Meet the author!
I'm delighted to welcome Sandra Danby, author of the 'Identity Detective' series, to this week's Bite-size blog.
Sandra's series character is Rose Haldane, a journalist and 'identity detective' who reunites the people lost through adoption.
Sandra describes the stories in the series as those you don’t see on television shows. The difficult cases. The people who cannot be found, who are thought lost forever. And each new challenge makes Rose re-live her own adoption story, each birth mother and father, adopted child, and adoptive parent she talks to, reminds her of her own birth mother Kate. Each book in the ‘Identity Detective’ series considers the viewpoint of one person trapped in this horrible dilemma.
Rose Haldane is a journalist who is confident about her identity. She pulls the same face as her grandfather when she has to do something she doesn’t want to do, she knows her DNA is the same as his. Except it isn’t: because Rose is adopted and doesn’t know it. Ignoring Gravity connects two pairs of sisters separated by a generation of secrets. Finding her mother’s lost diaries, Rose begins to understand why she has always seemed the outsider in her family, why she feels so different from her sister Lily. Then just when she thinks there can’t be any more secrets…
To the outside world, artist Justine Tree has it all… but she also has a secret that threatens to destroy everything. Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks Rose to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face. This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.
I caught up with Sandra recently and I asked her a few questions about her books, her writing and her family history. Here's what she told me:
How did you first start writing? Did you write stories as a child?
I must have been six or seven when I made my own magazines, writing the stories but cutting pictures out of my mother’s ‘Woman’s Weekly’ and ‘Woman’s Own’ magazines. I’m still rubbish at drawing but clearly I was showing early signs of the magazine editor I would later become. I have no clear memories of all those stories but I do remember writing an ambitious series about a sea-going cat that travelled to all the exotic faraway places I wanted to visit. My early writing was always about adventuring into the unknown, being brave and fighting battles, influenced by the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons, combined with an avid curiosity about life beyond the East Yorkshire dairy farm where I grew up.
You make a point of telling your readers that you’re not adopted, so what inspired you to choose adoption as a theme for your series?
I’m asked that question a lot! But as a child I had an over-active imagination fuelled by reading, and wondered what it would be like if I was French and called Marie-Christine, lived in a city not at the seaside, my father was a pilot not a farmer etc. Then I started to wonder what made me, me. That was the beginning of my fascination with identity. Since then of course, exploring your family’s story – and even that of your house – has become hugely popular. I’m a great fan of the television programmes ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, ‘Long Lost Family’ and ‘A House in Time’. I particularly enjoy inventing a family’s story then fitting it into a historical period.
When you write a novel, do you plan meticulously or do you write on instinct, letting the characters and story develop as you go?
I’m a plotter. I’ve always been an organised sort of person, tidy, a list-writer. I do nurture the pantser part of me though, because without that my books would be predictable. I ‘pants’ (is it a verb? :-D) the most when at the planning stage of a new book, that wonderful ‘what if’ phase when I’m inventing characters and throwing challenges at them. This is when I write loads of instinctive scenes or exercises. When I stop writing an exercise because I think ‘it didn’t happen like that’ or ‘she wouldn’t say that’, then I know it’s time and plotting takes over. I don’t start writing properly until I have a plan although there’s always room for a little wriggle.
If your Identity Detective novels ever reached the small screen, who would you like to see playing the part of Rose Haldane?
Jessica Brown-Findlay would make a great Rose. Clive Owen would be Nick in ‘Ignoring Gravity’ and in the film of ‘Connectedness’ I can see Alex Kingston as the older Justine and Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta as the young Federico.
I always cite The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett as a book which had a huge influence on me and probably got me into writing mysteries. Is there a book which had a similar influence on you?
My writing has been influenced by so many books. I was introduced to the wonder of the dual timeline in 1990 when AS Byatt’s Possession won the Booker Prize. It is a great structure for telling a mystery allowing the author to tease the reader, giving hints of information the protagonist doesn’t yet know, while layering in drama and the tension of a chase. I wasn’t writing fiction at that point, but I have re-read it many times since and analysed the structure to unravel her secrets.
What stories from your own family history research have you found the most fascinating or moving?
On October 16, 1940, an uncle of my mother’s was killed when his fishing boat sailed out of Scarborough Harbour and hit a mine. William Colling was 39. There were four crewmen on the ‘Pride’ that day and all were killed. Scarborough’s fishing fleet had attracted the attention of enemy bombers from the beginning of the war, but from 1940 the town itself was bombed. A key target was the Plaxton factory, founded in 1907 originally making automotive bodywork for the Ford Model T, Rolls-Royce, Sunbeam and Daimler it went on to build coaches in the Thirties. In 1939 it switched to munitions under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft Productions, making ammo boxes, 4.5in flares and engine castings for Rolls Royce and Bristol aircraft. Plaxtons, or ‘Placcies’ as it is known to locals, is still making coaches today.
What's your most precious family history "treasure"?
A tiny oval embroidered miniature of a cottage and its garden, with towering blue delphiniums and orange dahlias. Embroidered by my great-aunt, it fits neatly in the palm of my hand and sits on the bookshelf beside my desk.
Tell us something about Sweet Joy, the novel you’re currently writing and what inspired the story.
Sweet Joy is third in the ‘Identity Detective' series and is set in London during The Blitz. Theresa, found as a baby in a bombed house, has lost one grandchild to a genetic disease. To help her grieving son she must discover the truth of her own birth parents. But it all happened seventy years ago. Is she too late?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War thanks to my father’s love of war films and novels so I grew up on a diet of The Great Escape and The Dambusters. I’m drawn to stories of courage in the face of daunting odds and admire the grit and determination shown by that generation. So it was always my plan to set one of the ‘Identity Detective’ books in this period. I was sitting in the British Library reading a history book about the period and came to a true story. An ARP warden reported on one house which was horribly damaged by bombing and residents killed, but in another bedroom in the same house they found a man and his wife, unharmed. That sent by imagination reeling.
Who are your favourite authors and/or favourite books?
Goodness, can it be a long list? A real mixture, I am quite an eclectic reader devouring everything from The Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings to Jane Eyre and the CJ Sansom Shardlake mysteries. My go-to authors include Penelope Lively, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, F Scott Fitzgerald, William Boyd, Sarah Waters, Kate Atkinson, PD James, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Philip Pullman, Anthony Quinn, Philippa Gregory, Tracy Chevalier, Kate Grenville, Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley. Poets I re-read are Billy Collins, Alice Oswald, Carol Ann Duffy, Stevie Smith and Simon Armitage; I also like poetry anthologies, allowing me to explore new writers.
That just leaves me to say, thank you to Sandra for visiting the blog today!