Monday, November 28, 2016

Interview with Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan

Today I'm interviewing a couple of authors who are as diversely interesting as they are impressively talented.  Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan first began their writing partnership with a favorite series of mine, the Abbott and Lowell Forensics Mysteries.  There are currently four titles in that series.  Jen and Ann have now joined forces in a new series, the F.B.I. K-9 Mysteries, and its first title, Lone Wolf, comes out tomorrow, and they have a new author name of Sara Driscoll for it.  As with all their work, Lone Wolf is a special read, and I will be posting my review of it here on the blog tomorrow.

So, now I will let you get to know Jen and Ann as they answer some questions about their writing and personal lives.


    Reading Room:  I’ve always been fascinated with how a partnership in writing a book works.  I’m guessing neither of you is a control freak.  Considering that you live in Canada, Jen, and you live in Texas, Ann, when and how did the two of you first meet and decide to write a book together, and what is the division of labor?

Jen: When I started writing again following a very long hiatus (more on that later), I posted some of my work online. Ann saw some of that work and introduced herself. She had correctly caught me in a gun error—she’s a gun owner herself and I’m a gun control-loving Canadian, and I was clearly making it up as I went along. We started talking and she offered to beta read some of my writing. But it quickly got to a point where she was contributing so much on both editing and plotting that we knew we’d be more successful if she was involved right from the beginning. That process is essentially the same one we still use: we do character and story/series planning together, then I write each chapter, and Ann rips it apart. We then put it back together as a team and then move onto the next chapter. Once the entire manuscript is done, we do several similar passes at the manuscript level. Ann also writes the chapter titles/descriptions, assists with research, lends her particular medical/technical/veterinary expertise, helps beat out the ‘Canukisms’ I inadvertently write into the manuscript, and is invaluable when we are writing characters that require a local colour and voice I simply don’t know. The perpetrator of the crimes in Lone Wolf is a perfect example of this. His life comes directly from Ann’s experiences and from the people she knew from when she lived on the east coast.

    Reading Room:  I follow both of you on FB and probably know from our acquaintance through your books some interesting facts about you, such as scientist and dog lover.  Could you tell those who are just starting to read you something about yourselves in your day jobs or activities?

Jen: I work full time in an infectious diseases lab at a Canadian university studying dengue fever, West Nile, influenza, and a number of other pathogens. We run a number of national and international studies funded by both American and Canadian funding agencies. We are an extremely busy and diverse group, but the day job is never boring (we don’t have time for boring!). So my writing has to fit around my day job, which means writing during my lunch hour, after work and in the evening, and on weekends.

Ann: I’m retired, but have never been busier. Aside from our writing, I am the treasurer and registered agent for a 501(c)(3) bully breed rescue, train and amuse my own dogs every day, assist my therapy dog with his day job at a domestic violence shelter and an elder care facility, practice nosework with my therapy dog in his favorite sport, and act as interpreter between vets and rescue members for some medical cases.

    Reading Room:  Jen, I had the good fortune to meet you at my first Bouchercon in Albany, New York in 2013.  You and Ann had started the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries series, which I’ve really enjoyed, as I’m a big fan of forensics and you all did a superb job of that.  Could you tell us a bit about how you and Ann came to decide on that series’ subject matter?  Will there be more Leigh Abbott and Matt Lowell in the future?

Jen: Both Ann and I are scientists by heart and career and we both find the field of forensic anthropology fascinating and an interesting spin on a typical police procedure when you want to build in an active forensic angle. I personally wanted to be able to combine my love of science with my life-long love of mysteries, without writing a biothriller, which would be too close to my actual day job to be fun. It required learning the field of forensic anthropology to make the series believable, but my job at the university made all the professional journals available to me. Dr. William Bass, the father of modern forensic anthropology was speaking at Killer Nashville when I attended in 2011. Many writers spoke to him about how they loved his books (he writes with Jon Jefferson as Jefferson Bass). I’m sure I was the only one who spent time talking to him about his career as a scientific researcher and how his journal articles allowed me to write our forensic mysteries.

The next book in Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, Lament the Common Bones, will be released on March 15, 2017. This book is special because it not only has a full and very interesting case, but also wraps up a long arc of some very personal troubles for Leigh Abbott.

    Reading Room: Now, to your exciting new series, the FBI K-9 Series with Meg Jennings and Hawk, her search-and-rescue Labrador.  How did this series come about?  And, the new author name of Sara Driscoll?

Jen: We owe a large part of the FBI K-9 series to our agent, Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency. She had lunch with editor Peter Sentfleben, who was with Kensington at the time, discussing the books he’d like to see. He requested a police procedural with a K-9 angle. Nicole brought that request, along with a number of other requests from other editors to her clients and Ann and I jumped at it. With Ann’s background in dog training and handling, we knew we had a leg up on many other writers. We were thrilled when Peter offered us a three book, hardcover deal. Lone Wolf is the first book in that series. Sadly, Peter moved on to a new publishing house, but we are now working with our new editor, Esi Sogah, on Before It’s Too Late, book two in the series, which will release in October 2017.

As far as the name, Kensington wanted a fresh name for the fresh series, so we came up with a name to encompass the two of us. Sara is the name of Ann’s granddaughter. When it came to the last name, what we were aiming for was something a little unusual that had no one like it through existing booksellers. And Sara Driscoll was born.

    Reading Room:  Something that I’d like for all of your readers to know is that you have one of the most interesting blogs around, with its “ forensics, archeology, science,  (your) writing and publishing path, and, the world of K-9 investigations.”  The recent post “The Brains Behind the Dog” featured dog handlers and there was a nice picture of Ann and the dog she serves as a handler for.  Most of the posts lately have been about working dogs, but this past year has also seen posts about Colma, CA, the city of death and the talented photographer daughter of Jen, Jess Danna.  So, the question is, do you write the blog solo, Jen, or do you and Ann both contribute to it?  Also, add anything else about the blog you want.

Jen: Both Ann and I look for interesting content for the blog, either through our own interests or current news stories. For example, we followed the discovery of the remains of Richard III from the first announcement of the uncovered skeleton, all the way through to the final facial reconstruction and DNA results in real time. For the K-9 stories, Ann has a heavier hand in the content as that’s her forte, not mine. Just as with our prose, I do the writing, and Ann does the editing.

    Reading Room:  Can either or both of you remember your first writing, be it as a youth or an adult, that made you think writing was in your future?

Jen: I used to write for fun as a teenager, but gave it up when my life got busy getting a university degree, then getting married and raising kids. But about twenty-five years, later, as my kids were older and didn’t need me as much, I started writing again. Back when I first started, I was writing with a girlfriend—now published children’s author R.J. Anderson. We lived 275 miles apart and used to snail mail chapters of our stories to each other. I’m sure the writing was terrible but I really wish I’d kept some of it because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a learning curve and we all start somewhere. But never in a million years did I think this would be a career. I have a science degree and haven’t taken a single English class past high school. But both Ann and I are voracious readers and you can learn how to write simply by reading a lot of excellent writing. 
Ann and I wrote for fun for two years, composing five trunk novels in that time. We simply did it for the joy of writing, until a few people said to us ‘Why aren’t you doing this professionally?’ and we both thought ‘Why aren’t we?’ We scrapped everything we’d done in the past and started the first Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mystery, Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It, and the rest is history. But neither of us initially intended it as a career. 

Ann: I never really thought of writing as my future. I always wanted to be an engineer or biomedical scientist.

    Reading Room:  Something I like to ask all authors in an interview is about their secret or lesser known talents.  I know with both of you exude talent in your writing and your other work, but what’s a talent each of you has that might be quirky or not as well-known as your obvious ones?  Dowsing? Grave digging? 

Jen: Well, it’s not really a quirky talent, but I, like the rest of my family, am very musical. I used to play the oboe in high school, still dabble at the piano, and sing regularly in a choir.

Ann: I’ve taught courses in a vet school, a medical school, and a nursing school before veering off into software and automation in the oilfield. I am fascinated by large machines and how things work. But even before grad school I was always interested in systems behavior: why do individuals (people, red blood cells, software modules, etc.) behave differently when alone rather than in a crowd, living body, or other system? After years of living in a prolific moonshining county, I can walk outside on a crisp fall morning and identify which of my neighbors’ stills are running and what mash they are using. I learned how to quilt by hand. I also was taught how to dowse, although I am a skeptic.


    Reading Room:  And, being interested in what everyone else is reading, I must ask, what book or books do you have on your nightstand now?

Jen: I’m just about to start Louise Penny’s most recent release A Great Reckoning. I love her Chief Inspector Gamache books (and no, not just because she’s a Canadian author writing a Canadian setting). She writes beautifully, and that series is a fantastic example of how you can build up a long arc over eight or nine books, culminating in a magnificent climax, in her case, in How the Light Gets In. Simply amazing.

Ann: With five large dogs, reading is a communal activity in the living room reserved for evenings or wet days. Currently, I’m reading And the Dog Who Spoke with Gods by Diane Jessup and Jordan’s Stormy Banks by Jefferson Bass. Without Mercy, also by Jefferson Bass is next on my list.

    Reading Room:  One last question that I personally am excited to know the answer to.  Are you amazing authors going to be at Bouchercon next fall when it’s in Toronto?

Jen: Absolutely! Wouldn’t miss it!


  1. Thanks for hosting us, Kathy, and for the great interview!

    1. Thank you and Ann, Jen. Your answers were fantastic!

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