Is there something you’d like to know about Jessica Owers? Read on.
How did you choose the subjects of your two books?
Peter Pan had been a childhood fascination of mine, the horse with the flashy blond mane and tail and copper colouring. I had pictures of him stuck up on my wall at university, but knew little about him because I knew so much about Phar Lap. But as I got older I sniffed a story in him that was so much bigger than a chapter in some book, or a magazine spread of 2000 words, and I was about 25 when I decided this could be my first book. As soon as I pitched it to Random House, they loved it. ‘Shannon’ was a little different. I wanted a subject that was more challenging for my second book, and Shannon fit that bill perfectly. I had less than two years to research, write and submit his biography, but I couldn’t have chosen a more exciting horse to write about. His 1940s story is a seamless compliment to Peter Pan’s 1930s tale.
Which horse did you enjoy writing about more?
I had a lot more time to write ‘Peter Pan’, and so I was heavily invested in that horse and his two men, the owner and trainer. I got to know every facet of his life, whereas the time constraints with ‘Shannon’ meant that I had to work quickly. However, Shannon’s story gave me chills and emotions that I hadn’t experienced with ’Peter Pan’, and I grew very protective of him. While Peter Pan is, in a way, everyone’s horse, I feel that Shannon will always be a bit shy, and so he’ll always be ‘mine’.
Do you lean towards historical stories for a reason?
Yes, I absolutely love history, especially the history of horse racing. The champions of the past are what this sport is all about, because they are the yardstick for the present.
What was the first racing book you ever read?
‘The Phar Lap Story’ by Michael Wilkinson, reprinted in 1983 by Budget Books after the movie came out, and upon which the screenplay ‘Phar Lap’ was based. I got a copy in 1989 from the little old lady that ran the secondhand bookstore downstairs. To this day, it remains one of my most treasured possessions.
What are your top five racing books?
‘Wild Ride: The Rise and Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm Inc.’ by Ann Hagedorn Auerback. ‘Horse Trader’ by Nick Robinson. ‘Seabiscuit: An American Legend’ by Laura Hillenbrand. ‘Secretariat: The Making of a Champion’ by William Nack. ‘The Phar Lap Story’ by Michael Wilkinson.
What sort of books do you read throughout the year?
I read mostly racing books, as it’s my business to know what has come before me and what is coming into the market. Racehorse biographies are my favourite, but occasionally I pick up fiction as an escape, or I’ll read a certain book because the writing is beautiful and I can learn from it. For example, one of my all-time favourite books is ‘We Of The Never Never’, which I read again and again.
What is your process when you write?
I’m a night owl, and write best in the late afternoon and into the very early morning. I need quietness (I’m not one of those writers that can listen to music or write in a busy cafe), and I need to be warm. Even in summer I write with a heater under my desk. I’m a very tidy author, organised with my files and I never write first drafts. When I’ve finished a manuscript, it is virtually ready for submission because I have edited, corrected and reread all the way through. Visuals are also a very important part of my work. Seeing a subject – be it a horse or human, or a farm or racecourse -– helps me write about it so much better because I aim for the heart of my subjects, not the edges. The devil is the detail.
Do you have any advice for wannabe authors?
Yes! Treat the writing game like a job, not an art. You must write a lot, and if you are working on a manuscript or project, aim for a certain goal each day or week, be it a certain number of words or a point in the story. Honour your deadlines, and learn from those that came before you. Know your craft. Words are your tools – place them carefully and simply. During the writing of ‘Peter Pan’, I read every book on writing and publishing that I could get my hands on, and I still refer back to them constantly. They were critical in my development as an author, and made the process of securing a literary agent and top publisher so much easier. But if I could pick one book to steer prospective authors in the right direction, it would be Steven King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir’. Not only is this book a writing manual, it is also a tuition tool from one of the most successful authors in publishing history.
What is the hardest part of being an author?
Very few people understand the writing life. They think that because you are at home you must be taking it easy, or that you’re ‘off’. In fact, I have no time off when I am writing a book. The manuscript or research is constantly on my mind, constantly screaming at me for attention (especially under contract). It’s a very emotional, very consuming way of life.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A riding instructor.
Who is the best racehorse you have ever seen?
I hold up Sea The Stars as the best I’ve ever seen. He was a horse that was campaigned without fear in 2009 - six Gr1s in three countries in six months, including the 2000 Guineas, English Derby, Juddmonte and Arc de Triomphe. While I saw Frankel win the Juddmonte with my own two eyes in August 2012, and he was perfection, he was not tested with an overseas preparation at any point in his career, and that lack of ambition will always stain his greatness in my mind (frustrating, because he would have won anything in a canter).
If you could pick five horses from any time to fill your dream stable, who would you pick?
Peter Pan of course, and Shannon to clatter through a mile campaign in England. Then Sea The Stars, Phar Lap and Citation. (This selection omits the obvious choices of Secretariat and Frankel and, on the long list, The Barb.)
Will you always write books about horse racing?
I think so, because I firmly believe in the acumen ‘write what you know and write what you love’. I enjoy writing about racing so much that it never feels like work, and that is a rare thing these days.
Where can I get a copy of ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Shannon’?
Unsigned copies of both books are available from good bookstores (including David Jones) and online retailers like Booktopia and Amazon (ebooks are available). Anyone can purchase a signed copy of either book (plus postage) directly through this website (subject to availability). Click on the ‘Shop’ tab.