Exclusive Interview: M.H. Norris, Editor of Defending Earth

If you love Sarah Jane Smith – and let’s be honest, everyone does! – you need to add Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith to your bookshelf. This unofficial charity anthology features stories about one of the most beloved companions of all time. From her childhood, to her time with both the Third and Fourth Doctor, to the Wilderness Years, The Sarah Jane Adventures and beyond: all periods of her life are featured in this collection!

The proceeds go to the Cancer Research Institute in loving memory of Elisabeth Sladen (who died of cancer in April 2011).

The Doctor Who Companion caught up with M.H. Norris, editor of the book, to talk about what the character means to her…

The DWC: Hi Mary Helen! Let’s start with the obvious question: how did the idea for Defending Earth come about? 

Mary Helen: Around mid-April of last year, I was talking with a friend about Sarah Jane. I mentioned that maybe, someday, I would do something with Sarah Jane and donate the proceeds to cancer research (this was around the anniversary of her death). He said, why don’t you? And so Defending Earth was born. I approached some authors that I thought would be interested, along with some others who referred to me. By the time I closed the pitching part of this process, I had a pretty solid book.

I quickly came to the decision to find a charity that focused on research instead of awareness. There are a lot of wonderful organisations that do the latter but I think we could use more on research on how to fight this disease. After some digging, I found the Cancer Research Institute whose work in Immunotherapy has been groundbreaking. Their Scientific Director, Dr. James P Allison, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. 

There’s a huge selection of stories included. What was the most difficult part of curating such a collection? 

Honestly? The hardest part of any anthology – any project – I’ve worked on is taking the idea from… well, an idea to an actual book. I’d been saying for a long time that I should do something like this and to finally take the first step and do it was probably the hardest.  

How did you make sure every aspect of Sarah Jane’s life was covered? Did you approach authors looking for them to fill a specific era, or were your decisions based purely on pitches’ narratives? 

I created a document with information on the project and eras of her life I wanted to cover. I’ll admit, I was a bit worried that people would gravitate to one era or another. To my surprise, on their own, people gravitated to different eras of her life on their own. I guess it came down to what period of her life spoke to them the most. The only person I specifically asked for something was Jon Black. I knew the book would be incomplete without him handling a Third Doctor-era UNIT story. 

When I went digging into Sarah Jane’s life to make sure I had everything covered, I found an interesting story from a Christmas-themed collection of Doctor Who stories. In it, she has a biological granddaughter, Lily, who is autistic. I thought so much more could be done with her, something that could matter to so many people. Anne Laure beautifully delivered a story with a college-aged Lily. Letters from the Heart is the final story in the book, and brings Lily to her full potential as a character.

I gather your introduction to Sarah Jane was School Reunion; what was it about that episode that hooked you and encouraged you to explore the character’s backstory?

I did meet her for the first time in School Reunion and I’m not sure what exactly hooked me. In the commentary for that episode, David Tennant talks about how there are two ways to see this episode: the first as the Doctor who’s running into an old friend and the second as Rose who’s seeing what her future could be like. I argue there’s a third and it’s from Sarah Jane’s point of view. She’s coming out of a rough time. Her Aunt Lavinia passed away about six years prior. Add to it, she’s felt a bit isolated for decades; after all, who could understand what she’s been through? And then suddenly, out of nowhere, the Doctor is back in her life. Over the course of the episode, he does help her to realise that she can do a lot of good here on Earth.

Over time, I found I identified with her a lot, if I’m honest; she’s the character I’m the most like: both the good and the bad. In her later years, she’s so many things that I hope that I will be someday. Maybe it’s her spirit, her deep need for the truth no matter what the situation. Maybe it’s that sense of adventure or her inability to give up. 

Maybe it’s the whole double name thing. I totally relate.  

There are a few stories featuring the characters from The Sarah Jane Adventures (to me, unquestionably Doctor Who‘s best spin-off) – how fun was it catching up with that “family” again, and, for Full Circle, how did you approach Maria and Sky’s meeting? 

I mentioned how  it was fun to see where people gravitated. Well, when I started to write my own piece, I gravitated to The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was so fun to visit them again, to write a story that featured Luke and let him shine a bit.

When it came to writing Full Circle, I wanted a place for Maria and Sky. Another story with Sky fell through, and it didn’t feel right to leave them out of the collection. Fitting these characters together, the idea I couldn’t get away from was that the story brings us… well, full circle back to Invasion of the Bane. It had me feeling very nostalgic for the show. We got to spend so little time with Maria, and Sky’s time was cut short unfortunately as well. To let them go off on their own adventure, showing them come into their own, showed that Sarah Jane’s legacy lives on. 

Let’s say someone is just starting their Doctor Who journey and wants to know more about Sarah Jane. Which serial would you recommend they start with and why? 

I’m actually going to recommend two: one for the Third Doctor and one for the Fourth.  

For the Third Doctor, I’m going to recommend her very first appearance The Time Warrior. I think this is such a fun introduction to who Sarah Jane Smith is. Let’s be honest, she gets out of this adventure because of sheer luck. Plus, it gives you the bonus introduction of the Sontarans. Elisabeth Sladen had less than a month to prepare for the role from the time she was cast to the time she stepped out of the TARDIS sometime in the Middle Ages. But you wouldn’t know that from her performance. 

Pyramids of Mars is my Fourth Doctor recommendation. Honestly, this might have been the first Classic serial with Sarah Jane I watched. I’ve always had a soft spot for Egyptian mythology so it was fun to see Doctor Who explore it in the way that they did. For me, this combines both the time and space aspects of the show in a unique way. 

Did your appreciation of Sarah Jane and Elisabeth Sladen – and what she means to fandom – change at all during your editing of the book?

One of my favorite things about this book was seeing how everyone approached Sarah Jane in their own, unique way.  When they gravitated to a specific era of her life, they brought something to it. Jon Black brought his extensive knowledge of history – to say nothing of his love of playing with it in historical fiction. Anna Maloney brought her knowledge of 1960s pop music. Tina Marie DeLucia reexamined how Sarah Jane acted in Downtime. But more than that, just seeing how they all approached her gave me a deeper appreciation for an amazing character and the beloved actress who brought her to life. There are so many ways to write her over the course of her life. Each era brings its own challenges and my writers rose to the challenge wonderfully. 

A couple of years ago, I was given Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography as a birthday present. While preparing various parts of this project, I would go to it just to see if I could get inside her head, a bit, and see what her thoughts on something were. Reading that gave me such an appreciation for the woman behind the character and it has been an honor to raise money for cancer research in her memory.  

It’s a mammoth tome and must’ve taken a great deal of love and attention to edit. So the big question is: would you do it again? Are you planning to work on another book? 

If I knew then what I know now about putting together charity collections, I would definitely do it again. It has been such a fun experience and has allowed me to work with some amazing people.  

I am working on another charity collection featuring the Doctor’s home planet. Another project I’m working on is my own mystery series. The short story collection All The Petty Myths released in late 2017 and the first full-length novel in the series is due out later this year.

A massive thank you to Mary Helen!

Pre-orders for the physical copy went on sale on 1st February 2019, in memory of what would have been Sladen’s 73rd birthday. Digital copies are available now.

Defending Earth: The Adventures of Sarah Jane Smith is available now from Adventures on Earth Productions.