Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Horse Books That Meant The Most

A few weeks ago, the latest Facebook fad seemed to be "post the ten books that matter the most to you." You weren't supposed to give it a lot of deep thought or anything, just post the ten books that came to your mind first. 

I gave it a shot. And here's the list that happened:

1. Emily's Quest, L.M. Montgomery
2. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
3. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
4. The Black Stallion (most of the series), Walter Farley
5. Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley
6. Light a Penny Candle, Maeve Binchy
7. Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson
8. The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
9. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
10. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis (every single one)

And then I sat back and looked at it. Wow. There were not a lot of horse books on that list. (Although my copy of The Mists of Avalon does have a horse on the cover.) 

Instead I had two fairly bleak turn-of-the-century Young Adult stories, two extremely different Irish novels, a Young Adult horse series and an adult horse book, and a whole lot of magic. (Like, seriously, a lot of magic. Who knew that fantasy was so important to me?)

But in the grand scheme of How My Brain Works, it all started to make a lot of sense. Most of these books seriously informed my writing in some way. Emily's Quest is about a young woman embarking on a writing career and coming face-to-face with the loneliness and self-doubt that such a calling entails on a daily basis. Rilla of Ingleside was about the upheaval and change that The Great War brought to a happy-go-lucky family who already had six books to their name -- it's the last of the Anne of Green Gables novels -- and what an incredibly bold move for a writer to make with such beloved characters! Light a Penny Candle is another big saga, about two best friends surviving all sorts of trauma (they come together through World War II), which, again, it's hard to believe the writer was so willing to dish out to such lovable characters.

Eureka Street, well, that might be my favorite book of all time. I adore everything about it: the vain, hapless, soul-of-a-poet repo-man Jake; the rambling and unapologetic passages exploring the terrible beauty of Belfast; the harrowing and yet lyrical descriptions of violence that leap out of previously tranquil pages as surely as The Troubles could instantly cloud a sunny day--and of course a cast of characters who were as funny and as flawed as any in literature.

And then all that fantasy! I'm still surprised by it. The Mists of Avalon probably is the least important to me as a piece of literature, but was a huge part of my adolescence, so I can't leave it out of any list. The ones that got me: Narnia, The Enchantress of Florence, The Night Circus -- oh, those really got me. Rushdie taught me that prose can be poetry if you decide it can. Morgenstern taught me that reality can be fantasy (and vice versa) if you choose it to be. Lewis taught me to talk to trees and animals without feeling embarrassed, and how many stories of my childhood did that inform? Countless.

What of the horse books, then? What are the horse books that meant the most, and why are they so few?

To be fair, there are twenty installments in the Black Stallion series, so that's twenty books right there that I stuck on my top ten list. Those books were my lifeline as a child, to a world I knew existed and that I wanted to be part of so very, very much. I put on my velvet hunt cap with one hand and I turned the pages of The Black Stallion's Courage with the other, imagining myself on The Black as we came down the long homestretch at Belmont Park; then I went out and used the mounting block to mount a school pony and get down to the business of staying on.

Horse Heaven was a lifeline as an adult, because it taught me a very important lesson: horse books for adults can work. This book was a massive seller. I should know--I was working part-time at the Barnes & Noble in Ocala, Florida when it came out. When HITS was going on, riders in breeches and boots were literally coming in and asking for it by name. We had it stocked behind the counter to save time. Horse Heaven changed the way I looked at horse books. And it changed the way I looked at what I might write someday.

When I started writing contemporary fiction for equestrians, it was with the success of Horse Heaven reminding me that people wanted books like this, about characters they recognized -- adults living their lives with horses.

I've read dozens, or hundreds, who knows, of pony books and horse books over the years, but these were the true game-changers, that helped decide the course of my entire life. From my years with Thoroughbreds to my current career as a novelist, those were the horse books that meant the most.

What are yours?

A short note on giveaways and signings:

I'll be at Equine Affaire this November! I'll be with Taborton Equine Books on Saturday, November 15th from 4-6 PM, and on Sunday, November 16th from 12-2 PM. Come and visit me and the other awesome equestrian authors who will be there! You can add it to your calendar with this Facebook event: 

The Big Giveaway from Equestrian Culture Magazine is on throughout October. I'm so happy to be part of this gorgeous glossy magazine's giveaway this fall, which includes prizes from Goode Rider, Ariat, Dubarry, and plenty of other big names in equestrian apparel and supplies. Check out the website at http://equestrianculture.com/giveaway/ for details on how to win different prizes, including a set of my paperback novels. And if this is not a magazine you're familiar with -- it's time to pick up a copy! It's for our kind of people!


Anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but if you enjoyed Horse Heaven you should read A Year at the Races, also by J. Smiley. It is an interesting nonfiction counterpart to Horse Heaven.

Alison said...

Great list, Natalie!

I loved Horse Heaven, too. It was one of the few books I read twice.