Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Julia Soplop, author of Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped U.S. History.
FQ: Just reading your bio, you have spent a great deal of time documenting animal behavior all over the world. What made the horse such an appealing subject for you?
SOPLOP: Something that fascinates me about the horse is that, unlike most domesticated animals, the horse exists as the same species in the wild. Selective breeding by humans has really only resulted in superficial changes to horses. We can watch how horses behave naturally in their bands in the wild, then turn around and watch how they behave at the barn in their artificial social configurations and indoor environments.
At the same time I was becoming interested in observing and photographing wild horses, my young daughters begged me to enroll them in riding lessons at a local barn. I’m not an equestrian, and the idea scared me! They were relentless in their begging, though, and I eventually gave in. What I didn’t realize was how much I would enjoy bumming around the barn observing domestic horses one morning per week for the last four years while the girls rode. It’s interesting to see how the natural behaviors horses evolved over thousands of years to stay alive on the Great Plains, like spooking at a loud noise or unfamiliar sight, still exist—and wreak havoc—in a domestic setting. A domestic horse who has never encountered threatening wildlife is still on guard at all times for the possibility of a mountain lion jumping on its back!
FQ: Is there a location that you’ve been, or a specific animal/mammal you’ve researched, that you absolutely loved? Along those same lines, is there a location/animal you long to travel to and research that you haven’t as of yet?
SOPLOP: When I was in college, I traveled to Madagascar for a couple months as a field research assistant to study the behavior of sifaka lemurs. Look up sifaka, because they’re adorable and have the most interest way of locomoting, called vertical clinging and leaping. Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, and they’re critically endangered due to habitat destruction and climate change. I feel humbled to have spent time observing them, because, devastatingly, they may not be around much longer.
I have a cousin who is a Great White shark researcher. In better times, she travels to South Africa to study them. I would love to go with her one day to observe her work—when travel is safe again and when I get up the guts to climb into a cage in sharky waters.
FQ: As an author and a photographer, yourself, how do you feel about the “team” of illustrator and writer? Your team certainly worked well; have you done other projects together?
SOPLOP: I had been an admirer of Robert Spannring’s art for several years before we started working together. As soon as the manuscript began to take shape, I realized his particular style could help breathe life into some of the historical events and scientific concepts I was tackling. I was so honored when he agreed to illustrate it, and I think we both came away from the project proud of the final product. His art really elevated the manuscript. I hope we find an excuse to work together in the future!
FQ: When did you become a lover of history? Is research something you always were fascinated by?
SOPLOP: I’ve always enjoyed reading about history, whether in nonfiction books or historical fiction. But when I started homeschooling my kids several years ago, I began to think more deeply about how narrow my traditional history education had been, as it was for most people in my generation and still is for many kids today, and how I needed to do better by my kids. I made it my job to ensure that when we studied a historical event, we read numerous perspectives, not just the traditional party line that dismisses the experiences of many players in history. Curating my kids’ history education spurred me to want to help amplify the stories of those largely left out of the historical narrative.
FQ: What inspires you to sit down and do all of this study? Do you get excited from books, music, traveling – something specific that makes you want to start writing a book?
SOPLOP: Equus Rising grew out of a history curriculum I wrote for my kids. When we decided to spend a year studying U.S. history, I wanted to do so in a way that would hold our attention. Our mutual interest in horses gave me the idea to tell the story of our country’s history using the horse as a common narrative thread to tie together events we usually study in isolation but are very much connected. This approach also allowed for the inclusion of figures often written out of traditional histories: women and people of color. Once I started to pull together the information, I realized there really was a story there that hadn’t been told in a cohesive way. The curriculum morphed into a book idea.
In general, I’m very curious and can find inspiration in just about any direction I look. My background in documentary photography and writing has shown me there is always a story brewing if you’re willing to listen closely enough to hear it.
FQ: What is some advice you could give a person who wishes to start on a career path such as yours – field study/research/writing?
SOPLOP: The path to becoming a nonfiction writer isn’t clear-cut like a lot of professional paths. If you want to be a lawyer, you take the LSAT, go to the law school, and then pass the bar. Congratulations, you’re a lawyer. My professional journey has been much more circuitous. I always had an interest in research, especially in the fields of biology and public health, as well as in writing and photography. But by the end of college I realized I didn’t want to be a practitioner of science; I wanted to be a writer who could communicate research in a way that would help non-specialists understand important technical issues that influenced their lives.
Becoming a credible communicator of any subject requires understanding the basics enough to identify the field’s experts and ask them the right questions, so you can accurately write about the significance of their findings. Looking back, I’d say my coursework as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student in medical journalism was pretty evenly split between content courses—such as biostatistics, epidemiology, neuroscience, animal behavior—and courses on communicating evidence effectively to a broad audience.
My main advice for nonfiction writers is this: follow your curiosity by working to gain both content knowledge of your subject area and writing skills. Allow yourself to pivot. Take interesting opportunities when they arise—Madagascar!—even if you’re not sure whether they’ll advance your career. They probably will. And if not, they’ll make for a great conversation starter. Also read extensively. Write constantly. There has been nothing traditional about my career, but every class I’ve taken, every book I’ve read, every professional experience I’ve had, has contributed to my ability to chart my own path, which has been quite satisfying.
FQ: Are you interested in one day writing fiction? And are you working on anything currently that you can let readers in on?
SOPLOP: Actually I’ve had a rough draft of a novel sitting on my shelf for six or seven years that I furiously wrote during NANOWRIMO while my kids were in preschool two morning a week. There’s a reason it’s still on the shelf. It needs serious help! Every few years, I pick it up and make some tweaks. Then I feel overwhelmed and tuck it away again. Let’s just say I’m a better editor of fiction than a writer of it. I think I’ll finish it at some point, though.
I’m currently working on two projects. One is an eBook called Untangling the Self-Publishing Process that I plan to publish soon to empower independent authors. The other is a much larger project that I’m still researching and outlining. It’s a book to help non-scientists become more effective and responsible consumers of health and science news. I started planning out this book before the pandemic, but now it feels more timely than ever. I think some people are realizing they could probably use a bit of help in this area, even if they’re generally educated and informed. Part of me wishes I’d finished the book before the pandemic, so it could be helping people navigate the onslaught of research coming at them. The other part of me has been fascinated to closely follow the science unfolding quite publicly around COVID-19, as well as the intense misinformation campaigns surrounding it. The book is practically writing itself.