Interview: Vanda Symon

The Five By Five Interview with Vanda Symon

“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!

I remember exactly when I first met Vanda Symon: I sat down in the front row of an event at Newcastle Noir a few years ago, and the woman next to me turned round, held out her hand and said “Hi, I’m Vanda”. And within about a minute we were yakking away and generally getting on like a house on fire – Vanda has that kind of effect even on slightly grumpy creatures like me! She was on an Antipodean writers panel that weekend and stole the audience’s affections even before she started handing out Toffee Pops (Sam Shephard’s favourite snack). And while Vanda has been stuck in New Zealand for the past two years, thanks to social media I can tell her directly when I’ve read one of her books and how awesome it is (they are, trust me on that).

Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series, which includes Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, hit number one on the New Zealand bestseller list. She has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award and for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger. Follow her on Twitter here: @vandasymon and find her website at:


First, the sensible questions…

Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
Crime fiction was an altogether pragmatic choice when I was starting out writing – I had a six-month-old and a two-year-old, and when it came to research it was all so much more accessible with crime fiction than my other love, historical fiction. So glad I made that choice because it’s worked out rather well. I was incredibly fortunate that my first novel, Overkill, was picked up by Penguin New Zealand. They were only the second publisher I submitted it to, so I didn’t suffer the hell of multiple rejections (one was bad enough). Not only did they take Overkill, but they also signed me up for a three-book contract!
In more recent times my books have been published by the fabulous Orenda Books. I have Craig Sisterson to thank for that. He pressed a copy of Overkill into Karen Sullivan’s hand. She started reading it on the train home and got so engrossed she missed her stop. The rest is history…
Craig (@craigsisterson) is a London-based Kiwi and is such a fan of crime fiction he founded New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh awards (@ngaiomarshaward), and has written a book about Australian and NZ crime fiction, Southern Cross Crime. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic and is a large part of why my TBR pile is so huge!

Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
Writing the first novel was great as I had no pressure, no expectations and was realistic enough to know that with little kids it was going to take a while, which it did – four years from go to whoa. Writing was my escape, it was something for me, so I just wrote the story I wanted to write. Now it is quite different. I wouldn’t say harder, as my skill as a writer has developed with time; the pressures are different. I’m harder on myself for a start – you always want your next novel to be better than your last, so you end up being your own worst critic. You also have contractual obligations, and the pleasure (and terror) of having fans who can’t wait for your next novel. Also, as well as juggling the changing needs of family, I have a day job that is becoming more demanding on my time (though in a good way – I love my job).

Q3 Why a standalone now rather than another series novel? And what drew you to creating Max and writing about homeless people?
That was a pragmatic response to a situation – Penguin New Zealand decided they didn’t want any more Sam Shephard novels. My publisher then challenged me to write something different. Once I’d stopped pouting and got to mulling over ideas, one concept that stuck in my mind was, “What would it take to turn a good man bad, and what would it take to turn a bad man good?” Within that I wanted to explore society’s perception of who is “good” and who is “bad” and how quick we are to judge based on appearances and circumstance. Max wasn’t bad, just deeply lost within himself, yet because he lived rough on the street and looked and smelt awful, people judged him as worthless, as bad. Conversely, Bradley to all appearances was a successful and good man with a decent job, family and a nice home. And look how that turned out.

Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
I think the only thing I don’t like about being a writer is the crushing self-doubt! But seriously, it is hard to think of a better gig. You get to read stuff you love or that fascinates you and call it research. You have a legitimate excuse to be curious (read: nosey) and people will answer your really weird questions. You get to create characters and worlds and dictate what happens to them (I’ll put a caveat on that – most of the time, because sometimes the characters start dictating to you.) You can live vicariously through your characters and make them far naughtier and sweary that you could ever be.
The best thing though is the people. I have met and become friends with the most glorious people through writing. The writing community – the authors, publishers, editors, readers, bloggers and reviewers, agents, publicists and support people – is incredibly warm and inclusive and I feel truly enriched for being a part of it.

Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’m currently writing the fifth Sam Shephard novel. I left that poor woman hanging at the end of Bound, so it’s time I finished what I started there. After that I want to write a follow-up to Faceless. Max is weighing on my mind so we have unfinished business there.

Now for the quick-fire round…

Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, Fred Vargas’ Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg,

Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Not counting the books I had to read on infinity-repeat to the kids, Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon (the first of the Outlander series).

Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
All of them…

Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
Put the toilet seat back down when you’re done…

Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
What warped, evil soul would fold down the corner of the page?! Use a bookmark, people!


Thanks so much for revealing all, Vanda! I’m so pleased to hear there is more about Sam to come, I really love her as a character – and I’m intrigue to hear more about Max after the sketchy picture we got in Faceless. And it’s always nice to have a believer in bookmarks on the blog 😀

The official blurb for Vanda’s latest novel, Faceless: Worn down by a job he hates and a stressful family life, middle-aged, middle-class Bradley picks up a teenage escort and commits an unspeakable crime. Now she’s tied up in his warehouse and he doesn’t know what to do. Max is homeless, eating from rubbish bins, sleeping rough and barely existing – known for cadging a cigarette from anyone passing and occasionally even the footpath. Nobody really sees Max – but he has one friend, and she’s gone missing. In order to find her, Max is going to have to call on some people from his past and reopen wounds that have remained unhealed for a very long time…

I reviewed Faceless recently on the blog (it’s excellent, do take a look). You can also read my reviews of three of Vanda’s Sam Shepherd books elsewhere on the blog: The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, all of which are also published by Orenda Books and available direct from their website

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