Vanda Symon: A writer's life

Vanda Symon was interviewed in 2008 ahead of The Press Christchurch Writers' Festival where she was part of the panel discussion Killing Time.

The RingmasterYou’ve just published The Ringmaster, your second Sam Shephard novel. Sam has moved to Dunedin, have you developed her character and lifestyle in other ways?
Sam’s like a real person to me, and like all real people she is affected by the events in her life and can’t stay static, she has to grow. She’s ambitious and part of the move to Dunedin is to advance her career with detective training. In The Ringmaster she’s on the lowest rung of the detective ladder, so her career will progress across the series. She also moved because she burned her bridges a tad in Mataura. Not quite run out of town, but almost.

I’d like to think emotionally she’s grown up a bit since her Mataura days, we’re all supposed to, apparently, some just take longer than others. She hasn’t exactly been successful in love, so we will get to observe her attempts at romance. She also has a pretty fraught relationship with her mother that needs a little work on both of their parts.
Life, it’s never easy.

Full-time writers in New Zealand often have to wear many hats, reviewer, broadcaster, creative writing tutors etc. Does this detract from or enhance the writing life?
It enhances, but it can frustrate. Writing is such a solitary and insular profession that you need to broaden life beyond it, otherwise it’s not productive or healthy. It does mean some gnashing of teeth when you have to deal with all these things and all you want to do is write.
Virginia Woolf said ’a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. How do you juggle the demands of the domestic with your writing? And do you think it is unfair that women writers not male writers most frequently get asked this?!!
I am woman, I can multi-task! It is a fact of life that as mothers, wives, employees, bosses, volunteers, family members, friends and members of society we are all things to everyone - so we just accept that and get on with it. I’m sure the men feel the same.
September is New Zealand Book Month, which New Zealand writers do you admire?
Ah, so many. I don’t think I could name individuals, but I admire those writers who despite what life throws at them, major or minor, manage to follow their passion and weave the stories we love to read, bring us the facts and art and facets of our history that fascinate and educate us, write and illustrate the stories which inspire our children, that make us laugh, that make us cry. We are blessed with many great writers in New Zealand, so read them, people, read local.
Francis Spufford’s memoir The Child that books built details his childhood obsession with reading– which books went into the building of you? And what books do you enjoy with your children?
I am the product of a life-long love affair with books. My first obsession was with The Berenstain Bears. Later I feasted on a diet of T.H. White and Rosemary Sutcliffe. The Sword in the Stone spurred on many things including a love of all things Arthurian, a fascination with medieval times which extended to choosing fencing as my sport, and calligraphy as a hobby. I wallowed in history. Oh, the power of books.

My children are book-o-holics too. They read widely, fiction and non-fiction. For bed-time reading we’ve recently finished James and the Giant Peach, because we got to go see the play at the Fortune Theatre.

One of the questions we’re asking all participants this year’s Christchurch Writers Festival is how they view libraries and how they use libraries? Tell us about your library experiences past and present.
As a child, we didn’t own many books, so I just camped out at the library. My posture has probably been permanently damaged from lugging great stacks of books home, and I became a master at balance and the art of getting said stack home on the bicycle. Nowadays I buy more books, I like to possess them, but I’m still in the library most weeks, for my own pleasure or with the kids. They are a place I associate with happy memories, magical worlds, wondrous discoveries and that fabulous, warm smell of books.

August 2008