Small but mighty: Q&A with author / plantser Vanda Symon #QandASunday #SymonSunday #Orentober

Hi and welcome to #QandASunday! I think we can all agree that Casa Orenda has an abundance of talented authors, so choosing one to prod and probe is a very difficult thing to do! This time around, I opted to examine the wonderful Vanda Symon, spiritual mother of Sam Shephard, in this way joining in with Danielle’s #SymonSunday – check out D’s reviews on The Reading Closet if you haven’t already!

Hi Vanda! Welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove, I’m thrilled to have you here! As we’re having our talk when the coronavirus is wreaking havoc all over the world, the most important question I can ask you is: how are you?

Kia ora! I am very well, and faring OK in this mixed up, turbulent and unpredictable time. I am very grateful to be living in New Zealand, and our nation’s response to COVID19, which has become such a devastating virus around the world. The clear messaging we have had from our government has always included being kind to each other and working as a team of five million. Kindness and compassion are so important.

If this were an actual meeting in real life (and without the corona situation, obviously), where would we be now? Would we be out for coffee, would we go for a bite to eat? Where would you take me, and why?

If you were in Dunedin, New Zealand we’d be in RDC, my favourite quirky underground (literally) café and we’d be enjoying some great coffee, local music and a cardamom scroll.

I’m in! You had me at coffee and the rest made it even better 😉 Who would I be having coffee with? Please describe yourself in 5 key words. Who is Vanda Symon?

Hmmmm, that’s a difficult question, because if you asked others to describe me, I’m sure you would get five quite different words. The ones I have come up with are also probably what I’d like to think I am, so perhaps a little aspirational. Here goes, though, as I’m not one to shy away from curly questions…

I am creative, an optimist, I’m an observer, a problem solver, and most importantly, empathic.

What quality are you most proud of?

Golly, I think I’d have to say resilience. I’m the kind of person who just keeps on plugging on, even if it means stumbling one foot in front of the other. I leaned this from my Mum who, despite having life hurl some pretty fierce obstacles her way, took stock, a deep breath and just boxed on, carrying us forward with love, humour and determination.

Resilience is a great quality and I’m sure it has been a hugely important quality to have this year! And what is your biggest vice?

Ha ha – so many vices to choose from, but if I was going to say one thing I couldn’t do without it would be tea!

Tea?! That’s not a vice at all! Go have some more! If you were to find a bottle with a genie willing to grant you three wishes, what would you wish for?

1: The ability to be objective.
2: To be able to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
3: Three more wishes.

Now, now, that’s cheating, Vanda! Or perhaps it’s you being your creative and problem-solving self? We’ll go with the latter 😁 You are the author of the Sam Shephard series, was it always your goal to create a series?

When I started writing Overkill (my first ever attempt at a novel) I hadn’t thought in terms of writing a series – I was quite overwhelmed with the immediate demands of writing one book, let alone contemplating others. But it became apparent pretty quickly that Sam Shephard was too big of a character to limit to one book, in fact, she was quite insistent that I write more about her and wouldn’t shut the hell up until I did.

That does sound like the Sam we know and love! Your protagonist is a young detective, she’s small but she has a rather big mouth and most importantly: she’s kicks ass. How important was it for you to create a strong female main character? How did Sam come into being, did you know her before you wrote her or did she reveal herself to you as you were writing?

It was hugely important to me to write an intelligent, empathic, strong, yet vulnerable and flawed in a relatable way female character. One of her physical traits is that she is short – she just scrapes in over five foot tall. My Mum was very short – she was small but mighty, but I always remember her saying that she felt that no one took her seriously because she was so little. That was one of her insecurities, and totally unfounded – I can assure you people took her very seriously. I wanted Sam to have to deal with that too, and I wanted to show that having people not take you seriously could be a strength, because if they don’t take you seriously, they underestimate you, and with Sam, you do that at your peril. Sam arrived pretty much fully formed, complete with big mouth.

That sounds like my mum, actually: tiny but you don’t want to make her angry if you know what’s good for you😳😂 If you had to pick a theme song for the Sam Shephard series, what would it be?

If one song captures Sam Shephard in my mind, at this moment it would be Rise, by Katy Perry.

Great choice! How much of yourself and the people around you do you put in your characters?

We can’t help but draw on our observations of those around us to give our characters depth and the kind of character traits, flaws and conflictions that make them relatable. There’s nothing worse than a character that is too perfect, or one dimensional. My characters are their own people, but they are influenced by those around me – it doesn’t pay to be a friend or relative of a crime writer! And if you are wondering if Sam Shephard is me – nope. The characteristic we share the most would be our optimism, but I’m more of a Maggie.

You are? I’ll keep that in mind! How important is planning in your writing process? Are you a planner or a pantser: do you know where your characters will end up, or do you allow them to take you on an adventure?

I’m neither a planner nor a pantser – I’m a hybrid of the two – so does that make me a plantser? I’m more in the E.L. Doctorow – driving at night camp – I know where I want to go, and I know a few points along the way, but I can only see and describe what’s in the headlights in front of me. In saying that, sometimes the characters highjack proceedings and take me on a dodgy back-road route.

That is the most original and vivid description of a writing process I’ve ever heard! Do you have a regime you try to adhere to, certain habits to get the words flowing, a writing cave, a favourite drink, some music? And what is your favourite aspect of the writing process?

I have a day job to pay the bills, and my life is rather busy and complicated, so I don’t have set writing times – I just have to fit it in around life and family. One of the ways I do enable myself to settle into writing is my tea tray ritual. When it’s time to get down to business and enjoy some writing time I make myself a tea tray, complete with tea pot, frilly tea cup and flowers, and this not only signals to my poor overloaded brain that it’s writing time, the prettiness and simplicity of it makes my soul feel happy.

That’s so nice! See, tea is not a vice, it helps you write! Do you have a role model? An author you look up to and think: that’s who I want to be when I grow up?

My role model in life (and you’ve probably guessed this already) is my Mum. She was a pretty special woman, with resilience, cheekiness and an immense capacity for love. She had her flaws, we all do, but I take it as a huge compliment if people say I am like her.

It’s my honour to have her on the blog today! What do you love most about being a published author? Are there downsides too?

I adore the writing community I have become a part of as a published author. The publishers, writers, bloggers and reviewers, readers, editors, book sellers, librarians, book industry people, they are wonderful, and welcoming and it feels great to be a part of something special. I have made so many wonderful friends. Writing can be a very solitary and isolating thing, so to be able to reach out to my booky people, virtually and in the real world, is really important to my wellbeing. Down sides? Nah, can’t think of any.

What does the future bring for you and for Sam?

Sam is a pushy cow who is insisting I write more about her, so I daren’t argue. I’m working on Sam Shephard number 5…

I for one am thrilled she’s a pushy cow! Please share an anecdote with me, what is the funniest / weirdest / most shocking / most emotional / …  thing you’ve ever experienced as a published author?

The oddest thing was pretty early on in my career, when Overkill had just come out and I was doing one of my first author talks to a pretty big group in Dunedin. When it came to the question and answer time, I had a lady stand up and take me to task about the amount of swearing in the book! Now, if you’ve read Overkill, you’ll know the prologue is quite, er, hard-hitting, and hey, it’s a crime novel – someone dies. But no, no one ever complains about the fact you’ve cold heartedly killed someone. They complain about the swearing. I was a bit flustered at first, but then I came back with something along the lines of you don’t need to tell me off, my Mum has already done that!

Erm… What does it say about me that I usually don’t even notice swearing in books? 😳 What makes you happy, Vanda? What are your favourite things?

It’s the simple things that make me happy – looking up at the stars at night and marvelling, flowers picked from the garden, seeing someone act with kindness, warm times with family and friends. I’m very easily pleased.

I think it’s a gift to be happy with the little things in life, and I wish you all the happiness in the world! And all the frilly tea!

Thanks for joining Vanda and me today! Are you a Sam Shephard newbie? Then do check out these Orenda Books at Bedtime videos and see Vanda reading from Overkill and The Ringmaster. You can find my reviews here and here. The latest instalment in the series, Bound, will be out from Orenda Books in March. Now please excuse me while I stare at these covers for a while 😍

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