Saturday, 26 March 2011

Janet Rising: Interview

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like Janet Rising's Pony Whisperer series.  Janet, who besides being a writer is the current Editor of Pony Magazine, kindly agreed to do an interview for the site, and here it is.  





When did you first get the horsy bug?

I have always had the horsy bug – it’s more a disease. I am the only one in my family to be so afflicted and I have no idea where it came from – it must have skipped a couple of generations. As a child I had hundreds of model ponies of various sizes (still stashed away in my loft), I drew, wrote about and dreamed ponies, galloped around the garden and rushed out to feed the rag-and-bone man’s horse whenever it clip-clopped along our road. I had no hope of getting a pony of my own but it didn’t stop me being involved with horses. I loved horses so much, it hurt. I’m still fascinated by all equines, and no time seems wasted looking at and learning about them.

Fortunately we lived in a suburb in Essex on the edge of the green belt, just two miles from a picturesque village rich in history where a beautiful carriage and stable block had been turned into a riding school, and where I learnt to ride from the age of nine – just as soon as I could save up for a lesson. Later, when I was more useful and able to work there at weekends with my friends we had the most fantastic and hair-raising times – we even stayed in the old loft overnight during the summer (very spooky, especially as there was a graveyard next door). I really was incredibly lucky – and gained so much experience. My instructress was a fantastic character, who liked to tell you that if brains were a disease you’d be in the best of health, amongst other choice sayings. Her particular brand of constructive criticism (it hadn’t been invented then) was to yell across the school at you, “VERY BAD, VERY, VERY BAD!” I loved her to bits and miss her very much. 

Do you have any animals of your own?

I am the custodian of one mule, Twoy (pronounced 2e)) who is 32. We’ve been together since he was weaned. He is a seriously cool mule-bay with a mealy muzzle and a black line along his belly where God sewed him up. He lives with my friend’s horses. We also have an imaginary Dachshund called Peanut (my husband and I – the impending royal wedding is getting to me – intend to get a couple of real ones one day).




What did you read as a child?

Pony books, mostly – ever since good attendance at Sunday School won me a copy of Jill’s Gymkhana. I loved visiting the library and would swoop up all the Jill books with their beautiful Caney illustrations – I’ve always coveted Jill lips and jodhpurs. I read as many PTs as I could lay my hands on, although Three Ponies and Shannan was my favourite. I loved the Silver Brumby series and anything by KM Peyton and Caroline Akrill. I was once naïve enough to read a short story of Caroline Akrill’s aboard a crowded train carriage, causing fellow passengers to lean away from me as I cried with laughter. I must have read other, non-horsy books but I can only remember Winnie the Pooh and various works of Enid Blyton.

What do you read now?

Oh, anything highbrow – Booker Prize titles, that sort of thing. Actually, I am appallingly badly read. I love reading children’s books – David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson, for example, plus Dick Francis and Chris Ryan. I can also read the odd western and Agatha Christie. I can’t tackle huge tomes – I get totally lost if I can’t finish something in a couple of hits. I enjoy some non fiction – books about equestrian art and horses in history and war. I love anything that makes me laugh or makes me cry, and I totally don’t get chick lit. One of my favourite books is Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Gossmith, originally serialised in PUNCH in 1888-89. I used to love reading PUNCH (although not in the 1880s), especially anything by the very clever Alan Coren. The cartoons were a delight, too.

If you could be given any book you don’t actually have already, what would it be?

The Medieval Warhorse: From Byzantium to the Crusades by Ann Hyland

If you could give someone a book for World Book Day, what would it be?

Winnie the Pooh. It’s wasted on children and whoever let Disney get hold of it should be banished from the Kingdom.

Can you tell me something about your career?  Did you always want to write?

Yes. Always. I had my first short story published in PONY when I was fourteen, which fired me up a bit. I contributed to PONY for many years as a freelance whilst I was working with horses. I told some woman at school masquerading as a careers adviser I wanted either to be a writer or to work with horses but either she was hard of hearing (or working for a commission) or I was incoherent because she was determined I should work in a bank or building society. Ignoring her ‘advice’ I took myself off to work with horses and then on a donkey stud. After attending secretarial college I worked for an advertising agency and a marketing company before applying to be the editor of PONY. As I had worked for them for so long, and also written for Horse&Rider (a couple of horsy soap operas and a whodunit, amongst more serious pieces), Kate Austin, granddaughter of PONY’s founder, David Murphy, took a huge gamble, and me on and I’ve always been grateful to her.

Did you read PONY Magazine when you were young?

Avidly! I always wanted to be the editor and consider myself extremely lucky. It isn’t quite how I imagined it – there have been lots of serious business things I’ve had to get my head around – but I still manage to write a lot, which is the best bit.

Do you think PONY Magazine has changed while you’ve been editor?

I hope so. Whenever the team looks back over issues even just a year old, it always looks so different! And of course, that is how it should be. If it looked the same then we’d be doing something wrong. It isn’t just the design – although this is probably the most striking change to bring it more in line with the teen magazines. Our copy is shorter and sharper to grab readers and pull them into the feature, and we often joke that you’ll see a subject covered in Horse&Rider over ten pages, then see the same subject condensed into a double-page-spread in PONY! The team has to get a feature across in 800 words so it isn’t for everyone. Crisp, concise copy! That’s one reason why we have so few contributors – précis, précis, précis!

PONY Magazine used to have a regular short story.  You tend to have photo stories now but not a story as such.  Have children’s expectations of magazines and stories changed, do you think?

Horsy girls will always enjoy pony stories. We do occasionally feature a short story but I accept only stories that surprise or move me. Also, most of those submitted are written with much younger readers in mind. We hold a short story competition for readers every year, which attracts a large number of entries. The winner and runners up are published in PONY and the Annual. I am always impressed by the standard and we enjoy reading them all – some have the most amazing plots and ideas – and no, I’ve never pinched any!

PONY Magazine has embraced the multimedia age now.  Do you ever see a time when magazine publication will cease and we will be left only with an internet version?

Clearly we are in a time of transition. The paper product is loved by many and there are still plenty of people who prefer to hold a book to a Kindle but I can’t help feeling that books and magazines will go the same way as cheques and eventually be phased out to save money and resources. PONY is already available as an app. I have to say the idea of having so many books on one little device such as a Kindle must have fantastic implications for schools. I do fear, though, that it is a case of we’ll get what we are told we want. Change is tricky – and the hardest thing to do now is to get people used to paying for digital information, when so much is out there for free, even though you stand a good chance of reading someone’s homework.

Do you think the pony book market has changed over the years?

Yes and no. Yes, there’s more pink, there’s more fantasy, but pony-mad girls will always be hungry for pony stories. They still have angst about not getting a pony, and then angst about getting a pony, about how they fit in, and how they achieve their ambitions. The characters may be from a different demographic, to those of years ago,  and the dialogue more up-to-date, but the basic thirst for stories doesn’t really change. 

What gave you the idea for the Pony Whisperer series?

People would insist on telling me what their horse was saying – and I thought they probably weren’t thinking that at all. I wanted to explore what would happen if you really could hear what horses were saying – and how different it would be from our ideas. Pia imagines Drummer saying all sorts of lovely things – but the reality is somewhat different – although he’s all heart really!

When you decided to write a pony book series, what did you want to achieve?

I just wanted to write a book about a girl who loved her pony, but had lots of issues in her life that she tried, but failed to solve, but was helped through them by her pony. Originally I only had the first book in my head, but Hodder wanted four, then six in the series, which I got excited about!

There’s a fair number of pony/horse whisperer books out there now, where the heroine has this great gift of being able to communicate with a horse, together with an exposure to modern horse whisperer theory.  Pia’s gift is only there because she picked up a statue.  Otherwise, she’s a perfectly normal teenager.  Is this a comment on the horse whisperer genre?

I always feel a bit dim and confused when I read critics’ comments about books I have read, offering all sorts of explanations and dark suggestions the story has thrown up for them, and analysing what the author was trying to say when all I did was enjoy the story. Actually, I didn’t have an agenda or an axe to grind, I just wanted to write a pony story. I think if there was any sort of message in the books it’s that Drummer is the one constant in Pia’s life, and she always seeks his company when she is troubled, in the same way many girls (and boys) do with their ponies. Even before she could hear Drummer, he was always there for Pia, and horses and ponies do appear to have empathy with us when we are down. It’s always helpful to have a sounding board, even when it is one-way. And I also wanted Pia’s enemy to have reasons for being a bit horrid – rather than just being rich and spoilt.

It’s a shame the media is in love with the idea of horse whisperers, rather than behaviourists. Everyone else slaps the title of The Pony Whisperer on Pia, it isn’t something she claims to be. She’s a bit embarrassed by it. And who knows? I struggle with the claim that some people can literally ‘hear’ what animals are saying but like so many things, just because I have no gift for it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

You handled the romance between Pia and James very subtly – like Josephine Pullein-Thompson with Noel and Henry, nothing happens until the end of the series, and even then, it could still go either way.  What do you think about the trend to include romance in pony books?

I think pony girls are divided. Some love a bit of romance, others hate it. Some like the idea of some romance, but recoil from any reality of it. Just as young girls might adore pop stars from afar, if they met their idol, and he wanted to take it further, the reality of it would be very unattractive! I wanted Pia to be attracted to James, but unwilling and unsure how to take it further. She doesn’t know how to flirt, she says she would die if anyone knew how much she likes him. Also, I think a lot of girls are attracted to boys who have horses, and can ride well.

I have to ask about the Ouija board scene, which nearly caused me heart failure in your first book before it emerges as a Thing Best Avoided.  Do you see teenagers flirting with the occult now?  I wondered why you included that scene in the book.

No great secret or reason, I just know that left to their own devices, young people experiment and try things. The séance threw up different responses by different characters: Dee was all matter-of-fact, Pia and Bean were scared stiff, Katy was scared but sensible and unwilling to show it and James, being a boy, just thought it was funny.

Pia has to contend with a broken family and her parents’ efforts at new relationships, but she does not suffer rivers of angst: she just gets on with things.  Do you think this is the best model for life?  

Yes, I wrote this series as a self-help book for young girls! Oh hold on, actually, I didn’t. I get a bit annoyed with books where a character is always moping about and going on and on and on about something. I like to feel a variety of emotions when I read a book – but I don’t want to have to hide the razor blades under lock and key every time I pick it up. I think when you first experience an emotion the intensity can be overwhelming as you have no point of reference. As you get older you get used to various emotions fighting for attention and learn that they ebb and flow. I think that’s why young readers love a bit of sadness and drama – their inexperience exaggerates everything, causing them to feel very deeply about everything.

The Pony Whisperer series has now come to an end with the appearance of the sixth book.  What are your plans now the Pony Whisperer series has finished?

I have lots of ideas – too many, which means I’m having trouble concentrating on just one. But I will! 

3 comments:

Christina Wilsdon said...

What a marvelous interview. And so many great book recomnendations. This writer sounds like she'd be a fabulous person to laugh and yak with in a pub. Super information, thanks for doing this!

Nicky Moffatt said...

I was fortunate enough to work with Janet for many years and have always admired her as a writer and a friend. I have read all six books in The Pony Whisperer series and loved every single one of them. There are lots of 'issues' in the books that every young pony mad girl - or boy - might have to deal with in their lives, but the underlying fact is that her pony Drummer is always there to make everything seem better. A great read, would highly recommend them to both adults and children.

Jane Badger said...

I loved them too. Great reads all, as you say!