Fiona Sussman: a doctor breathing life into thrillers

Doctor turned crime writer Fiona Sussman talks to Geraldine Johns about how her careers connected.

Fiona Sussman says reading enhances empathy.
Fiona Sussman says reading enhances empathy. Photo: Andi Crown

Were it not for Stirling, Fiona Sussman may not have turned to a life of vice.

But an invitation to appear in the UK town at Bloody Scotland – an international crime-writing festival – led to pastures new in her literary career.

Until then, Fiona had not seen herself as a writer of any particular genre, but Bloody Scotland is devoted to crime-writing, and she had been invited after her book The Last Time We Spoke won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2017.

“I’d always thought The Last Time We Spoke was about social justice, but after the festival I was lured to the darker side,” Fiona laughs.

This begat her fourth novel, The Doctor’s Wife, a psychological thriller that is a true page-turner. It’s also the first of Fiona’s books to be set against a medical backdrop, and is shortlisted for Best Crime Novel in the 2023 Ngaio Marsh Awards. In November, Fiona is appearing at BAD, the Sydney Crime Writers Festival, as a panellist.

Raised in South Africa, Fiona emigrated to New Zealand in 1989 and completed a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Auckland in 1992.

“Some of my career trajectory has evolved in response to circumstance,” she says of her original decision to step out of her general practice career to spend more time with her children. That was in 2003 and the break was meant to be just one year.

“I loved medicine. I was very passionate about it and was quite conflicted when I stepped away.”

Fiona did her student elective in oncology at Auckland Hospital’s department of oncology and appreciated the guidance there of Dr Vernon Harvey with “his immense knowledge, humanity and humour”. The “inspiring teaching styles” of forensic pathologist Dr Timothy Koelmeyer and orthopaedic surgeon Michael Caughey also had a huge influence on her studies.

I came to medicine and to my writing with the same desire: to impact positively on society.

Author Fiona Sussman, MBChB 'The Doctor's Wife'

During her medical leave of absence, Fiona realised she had been missing a creative outlet. Writing then became a full-time career for the daughter of a publisher. She now has a Master of Creative Writing and has written four books and many short stories, winning multiple awards along the way. Fiona, who lives on Auckland’s North Shore, has not practised medicine for 20 years.

She says there are certainly similarities between medicine and a literary career.

“I came to medicine and to my writing with the same desire: to impact positively on society.”

As a child, Fiona remembers waking early and making herself a peanut butter sandwich before settling into a good pre-breakfast read. The habit of reading is one she wishes to foster.

“We absolutely need to do everything we can to promote books and reading to our young people – supporting and funding libraries, school programmes and parent endeavours to this end,” she says.

“No matter the medium – be it physical books, e-readers, audio books, or graphic novels – reading allows us to see the world through another’s eyes, enhancing our empathy and understanding of others.”

It sounds like the ideal prescription – the pursuit being: “Something that affords meditative respite from the often cruel and self-serving aspects of social media.”

The Doctor’s Wife is set in Auckland’s East Coast Bays, not far from where Fiona did her rural placement as a student, working under Dr Andrew Murley at the Waiake Medical Centre, an “incredibly rewarding experience”, she says. She subsequently joined that practice as a GP.

Her career in medicine taught her a lot about human nature, something that shines through in her characters. As readers do with any good crime novel, we find our own favourites. Fans of the brilliant detective duo of Ramesh Bandera and Hilary Stark, who debuted in The Doctor’s Wife and who have their own complicated backgrounds, will be glad to see them reappear in her next book, which is under way.

Fiona maintains a disciplined approach to writing, and although she develops her characters to such a degree that they would be recognisable were they to walk through the door, she does make a point of closing that door when she closes her laptop at day’s end.

The Doctor’s Wife,  Bateman Books, $38
The Doctor’s Wife, Bateman Books, $38

This profile appears in the Spring 2023 edition of Ingenio