Tuesday, March 16, 2010

V is for Vanda Symon (incl author interview)

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of “V”.

Given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two (and I haven't done so for a few weeks), this week I am including a post on Kiwi crime writer Vanda Symon, particularly looking at the writing of her debut novel OVERKILL, that came out back in 2007. Symon has since published two more acclaimed novels featuring her fiesty policewoman heroine Sam Shephard, THE RINGMASTER (2008), and CONTAINMENT (2009). Her fourth Sam Shephard novel, BOUND, is due to come out late this year.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post includes a reprint of a WildTomato magazine book review of OVERKILL from early 2009.

OVERKILL introduces Sam Shephard, who in the first novel is a young sole-charge police constable in Mataura, a rural small town in the southern part of New Zealand. When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River the small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems. Sam soon discovers the death was no suicide, and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate things the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover

When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duties, she must cast aside her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands to find the murderer and clear her own name.

OVERKILL is not only Symon's debut novel, it is in fact the first novel she ever tried to write. Unlike many of her peers, she doesn't have a hidden drawer' of never-to-see-the-light-of-day unpublished manuscripts. OVERKILL was really the first piece of writing Symon had done since she was at school, other than a few short stories for a Creative Writing correspondence course she did as a young mother.

When interviewing Symon for a feature article in Good Reading magazine last year, I asked her why she initally decided to start writing her first novel. "It was just, okay I’ll write a novel," she replied, laughing. "Life was revolving around feeds, and kids, and playing and things like that – so I just thought I’d add novel writing on top of that. It seemed like a good idea at the time."

I also asked a handful of other questions relating to the writing of her debut, OVERKILL, which I'll share with you here. My review, which initially appeared in the May 2009 issue of WildTomato, is included after the Q&A below.

CS: Where did the idea for OVERKILL come from - you were a mother with a young child at the time, is that where it came from, your greatest fear?
Symon: Oh yeah, it was– the prologue of OVERKILL 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, oh my God, what would I do? I just think, heaps of paranoia…

CS: The prologue really grabs the reader by the throat - did you start with that, or go back and add it later?
Symon: That was the first thing I wrote… honestly it just represents a mother’s fears. You know, what would you do for your child? You’ve got this tiny little bundle, and you look at them and you just can’t express the love and protection you feel for this little baby, and they’re so vulnerable – and what would you do?

CS: Your heroine has plenty of feistiness and personality - where did the character of Sam Shephard come from?
Symon: Once I’d written the prologue and I had to decide, okay I’m going to start the novel, and I knew I was doing to do detective fiction – and I’d originally started writing about a male, and had a male protagonist… it was always going to be a policeman… and I had this idea for a male, and I started writing about a male, and I can’t even remember exactly what it was, but my husband did something completely daft – and I just 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 to a female, 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.

CS: When, and why, did you decide to set OVERKILL in Mataura?
Symon: I needed a town with a meat-works and a river, because I already had in my mind what the premise was going to be. And I wanted a small town, because small towns give you that hotbed of undercurrents where everyone knows everyone else, but also, man, can they keep a secret. I wanted that small-town feeling. And also, I wanted a sole-charge police constable for the first novel, for the isolation but also because from the practical standpoint for me, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of how policing worked and things like that, and having her as an individual, having to make decisions on the spot, was better for me having to write it, well easier for me having to write it – in that I didn’t have to worry about accidentally tripping myself up with procedure, and in that way I/she could make stuff up, she could make mistakes, she could make good calls, she could make bad calls.

So looking for a small town, I got the atlas out, and Googled “meat-works, river, New Zealand” and came up with about only seven or eight places, including Wairoa, which was the closest one to me [Symon lived in Napier, on the east coast of the North Island, at the time) – it was only 2 hours up the road, but as soon as I saw Mataura on the list, that was it, because I’m a newspaper-aholic, and I knew that Mataura had recently lost its Paper Mill, it was a huge employer, it had lost its 2nd largest employer in town recently, and as soon as I saw that, it gave it that hint of desperation. Sorry to anyone from Mataura.

And to me, the South Island seemed more heartland New Zealand, than the Waikato or somewhere like that. The South Island of New Zealand was more hardcore. And I was living in Napier at the time, so I had no idea at that time that within a year or two years, I’d end up living in Dunedin – and Mataura would just be an hour, an hour and a half down the road.

CS: As your first ever attempt at writing a novel, how long did OVERKILL take?
Symon: Well, you know I started when I had a 6-month old child; it took four and a half years from whoa to go. 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.

CS: When you were writing OVERKILL, you were a mother with two very young kids, living in Hawke’s Bay, trying to also write– what was your schedule like?Symon: Spasmodic, just working around the kids, if one was at kindy and one decided to have a nap then [writing] was at that time. When I first started out I was really anal about it, you know ‘I want to have quiet, have space, have a desk’. I gave that up real fast, you know you’re sitting at the dining room table, wiping, feeding a child here, wandering over and playing LEGO, all while writing a novel at the same time, having a discussion with your mother-in-law, making cups of tea for anyone who comes and visits, writing a novel at the same time. So, yeah…

CS: A few years, and a couple of books, on, is it easier to write now your kids are a bit older?
Symon: Oh yes, my life changed immensely once the youngest started school, and I had that sizeable chunk of the day, if I could use it… Because I [now] have a multi-book contract to write novels, I treat it like what it is, it’s what I do for my job.


OVERKILL by Vanda Symon
(Penguin, 2007)

In February we reviewed THE RINGMASTER, the second Sam Shepherd book published by former pharmacist and Dunedin-based crime writer Vanda Symon. Sassy Sam had earlier taken her first bow in this novel, Symon’s raw but surprisingly textured debut.

Fans of high quality international crime fiction won’t be disappointed by this local fare. Symon wastes no time, immediately stunning readers with an opening-pages haymaker, as during the prologue an intruder forces a stay-at-home mother to submit to her own death, in order to save her baby daughter. Who knew the farming town of Mataura could harbour such evil?

Soon after, sole-charge rural cop Sam finds herself co-ordinating the search for the missing mother, her ex-lover’s wife. Once the body is found, she is left tidying up then investigating the looks-like-suicide drowning. The case is complicated by stroppy Sam’s frequent clashes with authority, her unclear relationship with her ex - the widower, and the public finger of blame beginning to creep her way.

Sam soon feels like a pariah, and finds herself right in the manure (literally in one case) amongst the salt-of-the-earth citizens of small-town Southland.Overkill is an excellent first novel from a talented storyteller. Symon nicely balances action, character and story in a well-drawn rural setting, and realistically speckles the book with light-hearted moments and humour throughout. Symon drops Sam right in it, and the reader can’t help but be taken along for the ride, willingly and wonderfully.

Symon builds the book to a satisfying conclusion, weaving throughout real issues relevant to agricultural communities, along with the loves, hates, hopes, and fears universal to people anywhere. Good crime novels set in an authentic rural setting are rare, as is quality Kiwi crime fiction (at least until recently). Overkill ticks both boxes. Highly recommended.

Have you read OVERKILL, or any of Symon's other books (THE RINGMASTER, CONTAINMENT)? If not, do they sound like the kind of books you might like to try? What do you think of her heroine Sam Shephard? Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. Craig - Thanks for this terrific profile of Vanda Symon. I always like to learn a bit about authors and I found your interview interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. That was just the part of the interview dealing specifically with OVERKILL Margot - Vanda and I chatted for an hour or so. She's a fascinating person, and a damned good writer/storyteller too.

  3. Craig - Thanks for your post. I have Overkill to read for Dorte's Global Reading Challenge.