In the spotlight - pony book author Victoria Eveleigh
Hello! I am super pleased to be able to share with you the second in my exclusive series of interviews with pony book authors. In the spotlight today is none other than Victoria Eveleigh, author of Katy's Exmoor Ponies, The Horseshoe Trilogy and A Stallion Called Midnight. I was lucky enough to meet Victoria - known as Tortie to her friends - just over two years ago at a day-long conference on pony books at Cambridge University. We had a lovely time chatting about - you guessed it - writing and ponies. After all, what else is there to talk about?!
So Tortie, when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
I became a writer by accident, really. English was one of my weaker subjects at school. I loved reading but hated analysing literature as it took all the joy away. I didn’t enjoy writing much, either, as we usually had to write about things that didn’t interest me much, and I was never good at spelling and grammar. Nobody was more surprised than my old English teacher when I became a writer. I studied science at university and then married a farmer and became immersed in farm life and bringing up our two children. My husband Chris and both our children are dyslexic, which means they find it hard to read and write.
Our daughter Sarah loved stories, so I read to her a lot. She especially loved pony books and stories set on farms, but there weren’t many realistic stories like that around in the 1990s (apart from Dick King-Smith’s wonderful books, of course). It was definitely the era of sparkly pink ponies, so I turned to all my favourite old pony books by Golden Gorse, Mary O’Hara, Pat Smythe, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and KM Peyton. Sarah loved those stories, and I began to think that perhaps I’d write a story just for her about a girl growing up with an Exmoor pony on a farm like ours. She had a fiery Exmoor pony called Tinkerbell at the time.
What was the catalyst that made you actually put pen to paper?
Bizarrely, it was the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. We didn’t get foot and mouth here at the farm, but it came far too close for comfort and we were very careful. We only went off the farm for local shopping once or twice a week, we shut down our self-catering cottage and our horse-drawn tour business for half a year, the children didn’t go to school, we didn’t ride outside the farm’s boundaries and there were no meetings or parties to go to. In a way that was lovely because we had time to spare for once, but in another way it was terrifying as nobody knew where the disease would strike next. We have pedigree cattle and sheep here, and their ancestries can be traced back for about 100 years, so we were desperate to avoid the disease (if one animal showed any symptoms, all the cattle and sheep on the farm had to be killed there and then to stop the spread of the disease). Anyway, every cloud has a silver lining because at last I had time to sit down and write the story that had been forming in my head - the story I was going to write for Sarah about a girl and her Exmoor pony growing up together on an Exmoor farm. I named the girl in the story Katy, not Sarah, and her pony was called Trifle, not Tinkerbell, but the fictional farm (Barton Farm) was very like our farm here at West Ilkerton. I called the story Katy’s Exmoor and, after sending it to several agents and publishers without success, I published it myself. Local shops and horsey outlets were very supportive, and the book sold so well that I wrote three more (two about Katy and Trifle and one ‘stand alone’ story set on the island of Lundy, based on the real-life story of a stallion called Midnight who used to live there). The book about Midnight was made book of the month on a website called Lovereading4kids, and that resulted in a contract with a big publisher in London called Orion (now part of the Hachette group). I rewrote my existing stories for Orion, and they were published with different titles, and I also wrote two more stories about Katy and Trifle and a trilogy of books about a boy called Joe (because I’m a firm believer that horses and ponies aren’t just for girls).
Why did you decide to write pony books?
Because I’ve always loved horses and stories about them. Also, it’s much easier to write about what you know, and if you’re interested in what you’re writing about there’s a sporting chance your readers will be too!
Do you ride or have horses yourself? If not now, perhaps when you were younger? We’d love to hear about your own horses and ponies!
When I was a child growing up in London I longed for a pony, so I know what that feels like, but I was very lucky because when I was eleven my Grandma (who used to own the farm on Exmoor where we live now) bought me a pony called Jacko - a 14.1hh liver chestnut Welsh cob. It really was a dream come true worthy of any good pony story. I knew him well already and rode him regularly at weekends during term as he belonged to friends in Surrey and their children were all away at boarding school. Being told he was going to be mine was one of the best moments of my life.
Since then I’ve had lots of horses and ponies, but Jacko still holds a special place in my heart. He was as perfect as a pony could be, except he had such a long trot that he kept pulling his shoes off. Jacko appears in my Katy stories just as I remember him because I couldn’t bear to change a thing. Now we’ve got a 15.1hh home-bred hunter-type mare called Winaway, a 17hh skewbald Irish mare called Henrietta Hurry (aka Henri) and a 17hh ex-racehorse on loan from the trainer Philip Hobbs called Croix de Guerre (aka Gazza). I’ve also got two home-bred Exmoor pony fillies back at the farm and a herd of thirteen Exmoor ponies that graze the moor... So that’s EIGHTEEN horses and ponies in all!
What’s your writing routine and where do you write?
I write in the farm office. Each day is different, and it’s pretty impossible to have a routine on a busy farm, but I tend to write in the evening - sometimes until two or three in the morning - because I’m a night owl and it’s wonderfully quiet in the evening, with no phone to answer or people dropping in. I hate being distracted when I’m writing. However when my writing isn’t going so well I’m very good at distracting myself with social media sites like Facebook, and before I know what’s happened several hours have passed! So I try to be strict with myself. In fact, I often pull the plug on the router before I start work.
Where do you get your ideas?
From real life - things that have happened to me or things I’ve heard about, seen on TV or read about.
Do you ever get writer’s block and, if so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, sometimes it’s so hard to get ideas and keep writing. However, being taken on by a publisher made me treat writing like a job because there are strict deadlines, so I had to make myself work whether I wanted to or not. It can be rather like that awful homework feeling sometimes!
I find a mundane job like mucking out horses or doing the washing up can free up my thoughts again, often as not. Staring at a blank screen like a startled rabbit gets me nowhere.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I LOVE it when I’m on a roll, living in the story and I can’t get what I want to say written down fast enough. Time whizzes by, I forget about all the things I should be doing and just keep writing. It’s like being in a parallel universe. I think psychologists call the feeling ‘flow’ and it’s what happens when you get totally absorbed in what you’re doing. Another wonderful thing about being a writer is when people say they like my books.
And the worst?
Deadlines, editing and proof-reading.
If you didn’t write what other career would you love to have?
I’ve got another career, which is farming, but when I was at university I really enjoyed academic life and wanted to be an ecologist.
What was your favourite pony book growing up and why?
Am I allowed a whole series? Good! My favourite series of books were KM Peyton’s stories about a girl called Ruth Hollis and a rebellious teenager called Patrick Pennington. The first two stories are good pony stories (Fly-by-Night and The Team) but then Ruth meets Patrick and the next four books are a love story of epic proportions: Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer, The Beethoven Medal, Pennington’s Heir and Marion’s Angels). I loved those stories when I was in my early teens, and I still re-read them with as much enjoyment even though I know what’s going to happen. Now I appreciate the quality of KM Peyton’s writing and storytelling much more, but when I was a teenager I just wanted to finish the story.
One of the best moments of my life was when I met KM Peyton - with you in fact, Amanda! - at a conference in Cambridge and told her how much those books meant to me. I also told her I couldn’t help being in love with Patrick Pennington forever even though I was happily married. She told me she was in love with him too - so much so that although she tried to kill him off at the end of Marion’s Angels she was so heartbroken that she had to rewrite the ending and let him live. (Sorry, spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book!) Another boy in those stories who was very fond of Ruth was Jonathan Meredith and he, too, was a romantic, complicated character. KM Peyton put him in three more of her books: Prove Yourself A Hero, A Midsummer Night’s Death and The Last Ditch. As usual, they mixed horsey and non-horsey stories in a fascinating way which I doubt publishers would allow today. I’m really sad that horse and pony stories have to fit into a special niche nowadays. I don’t think you should have to be ‘pony mad’ to enjoy a story with ponies in it.
Here is Victoria (second left) with KM Peyton (centre), pony book expert Jane Badger (far left) and fellow pony book authors Belinda Rapley (second right) and yours truly (far right) at the pony book conference in Cambridge two years ago
How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
My first book took about a year to write, but I’d been thinking about it for several years. My story about Midnight took about four years because lots of research was involved.
When I was with Orion I was expected to produce a book roughly every eight months. For me that was a lot of pressure, especially with the farm and other commitments.
What are you working on at the moment?
A story set in the Isles of Scilly, based on a real donkey called Cuckoo who used to live on Gugh, which is an island in its own right at high tide but attached to St Agnes at low tide.
Which book are you most proud of and why? I think my story about Midnight is the one I’m most proud of. I did a tremendous amount of research for it and made some lifelong friends in the process.
Which are your favourite horse and human characters in your own books?
Apart from my gorgeous Jacko, my favourite horse character is probably Midnight. He was so talented and courageous but he became complicated and messed up because of how humans treated him. People who’d known him said I got his character just right in my story, which I was very glad to hear as I wanted to do him justice. My favourite human character is my original Katy, as she appeared in my self-published stories. In them she was rather plump, wore glasses and wasn’t much good at making friends until she met her friend Alice and learned how to ride.
Unfortunately Katy in the books published by Orion is much more glamorous. I was told by my publisher that she shouldn’t be plump or wear glasses to make her ‘more accessible’. I think making her look rather like a glamorous model on the covers actually creates a far less accessible character, but there you go!
And finally, if you were a horse, what breed/colour would you be?!
Suffolk Punch…so I’d be chesnut, without a t in the middle.
I hope you enjoyed my chat with Victoria! If you'd like to find out more about her books visit her website. Here are the links for her books:
Katy's Wild Foal Katy's Champion Pony Katy's Pony Surprise Katy's Pony Challenge Katy's Pony Summer Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe Joe and the Lightning Pony Joe and the Race to Rescue A Stallion Called Midnight
I do enjoy a good interrogation session! And you'll be pleased to know I have lots more planned! Take care, speak soon and... Happy reading! Amanda