative writing course by correspondence, Symon began penning her debut by snatching writing time in amongst a hectic maternal schedule. Any fantasies of uninterrupted writing time quickly evaporated: “You know you’re sitting at the dining table, wiping, feeding a child here, wandering over and playing LEGO there... having a discussion with your mother-in-law, making cups of tea for anyone who comes and visits, all the while writing a novel at the same time,” she laughs.

At the time Symon was living in Hawke’s Bay, having returned to her childhood home after studying pharmacy at the University of Otago. She says that as a child, reading and writing had been two of her loves. “Probably the book that turned on the lights was TH White’s The Sword in the Stone, the Arthurian legend. I just adored that book.” From there Symon began devouring mysteries, particularly the ‘Amelia Peabody’ books by Elizabeth Peters. “They had all the romance of Ancient Egypt, all the mystery-solving, and a fabulous female protagonist,” she recalls.

When Symon’s own book was published in 2007, it not only introduced a distinct new voice in antipodean crime writing, but also an exciting new heroine; policewoman Sam Shephard, a sassy recurring protagonist you want to follow; headstrong, passionate, and flawed. In Overkill Shephard is a sole-charge rural cop investigating the looks-like-suicide drowning of the young mother in Mataura, a farming town in the deep south of New Zealand. That first book took four and a half years for Symon to complete and get published: “from when I put my first scribblings down, to when I got my nice book in the letterbox and bawled my way back down the path.”

After that, Symon was hooked, and quickly hit her writing stride. In her second thriller, The Ringmaster, Shephard has moved to the ‘big smoke’ of student city Dunedin, firmly ensconced on the very bottom rung of the detective training ladder. Relegated to playing peacemaker between animal rights protestors and a visiting circus, Shephard uncovers a potential link between the circus and a series of deaths around the South Island. “I wanted for a contrast to have her go from being sole charge to being the littlest cog in a very large wheel... how would she cope with that - she’s a very stroppy girl.” In a case of life imitating art, Symon and her family ended up moving back to Dunedin herself while she was completing The Ringmaster. Later this month the third in the series, Containment, will be released, and Symon is already well underway with the fourth Sam Shephard book, Bound, scheduled for a 2010 release.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the character of Sam Shephard, along with the well-drawn southern settings, snappy repartee between characters, humour, and visual storytelling, is a key part of what makes Symon’s storytelling so great, the stroppy heroine wasn’t originally slated to be the star. Symon says she originally envisaged a male hero, until a real-life realisation nixed that thought. “I can’t even remember exactly what it was, but my husband did something completely daft, and I went ‘oh my God, I can’t even understand my own husband, how could I get into the head of a male’, so I changed it,” laughs Symon. “And the moment I changed it to a female, Sam Shephard stepped up fully-formed as a character, and it was like she attitude-ed her way into my life.”

As readers throughout Australasia are discovering, we’re all very glad she did.


This feature was originally published in print in the November 2009 issue of Good Reading magazine. New Zealand crime fiction has continued to go from strength to strength since then, with the establishment of the Ngaio Marsh Award and greater coverage in mainstream media and at festivals. Vanda Symon has been a three-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award.


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