Monday, August 8, 2011

MEET AUTHOR SUSAN KETCHEN

Usually it makes me feel better to wear my riding clothes. But today nothing helps, even when I buckle on my riding helmet and hop on my bike. Somehow I know I'm doomed. ~ Susan Ketchen, Made That Way

In this family fiction sequel to Born That Way, Susan Ketchen reunites readers with the intrepid young Sylvia, who is challenged by a genetic disorder, wild about horses, and determined to find solutions to the obstacles presented by her life in general. Sylvia wants to be a real horsewoman and she’s excited about getting her own horse, even if the horse is arriving at a less-than-perfect time. Brooklyn is, well, not quite a regular horse. He has big ears, makes strange sounds, and he’s already bitten the transport driver.

Recently I had the pleasure of reading this book by Canadian author Susan Ketchen. The story has many unique elements that make it not your average "Girl and Pony Story." I thought it would be fun to interview Susan about the genesis of the book and her own experience as a horsewoman and writer.

1. The main character in this series, Sylvia, lives with a genetic condition called Turner Syndrome. Tell us what this is and how it became an element in the story.

Girls born with Turner Syndrome are missing an X chromosome. This can result in a number of symptoms, varying from individual to individual, but most people with the condition are short in height and infertile. Treatment with human growth hormone can help girls attain a more normal height, and estrogen replacement therapy can trigger the development of female sexual characteristics.

I did not set out to write a novel about a character with Turner Syndrome. But as I was writing about Sylvia, I noticed that the other characters always referred to her as a small person, and tended to treat her younger than her years. I did some research about possible medical conditions that might account for her short stature, and discovered Turner Syndrome. The developmental and sexual difficulties presented by the syndrome were interesting to me as a writer as they seemed to open a number of doors for discussion and exploration.

2. You are trained as a counselor and spent time working with teens, have you always wanted to write to this audience?

Oddly enough, I don’t think of myself as a writer for teens. I think more that I write for people. In the Sylvia books, I reflect a lot on what it is like for young people, but many of my readers are adults who are either reminded what it was like when they were young, or see themselves as parents dealing with their teens, sometimes in ways that they want to change.

3. One of the especially brilliant elements from Made That Way is how Sylvia comes to understand her peer group (and their reaction to her "disorder") by observing equine herd dynamics. How else have you seen horses support teens, in particular?

Some girls say that their horse is their best friend. They tell their horse everything. Of course the horse doesn’t disagree or offer advice or criticize. The horse stands there and allows a person to lean on it. Adults can have the same experience: I have known women who pointed to their horse and said, “There have been many tears cried into that mane.”

Horses are large powerful animals. I wonder about how empowering it is for a young person to manage and direct another being of this stature, and how this empowerment might influence other aspects of their life as they tinker with increasing independence.

4. The story is inspiring to those struggling with a label, disability, or handicap. Have you had feedback from this sort of reader?

I have had wonderful feedback from people with Turner Syndrome and their parents. What they appreciate is that I didn’t make it a story about a disability or handicap—Sylvia is more than a Turner Syndrome girl. Still, she is different from other girls, with different questions about life. Plus there is an educational component that will help someone who doesn’t have TS to understand what it might be like for someone with TS.

5. What lessons have you personally learned on horseback?

Oh the lessons never end! And the one I will likely be struggling with right until the end is when to accept “conventional wisdom” and when to trust myself to do things differently when traditional methods feel wrong for me and my horse.

I think one of the most important things I have learned is to keep an eye on the emotional source of some of my reactions. Training should not be influenced by anger or fear or frustration. If any of these emotions are present, it’s better to get off the horse and start again tomorrow. Training should be clear, calm and logical; if it’s not, the lessons are confusing for the horse. I think this carries over into the rest of life too, when we’re dealing with each other. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by our own emotions, or the emotions of others, and not see what the real issues are.

6. What were your favorite books as a youth?

I read non-stop. In my teens I went through a long period of reading a lot of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was one of the first adult books I read. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank still haunts me. And John Wyndham’s books.

7. It seems you are living a longtime dream to write and ride, with horses in your backyard. Any advice to others nurturing a passion or creative dream?

I think I’ve been very lucky, so I don’t know how much advice I have to offer. People are fortunate if they have a passion, but it can have a narrowing effect on your life. And not all dreams are attainable, no matter how much positive thinking you do. Sometimes you have to let go. I let go of my early dreams for a while, and pursued other goals, and learned things that I never would have learned if I had focused solely on being a writer who rode. As a result, I have more to draw on when I write, and my life has been richer.

8. Tell us a little about your own horses and your interest in training. I understand some of them can play the piano?

Oh boy I could go on for pages about my horses and my interest in training.

I have two horses out in my field right now. Lollipop is an Arab/Welsh/Human cross. She is the official “companion pony” because she’s not sound. But any time a new horse arrives on the property, she is invaluable to me in helping the new one settle in because she’s very engaged with me. She’s the smartest horse I’ve ever known. I use a variation of clicker training with her, so she knows flash cards and the names of her body parts, and yes, she will play a child’s piano with her nose…if we use the word “play” loosely. She hits the keys. I wouldn’t call it “music”.

This Spring I was looking for a new riding horse, and met Huck. He’s an Arabian gelding. I wasn’t looking for an Arabian gelding, and certainly not a chestnut. So I think he picked me. He comes from a show background, which is not what we do here, and he is very smart, so is learning about his new lifestyle. I ride with a dressage saddle, and am interested in improving my riding and improving the horse’s way of going, but I’m not so interested in competing. I’d like to explore horse intelligence some more with Huck, and see how our relationship develops.

I’m interested in animal training generally, and in how to train positively, avoiding punishment if at all possible. I want the horse to feel motivated, not coerced. Both my horses have a strong desire to please. I don’t want to do anything to diminish that, which means I have to question some traditional methods. On the other hand, horses are big powerful animals and they can be dangerous without meaning to, so some limits have to be put on their behavior.

Thanks Susan! What an interesting person you are.

Made That Way is available for $12.95 from Amazon or local booksellers.

Susan Ketchen was born in Nanaimo, B.C. and had a successful Family counseling practice for many years. She now resides on a small Vancouver Island hobby farm with her husband, two horses, two cats and a flock of chickens. Grows That Way, the third book in this series will be published in fall 2011. Visit Susan at: www.susanketchen.ca







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