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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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Book Reviews Remote Sympathy - Catherine Chidgey Uncategorized

Book Review: Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

Victoria University Press, RRP $NZ35.00, Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction

Catherine Chidgey returns to Germany for Remote Sympathy, the same setting as her Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize-winning novel The Wish Child. Though we’re not in Berlin this time: this novel is set in Buchenwald, a labour camp near Weimar. This remarkable and moving novel features a doctor with a failed hope of saving cancer patients with his Sympathetic Vitaliser machine; a young mother with ovarian cancer; and her husband, the administrative director of the labour camp. Together, these stories form an unusual and compelling triangle of hope, despair, fear and courage set against the horror and anguish of the Holocaust.

I sometimes wonder whether art created from the history of World War II can give us a glimpse of the reality, or if they only move us towards a mythologised version of events. Remote Sympathy seems to acknowledge this worry (doesn’t the title itself refer to its place in being able to create sympathy only from afar?) by giving us the narrative as imagined records of history. The narrative is broken into four: letters from Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter, Lotte; the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn; the transcribed post-war interviews with Sturmbannfuhrer Dietrich Hahn; and, finally, the ‘personal reflections’ of the inhabitants of Weimar.

Each character of the novel reveals and conceals themselves in their account of the war. Greta and Dietrich offer parallel versions of leaving Munich and moving to Buchenwald, where Dietrich undertakes a new position at the camp. It can be hard to believe Greta would have been so naive and as ignorant of the nature of the camp as she was portrayed, but this is the point: all our minds are exceptionally clever at deception, we are all of us working to maintain the beliefs we hold, even in the face of extraordinary evidence to the contrary. When Greta falls ill, Dietrich panics, and while thousands die around him, he goes out of his way to secure a miracle – using all his contacts and power to have Doktor Lenard Weber sent to Buchenwald so he can use his Sympathetic Vitaliser to cure Greta.

Dietrich’s narrative offers yet another example of the blinkered mind. His slippery, unreliable interview details the camp in juxtaposition to Lenard’s letters. He’s forceful in his insistence that he did everything to keep the record straight, and when he admits to stealing the gold taken from cremated prisoners, we see an evasive mind unable to comprehend its hypocrisy. He describes the actions of the SS toward prisoners who were dead on arrival at the camp as verification of their goodwill – ‘We did our best with them; even those dead on arrival received their own number.’ Dietrich’s faith in Germany, in the Party, and the Aryan superiority, could easily make him a stereotypical Nazi we’ve seen before, and the introduction of Doktor Weber into the Hahn family villa pulls the story away from cliche and into its own.

In his letters, Doktor Weber doesn’t flinch at recalling both his successes and his failures. He divorced his Jewish wife, leaving his young daughter with her mother, in the hope that doing so might save them both, only to place their destiny to forces outside of his control. He used his Sympathetic Vitaliser (a machine that sent electrical currents through the body, in the hope that the patient will be cured through ‘remote sympathy’) on Greta, aware that he couldn’t help her – and he hid his medical skills when he was in the camp. He didn’t look at medical x-rays of his patients, ‘not because they showed how quickly death can grow inside a person, how little control we have, but because they showed the failure of my grand idea.’ His vanity and selfishness, alongside his generosity of spirit, made him a wonderfully human character.

With their flaws and virtues, the characters in Remote Sympathy showcased the darkness inherent in human nature and the eternal battle of how to recognise evil. When Lenard shows his machine to his supervisor at the Holy Trinity Hospital in Frankfurt before the war, the older doctor says, ‘Sympathy? That’s a few hundred years out of date, at least.’ Chidgey’s novel suggests that sympathy is never out of date, not ever out of fashion, and our ability to care for people unlike ourselves is something to cherish and nourish, lest division forces us apart.

The ‘found’ narratives – the letters, diary, and interview – seemed obvious devices to launch into the story but they don’t detract from the novel: Remote Sympathy is spell-binding, a beautiful and sorrowful elegy to a time in our recent history that still has much to teach us in our modern world. Remote Sympathy lets the reader fully into the interior world of another. They also work toward the theory of how truth can be revealed and also concealed: like the photographs Lenard processes in the labour camp of the atrocities of war, exposing the composed images, the letters, diary and interview capture their story and expose it. One character posits that ‘if there was no evidence of that moment, then who was to say it ever happened?’ The precarious nature of history relies upon our belief in the stories we tell, to ourselves and others. The fourth narrative, the ghostly ‘we’ of the Weimar residents, lends a fairy-tale-like voice to the novel. It felt like an incantation, a chant of warning.

Chidgey’s attention to language and her craft has resulted in a magnificent book full of passages of sublime description and hidden allusion: ‘She breathed in and out, in and out, her eyes fixed on the garden just beyond the open French doors. It was in full bloom: little patches of cornflowers and clusters of purple pansies, and the apple-scented climbing roses trained over a wire archway that led nowhere in particular. And the geraniums: abundant splatters of pink and red, brighter and more profuse than any we’d grown in our Munich windowboxes, glowing in the last of the light.’

I could quote from this novel all day to explain its wonders, but you should read it instead. The words entered my mind, the rhythm and the spark of them sending reverberations through my body: these feelings perhaps only a remote sympathy, but sympathy nonetheless, for the characters, their hope, and their suffering.