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Interview: Fiona Sussman talks about Addressed to Greta

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

Fiona Sussman is an award-winning novelist and short-story writer, who worked as a family doctor before pursuing a long-held dream to write. Published internationally, her second novel, The Last Time We Spoke, won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and was shortlisted for the NZ Heritage Prize. Addressed to Greta, her third novel, is the winner of the NZ Booklovers Fiction Award 2021. A number of her short stories have also won awards, including the prestigious Sunday Star Times Award. Most recently, ‘A Breath a Bunk, a Land, a Sky’ was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020.

Tell us a little about your novel.

Addressed to Greta is the story of a gauche, socially anxious, 39-year-old woman, who has spent much of her life trying to be the person others want her to be, so much so that she no longer knows who she is anymore. She’s worked in a pool chemicals shop since school (one of many compromises she’s had to make), and over the years her dreams have shrunk down to fit within the small cubicle of space that houses her desk and few photographs. Her late mother’s admonitions continue to wield power over her; no expectation, no disappointment just one of the many refrains Greta lives by.

An unusual bequest from her late friend Walter (her only true friend) sees Greta’s safe life upended. He’s left her a meticulously planned, all-expenses-paid adventure. But there’s a catch; the duration of the trip and the itinerary will remain a mystery to Greta, each destination only revealed (by way of letters Walter wrote before he passed) on the eve of the next leg of her journey. Greta has to overcome many self-imposed hurdles to embrace the uncertainty and risk embodied in this gift. As she travels across the globe, meeting an eclectic cast of characters, she discovers a world she never knew existed. She also discovers herself, and some long-held family secrets, which help make sense of her confusing childhood.

What inspired you to write this book?

Greta landed in my head almost fully formed when I was out on a morning run. I had such a strong sense of her – her naivety, ineptness, her drive to please. A gift really! However, unlike with my previous novels, I had little idea of the narrative arc I wanted to pursue. This meant giving over to Greta and letting her lead me by the nose! Allowing the story to unfold on the page was slightly terrifying, but also very rewarding.

There are themes in Addressed to Greta that are common to my two previous novels, despite them being written in a different genre. I’ve always been drawn to writing about those individuals forced to the margins of society because of prejudice, be that towards their race, religion, sexual orientation, mental illness, behavioral quirks or appearance. Addressed to Greta is about how one woman, who doesn’t fit within society’s narrow ‘norm’, learns to express her true self. It’s about having the courage to be seen in order to live a bigger life, and the transformative power of friendship.

What research was involved?

Much of the research I did for Addressed to Greta was done unwittingly. This was quite a change from my previous book, The Last Time We Spoke, which involved two years of very focused research, during which I visited prisons and went out on police patrol, amongst other things.

I have been fortunate to travel widely, both as a child and as an adult, and the places Greta visits were drawn from my personal experience of them. My parents were great believers in education outside the classroom, in particular through travel, and they worked hard to make this possible for us. They recognised that to never travel (be that physically or through books) is to believe that the pocket of world you inhabit is the only reality. A visit to Rwanda in 2016 with my extended family was an absolute highlight for me. The impact this remarkable country and its people had on me, informed Greta’s experiences there.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

My writing day begins with a good coffee (it helps having a husband of Italian heritage) and a walk or run with my boxer dog. While I’m out pounding the pavements, cobwebs are cleared, problems are solved and inspiration occasionally strikes.

I try to be at my desk by nine in the morning, five days a week, and I write into the early afternoon. It’s a habit I got into with my first book, the structure something that helped me take myself and my craft seriously. I try not to let all the other commitments – the emails, social media, talks, and tutoring – intrude on these first precious hours of the day.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

‘A Million Dreams’ from The Greatest Showman. It’s a song infused with possibility. Listening to it leaves me feeling hopeful and excited about the future.

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

I prefer the idea of new, previously undiscovered actors bringing that extra layer of authenticity to the characters. However, if pushed, I do think Miranda Hart would make a great Greta. And Eric Bana, well, he would do just fine as Walter!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I was swept up by the fun and freedom of the process. Greta is unknowingly funny, and it wasn’t long before I realised I was writing a book with humour. Had I stopped to give this too much thought, I think I would have become self conscious and the humour contrived. Instead, I just gave over to Greta and enjoyed the journey. Much of my writing to date has confronted sadness and injustice in the world. This was a refreshing change for me. Saying that, stacked beneath the lightheartedness, as anyone who knows me would expect, are more serious issues.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

The point at which a book is finished is something I can only ever identify in retrospect. I am an obsessive editor, so it’s hard to know when this is it, even after I’ve pressed send! The relief of finishing is something that tends to creep up on me over time. I find more cake gets eaten and bottles of bubbly opened, even midweek!

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

I have just finished reading All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks & Kevin Carr O’Leary. It tells the true story of how Coker Burks, a young solo-mother from Arkansas, afforded comfort, dignity and a final resting place to many young victims of the AIDS crisis – men who had been left alone to die, shunned by their families, society and the medical profession. She became their carer, advocate, friend and community educator, while challenging prejudice and hypocrisy at every turn. An inspirational and moving true story.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I recently completed the first draft of my fourth novel, so I am letting the sediment settle a bit, before I go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes. Quite a number of readers have asked me to write a sequel to Addressed to Greta. Greta is a character for whom I have great affection, so you never know, we just might take another adventure together . . .

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