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Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Author QandA Uncategorized

Q&A with Fiona Sussman

READ CLOSE: Addressed to Greta is your third novel. How do you see your craft and your focus shifting over your career, and how has it remained the same?

FIONA SUSSMAN: At first glance, no one of my novels resembles the others – frustrating for anyone bent on slotting my work into a single genre. I think this has less to do with shifting focus over my writing career, as more just deciding to write the stories that demand to be told. As I begin on a new work, it is the emotional impetus for the story, and not the prospective audience, that inevitably determines how it will out.

The commonality underpinning my writing is the subject matter. I remain fascinated by those who are forced to navigate the periphery of society because of prejudice, be that towards race, sexual orientation, mental health, physique . . . I have always been drawn to tell the underdog’s tale and remain driven to shine a light on the challenges experienced by those who don’t fall within the narrow margins of ‘the norm’ peddled by Western society.

My third novel, Addressed to Greta, has a strong thread of humour through it. This was definitely a first for me as a writer. However, stacked beneath the humour are more weighty issues. Had I consciously thought about writing a funny novel though, I suspect the humour would have felt forced and contrived. Rather, it arose organically from the protagonist, whose social gaucheness makes her unwittingly funny.

Family dynamics are always at the forefront of your work – even when family members are no longer present, they haunt the protagonists. Greta is desperate to move out from under the shadow of her mother, five years after she’s passed. What is it about families and their relationships that draw you to write about them?

The role of family in the genesis of wider social issues has always interested me and makes for a fascinating lens through which to examine personal and societal problems and successes.

The family unit is really a nursery ground for the next generation, ideally affording a safe, non-judgemental space for personal growth and development. At its best, it offers a solid base from which an individual can venture out into the world to test their evolving persona, and a safe place to which they can always return.

In a dysfunctional family, the unit becomes a place of negative energy, criticism, excessive control . . . and serves to undermine the growth and self-determination of those within it, most especially children.

In Addressed to Greta, Greta’s mother, Nora, imparts her own jaded and cynical views to her daughter – attitudes and beliefs springing from her life of disappointment. No expectation, no disappointment is just one of Nora’s many mantras. Greta learns to live by it too, her mother’s fears shaping her outlook and stifling her development. Even after Nora dies, her cautions continue to wield power over Greta.

It takes Walter, a close friend of Greta’s, to realise that for Greta to live a bigger life, she must escape the long shadow cast by her mother. Walter’s insight and empathy comes from his own experiences, having grown up in a family where he was forced to live a lie.

Greta lives in a very recognisable Auckland, driving from Devonport to her job, and over the bridge to Ponsonby. Do you think writing about the places we live is important, and why?

Often we shy away from setting stories in our own back yard. The ‘other’, the ‘foreign’, the ‘faraway’ or ‘unknown’ always seems more exciting, more exotic, more profound. But there can be real power in the familiar backdrop, lending a story greater relatability and relevance, and giving what sometimes feels like our small local life, value and import.

While fiction generally affords the comfort of a few degrees of separation from our lives, its power can be in the recognisable. In seeing aspects of our life reflected in a story. The sense that a character’s thoughts or experiences or challenges or habitat in some way reflect our own. And in this way the familiar can work to enhance the resonance of a story.

Greta’s travels are incredible – have you travelled widely?

My parents were great believers in education outside the classroom, in particular through travel and books, something they felt to be particularly pressing when we were growing up under the appalling apartheid regime. To never travel (be that physically or through reading) is to believe that the pocket of world you inhabit is the only reality. They were determined to challenge that notion. My husband and I have tried to continue this tradition with our children.

I grew up Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1989 following my-husband-to-be to New Zealand. In some ways, our emigration because of the repercussions of fascist politics, mirrored my maternal grandparents’ emigration from Italy to South Africa to escape Mussolini’s tyranny, and my husband’s parents’ escape from Nazi Germany . . .

After my husband and I completed our medical training in New Zealand, we headed to the UK for work experience, ‘en route’ backpacking around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

England proved a great launching pad for exploring the rest of Europe, and we made the most of this during our three years away, returning home to New Zealand in 1997. New Zealand has been a wonderful home to us in so many ways, and we continue to explore its beauty as keen trampers.

Some years ago, my brother treated me to a week in New York – a place I’d never been before and where he had spent a lot of time.

Then, after my mum passed, we used some of her generous legacy, to take our family to Rwanda, trekking into the Ngungwe Forest National Park and the Volcanoes National Park to see the endangered gorillas and chimpanzees. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience.

I wish I had more space to expand on these standout adventures. I still get excited just thinking about them.

What writers, films, artists or musicians do you think have had an impact on your writing?

Growing up, I was hugely influenced by those brave, socially-conscious authors such as Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Athol Fugard, JM Coetzee , and André Brink, who, despite the heavy censorship operating during the apartheid era, used their pens and position of privilege to document the atrocities of the regime and provoke change. Their works gave me an appreciation for the power of the written word as a tool for change, as did the lyrics of socially conscious Mexican-American singer songwriter Sixton Rodriguez.

Other authors that have impacted my writing (so hard to narrow down) include Ian Cross, Toni Morrison, Kate Grenville, Helen Garner, Alan Duff, Jesmyn Ward, and George Saunders.

If Addressed to Greta were to be made into a film, who would you cast?

Ha! I like to see new faces on the screen, as I think they give characters their own authenticity. But hey, I reckon Miranda Hart would do a great job of being Greta, and Eric Bana would make a fine Walter.

What are you reading now? What is on your To Be Read pile?

I have just finished I Wish I Wish by Zirk van den Berg. A tiny gem of book with such emotional depth. The Afrikaans version recently won the Hofmeyr Prize in South Africa.

On my bedside table is Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Fake Baby by Amy McDaid, and Shepherds and Butchers by Chris Marnewick.

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Addressed to Greta - Fiona Sussman Book Reviews

Book Review: Addressed to Greta by Fiona Sussman

Bateman Books, NZ RRP $34.99, Contemporary Fiction

It’s a storyline straight from a romantic comedy – a socially awkward woman, living alone with her chicken and her spa pool, receives a phone call telling her that her late friend has bequeathed her an all-expenses paid holiday. Destination and length of trip: unknown. Said woman is flustered. Can she do it? Break free of the routine and structure that she’s sheltered herself with and leave New Zealand for the first time?

In the sweet and endearing novel Addressed to Greta, the eponymous main character is lonely, frightened and ashamed of her large feet. Walter, Greta’s best friend and her unrequited love, has died and left her a trip of a lifetime, ‘an opportunity to step away from the world you know.’ Greta has lived in Auckland for over twenty years and has never heard of Tiritiri Matangi; she’s never been to the South Island, so this trip is a daunting prospect. She’s sheltered in a way that seems unbelievable. She’s utterly alone, even though she’s never without her the memory of her controlling mother, recalling the things she’d said: gems like ‘Thinking positive thoughts will not pay for the power’, and the nasty ‘If only people knew what you were really like.’

Greta’s unable to cast off her mother Nora’s admonitions and criticisms, even though her mother died five years ago. Greta is scared to make herself a life that includes her dreams and ambitions, preferring the security of her quiet and unfulfilling life. But this trip, from a friend who knew her better than anyone, forces Greta to quit her boring job, to leave her rental property in Devonport, to apply for a passport and take a long haul flight to her first destination: New York City. It’s the first stop on a whirlwind tour, and we get to come along for the ride.

Addressed to Greta is the third novel by Fiona Sussman, a former GP turned fiction writer. Her second book, The Last Time We Spoke, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Crime Fiction in 2017. This new novel is a departure for Sussman as well as Greta. Sussman ventures here into cosy and warm territory, in a story that deals with large issues in familiar and comfortable settings. This book will appeal to readers of Charity Norman, Nicky Pellegrino and Sarah-Kate Lynch.

Sussman’s writing is strong and evocative – the novel glowed whenever landscapes or cityscapes were described. With international travel off the cards this year, anyone desperate for armchair travel will find plenty to satisfy in this book. Beautiful food is eaten – Greta loves to eat, especially cake and chocolate – and interesting strangers – morticians and architects and pilots – start out as acquaintances, but become her friends. Greta’s earnestness allows her to experience the world in a way that garners the envy of some more worldly characters. She changes from a woman who blushes at magazine covers promising to tell you ‘Ten Risky Ways To Excite Your Lover’ into a woman who initiates a sexual encounter for the pure joy of the experience.

Sussman keeps the momentum up throughout the novel, even when it could have easily stagnated with plenty of flashbacks and memories alongside the present day action. I’d hoped for more pit stops on the holiday, but appreciate the novel would be twice the length if Greta travelled any longer. Sussman sidesteps technology to bask in the romance of hand-written letters and pay phones. There’s something touching about the voice of Walter speaking to Greta through the letters he has left her, and his presence feels strong despite only featuring briefly in flashbacks.

Greta’s trip is a lens through which we can all learn new things, whether they are about the impermanence of humankind, the value in opening oneself up to the world, and the essential understanding that ‘ You cannot change what has already happened…only what you choose to take with you.’

Sussman’s created an oddball in Greta Jellings, a character who suffers from verbal diarrhoea and innappropriate admissions. Greta is lovable in many ways yet incredibly blind to her own naivety; she’s upset when someone calls her Gretchen yet she tells a Rwandan man named Daniel that she thinks he has ‘a white man’s name’. She’s horrified by other traveller’s rudeness, but has no boundaries herself, particularly when questioning Daniel about the genocide; she’s angry at another woman’s prejudice against homosexuals, but she judges nearly everyone she meets about all sorts of things, finding herself shocked when they don’t fit into her stereotypical assumptions. While the characters in the book were always ready to forgive Greta her transgressions, it might be more difficult for some readers to do so.

Greta seemed older than she was supposed to be – twenty to thirty years older, a woman with outdated ideas and ettiquette. Her choice not to have a mobile phone fit with her character, however her disconnect and ignorance of the world around her seemed at times far-fetched – the only way to explain it would be to say that Greta has never used the internet, which in today’s world, doesn’t seem possible.

While the book is cut through with humour, mostly through Greta’s faux pas, the novel is at it’s heart a story about the burden of solitary life. Greta has no one – her former neighbours changed their personalities as well as their address, and she mourns the loss of their companionship; her mother has died and left her diaries full of secrets causing her more pain; and Walter, her best friend and the man who could never love her as she loved him, died from liver cancer, complicated by HIV. She’s worried about disappointing people, so she pushes them away, even when she’s hungry for touch and for real connection. On her travels, she discovers a profound truth: ‘People were meant to be with others. Even the elderly stationmaster defined himself by his significant other. There was power in the plural – the couple, the family, the team, the town. Shared decisions, shared grief, shared joys and burdens.’ And so Greta breaks down her barriers, little by little.

It’s also through travel that she learns another lesson, one that travel is especially skilled at teaching: ‘For a second time on the trip, the significance of Greta’s life zoomed to blend with a bigger backdrop. Her story was just one pixel in a vast canvas. It was oddly comforting, knowing that nothing mattered quite as much as she’d always believed it did.’ Against the pain and suffering of millions around the globe, Greta is able to put her own challenges into perspective, allowing herself some grace and dignity to change her life, to determine for herself what the next step should be.

Addressed To Greta is a charming novel that traverses the globe and the intricacies of human relationships. I hope many readers find comfort in her travels, the happiness she manages to find, and her search for the perfect pair of shoes.