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A Briton's American Independence : Fulbright Chandler award gives Denise Danks, here soaking up U.S. culture, something most mothers don't have--free time.

November 29, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAGUNA HILLS — For an author, it's a dream come true.

Imagine you're a British crime writer who has been awarded round-trip air fare plus $20,000 to spend up to nine months in the United States soaking up Yankee culture for the purpose of "enriching" your writing.

"I was absolutely thrilled," says Denise Danks, the 1994 British winner of the Fulbright Raymond Chandler Award, an annual scholarship given to up-and-coming British and American authors who are demonstrating outstanding talent in detective and crime fiction writing.

Danks, author of a series of high-tech crime novels featuring a London-based female journalist who covers the computer industry, arrived in the United States in July and has been living in Orange County since August.

Her elation over learning she had won the award, however, quickly took a nose-dive.

"I got cold feet," admits Danks, the mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8.

The prospect of leaving her husband and children behind is the reason she never even entertained the thought of applying for the scholarship. But Ian Rankin, the previous British winner, recommended her to the Fulbright Commission and she was invited to apply.

"I wasn't thinking about it because of my family situation, which is probably what a lot of women would consider," says Danks, 41. "A lot of the winners are younger men without families. Ian has a family, but it seems to be easier for men to organize their lives. It's not the same when a man leaves home.

"There were some very strange remarks about my going off on my own, but any women I've told know exactly how good an opportunity it is," she says.

Although she is entitled to spend nine months in America, Danks chose to stay only six. Her two daughters accompanied her during her first month in the United States, which included visits to Massachusetts and Maine.

Her family is still in good hands.

"I have wonderful parents who actually moved 300 miles from their home to look after my husband and my two children," she says. "I was very concerned that my children's routine would not be changed because I felt bringing them out here would uproot them. They've only just started school, and, besides, it would be pointless for me: I'd be in the same situation I was at home."

Indeed, it's not easy for Danks to carve out time to write back home in London. "I go to the supermarket, go to the laundry--I do all those mum things," says Danks, who gets her writing done Monday through Wednesday, "from about quarter past 9 to quarter to 3."

That's the beauty of winning the award.

"You're just here to write," she says. "That's their gift to you. This is the first time in my life I've just had myself to worry about."

Danks, who is staying in the Laguna Hills home of friends, Leslie Baer-Brown and Alfred Brown, is the first woman to win the Fulbright Raymond Chandler Award, which alternates each year between British and American writers.

The award, which is funded by the Raymond Chandler estate, also provides winners with access to the Raymond Chandler papers, which are housed at UCLA and at Oxford University in England.

Danks, who has been asked to create a crime television series in England, wanted to take advantage of UCLA's film and television department while she is here and has been auditing screenwriting classes.

"I thought, where better to learn than Hollywood?" she says. "I'm halfway through a screenplay at the moment. I decided I could write the (next) book when I got home."

Despite her forays to UCLA, Danks hasn't taken advantage of the opportunity to examine the Chandler papers.

"I'm very, very naughty," she says with a laugh. "I just haven't been to see them. I thought to myself, 'I suppose I could browse over them and what? It's not going to give you any ideas.' I've been so busy, to tell you the truth, just absorbing the American lifestyle and writing and being busy just getting about."

Danks, whose narrator-heroine Georgina Powers is based in London's scruffy East End, has a lot in common with the author of the quintessential hard-boiled American private eye.

"If I was to say which was the lineage (for her novels), I'd have to say Raymond Chandler as opposed to Agatha Christie," says Danks. "I favor the American tradition of crime writing more. It seems to have a better grip on real life, on urban life. Although I do enjoy a classic mystery, I prefer those mean streets."

Danks adds that "I've found myself defending Raymond Chandler to women who object to his work, for instance, because of his depictions of women. I do hate the way writers are taken out of their time. I found these women (characters) could take care of themselves."

Georgina Powers can take care of herself as well.

For those who haven't been properly introduced to Georgina in "User Deadly," "Better Off Dead," "Frame Grabber" and the new one, "Wink a Hopeful Eye" (St. Martin's Press), here's Danks' thumbnail sketch of her character.

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