Interview: Maggie Dana
I'm delighted to welcome Maggie Dana to the interview spot. Maggie is the author of the excellent Timber Ridge Riders series, which she's re-issuing, and re-writing. She has some fascinating things to say about the process of updating books, and the differences in readers now and when she originally wrote the books. Book three, Riding for the Stars, is now out, and Maggie's working on book four.
Can you tell me something about where you were born and brought up?
I was born in Harrow and brought up in Uxbridge, about 20 miles west of London. This was in the 1950s and our neighbourhood was still fairly rural with a dairy farm across the street (thankfully, it’s still there) and plenty of space between houses. My father owned a small fencing company, and after I’d persuaded him to buy me a pony (I was almost 12 and had been begging him for 5 years) he fenced in our back paddock and built a run-in shed for Smokey, a black New Forest who loved to drink tea and eat custard. There were lots of woods, fields, and bridle paths nearby; also a golf course. I used to ride Smokey down the main path and look longingly at the fairways and greens, so inviting to canter over. Smokey and I competed in Pony Club rallies and went to camp in the summer. We attended lots of small horse shows and won our fair share of ribbons; even once, a small silver cup in the Family Pony class.
What was it like, moving countries at a relatively young age?
It was a great adventure. I was young (21) and impulsive and I really had no idea what a momentous step I was taking by emigrating to the US. I had family and close friends in England and had no burning desire to leave home, but I’d fallen in love with an American fighter pilot whose tour of duty in Germany was about to end. We had three kids and are long divorced but remain on good terms. So there I was, a single mom with a massive mortgage and a full-time job … and I added to my debt by taking out a loan so I could buy a Morgan mare for my then 13-year-old daughter because she was badgering me just as vigorously as I had badgered my father for a pony. And I’m so glad she prevailed. We owned that beautiful mare for 28 memorable years.
What was your first book?
My first book, The Golden Horse of Willow Farm, was published in 1980. It’s about a chestnut Morgan mare with a flaxen mane and tail, and the teenage girl who loves her. Here’s how I came to write it …
I was an editorial assistant at Weekly Reader (a US children’s publisher) in their super secret New Products Department. It was so secret that nobody else in the company knew what we did. Half the time, we didn’t either, but it involved lots of closed-door meetings and much speculation around the water cooler. When my boss was in the office, I was busy. When he wasn’t there, I had nothing to do.
So when he was laid up in bed for three weeks with a slipped disc, I was bored witless. To keep from going crazy, I asked if I could help out in other departments which were overloaded with work.
But my boss refused. He was convinced that if I mingled with the other editorial assistants I’d divulge our top secret project – a series of index cards on beauty tips for teens by a celebrity model with legs like a giraffe and teeth that were whiter than they needed to be. When I pointed out that having me sit outside his office doing nothing would reflect badly on him, he told me to look busy, to pretend I was working. “I don’t care what you do,” he said. “Write letters, a shopping list … you can write a book if you want.”
So I did. On their time, their typewriter, and their paper. And then, sweet irony, I sold it to them for $1,500—a princely sum in those far-off days.
Where did the idea for the Timber Ridge Riders series come from?
It grew out of my old Best Friends series that I wrote in the mid-1980s. And here’s how that happened …
I wrote another book (with no horses this time) for Weekly Reader and this led to my getting a literary agent in New York. She introduced me to Jane Stine (her husband, RL Stine, wrote the “Goosebumps” series). Jane was a children’s book producer and she wanted an author to write a series for girls aged 8 to 12. Her only stipulation was that it be called “Best Friends.” I asked if she’d be okay with a series about horses, and she was fine with it. So I dashed off a bunch of outlines, Jane sold them on proposal to a publisher, and I got busy writing the actual stories. They would be just the sort of books I read as a horse-crazy girl. I also love to ski, so I set them in Vermont near a ski resort so I could incorporate winter sports as well as equestrian, to add a little more diversity in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. In the end, we only produced four books. They were sold via the school book club market; they were also translated into several languages including Swedish and Norwegian. I have no idea how well (or poorly) they sold in Europe, but recently I was delighted to be able to give my new Swedish neighbour a set of Best Friends (in Swedish) for her grandchildren to enjoy.
And why did you decide to re-issue it?
The rights to Best Friends reverted to me several years ago when the orignal publisher was swallowed up by Scholastic (the US publisher of the Harry Potter books). At that point, I was busy writing women’s fiction and didn’t give my horse books another thought. Then, last summer an author friend suggested I release them as e-books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Not having any electronic files, I would have to re-type them. No problem. I’m a fast typist and this would be easy – just mindless copying, right? Word for word.
I propped the first book, No Time for Secrets, on my copy stand and got going, only to realize this book needed a serious re-write. It demanded a complete overhaul from the ground up, so basically I started pretty much from scratch. I treated the original stories as detailed outlines and went from there.
Today’s young readers want snappier dialogue, less description, and more action in the books they read. To gain this generation’s attention, authors have to compete with video games, cell phones, and Facebook, as well as film and TV. That said, I used the same characters but changed a few names, and I kept to the basic framework of the original stories; I also had lots of fun introducing new plot twists and characters that weren’t in the original books. I also more fully explored the nature of Holly’s character and her being in a wheelchair. [Note: I also changed the titles because of Amazon’s automatic matching system. If I hadn’t, Amazon would’ve matched my old books (still circulating in the used-book market) to the new ones and we’d have wound up with two different paperbacks and one e-book for each title!]
What’s it like, revisiting your characters?
In some ways it was quite a surprise. I hadn’t read the Best Friends books in ages and had forgotten so much of what I’d written. In the years since I wrote those books I’ve matured as a writer. I’ve learned a great deal from editors and workshops and other authors, and I knew I could do a much better job this time around. Judging by the comments and reviews, I think I’ve succeeded in improving the stories and the way I’ve told them. I’ve also been contacted by several people who read Best Friends when they were young and have now read Timber Ridge Riders with their horse-loving children. It’s been great fun, hearing from them and they all say that while they loved the old series, they’re enjoying this one even more.
Have the characters changed since you wrote about them last?
Kate (formerly Kerry) really hasn’t changed. She’s still a solid, dependable girl whose life is totally focused on horses. But Holly has changed. In the new series she’s turned into a more interesting girl who not only loves horses, but also loves feminine things such as glittery nail polish and pretty clothes. That said, she’s also become a lot stronger and I’ve enjoyed getting into her head for some of the scenes and telling them from her point of view. Even Angela (formerly Whitney) has changed a little. She’s still the character we all love to hate, but by giving the reader small glimpses (via Kate’s observation) of what Angela’s life is like with her overbearing and demanding mother, I hope it provokes a little sympathy and understanding of her situation.
Have you had to alter the plots at all?
The basic plots have remained the same but I’ve added several side plots and new twists to keep the stories fresh and engaging. I’ve also added new characters including Jennifer West who wears bizarre clothes and rides like a dream, several new horses, and the teenage movie stars who appear in Book 3. Then there’s Adam Randolph. By adding boys to the mix (especially one who rides!), the books will appeal to teens as well as younger readers.
Where do you see the series going once you’ve published the fourth book, which was as far as the series got last time?
I have plans for a fifth book. At the end of book 2 (Racing into Trouble) you may remember that Kate and Holly are invited to spend the next summer in England with Jennifer West’s grandmother at her world-class equestrian facility, Beaumont Park. This will form the basis for book 5. The girls will fly to England and will, I hope, have enough adventures to keep readers turning the pages. The tentative title is Flying Changes, but this isn’t definite.
The changes are so huge I hardly know where to begin, but I’ll try to point out one or two. The obvious one is the e-book revolution. It’s made (and continues to make) as much of an impact in the book world as did Gutenberg’s moveable type and printing press in the 15th century.
Another change is the way books are distributed and sold. In the very old days, some publishers had their own book shops and sold their books directly to customers. Now, they sell to distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram in the US) who sell to book retailers. This means that publishers such as Random House, HarperCollins, and Macmillan are several steps removed from the people (readers) who are consuming their product.
Amazon’s Kindle and their KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) program have moved the goalposts … a lot. Authors can now sell directly to the consumer. The middlemen (publishers and distributors) have been bypassed. This is a huge change. But is it a good change? In some ways, yes. Many niche books whose audience is too small for a publisher to bother with are now finding readers. But in other ways, no, because it’s allowed writers to upload e-books that aren’t ready for prime time; i.e., they lack editing, are riddled with errors, and often so poorly written, most readers will give up on page three. Then again, there are more than a few gems hidden among the rocks.
Right now, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Books that would never have seen the light of day with traditional publishing are being unleashed in vast numbers, which makes it hard for readers to find what they want. Online browsing is a different experience than browsing in a book shop. It’s not as spontaneous or intuitive or as easy to lay your hand on just the right book, but I’m sure this will change. In a few years, virtual book shops will be a whole lot more interactive than they are now. They may even sell you a cup of coffee while you’re browsing on your smart phone or your laptop!
Do you think conventional publishing has a future?
These days there’s a lot of shouting and arguments from people who condemn self-publishing and those who’d like to see traditional publishing collapse and die. I believe they can co-exist side-by-side, and sincerely hope that they do. Like quite a lot of other authors, I’m a hybrid in that I self-publish my children’s horse books while my women’s fiction is traditionally published.
My debut novel, Beachcombing, was published in trade paperback by Macmillan, UK, in 2009. When the rights reverted to me last year, my agent sold e-book rights to Momentum, Macmillan’s digital arm in Australia (e-publishing knows no boundaries, which is fabulous for everyone!). The e-book version was released on August 1, 2012 for worldwide distribution under a new title, Painting Naked, with a brand new cover, and is available in all e-book formats from most online e-book retailers.
And bringing things full circle do you ever get back to England?
I’ve been in the US for many years and I live on the Connecticut shoreline about halfway between Boston and New York. I don’t have a horse any more but I do get to enjoy my daughter’s horses (a bay gelding and a devastatingly cute brown Shetland named Webster) during frequent visits when I also muck stalls, feed chickens, and help repair fences. Whenever funds allow, I fly back to England. So much has changed since I left all those years ago, but it’s still the place I call home.
Thank you Maggie!
You can find out more about Maggie on her sites: www.maggiedana.com and www.timberridgeriders.com. There's a full listing of her books, together with cover shots, on my website page on Maggie.