A shocking revelation about Danielle Trussoni’s past turned into the big idea for her novel The Ancestor — and more than the novel beside. She’s here now to tell you about the revelation, and how it lead to her newest projects.
My new novel The Ancestor is about a woman who takes a DNA test, discovers she is related to an aristocratic family in the Italian Alps. At first, it seems like a wonderful surprise, but when she visits the family castle in the Aosta Valley, she learns the dark secrets and her family’s genetic inheritance.
The idea for this story came after I took a DNA test myself, and had the surprise of my life. My father was Italian American, and I grew up in the shadow of this heritage. My childhood was filled with large family gatherings, Italian food, Catholic school and stories of my great-grandparents’ lives in the Italian Alps. I visited the small Alpine village where my ancestors were born, and am part of a group of relatives who organize tours to the village every year. And so I was astonished to discover, after taking a 23andMe test, that I am exactly 1.7% Italian. My sister took the test, too, and her results were the same. We are more English and Norwegian than Italian, more French and German than Italian, a fact that shattered the cultural identity that was an enormous part of our childhood.
This surprise made me realize how powerful ancestral stories are in our lives, and it made me wonder: What could be the most shocking revelation you might discover in your ancestral pedigree? What would such a discovery do to our sense of family and belonging? The Ancestor is my answer.
While the discoveries the heroine of The Ancestor makes lead to a suspenseful hunt for the truth, what most interested me when I was writing this book was the idea of human relationships and, specifically, our relationship to our human ancestors, and our ‘genetic family tree’ in the present and past.
I spent a lot of time reading about the history of human evolution, and way too much time thinking about Neanderthals and other hominids that evolved alongside Homo Sapiens. I was so engrossed by this research, that I branched out, and found myself learning about a branch of (some say faux) science called cryptozoology: the scientific pursuit of hidden, or undocumented creatures such as the Yeti or mermaids or giant medusa jellyfish.
By the time I was done, I had pages and pages of research that had no place in The Ancestor. Being the kind of writer I am, I wanted to use this research in my fiction, and so I wrote an audio drama podcast called Crypto-Z, which imagines a team of cryptozoologists hunting down a cryptid in the Italian Alps. There are actors performing and an ambient bath of sound that creates a truly immersive listening experience.
The idea behind writing The Ancestor and Crypto-Z was to explore the idea of our genetic connection to each other, the past, and ‘the other’ in ways that challenge the notion of tribalism, while creating utterly different kinds of narrative experiences. I wanted to ask the question: What if there are other humans that evolved alongside us? What if they are still here, hidden among us? How would we see ourselves differently when faced with our ancestors?