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Interview: Fiona Sussman talk about The Doctor's Wife


Fiona Sussman, author of The Doctor’s Wife has written four novels and many short stories. Her work has won multiple awards, including the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for The Last Time We Spoke, the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Award for Mad Men, and the 2021 NZ Booklovers Award for Best Adult Fiction for Addressed to Greta (published by Bateman Books). Her short story, A Breath, A Bunk, A Land, A Sky was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2020.


Fiona is also one of 20 authors who feature in Dark Deeds Down Under edited by Craig Sisterson which is a first-of-its kind crime/thriller short story anthology, showcasing Antipodean authors.


Congratulations on being shortlisted in the NZ Booklovers Awards 2023! Can you tell us a little about your shortlisted novel, The Doctor’s Wife?

The Doctor’s Wife is a domestic thriller that follows the gradual and ultimately violent disintegration of a longstanding friendship between four close friends.


Both a whodunnit and a whydunit, it affords some insight into the frighteningly deteriorating mind of someone with brain tumours and the ensuing fallout that occurs within a family.


The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and readers (alongside the unassuming detective duo, Ramesh Bandara and Hilary Stark) are tasked with working out who, if anyone is telling the truth.


I set the novel locally, in the coastal village of Browns bay, Auckland, with a cast of character’s one might meet on any given day, to give a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. No one is immune to cancer, nor to being the victim of a violent crime . . .


What inspired you to write this book?

This answer has three parts:


I’ve always been fascinated by the human psyche and those societal and personal stressors that might steer someone into forbidden territory outside of the law. Crime writing affords rich terrain for exploring the human mind.


I have a poor memory, and The Doctor’s Wife grew out of a fear I have of one day losing my mind. I’ve always been fascinated with what constitutes ‘the self’, i.e. the very essence of a person, and how a disease process might alter that. A person might lose a limb or have their gallbladder removed, yet essentially remain the same person. However, a disease of the brain might present with no external physical changes, all the while wreaking havoc within.


When my second novel, The Last Time We Spoke, won The Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2017, I was taken by surprise; I hadn’t conceived of it as a crime novel. The award led to an invitation to attend Bloody Scotland, a crime-writing festival in Stirling. There I discovered the incredible breadth of writing that falls under the banner of crime fiction, the common denominator being engaging storytelling. I came home buoyed by the warmth with which the crime writing community had embraced me, and determined to try my hand at a more traditional crime novel. My subconscious was on alert thereafter, for a story that would lend itself to the format.


What research was involved?

This was the first of my novels to draw overtly on my medical knowledge, so in terms of research, I was navigating familiar territory. There were however, areas of specialist medical knowledge, police procedure, and the law, where I needed to do additional research. I spoke with experts in these respective fields, and read around the various topics.


When it came to writing my detective, Sri-Lankan-born Ramesh Bandara, I had the benefit of a good friend giving me insights into her Sri Lankan culture.


What was your routine or process when writing this novel?

I am not usually a planner, and my novels tend to develop organically on the page. However, the process for writing The Doctor’s Wife was quite different. Being my first whodunnit, I had to have a clear sense of who had committed the crime and why, and then work backwards from that, to ensure all the clues added up. It was a bit like dismantling a completed jigsaw puzzle while making a mental note of where every piece fitted!


The characters still had some agency when it came to choosing the direction of the novel, but by necessity this was more constrained. They had to operate within the pre-conceived, overarching framework.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

My preference would be for unknown actors, their relative anonymity affording them the freedom to inhabit my characters without audience expectation confounding their personae.


What did you enjoy the most about writing The Doctor’s Wife?

I really enjoyed the cerebral challenge of writing a whodunnit. It was a bit like formulating a long mathematical equation and making sure it all added up in the end.


It was also very satisfying to marry my two seemingly disparate professions – namely medicine and creative writing – in the writing of this book.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Thankfully, the question limits me to this year. And still, I have to mention two!


Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. A deceptively simple tale set in the Magdalen laundries era, that has so much heft. Its real power lies between the lines.


Horse by Geraldine Brooks. I am only part way through this immersive story, but absolutely loving it. Skilfully crafted, heart-rending, and satisfyingly grounded in fact, with characters that grab hold and never let go.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

Quite a number of readers asked whether I would consider writing a second novel featuring Ramesh Bandara and Hilary Stark. A series is something new for me (all my novels to date have stood alone, both in terms of theme and genre); however, I am excited to report that I have put the detective duo back to work, and they are busy solving another mystery in Aotearoa.


Bateman Books

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