Monday, July 14, 2014

Hannah Hooton, Equine Author

British-born, Hannah Hooton was brought up in Zimbabwe where she was fortunate enough to indulge in her passion for horses and show jumping. On returning to UK in her early twenties, Hannah discovered the thrills of horse racing and developed a penchant for Irish jump jockey, Ruby Walsh (which, 13 years on, still hasn't completely abated). But at 5 foot 11 inches, competing was never an option (and she loves food too much to even try).
Hannah backpacked around Australia where she worked in various racing yards and stud farms, including Coolmore, where she was lucky enough to meet stallions such as Fastnet Rock and Encosta de Lago and look after one of the most regally bred yet unraced horses in modern history: L'on Vite - a daughter of Secretariat and Canadian champion, Fanfreluche (she was very grouchy and nippy, but Hannah doted on her).
On returning to UK, Hannah landed a job at Juddmonte Farms, later the home of Frankel, and although she never got to meet the Great One, she prides herself on having been involved in registering his conception!  Although always a hobby, writing wasn't taken seriously as a career option until Hannah began posting her work on a fan fiction site and was overwhelmed by the hunger readers had for her equine romances. Hannah went back to school and for four years studied writing in all its many forms from novel writing to journalism, English literature, script writing for screen, stage and radio and recently graduated with a first class honors degree.
Taken on by an agent not long into her studies, Hannah later chose to part ways and follow the Indie-publishing route. Her first novel, At Long Odds, is the foundation book to all series that have and will follow, including the Aspen Valley Series of which the third installment, Share and Share Alike, a finalist in the Washington Writers Marlene Contest 2014, has just been published.
Welcome Hannah!
When was your first encounter with a horse?
I can’t remember the precise occasion but I know it would have been with a placid bay mare called Cracker, who was a lesson pony at the Horse Sanctuary which is where I started learning to ride when I was about six. What I remember in more detail is falling off for the first time, not long after I started. That was from another lesson pony, Gypsy. She bolted with me and I clung on for as long as I could. We hurdled a tyre (my first jump!) before I tumbled off. Once I’d got over the fright I was very proud of my fall and eagerly awaited the next (only because I’d heard it said it took seven falls to make a rider, and I obviously misunderstood it somewhat!).
Where do you like to ride?
Sadly I don’t ride much these days. I’m more of an armchair rider now! But when I was in the saddle, I was hooked on show jumping. I took polo lessons and later exercised a friend’s polo ponies when I went through a polo craze after reading Jilly Cooper’s Polo. And later, I bought an OTTB called Tomahawk Chop – thoroughbreds have always been my favorite breed – and we used to have fantastic outrides in Zimbabwe. We would gallop along the dirt roads where the silt had gathered on the edges and it was soft underfoot and I’d fantasize about discovering the key to Tommo’s dynamite speed and we would be invited to Dubai and we’d win the World Cup. Nowadays, I’m a racing fanatic, but I still love my jumping so National Hunt racing ticks both those boxes!
What is the premise behind your Aspen Valley racing romance series?
The Aspen Valley series didn’t start out as a series at all. It was simply going to be Keeping the Peace and then I would move on. But the setting, a fictional town in Somerset called Helensvale (actually named after the area where I learnt to ride in Zimbabwe) was just so real and appealing and I adored the main characters, Pippa and Jack, so much I just couldn’t bring myself to leave there. Now I’m three books in, and working on three more and I still can’t say with any certainty that it’ll end with six.
But back to your question about premise – basically there were a couple of things I wanted to speak out about...
1) While I respect opposing opinions on racing, it is my belief that on the whole it is not cruel. Certainly, there are some bad eggs in the game, just like everything in life, but I think racing is sometimes unfairly tarred with the same brush and I wanted to write stories about the people behind racing and to show that they aren’t cold-hearted killers. Most of them work very hard for little financial reward and dote on their horses. And when the chips are down and while the media is slinging mud at them, they are often the ones who are hurting the most and I wanted to expose that.
2) Racing also has a lot to offer as an industry. There are hundreds of different jobs – from trainers to farriers to bloodstock agents to nutritionists... the list goes on and if we were to ban racing what would become of all the people employed in those roles? Racing doesn’t stop at the stable door, so I set out to write novels each with a different perspective within the industry. Keeping the Peace’s protagonist is a racing secretary; Giving Chase’s is an amateur jockey, Share and Share Alike is a member of a racehorse syndicate.
Are your characters/events based upon personal experience?
Plenty of material in my novels is adapted from personal experience or from the experiences of others, and often that helps to authenticate the stories. For instance, I don’t think I would have been able to write from the perspective of a jockey if I hadn’t already known how to ride and experienced the thrill of galloping headlong towards a jump then getting dumped on the landing side! I love writing race scenes and it’s tricky to make each one unique and exciting without resorting to the same tactics. Instead I rely a lot on emotion; before writing the scene I pinpoint what I want the writer to feel – excitement, euphoria, sadness, disappointment and then I write the scene to achieve that. Racing is full of emotion – I can’t tell you how many times I cried watching Kauto Star race and it’s not just me. When he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock, everyone was crying – his trainer, his lass, the people in the crowds. It was incredibly moving to see an old warrior return to conquer his young challenger.
Hannah working at the track in Australia.
Describe your main character and the horses...
I’ll start with horses since they are often the most real to me! Peace Offering is the star of Keeping the Peace. He’s a bit of a goof, laidback and loveable and never in a hurry, which isn’t a great trait if you’re a racehorse! Physically, he is based on my favorite racehorse of all time, Kauto Star. Ta’ Qali is introduced in Book Two, a “black” gelding (we all know you don’t get pure black thoroughbreds, but to keep it simple and not have to explain the whole dark bay/brown thing, he’s black!), who comes to the stable with a saddlebag full of quirks.
Those are drawn on my experiences with a horse I used to ride called Blue Gem – hugely talented and terrific on her day, but put the slightest bit of pressure on the reins when leading her and she’d go up on her hindlegs.
There are plenty more equine characters at Aspen Valley – Virtuoso, Black Russian, Dexter, Bold Phoenix, Blue Jean Baby, Kickstart Murphy... but so far Peace Offering and Ta’ Qali have been the main equine protagonists.
In At Long Odds, my first book and not part of the Aspen Valley series, there’s a colt called Caspian, who will always hold a special place in my heart because he was the first horse I “owned” in fiction! Now, I know with most series one would have the same main character or protagonist for all volumes, but these are romances as well as racing novels – and I don’t know about you, but I’d be getting a bit bored with things if the same couple fell in and out of love half a dozen times, so I chose to use a different protagonist in each novel, but I keep the heroes and heroines of past novels as secondary characters, so you still get to follow them after their HEAs. Pippa, the main character in Keeping the Peace, and is still my all-time favorite. Funny, resourceful, but with no clue how to do her job as a racing secretary to moody trainer Jack Carmichael, she has flaws that everyone can relate to. Francesca or “Frankie” is the heroine in Giving Chase (Book 2). Frankie is a bit younger than Pippa, both in years and maturity. She’s about twenty-three in Giving Chase and still trying to figure out where she’s going in life and her journey of self-discovery runs parallel to that of Ta’ Qali’s. She struggles with confidence and strength of conviction and is susceptible to influence, especially from her crush, champion jockey Rhys Bradford.
Tessa is the protagonist of Share and Share Alike (Book 3) and is almost a polar opposite to Frankie. She’s bolshy, confident, and not afraid to voice her opinion, which sometimes works well for her, but more often than not doesn’t, and her feisty character clashes with F.D. “Sin” Sinclair, an introverted and measured university lecturer.
Of the heroes, I’d say Jack is my favorite – but then, while they’re all different, I’ve fallen in love with each and every one of my heroes alongside my heroines.
Hannah and Selkirk
How do you maintain thoughts and ideas?
I don’t know that there is much maintenance going on in my thoughts! I think it’s safe to say I don’t have a very organized mental filing system. But when I get an idea, I’ll throw it around to see how it feels. Lots get tossed on the trash heap and I have to be careful with the ideas which feel new and appealing until I realize they are just a rehash of another story.
Sometimes an idea will grow from a title (Giving Chase went through about five different name changes). Once I’ve got the idea, I’ll set up an Excel spreadsheet and draw up a five-act structure. I’ll give myself a word limit then start filling in the gaps. 10 times out of 10 the “plan” evolves and changes as the novel grows, but when you’re writing 120,000 words, it helps to have some sort of structure written down rather than floating in your head. I also keep my phone handy for those times when a random phrase pops into my head or I hear something funny and I’ll jot it down in a draft message (I tried the notebook and pen thing but it just didn’t work for me).
Where do you like to write?
On my sofa in the living room. It’s comfy (although I now suffer from chronic back pain because of it) and the kitchen is only a few steps away (writing is hungry work). Working on the sofa also means my cat, Atticus (named after the feline character in Giving Chase, who in turn was named after the character in To Kill A Mockingbird) can go to sleep either on the armrest next to me or on the back of the sofa against my shoulders. Atticus loves being close and if there’s nowhere for him to settle down, he’ll force his way onto my lap and step all over my laptop, pressing different key combinations which turns the screen upside down.
One day soon I’ll get a proper desk and chair, but the ones I want are generally too expensive and I’m useless at assembling the ones from IKEA.
What are you currently writing?
Right now I’m putting together the plan for Aspen Valley Book 4. The working title is Making the Running and is about a stable lass’s quest to enable one of her horses to show his true Cheltenham Gold Cup potential. D’Artagnan is used as The Whistler’s pacemaker – a horse in a race who sets out to ensure the pace is hot, thereby helping a stablemate’s chances of winning, but exhausting his own chances. It’s a story about torn loyalties, sacrifice, faith and of course, love. It will all come to a head at the Cheltenham Festival (I once heard an Irishman say about the Festival “If this is what Heaven is all about, then I don’t mind dying”), where old rivals from past Aspen Valley stories will clash swords once more.
Where/when is your next book signing/event?
I’ve nothing planned in the near future since my readership is more digitally-based, but I’d say keep an eye out for the ‘Books, Mud, Compost. And Horses’ website where, as well as there being a review of Share and Share Alike, I’ll also be giving away a signed paperback copy to a lucky reader.
Do you have advice for novice writers? Riders?
Any advice I’d have would apply equally to both novice writers and riders. Keep doing it. And have confidence and self-belief. Practice will improve your skills, whether it be writing or riding. And like horses can sense your fear, readers can sense a writer’s lack of self-belief. Have confidence in your characters and both you and your reader will have a pleasant experience, just like riding!
What does horsemanship mean to you?
Mutual respect. I see little purpose in abuse of horses – an unhappy horse will never perform its best. They are the most generous and gentle of beasts and given the chance they will do their best for us (most of the time!). Take a moment to think – here is this half-ton animal; it could knock me flat, trample me to death, its physicality is such that it would win every fight a human challenged it to, yet instead of doing this, the horse chooses to comply to our demands and wishes. It carries us on its back for our pleasure, entertainment, in work and into battle and submits to mastery. How can such a submission not be respected? Saying that reminds me of a favorite poem by Ronald Duncan, which many of you would probably have heard. It is simply called “The Horse”:
Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
England’s past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs; he is our inheritance.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you The Horse.
© the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation

Misbehaving at the races!
Connect with Hannah…


Do you want the purchase links for Share and Share Alike? Here's the amazon one, but give me a shout if you want the whole kaboodle:



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