Gigi Amateau has a new YA book out, Chancey of the Maury River. In this Author 2 Author interview Karen Spears Zacharias quizzes Amateau about the challenges of letting a horse tell his own tail, er, tale. Using her own voice, Amateau shouts praise for kids, horses and Indie booksellers.
Nobody is ever going to accuse you of soft-pedaling the YA market, are they? Your first novel, Claiming Georgia Tate, confronted the issue of incest and the lies we tell ourselves as families. Your latest book, Chancey
, addresses disabilities & neglect in both animals and children. Do you ever worry about being censored?
A: I probably worry most about censoring myself by not writing something. Sometimes, I think the perception of what Georgia Tate is about keeps it off of shelves, but I hear from readers who connect with the overall message of the big three: faith, hope, and love, so I’m all good. That’s the thing that I probably ask myself when I’m writing: is this story, is this scene, really coming from a heartfelt place?
Q: You choose to let Chancey tell his own story. Why did you pick that POV?
Well, I wanted Chancey
to pay tribute to some of my favorite animal stories: Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Misty, and even Flush by Virginia Woolf. Mainly, though, the character [Chancey]
came right on into the creating circle, so I tried to let him do his thing.
Q: What challenges did you face as a writer in making the horse the narrator to his own tale?
You know, horses see color differently than people do, so I tried to use most of the color words carefully if used by Chancey
or give the color references to another character. I also made up a rule that Chancey
only really “talks” within his genus, because horses do have a pretty amazing way of communicating with each other. I figured, from the get-go, that there’s a whole slew of people who dislike anthropomorphic stories, but I’m not one of them so that didn’t really bother me. I believe animals feel; they communicate with people, and they bond with people. I know horses who make it their job to reach out and heal people, so you know, folks are either there me with or they’re not on that one. Dude, I had a mule hand me a soft brush with her mouth once because the dandy brush I was using hurt her back.
Q:Tell us more about that “hunter pace” you went on and how it helped shape the story for you.
My daughter and I love to ride together in Virginia’s mountains, and our horse, Albert, enjoyed the mountains, too, when he could see. Now, he doesn’t travel so much, except to the occasional book signing (or some times 4-H groups come to him).
A hunter pace is seven or eight cross country miles ridden over varied terrain – flat, hills, water, obstacles. Teams can ride a hunter pace at a leisurely speed or really get it on, but for each level the judges set a blind optimum time, and the riders must judge whether to walk, trot, canter or gallop (yeah!) each section of the course. The outcome of a hunter pace depends on teammates getting across the finish line together and closest to the optimum time; it’s not judged on how pretty you’re turned out, or your perfect leg position, or whether you post on the right diagonal. Good and correct form and turnout are important every time you ride, but even beginning riders can find success with the hunter pace and build their confidence, so a hunter pace was the perfect way for the character, Trevor, to achieve his goal of winning a blue ribbon. I think the hunter pace chapter was one of the first chapters I wrote.
My first hunter pace changed the way I ride and the way Albert and I work together. I’ll always credit the Glenmore Hunter Pace in Rockbridge County with showing me how it feels to canter and gallop without fear. My horse took care of me, and so I finally relaxed.
Q: I love the tenderness of the relationship between Claire and Chancey. Your own Appaloosa and daughter were the inspiration for this story. Tell us how the idea of the story gelled for you
Thank you for saying that about Claire and Chancey
. Our horse, Albert, is kind of a curmudgeon on the outside, but he has incredible heart and is so attuned to the needs of the children around him that the writing went really well for me as long as I kept returning to the heart of that horse and his connection to the little girl. My Albert lives a good life, so I roughed Chancey
up a little bit to make his friendship with Claire all the sweeter once they find each other.
We keep our horses in central Virginia – and as much as I love Richmond, a horse story needs a sweeping, glorious landscape. Rockbridge County, Virginia, the most beautiful place on earth to me, seemed like the perfect setting.
Q: You provide a lot of insider information about horses in general, and insight into the silent ways in which they communicate with others. Only a real horsewoman would know these things. When did you first fall in love with the animal with the long gams?
The real horsewoman in our family is my daughter. I feel like I am an eternal beginner! I started riding eleven years ago, right when Judith started riding. Sharing a love of horses keeps us close, and we’ve had so many adventures – clearing trails in national forest wilderness, learning to play polo, hacks through the mountains, swimming with our horses.
Q: What are three things a writer needs to keep in mind when writing for a YA audience?
A: Lord, I don’t know. Let me think. Truthfully, I’ve learned the most about writing YA from reading the work of young adult authors themselves. The students I’ve worked with write about big, important themes: family, belonging, friendship, separation, survival. Even when they’re writing horror, thriller, or fantasy, heart usually reveals itself as the motivating force in their work.
Teens face some serious shit in their lives – parents deploying to war, parents not accepting them, juggling caregiving and school, feeling left out, grandparents with bone cancer, chronic health issues of their own, worrying that if they haven’t talked to their significant other then the love is gone – and when they write about what they’re facing they use the word shit, among other good, strong words; it’s their job to do so, they’re teenagers. Oh, and I’ve learned from them that I use the word ‘beautiful’ too often in my work.
Q: Authors, nowadays, have to go about doing the bulk of their own publicity. What’s your system for getting word out about your books?
Fortunately, Richmond area readers support a number of awesome indie bookstores. Indies make excellent partners in getting the word out about a new book because of their strong and long relationships with readers. I launch my books at Fountain Bookstore, who also comes off-site with me to the barn when I meet with 4-H clubs, and Narnia Children’s Books. Last fall, we got a city permit to shut down a side street, and I brought Albert to Narnia. His vet came, too, and she x-rayed her husband’s arm from the mobile x-ray unit. Albert enjoyed every morsel of clover handed to him by the most precious child dancing under his mouth and singing, “Clovah for suppah, Albutt, Clovah for suppah.” Oh, and Wild Rumpus in Minnesota brought a horse named Misto into their store!! See, where else can authors find this kind of support?
I keep a big e-mail list, too, and, usually, I work up postcards that the stores and I can give out. Candlewick Press assigns me a great publicist, so they help identify any special interest groups, and they also work closely with schools and libraries. I do use Facebook, and I blog (http://www.bufflehead.wordpress.com), though I think I’m not even scratching the surface on the Internet. One day, I’m going to do a reading in Second Life…I’ll have to figure that out first.
Q: Take us through your day as an author. What are you working on next?
A: I wake up around seven and say to myself, “I’m going to be early tonight.” I drive my daughter to school, then come home and make a strong latte and read the paper – an actual paper, not an online paper. While I clean the house, I think about what I’m going to work on that day. Then I try not to check e-mails, but I do it every day even though I say I’m not going to, so I make myself feel better by calling this “marketing and pr.”
I may work in the garden or enjoy a short yoga practice, and if so, I call this writing, too because I’m working stuff out in my mind. If I have a day with no volunteer meetings or school visits, I write for about three hours before I pick up Judith. By the time we get home from school, I’ve crossed the James River at least four times, so every day has a little something wonderful there.
In the afternoon, more “pr.” Or, I might work in the garden for two hours; that’s more writing. Or, I go ride Albert, and I call this, “research.” I usually make an awesome dinner and then write or revise for another two or three hours at night. I clean the house again because we are so messy, or pay bills, then I go to bed around 11:00 or 11:30 with research-reading or sometimes fun-reading. Probably most nights, I fall asleep about 1:00 a.m.
Right now, I’m revising a second horse story, drafting a new YA novel, starting an historical fiction YA story, and trying to keep up with my horse blog.
Q: If you could have a two-hour lunch with anyone in the publishing business right now, author or publisher, who would it be and why?
Author: Edwidge Danticat. I love her work, and I love Haiti.
Publisher: Karen Lotz, President & Publisher, Candlewick Press. Karen Lotz inspires me, makes me laugh, and helps me see things right.