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.