#QandA with Sandra Danby @SandraDanby + #Extract from Connectedness
I’m delighted to be welcoming Sandra Danby to Short Book and Scribes today. She’s the author of Ignoring Gravity and the recently published Connectedness. They both feature Rose Haldane, Identity Detective. Being an Identity Detective sounds absolutely fascinating, doesn’t it? I love the sound of these books and so was pleased that Sandra could join me for a Q&A about them and her writing.
DOES YOUR FAMILY HAVE SECRETS? REALLY? ARE YOU SURE?
IGNORING GRAVITY, the debut novel by Yorkshire author Sandra Danby, is a compelling story about an ordinary family with a secret. Rose is adopted and doesn’t know it. The day she finds her mother’s hidden diary is the day she starts to search for who she really is.
A story about identity, adoption, family mystery and ultimately of love, IGNORING GRAVITY connects two pairs of sisters separated by a generation of secrets. As Rose untangles the truth from the lies, she begins to understand why she has always felt so different from her sister Lily.
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 journalist Rose Haldane 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.
Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?
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.
About the ‘Identity Detective’ series
Rose Haldane reunites the people lost through adoption. The stories you don’t see on television shows. The difficult cases. The people who cannot be found, who are thought lost forever. Each book in the ‘Identity Detective’ series considers the viewpoint of one person trapped in this horrible dilemma. In the first book of the series, Ignoring Gravity, it is Rose’s experience we follow as an adult discovering she was adopted as a baby. Connectedness is the story of a birth mother and her longing to see her baby again. Sweet Joy, the third novel, will tell the story of a baby abandoned during The Blitz.
First of all, can you tell me where the idea came from for’ Connectedness’?
I knew early on in the writing process that my key character, birth mother Justine Tree, would be an artist and was interested to see how her real life would affect her creativity. I started to develop her character with four key questions in mind. Can a lie ever be justified, even if told to prevent pain? Is the truth over-rated? Is the ability to lie in order to protect your loved one a prerequisite of love? And does the power of a lie lessen over time, or intensify? Justine lives her life knowing she gave her child away, knowing she has lied about it ever since. Finding her daughter means telling everyone she has lied, one lie which turned into hundreds.
‘Connectedness’ is the second in the Identity Detective series featuring Rose Haldane and a third is on the way very soon. When you wrote the first book, ‘Ignoring Gravity’, did you intend to write more books and turn it into a series?
Ignoring Gravity started life as a standalone book called ‘Finding Rose’ in which Rose Haldane searches for the answers of her birth story. In the course of writing, I realised there was a much bigger story to tell, bigger than a single novel could hope to achieve. It seemed logical that Rose should be the link to run through each novel, investigating the truth of other people’s adoption mysteries. As Ignoring Gravity told Rose’s story, that of an adult discovering she was adopted as a baby, so Connectedness tells the life of a birth mother who gave her child away. Sweet Joy, next in the series, focuses on an elderly woman, an adoptee, desperate to find the answers to the mystery of her birth before she dies. Rose investigates each case.
From looking at your website, it seems you have quite an interest in family history and genealogy. Have you investigated your own family history and did you find out anything that shocked or surprised you?
My mother studied our family history in depth and no, disappointingly for a novelist, there are no skeletons. Only farmers and fishermen. But you’re right, I do find family history fascinating. It’s the combination of mystery and research which leads you down unknown paths. Every person researched tells you something not only about your family, but the places and times in which they lived. It has rekindled a childhood interest in history.
Can you tell me more about how you became a writer? If you weren’t a writer what do you think you would be doing now?
Like many authors, I started writing stories as a child because I loved reading them. This progressed to compiling my own magazines. Not surprisingly I went on to be a journalist, editing magazines and managing online editorial content. But I still wanted to write stories. If I weren’t a writer I would love to have been a professional tennis player or perhaps a tennis journalist. I still play tennis regularly, watch it avidly and follow the results. But at only 5ft 1in tall I would never have made it as a pro even though I have a mean forehand!
Do you plot your stories meticulously or do you just write and see where it takes you?
A bit of both. My natural tendency is to be a planner but I’ve learned that the finished result is more dynamic if I let the story develop organically. So I start with a broad storyline – basically a rough beginning and end – I work hard at developing my characters and settings, then I put them into the first plot point and see what happens. I like to develop my characters by writing exercises and sometimes short stories until they are fully-rounded independent people. Once I start to think indignantly ‘she wouldn’t do that,’ I know I’m ready to start writing proper and put them into the plot. If I put them into situations too early before I fully understand them, their reactions will be irrational or inconsistent. I have to ‘know’ them first. I over-write the first draft by twenty to thirty thousand words but lose this easily in the editing process as the story becomes tighter and my more self-indulgent copy is jettisoned.
Could you tell me about your writing day? Where do you write and do you have a daily routine?
I do ‘the job of writing’ five days a week, Monday to Friday. This includes not only writing and editing but also planning, researching, reading, visiting locations and museums, managing the PR and marketing of my books. I don’t have a daily routine as such. I keep a page-a-day A4 desk diary with a list of tasks for the day and I like that to be cleared so that my head is free to write. But if I am working to a deadline, that day’s diary page will be blank so I can focus 100%. I work on a Mac desktop but write on a wi-fi-free laptop sitting somewhere else in the house or garden or in a library or coffee shop. I break for lunch and usually have a break mid-afternoon when my mind is most sluggish, starting again at five and writing until seven or eight. But ideas do not have a routine and I often find that when I’m doing an unrelated task – shopping, gardening, sitting on a train – a character trait or plot twist will arrive unprompted in my head. I love those moments.
You’re an avid reader. What kind of books do you like to read and if you could recommend just one book what would it be?
I have quite eclectic tastes ranging from historical to contemporary women’s fiction, literary and translated fiction. My must-read authors, those whose books I pre-order, are Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker, William Boyd, John Boyne, Tracy Chevalier, Emma Donoghue, Helen Dunmore, Sebastian Barry. The book I give most often to friends is The Light Years, first in the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
If you can call drinking twenty cups of tea a day a quirk, then yes. I have always loved a strong mug of tea [never a cup, not big enough]. When I was away at university my father used to say if he had no prior warning that I was visiting, he would know I was at home because the teapot would be hot and full. I have a collection of mugs including the orange Pride and Prejudice, the purple A Room of One’s Own and a Lemn Sissay adoption mug bought at the Foundling Museum.
What are you planning to write next and where will it take us?
I’m now writing Sweet Joy which starts in 1940 as a baby is found alive in a bombed house in Twickenham after one of the worst nights of The Blitz. The house is shut-up and unoccupied, its owners moved to the countryside for the duration of the war. So why was a baby left there alone and what happened to her parents? Decades later, when Rose Haldane moves to Twickenham she cannot understand how she has acquired a stalker, an elderly woman, who watches from across the road. Except the woman is not stalking Rose.
Your next book sounds just as interesting as the first two, Sandra. I hope to get to read them soon. And I’m with you on a strong mug of tea! Thank you so much for answering my questions.
An extract from ‘Connectedness’
London, September 2009
The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.
Yorkshire, May 2010
The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.
Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.
Will I be buried here?
It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.
The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?
She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.
In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.
Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.
Photos all © Sandra Danby