Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Susan Hughes

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Susan Hughes is Open Book: Toronto’s May 2012 Writer in Residence.

May 1, 2012 -

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book, The Island Horse.

Susan Hughes:

It is a historical novel set in the early 1800s. I think children ages eight and up would enjoy it. Nine-year-old Ellie, who lives on the coast of Nova Scotia with her father, is just beginning to feel happy again after the recent death of her mother. But when her father finds a new job and they must move to remote Sable Island, a tiny, windblown crescent of grass and sand in the Atlantic, Ellie is miserable. She is angry and upset with her father for making them leave their home and come to this isolated unsubstantial place. Ellie walks the island shoreline, and even meets an island girl named Sarah, but it not until she encounters a wild stallion grazing on the dunes that her life begins to change. Ellie slowly forges a secret bond with the horse, naming him Orchid. When she learns that Orchid and his band of mares and foals are threatened, she knows she must try to save them — and she’ll have to ask for help to do so.

OB:

The Island Horse is based on historical fact. What sort of research did you do before sitting down to write?

SH:

I spent ages reading online sources and I scoured the libraries for books about Sable Island. I poured over photos of the island, especially of the wild horses, and I read several novels set on Sable Island. When I contacted Zoe Lucas, founder of the Sable Island Green Horse Society, with specific questions, she was generous with her help.

OB:

What inspired you to write The Island Horse?

SH:

I’ve loved horses since I was a child and have always wanted to write a book about a horse. When my eldest daughter was 11 or 12, she set a story on Sable Island, and as she did her research, my interest was piqued, especially when I read about the wild horses and how Canadian children had initiated a letter-writing campaign to help save them. I did more reading and was drawn to set my story in the early 1800s, even before the first lighthouses were placed on the island. I had a feeling that it might be the very isolation of the place, a windblown narrow crescent of sand, combined with the unique opportunity to share the island with its wild horses, that could help a grief-stricken girl find solace.

OB:

Which writers did you admire when you were a child?

SH:

My father read to me every night, and I have especially fond memories of listening him read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved all Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical novels, especially The Eagle of the Ninth, and I read every book about dogs and horses that I could get my hands on. Faves were Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard, the Chincoteague pony stories by Marguerite Henry, The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, the My Friend Flicka triology by Mary O’Hara, and all the lovely British paperbacks about ponies by the three prolific Pullein-Thompson sisters. I also loved The Yearling by Marjorie Walling and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

OB:

How old were you when you first started writing?

SH:

I first started writing when I was seven or eight. Soon afterwards several neighbourhood friends and I began a writing club.  We’d gather with our poems and stories and read them aloud to one another.  A few years later, my riding buddy and I also began writing stories, poems and articles about everything horsey for our monthly publication, the Saddle and Bridle Club Magazine.

OB:

Tell us about your ideal writing environment.

SH:

I can write anywhere, but every day, I sit down in my living room, with my laptop on the coffee table in front of me, and I write. I see the world go by and the seasons change through the big bay window — the children heading to and from school, the joggers, the dog-walkers, the leaves turning colour and then falling, the buds reappearing and then greening. Not too distracting and yet stimulating, but rather like sitting by a river or in front of a flickering fire. This is ideal for me!

OB:

What books are on your bedside table?

SH:

I am just finishing Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine but in my “to-read” stack are Our Daily Bread, by Lauren Davis, Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swan, War by Sebastian Junger and a book of poetry by Karen Solie called Pigeon. Also in the line-up are Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. (Can you tell I’ve just joined an online book club featuring southern US lit?)

OB:

What’s your next project?

SH:

I have written a young adult manuscript which has sparked some helpful feedback from a children’s editor, so I am working to revise it and then will submit it again for her consideration. It is a story — partly suspense, partly romance — told in alternating voices, those of the two main characters. I am also working on a new series of chapter books for younger children. And I will soon be doing some developmental editing on a project with an educational publisher.

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