The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman - author interviewby Diana Morrow
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A spate of violent home invasions years ago inspired a former GP to explore both sides of the story in her latest novel.
After enjoying a meal together and sharing a few fond “how we met” memories, the conversation around the dinner table takes an unexpected turn. Jack announces that he wants to pursue a career in finance rather than take over the farm. Angered by the timing of this announcement and worried about its impact on Kevin, Carla reproaches her son in the kitchen: “You realise you’ve just dashed your father’s dreams?” Though she quickly apologises, Jack is by this time walking towards the garage in search of more beer and does not hear her. This is the last conversation they ever have.
Carla survives the violent attack that follows. Though her difficult journey towards recovery is the focus of the book, she is not its sole protagonist. Her life continues to interweave with that of teenager Ben Taroa, an aspiring gang member and one of the perpetrators of the crime. For Sussman, who grew up in apartheid South Africa and moved to New Zealand in 1989, understanding and authentically conveying both the world of the perpetrator and of the victim were a crucial aim.
The origins of the book go back several years, she says, when a spate of very violent crimes hit the headlines. There was relentless media coverage, then all of a sudden they disappeared from the national consciousness, as stories are wont to do, to make way for the next piece of sensation.
“But I could not stop thinking about them, perhaps because of the sheer random nature of the acts and possibly too because of the unsettling similarity between some of the victims’ lives and my own – a sense that there but for the grace of God go I.
“I was also disturbed by the sheer youth of the perpetrators. Long after the stories had died away, I found myself wondering how could I, or indeed anyone, ever move forward and have a positive life after experiencing something like that? And also what could cause a 14- or 15-year-old to commit such a crime?
“The questions kept going around in my head and two voices started to come to me: the victim and the perpetrator. Because the media coverage often results in a kind of knee-jerk attitude to crime, I felt a responsibility to try to understand what was happening on a deeper level. From the outset, I wanted both sides to be told: Ben’s and Carla’s stories needed to have equal weight, and I felt very strongly that I needed to make those stories authentic and plausible.”
Sussman then set out on more than two years of research. “I immersed myself in the world I was writing about, from visiting prisons across the North Island, including a youth unit at Ngawha prison, to talking to police, victim support agencies and the relatives of victims of crime, as well as with an ex-gang member.”
She read works by Celia Lashlie, Nigel Latta, Ian Wishart, Tuhoe Isaac and others, watched TV documentaries and listened to radio interviews, as well boning up on New Zealand history. The introduction to the book of a narrative voice called “Beyond” helped provide a broader context for Ben’s story.
“This voice channels Maori tipuna and atua [ancestors] and serves to widen the focus of the story, moving from Ben’s life to a historical stage, where the effects of British colonialism are still manifest today. The voice of Beyond also represents the wonder and embrace of whakapapa and the power of ancestral connectedness.”
Sussman began training to be a doctor in South Africa, but finished her medical degree here and practised medicine, primarily as a GP, for 10 years before becoming a full-time writer. “The common denominator between these apparently disparate professions is my interest in the human condition.”
She says her experiences in South Africa have shaped much of her creative writing. Her first novel, Shifting Colours (2014), deals with a young woman’s search for her birth mother and her cultural roots in South Africa. “Both my books deal with the negative effect of being alienated from one’s culture. The Last Time We Spoke is also about peeling back stereotypes; about navigating the parameters of loss, the human ability to transcend circumstance, and the finding of light in dark places.”
THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE, by Fiona Sussman (Allison and Busby, $32.99)
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