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Author Interview: Barbara Bryan

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Barbara Bryan, author of Topanga Canyon: Fire Season.

FQ: Thank you for the opportunity to sit and chat with you about Topanga Canyon: Fire Season. You begin the story with the character Matt Barrett (fourteen years old) and how he is being shipped off to his grandfather's horse ranch in Southern California. I noted in researching your bio that you live in Southern California. I've read many things about the perils of the Santa Ana winds and how unforgiving they can be. Do you have a situation you have experienced first-hand with the formidable havoc they can impose, and if so, please share.

BRYAN: It is my pleasure to spend this time with you and your readers. Thank you so much for having me.

Fortunately, my family and I live in the city of Santa Monica and not in one of the canyons like Topanga. So, a fire caused by the Santa Ana winds in our neighborhood is unlikely. But the surrounding areas like Malibu, eleven miles away; Topanga Canyon Town Center, fourteen miles away; the Sepulveda Pass; and the famed Getty Museum have all experienced the Santa Ana fires. When the winds blow, the air turns hot and dry, affecting everyone. The winds rattle the windows, house pets become anxious, and one feels slightly on edge. I once stood on the Santa Monica bluffs and watched as the fires burned the hills in Malibu, the bright red flames and white smoke billowing into the sky. The air was heavy with ash, and I watched as tiny burning embers fell to the ground - wondering if the flames would reach the city limits. I have driven down the LA freeways a few times with fires burning on either side. I helped a close friend evacuate her home in Topanga, only for the fickle winds to shift, and while her house was spared, we watched as the homes on the other hillside burned. And I have tried to console a friend who lost everything in the Paradise Fire.

If one lives in Southern California, you are destined to feel the wrath of the winds sooner or later. If nothing else, while the air outside is filled with ash and smoke and the sky turns an off shade of grey, you go inside where the air is better, but turn on the nightly news and watch neverending film clips of burning homes and hillsides.

Oh dear, the above seems a bit much. Still, this year we've experienced an unusual amount of rain, which was terrific for helping cut the effects of our longstanding drought and covering the hills with flowers – so many that they were seen from outer space. But by September, when the Santa Anas typically start to blow, the foliage will again be bone dry, and we will collectively begin to hold our breath.

FQ: I enjoyed reading about Matt's evolving connection with the horses. What breaks my heart is the unforgivable treatment certain humans inflict upon these animals. Your focus on the illegal practice of soring was very educational for me. While I understand certain laws have been passed to prohibit this, it seems that doesn't necessarily preclude trainers from continuing to do so today. Please tell us more about what ASPCA Right Horse is doing in terms of consequences when the offender is caught doing this.

BRYAN: This is such a good question. To clarify, ASPCA Right Horse is a program dealing with horse adoptions. It is the main branch of ASPCA that focuses on cruelty to animals. Now the sad truth is that organizations such as ASPCA can do nothing to punish the wrongdoers. ASPCA has been working for decades to end the practice of soring by trying to make the public aware of the abuse and pressuring the government. Regrettably, nothing will change until Congress and the State Legislatures pass legislation with severe penalties and have the staff and money to inspect events and horses. One reason I chose to write this book was the hope that by informing more people about soring, they would get angry and help do something about it.

FQ: In line with my previous question, how would you go about encouraging someone to get actively involved with ASPCA Right Horse?

BRYAN: They can be reached through their website, or

FQ: Within the first handful of pages of your book, you play out a scene between the character Matt and an adult' Mr. V.'; the latter seeming quite innocent at first. However, this changes quickly once, "...The acute hunger that gripped Matt disappeared the instant Mr. V. touched him. A wave of foreboding traveled through his body—the same sense of fear he always felt before Shane beat him. Matt felt the hair on his arms stand straight up..." What would be the impact statement you would write to warn young people (and children) to listen to their 'stranger danger' radar?

BRYAN: I firmly believe that every young person can thrive and excel in life. Some are taught this by their parents, teachers, or even friends. But sadly, some have to find their guaranteed excellence by themselves.

I am not entirely comfortable with issuing a blanket statement since every young person is unique and experience their world from different perspectives. But I would tell Matt, "We live in a complicated world with both light and dark forces, and you have the ability to distinguish between a good and evil person or situation. It is up to you to listen to your inner voice to stay safe. It's what I like to think of as The Super Hero's Spark, which you already possess deep inside of you. Your spark can become a flame - you only have to acknowledge and encourage it to grow." And I trust Matt to tell his friends this enduring truth.

FQ: I applaud you for giving ample light to the voice of the adolescent as much as the adult in your story. The dialogue exchanges were terrific, and I enjoyed moments when Matt would stand his ground. Matt's character has a depth of credibility. Is there a real person who inspired you in developing his character?

BRYAN: Thank you for the kind words. I have always had a rather overactive imagination, and when I started thinking about this book, Matt simply materialized and offered his help in telling this story. Maybe all those tea parties I had as a little girl with my imaginary friends helped make Matt so accessible. And perhaps he is simply a friend I wish I had had growing up.

FQ: You share your love and experience with horses ranging from Western Barrel Racing to Three Day Eventing. Please share a memorable experience in both disciplines that remains near and dear to you still.

BRYAN: I have to admit I took some poetic license here. My barrel racing days were at a yearly summer camp on a pinto gelding named Sonny, the first horse I fell in love with. It was us city kids against the 4H'ers, and the competition was fierce. Our end-of-the-summer rodeo's outcome would ensure bragging rights until the following year. The Calgary Stampede Rodeo held in Canada paled in comparison. I kept my first-prize camp-rodeo trophies for decades, only to have the movers lose them when I came to California.

One summer, a friend of mine entered an Olympic qualifying event to see if her horse could make the grade. She convinced me that I should join her. I was never a great rider but foolhardy enough to try the three-day event. The first up was the steeplechase. I was to ride Lady, my friends' other horse, an eight-year-old bay who had been trained as a racehorse but wasn't deemed fast enough.

Tall, thick green hedges had been erected across a shortened racetrack, and the concept was to clear all the fences in a certain amount of time. I was to go first. As Lady and I headed towards the track, the sun hadn't cleared the horizon. The sound of a starter's pistol broke the silence, and we took off in the predawn light. Lady broke into a good run. Straining my eyes to see in the semidarkness, suddenly, the first jump appeared out of nowhere. We cleared it easily. And then the mare became magical. All those years of training as a racehorse kicked in. I felt her adjust her tempo and speed as we rounded the track and cleared each fence. She was perfect. We aced the steeplechase.

The next day, though, was the outside course: vast open fields filled with devilishly designed fences that one was to clear in a certain amount of time. A quarter into the course, Lady and I approached a fence that scared me, and all it took was a brief second for the mare to think, "Hey if you don't like this fence, neither do I." She dug her hooves into the ground and came to a complete stop. And I was the one who went flying over the fence. But the steeple chase was incredible.

FQ: For many years I spent a fair amount of time interacting with lesson and show barns. There were those who were committed to learning the importance of understanding how to communicate with the horse as much as how to take care of the horse first. Then there were those who showed up once their groomer had their horse tacked and ready for them to ride. What is your philosophy when it comes to the importance of the entire practice versus simply mounting up and riding?

BRYAN: So you already know the answer. How wonderful that you have been able to hang out with horses. But for those who haven’t, it's like going to a café and buying a piece of pecan pie or baking one at home. Both are great experiences. However, I like to take a more hands-on approach to life. It gives one better tales to tell.

Nevertheless, I am also a strong proponent of anyone and everyone being able to spend time on the back of a horse. So if it's just mounting up for a ride – that's still pretty terrific. At some point, the rider might like to get more involved. As for me, I'd rather have someone spend any time on a horse rather than no time at all.

FQ: I have often said that horses have the ability to heal the deepest of wounds that many cannot see. The way you address Matt's character resonates. There is a beautiful nuance you paint throughout the story toward the respect they commanded and their desire for kindness. I get quite upset when I hear someone elude to the notion that they are 'dumb' animals. What would you have to say about this?

BRYAN: At one point in our history and not that long ago, everyone had horses in their lives, from farm-drawn wagons to simple everyday transportation. Before cars - it was horses. Times have changed, and the distancing from these beautiful creatures has encouraged the "dumb" label. That's one reason I am excited that horses are used for so many types of therapy. What a great way to reintroduce these incredible creatures to the general public.

FQ: I work for a charitable organization that focuses on supporting our veterans and men and women in service. We have many entities that partner with us to accommodate easing the affliction of PTSD including a few therapeutic horse organizations that open their doors to the many warriors we work with in an effort to provide that healing experience horses naturally provide. What is a situation you have personally experienced when a horse was by your side and was able to carry you through to a brighter place?

BRYAN: As I write this, it happens to be Memorial Day, and the importance of supporting our Servicemen and women who have sacrificed so much for us cannot be over emphasized. I sincerely thank you for your excellent work. Kudos to you.

Now, my battles never came close to suffering from PTSD, but I was miserable as a teenager and began spiraling in a very damaging direction. Horrible grades, wrong friends, a terror at home, very fat and painfully shy. My parents were beside themselves and finally enrolled me in a school that had a riding program since the only thing I seemed to like were horses. It took a school year of riding every day to get my head screwed on straight. I am eternally grateful to my parents and all those healing horses I was allowed to ride.

FQ: Thank you for your time today. I hope there are more engaging novels to come. Are you working on anything currently, and if so, are you able to share?

BRYAN: Matt wants me back at his grandfather's ranch to explore how horses could be once again integrated into today's world. We know that horses have tremendous healing effects on individuals with conditions ranging from Autism, physical disabilities, and PTSD to those individuals incarcerated in our prison system. How wonderful if programs existed for city kids to experience the freedom one finds on the back of a horse and flame their inner spark.

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