Interview: Jessica Burkhart
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Jessica Burkhart loves nothing more than horses. One conversation with her and you'll know it. When scoliosis sidelined her equestrian pursuits, she refused to let it diminish her passion for horses. Instead, she took up her pen, fired up her laptop, and began writing a book series for kids. Inspired by books she'd read as a child, Burkhart's Canterwood Crest series is completely worthy of being shelved alongside Throughbred and The Saddle Club, and I recommend it to horse lovers and riders.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Jess about her history, her writing, and her horses, both friend and fictional.
You are a reader, a writer, and a rider. Your new series for kids, Canterwood Crest, incorporates all three of these aspects of your life.
I'm so lucky to be able to bring all of those things together. I get to read and call it "work" and write about horses. I'm beyond grateful to be able to do that.
Your personal struggle with scoliosis stopped you from riding, but started you writing. Tell me about that.
I've been horse crazy since I could walk and my love of horses intensified even more when I started riding. I was a serious equestrian from second grade to early in my eighth grade year. When doctors told me that I needed a spinal fusion and that riding would be too risky after surgery, I was devastated! I thought my life had ended.
I started writing for magazines when I was fourteen as something to fill the void. Over a six year span, I had over a hundred articles published—not one of them about horses. I wouldn’t even look at a horse.
But then I got the idea for Take the Reins and I couldn't shake it. I had to write about girls who loved and rode horses. I was so scared that it would be painful to write about horses, but I went for it. And I loved every second of writing Take the Reins. I fell right back into the horse scene and my old knowledge about everything from tacking up a horse to naming the parts of a hoof was still there. Once you love horses, it's in your blood and I should have known better than to try to walk away from it. I'm so happy to have horses - even fictional ones - in my life again.
How can people get involved with Str8 Spines for Shriners?
Most kids are referred to me from Shriners Hospitals. Nurses know about Str8 Spines for Shriners and when they have a patient who is terrified of surgery, they tell him or her about my group. It's up to the patient if he or she wants to contact me. If a patient e-mails me, I answer any questions and try to ease the fears about surgery. A lot of the time, we end up talking about how bad hospital food is and if the hospital Wii has lots of good games. :) I hope that it makes kids feel better to talk to someone who has been through the surgery.
You've always been industrious. When you were a kid, you started Jessie's Tack Cleaning Service to pay for your own horseback riding lessons. How much did you charge? How long did your business last?
I think riding lessons were something like $15 an hour. So, I believe I charged $15 to clean a saddle or bridle. I’d spend hours scrubbing tack until I had saddle soap up to my elbows. I also charged that amount to groom, feed and exercise horses. Once, I even cleaned a carriage! I was in business for a couple of years until I moved, so I think it was a success. Truthfully, though, people probably paid me so I could take riding lessons instead of trying to sneak onto their horses! :)
Sasha, your main character, shares your love for horses, horseback riding, and lip gloss. Do you have anything else in common?
Like Sasha, I was a dork around boys when I was her age. In seventh grade, a super-annoying guy in my class smelled my lip gloss, but didn't see me put it on. He told our teacher that I was eating candy in class because he smelled something sweet. I pulled out my lip gloss and handed it to him. He thought I was crazy for giving him lip gloss and I said, "Just smell it." He did and got red in the face. He muttered an apology and told the teacher that I didn't have candy. That moment is similar to a scene in Take the Reins. Sasha and I also share a love for TV, movies, snow and junk food. Unlike Sasha, I'm not bad at science, but I can't do math.
Will all of the books be from Sasha's POV, or will they switch from book to book?
All of the books will be from Sasha's POV - but now you've got me thinking about how fun it would be to write from Heather's perspective. She's a mean girl, but she has her reasons.
I'd definitely read a book narrated by Heather, too. How many books are currently slated in the series?
I'm under contract for eight books on a bi-monthly publication schedule. There are six Canterwood books coming out in 2009 and two books in 2010.
Do you typically have more than one work-in-progress?
I'm usually juggling a couple of Canterwood books at once. I might be writing book four and checking over copy edits on book three. That's one of my favorite things about writing a series - it gives me a break when I'm in the middle of drafting a book because I can switch from writing to editing.
Are you working on any other series or books?
Since the Canterwood books come out every other month, it doesn't give me much time to write anything else. I actually don't mind that because I love staying in the Canterwood world as much as I can. But whenever I have free time, I pull out my idea folder and look at what I want to pursue next. I just started a detailed outline for a new tween book, so we'll see how that goes!
What's your favorite thing about horses? About riding?
My fave thing about horses is that if you treat them well, they'll always love you back. Horses are so smart and they're great listeners.
When I rode horses, my favorite thing was jumping. I'd jump anything -- fences, creeks, hay bales. I loved the feeling of being airborne and it was a total rush to jump.
Do you have a favorite breed or type of horse?
I've always been partial to Thoroughbreds since Joanna Campbell's series was my favorite. AJ, the horse I rode most often as a kid, was a scruffy appaloosa -- nothing like the sleek racehorses in the Thoroughbred books. But I didn't care - I loved him and I pretended he was a racehorse. I'd sneak out of my house super early in the morning and would ride AJ bareback with just a halter. I’d pretend he was Wonder - Ashleigh's horse in the Thoroughbred books -and I'd race him up and down the pasture. Yeah, my parents just loved that!
Any advice for young equestrians?
I'd encourage young equestrians to remember that horses just aren't about riding. That’s something I forgot after my surgery. I thought that just because I couldn't ride, I had to be out of Horse World. So not true! Spend time grooming, walking and talking to your horse. If you don't have a horse but want to be around them, offer to groom horses at a local stable. Or clean tack in exchange for riding lessons. Write about horses or read about them. Loving horses doesn't start and stop with riding.
What were your favorite horse-related books when you were a kid?
My bookshelves were stuffed with Thoroughbred, the Saddle Club, Riding Academy, the Black Stallion, Pony Pals, Pony Tails, Pine Hollow and another horse series that I can’t think of the name. It was a cool series about girls at a summer riding camp.
What are your top ten favorite books?
Oh, LW! You torture me with this question! *wink* Okay, in no particular order:
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen
Private by Kate Brian
The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Ashleigh's Dream by Joanna Campbell (The book that inspired me to write Take the Reins!)
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
Ride on over to the Canterwood Crest website and to Jessica's personal website. Visit Jessica's blog at either Blogspot or LiveJournal.
Related Booklist: Horsing Around