Friday, 7 October 2011

The Dangers of Horses - Linda Newbery

As soon as I knew there would be horses in THE DAMAGE DONE, I saw the risk of putting off readers who might take it for a Horse Book. That's partly why I was so insistent that the cover on first publication shouldn't show a horse. But, as I said in my previous post, I don't think the Anne Magill painting, highly accomplished though it is, captures the atmosphere of the story. The new cover I think does better, and this time there are horses, though not in the foreground.

As a child, I was addicted to horse and pony stories to the point where my parents once tried to ban me from reading any more. I devoured everything by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Josephine, Christine and Diana, and also the less Pony-Club-and-competition-oriented stories by Monica Edwards. Later there was the marvellous K M Peyton. From the Pullein-Thompsons, in particular, I absorbed all sorts of information about eggbutt snaffles, impulsion and double oxers. If only I could have learned the Periodic Table or French irregular verbs as avidly. My addiction also led to hours at the local riding school devotedly mucking out stables and cleaning saddlery in exchange for free rides.

In the Pullein-Thompson books, enthusiasm for riding was inextricably linked with fox-hunting. It wasn't part of my riding-school experience, but the stories made it clear that along with your detailed knowledge of laminitis, brushing boots and bran mashes you were expected to want to hunt, to be fully acquainted with hunting etiquette and to make every effort to acquit yourself well. To head a fox in the hunting field would be shameful, and to be sent home by the Master the ultimate disgrace. The morality of hunting was never explored (as far as I can remember); anyone opposed to it would be seen as eccentric as best. In one of Christine Pullein-Thompson's stories - I can't recall which - a local landowner anxious about the hound-pack frightening her deer is considered a prissy spoilsport. Anyway, I'd better not get side-tracked. I resisted all that and am firmly anti-bloodsports of all kinds. I've never understood how people who lavish every kind of attention on their horses and ponies can happily set off for a day whose purpose is to inflict terror and death on another animal. It's an arrogant, domineering aspect of horseyness which I've always disliked.

When I wrote THE DAMAGE DONE, another horse story was at the back, and often the front, of my mind - EQUUS, by Peter Shaffer, a very striking play and later a film, about a deeply disturbed boy who has blinded six horses and is now being treated by a psychiatrist. We start by knowing about the awful crime committed by this boy, Alan Strang, yet come to understand the mystical, religious reverence he has for horses, and the opposing impulses that lead him to attack them so horrifically. I saw the play in the 1970s, with Peter Firth playing Alan; more recently the play has received wide publicity with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role. In the theatre, the horses are stylised representations played by actors according to Shaffer's very precise instructions and to curiously moving effect; I prefer it to the film, which of course uses real animals.

At the time I wrote the novel, there were spasmodic reports of attacks on horses in country fields, along with speculation about who would do this and why. Class envy? If not that, then why horses, rather than cows or sheep, which would surely be easier to corner? In my story, there are local rumours of such attacks, and Kirsty's first thought is that it would be daunting for anyone unfamiliar with horses to approach large, unpredictable animals in fields at night; it must be someone who knows how to handle them, and that makes her see the strange boy she meets early on as a suspect. She imagines someone stalking "with the intention of wounding and hurting; imagined her own hand grasping the knife, her senses burning with some uncontrollable anger. If you could do that, what could you not do?"

THE DAMAGE DONE began, as several of my novels have, with a picture in my mind. Rather similar to the new cover, it was of a girl, at dusk, looking out into fields and feeling afraid. What she was afraid of I didn't at first know, but gradually Kirsty took shape, her own fears and insecurities combining with anxiety for the horses in her care. I didn't want Kirsty to be a particularly horsey girl, though she'd have to be fairly competent to take charge as she does; she's been landed in this situation by her competitive brother, who runs a small livery yard but now has bigger things in his sights. Set against the horseyness of the livery yard and the people who frequent it is Dally, the self-contained, forthright boy who has his own reasons for staying hidden. Dally's attitude towards horses and riders is not unlike Alan Strang's in EQUUS: "Putting them through their paces! Bloody gymkhanas! ... No one understands," Alan says, and Dally: "Why do they put up with it? Why do they let you order them about? Do this, walk like this, jump that - what gives anyone the right?"

Kirsty's temporary responsibility for horses gives her a demanding occupation which allows her to avoid the crowded public places for which she's developed a phobia; it lets her avoid facing questions about her future; and above all, makes her constantly anxious for the horses in her care, several of them turned out in fields not visible from the house. I hope it's a novel with horses in it, rather than horse story, primarily about Kirsty's own traumas - her sense of being let down by everyone she thinks she should be able to trust, her fear of being alone set against her greater fear of crowds, and her gradual emergence from the panic that stifles her. The danger to the horses, though real, is also a metaphor for all that Kirsty finds threatening in her dealings with people.

Dysart, the psychologist in EQUUS, finds himself out of his depth in his dealings with Alan: "The only thing I know is this: a horse's head is finally unknowable to me. Yet I handle children's heads - which I must presume to be more complicated ... " And there's a close but oblique borrowing from EQUUS quite well buried in the narrative. I could offer a prize if I thought anyone was likely to find it.




16 comments:

Nicola Morgan said...

Linda, I recognise myself in the horse-mad girl you were! I devoured those Pullein-T books.

Interesting that you thought a horse on the cover might put people off. I'd never thought of that. I certainly went with horse-covers on my Highwayman books and the US cover for H's Footsteps does, too. But then you can't have a highwayman without a horse!

Good luck with the new book!

Linda Newbery said...

Thanks, Nicola - no, historical horses are quite all right, I think. It's in a modern context that they seem to strike the wrong notes!

Dan Holloway said...

I too remember when there was a string of particularly nasty equine mutilations in the news. Very unsettling.

Your talk of Equus raises what is one of the hardest thngs for us to handle as writers writing in the present (and the thing that is the most frequent derailer of suspension of disbelief in even the best soap operas - Eastenders' "Matesgate" instead of Facebook for example, the recent post here I think I seem to remember about writers not liking mobile phones) - how to handle the characters' awareness or unawareness of their cultural surroundings. When the horse mutilations were in the news, everyone I knew was talking about Equus - how did you, as a writer, handle the fact that you were dealing with a subject that so echoed such a famous work? Did you find yorself in situations where you felt uncomfortabkle not having your characters talk about it? In other words, I guess, did you feel you were writing an alternate reality in which the only difference was that Equus hadn't been written, or that you were writing our reality, and had to work your characters' knowledge of Equus into that?

It strikes me this whole area is one that isn't touched on enough in "how-to" books and probably should be.

Linda Newbery said...

Thanks, Dan - that's an interesting point, and on a mundane level reminds me that characters in The Archers never listen to The Archers, so what are we supposed to imagine Radio 4 is broadcasting at 7 o'clock every weekday evening? As for your point - I don't think Kirsty would necessarily have heard of EQUUS. Her father would have, though, and I can only put his non-mentioning it down to the fact that he's almost oblivious of Kirsty's concerns. Perhaps he thought about EQUUS, but we needn't know that.

The "how-to books" point is an interesting one, especially as I am about to start working on one! I will mention this to my co-writer - thanks.

adele said...

I was never a horse mad girl but I went to school with lots of them. One of them even pretended to BE a horse much of the time. But this is a fascinating post. And so good that Damage Done will be back again. Love that book.

Linda Newbery said...

Nicola - I am now the owner of a Kindle, and your TWEET RIGHT was my first purchase! It's very clear and comprehensive (and witty) but has confirmed that Tweeting is not for me. I was very interested in your biographical details at the end - especially in view of the "how-to" book I'll soon be working on, mentioned above. Thanks!

Dan Holloway said...

yes, we always see people in Eastenders watching telly but they're never watching Eastenders (almost always it's The Weakest Link)!

How fortuitous you're about to start a how-to book! It's a question I have to tackle all the time. I tend to write about people in their late teens and early twenties, often musicians, and I face it constantly. The people I write about would communicate with those who are driving the story forward via text or Facebook chat, and they would spend a lot of their time talking about popular culture, and they'd be aware, for example, of the various media bruhahas surrrounding Amy Winehouse's death, and as they face issues of fame and addiction it would be unnatural of them not to talk about it, or at least think about it. On the other hand, writing these things head-on puts an instant shelf-life on your book after which it's no longer something people of that age will read because they relate to it - it's what people will read more for nostalgia, or the "underlying message". So it's a constant battle between to keep one's readers whilst not making the book an item of "fashion" (I have to say I err on the latter side because I find how we relate to our surrounding culture *now* too interesting a question to want to try and make the story timeless by removing it from, say, social media - even something like the differences between instant chat and texting poses fascinating questions about how we construct ourselves to those around us that are too juicy to ignore), and any guidance on how to walk through the minefield would be hugely invaluable.

Taking the point further - this is one great thing about writing for Kindle - it allows our writing to respond to the contemporary (there's been lots of debate in teh media about Graham Swift's contentions about "contemporary novels" recently) in a way that the timeframe of paper publishing just doesn't allow.

Linda Newbery said...

This is really interesting, and is in fact the reason why I often choose to write about characters who keep themselves at a distance from their peers, Kirsty being one such.

What is such a difficulty when writing about NOW is a positive advantage, though, when writing about the past. I am currently writing something set in the Sixties, and am enjoying putting in such references as the Beatles visiting the Maharishi and George Harrison learning to play the sitar. With the part of that novel that's set in the present, 2010 to be exact, I rejected the urge to have characters talking about the General Election, which they surely would have been doing.

You're absolutely right about Kindle publishing. With THE DAMAGE DONE, although I didn't want to imply that it's set in 2011, I was able to update such details as people smoking in the pub - which seems outrageous now!

Katherine Roberts said...

But Linda, I buy books BECAUSE they have a horse on the cover...

I discovered Jojo Moyes that way, after reading her excellent "Horse Dancer", which is an adult horse book in the same way yours is a YA horse book, with the main focus being on the human characters and their stories.

So glad you squeezed in some small ones on the cover!

Linda Newbery said...

Thanks, Katherine. Didn't know about Jojo Moyes - will look her up! That's the second book recommended to me today. The other is THE HORSE GIRL, by Mary Finn, which looks interesting, set at the time of Stubbs' painting and his anatomical studies of horses.

Karen said...

Great cover, Linda. Good luck with the book x

dirtywhitecandy said...

Hi Linda
I'm an unashamed horse nerd, and a Peter Shaffer nerd too. As Mr Shaffer showed, there's potential in these animals for stories far beyond simple riding and animal stories. Your novel sounds intriguing.
Was also laughing about your exchange with Dan about dating a book - I'd always wondered if people in Coronation St watched Coronation St! I couldn't bear to watch it to find out, though.

JO said...

Ah Equus - I saw it a few years ago, with Simon Callow, and it was extraordinary.

And those wonderful pony books of my childhood! (I devoured books by Pat Smythe). So I think your cover is fab! Good luck with it.

madwippitt said...

Never been able - or had any desire either - to watch Equus after hearing what the subject is about. One of the horses at a livery yard I worked at was attacked by the Horse Ripper as he was known locally - and I knew another at a private yard, who was attacked not just once, but twice. She was the sweetest, most gentle mare, and it was sickening.
I second Katherine Roberts about covers - if I see a horse on it I'll pick it up to see what it's about too!

Linda Newbery said...

It is sickening. Anyone who owns a horse must be in a state of constant worry, whether such things are currently going on, or not. Part of the reason I prefer the theatrical EQUUS to the film is that the use of stage horses, highly effective though they are, removes us a stage from the horror of the attack.

Thank you, Jo and Karen - I'm v glad you liked the cover.

Hywela Lyn said...

Just catching up with posts on this blog and just had to respond to this, having been'horse mad' since I was a tiny child. I saved up for five years to buy my first horse, and like others have said devoured all the horse books I could lay my hands on. If it had a horse on the cover, I wanted to read it!

I haven't seen or read Equus, either, it would upset me too much as I love horses and all animals so much and get very unhappy and angry when I hear of them being hurt or abused. Like Madwippitt said, it seems to be the sweetest, most gentle horses that get attacked, probably because they're so trusting. How sickening that anyone could abuse that trust so badly!