interviews / Q&A's



Today, we’re delighted to welcome New Zealand writer extraordinaire VANDA SYMON to The Literary Lounge. Overkill, the first book featuring protagonist Sam Shephard, is published in the UK by Orenda.

Vanda, thanks so much for spending time with us.



LS: I believe Overkill was the first novel you wrote and  published. How did that come about?
VS: Overkill was first published in New Zealand in 2007, but the actual timeframe of writing was a wee bit earlier than that. When I first started writing it, I had a six-month-old baby and a two-year old, so it was written in 20-minute snatches, when the kids were co-operative enough to be sleeping and I had the energy and inclination! Consequently, it took 4 years.


LS: Overkill has a great, totally gripping prologue. You had young children when you started writing the book. Did that influence the opening scene? Is that your worst fear?
VS: That prologue was the embodiment of my worst nightmares. I wrote it when I was sleep deprived, anxious and had spent way too much time up feeding in the wee hours of the morning imagining up every possible worst case scenario that could happen to me and my baby. It epitomised my feelings of vulnerability. It was very hard to write, and to this day when I re-read it I still cry. And no, I wouldn’t change a thing.


LS: How important was it from the outset to have a female protagonist? And for her to be a fallible human being?
VS: When I first started writing Overkill, I had a male protagonist, but it wasn’t working for me, and then when my husband did some dumb-nut thing I thought, damn it, I can’t understand the man I’m married to, let alone getting into the head of a fictional male. So I changed to a female protagonist and Sam Shephard stepped right up, said about bloody time and took over the book. I had read plenty of novels with protagonists I felt were too perfect, and also novels with protagonists who were too damaged, and stereotypically damaged. Sam had to be a real person, complete with the kind of emotions and flaws we all have.


LS: Is Sam Shephard like you at all? If you were to sum up her worst and best traits what would they be?
VS: Sam has my optimism and faith in the goodness of human nature. That’s both a strength and a weakness, as we all know! Her best traits are her loyalty and dogged determination. Her worst traits – worst being such a subjective term – would be her impulsiveness and her appalling taste in pyjamas.


LS: Location is obviously important in your books. How authentic is the Mataura Sam inhabits? Would you consider setting books outside of NZ?
VS: The Mataura of Overkill is pretty authentic, but with a bit of licence taken to avoid identifying specific businesses – the author’s fears of backlash and complaints! The meat-processing plant truly dominates the town, as does the presence of the river. The surrounding countryside is beautiful – rolling hills in verdant green. I have often thought about where I would set a novel if it wasn’t in New Zealand, and I have wondered how Sam would react if she was completely out of her small-town girl comfort zone in a foreign city with its culture and sheer size – Tokyo? San Francisco? Paris? London? Hmmm, research trip …


LS: In your ‘field of dreams’ film/Netflix/Amazon adaptation, who would direct and who would star as Sam?
VS: The director would have to be Taika Waititi – he captures the balance between drama and humour perfectly and being a Kiwi – he’d get how to do the New Zealandness of it all. As for who would star as Sam? I don’t have any preference of actor, as long as they are short. Sam barely scrapes in at five-foot tall, and her stature is so much of why she is who she is, so I would be absolutely gutted if they cast some statuesque actor. She has to be a shorty!


LS: How useful has your pharmacy background been in writing these books, if at all?
VS: It’s been very useful on a number of levels. On the obvious front, the knowledge of medicines and poisons is very useful when scheming a nefarious murder or two. Likewise, the knowledge of human anatomy and physiology has been handy. One of the benefits of my professional background has been the insight it has given into people, and how they react under different pressures – of illness, both short term and chronic, how people rise above disability, pain, and change in their circumstance and lifestyle. I worked as a pharmacist in Hospice, so got to see people at their most vulnerable, how their families coped with the knowledge their beloved was on the journey to dying, and how this affected them as individuals, and also the interpersonal dynamics. It was a very special privilege to work there.


LS: How long does it take you to write a book? Do you map it out or do you let it take its own course?
VS: When I am in my normal writer mode (i.e. not being crazy enough to do a PhD) I work on a one novel a year cycle. It generally takes me 3 or 4 months to write my first draft, and then I set to on the task of editing, refining and polishing the work before sending it off to the publisher, which takes a couple of months – I love both stages of the process. I don’t map things out. I generally start each novel with an idea of the beginning, the ending and a few scenes along the way. From that framework, I just go along for the ride and see what happens – keeps the excitement alive! .


LS: How easy was it to put Sam aside when you wrote Faceless? Did she still speak to you?
VS: My New Zealand publisher decided they didn’t want another Sam Shephard book, so challenged me to write something different. So yes, it was very hard to put Sam aside as I was feeling pretty gutted. But, I’m a gal who rises to a challenge and I really enjoyed writing a standalone book and the opportunities it gave for developing new characters, trying a different point of view (third person as opposed to first person) and pushing my boundaries. During that time Sam kept reminding me I was ignoring her; she was good like that.


LS: Would you consider writing in any other genre?
VS: Absolutely. I always liked the idea of writing historic fiction, and would love to do that. I do love writing crime fiction though. Also part of the reason I undertook the madness that was a PhD was to diversify and do some creative non-fiction writing. I have lots of ideas on that front.


LS: Who are your main influences?
VS: So many influences for different reasons. Stephen King for the ability to tell a gripping story that tingles your spine, Elizabeth Peters for the fantastic woman character Amelia Peabody, Janet Evanovich for her humour, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs for the wonderful forensics and science they brought to their fiction, Fred Vargas for showing how quirky protagonists can work so well. I have too many favourite authors and books to list – and have so many authors I want to read – too many books, too little time.


LS: Ngaio Marsh is one of the best-known and loved NZ writers – and a personal favourite of mine – and she’s a writer I believe you admire? Would Alleyn be a viable detective today?
VS: I’m a huge Ngaio Marsh fan, and ha, good question! A lot has changed in the way of police procedure and forensic science since Alleyn’s day. But I’m pretty sure that if on the job today, and using modern policing methods, his wonderful ability to read human nature and see the bigger picture would put him in good stead to be a charming and thorough detective. And I’m positive Troy would prod him into modernity!


LS: What made you decided to do your research on the communication of science through the forensics in the crime fiction of Ngaio Marsh? Have there been any major surprises?
VS: When embarking on a PhD, I wanted a subject that I was passionate about and that was relevant to what I do. I was always a science gal, and very happily a crime writer, so looking at how science was communicated in crime fiction was a perfect fit. As a very proud Kiwi, I wanted to highlight the achievements of New Zealand’s most successful and influential crime writer. Also Ngaio Marsh had a huge body of work – 32 DCI Roderick Alleyn novels written over an almost 50-year period. This gave a lot of material to research, but also opportunity to see how her use of forensic science and her attitude to accuracy changed over time. Probably the biggest surprise was the sheer variety and imaginative ways she killed people off in her novels!


LS: You have a monthly radio show supporting and publicising books and authors. How important is it for you to encourage new talent? Did you have much support when you were starting out?
VS: Hugely important. I am very aware that I am in a privileged position in having been published, and having had experience in public speaking. Believe me, when you are first starting out the whole kit and caboodle is very intimidating and I was quite frankly terrified of the idea of having to get out in public and expose my work to criticism and review. I was really fortunate as the Dunedin writing community was wonderful in supporting me. The radio show is great way to give authors some much-needed publicity, and a radio experience in a cosy environment with a hopefully not too terrifying interviewer!


LS: Was it difficult for you to get published? Does gender make any difference?
VS: I am one of the very rare writers whose first novel was published. Overkill was accepted by the second publisher I approached! Not only that, I was offered a three-book contract, which was the first time Penguin New Zealand had done that. I was gobsmacked, to say the least. Good writing is good writing, so I would like to think that the gender of the author makes no difference when it comes to the opportunity for being published. I may be a naïve idealist, though.


LS: So, what’s next for you? Does Sam get another outing?
VS: I am editing and polishing The Ringmaster, which is the second book in the Sam Shephard series, for my wonderful British Publisher, Orenda Books. I am also working on a new Sam Shephard novel …


Well, fans will be delighted to hear that. Thanks so much, Vanda, for taking the time to speak to us. No doubt, Overkill will be a huge success in the UK. We loved it. It’s a great addition to Orenda’s brilliant list.



Overkill | Orenda Books | 6 September 2018 | paperback | £8.99 | other editions available

See review: ‘Another one bites the dust: Symon’s Overkill

 ‘Ngaio Marsh: The not-so-invisible woman’ – to come

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Acknowledgements: This Q&A is published as part of the virtual book tour, along with a review of the book (forthcoming). Many thanks to the author for sparing us the time, lovely Anne Cater for organising the tour and the publisher for supplying a book proof. All thoughts and opinions are our own. Image of the author © Vanda Symon 2018.



Selected The Literary Lounge Q&As/interviews:  ‘Meet Candy Denman: reading crime on location‘; ‘Meet Tom Cox: The Literary Shed Q&A; ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; ‘Meet Mary Jo Putney: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘; ‘Meet Gina Kirkham: The Literary Lounge Q&A;John Fairfax: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; ‘Ian Ridley: The Literary Shed Q&A’; ‘Meet Patrick Kincaid: The Literary Shed Q&A‘; ‘David Stuart Davies: The Literary Lounge Q&A’.

See also: ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘;‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’.

Film: Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.


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