Video transcript
NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2017 - Author interview - Stacy Gregg

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YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Premier's Reading Challenge author event. We've got author Stacy Gregg in the house. I'm Yvette Poshoglian. And today we're going to talk to Stacy about her incredible books, which feature some incredible animals. And first up we're going to talk to Stacy about her brand new book, which I believe is her 22nd title. It's called 'The Thunderbolt Pony.' And we welcome her to Australia on her Australian tour.

STACY GREGG: Hi, I'm Stacy Gregg, and my new book is 'The Thunderbolt Pony.' At home, I have a little bit of a home library where I keep all my research books. And then I keep all my fun books-- the ones I actually want to read that aren't work-- they're up in my bedroom. And I have a really big shelf that I kind of pick through.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: 'The Thunderbolt Pony'-- I just absolutely loved this story, mainly because I learnt a lot about the New Zealand countryside and a part of New Zealand that I didn't know much about. But it features a really strong character-- a heroine, I would say. Her name is Evie. Is this based on somebody that's real or how did the story come to you? Can you tell us a little bit about this story?

STACY GREGG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, 'The Thunderbolt Pony' is all about the earthquakes that happened in Kaikoura. And Evie, my heroine, she's caught up in the middle of the earthquakes. And she's going to try and travel across country, from a little town called Parnassus to Kaikoura-- which is 64 kilometres away-- with her horse, and her dog, and her cat, and get them onto a warship that's evacuating people from the earthquake zone, which is something that happened in real life. And I like to base my stories on true life.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: And I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about some of the earlier series that you wrote-- 'Pony Club Secrets,' perhaps-- and just tell us about how they came to life.

STACY GREGG: Well, 'Pony Club Secrets' was, I guess, really based on my own childhood at pony club. And that's kind of how I started with fiction, was just taking everyday events and just extrapolating them out, and exaggerating them until they became bigger and bigger. And I guess they're sort of-- they're adventure mystery stories. And at the heart of them is always girls who completely love horses and will do anything for their ponies.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: And were you always a writer, even as a student or a younger--


YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: --when you were even a kid?

STACY GREGG: I was a mad keen writer when I was at school. I did a lot of poetry, which was incredibly bad.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: All right. It's OK. Most of our poetry is pretty bad. [laughs]

STACY GREGG: I think it is OK to write bad poetry.


STACY GREGG: I think it's a really good learning curve for kids. Because what you do do is-- poems are good because you can finish them in one sitting.


STACY GREGG: And what kids suffer from a lot when they're writing is they start off with a hiss and a roar. It's very hard to get work finished. And, certainly, you're not going to be able to knock out 60,000 words when you're a kid, and have the commitment to get that done. But with a poem, you can do it in one sitting. And you learn to play with language.

And I just, at that stage, started really enjoying reading and writing. And it was something that I kind of didn't realise could be a career, I guess. I never thought you can go out and have-- you know, this is something I'll do as a hobby, but I'll never have a job as a writer.

But I got really lucky. I started working in magazines at quite a young age, as a feature writer. And then I became a fashion editor on magazines. And then the books came up. I wrote my first manuscript, which was the first book in 'Pony Club Secrets,' 'Mystic and the Midnight Ride.'

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: And from 'Pony Club Secrets' there was another series, 'Pony Club Rivals.'


YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Sounds like it's full of intrigue.

STACY GREGG: Yes. 'Pony Club Rivals' is much more sort of-- it's slightly more towards the YA, so it's a bit more cliques and groups at school.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Yeah, sounds familiar.

STACY GREGG: And it's set at an exclusive equestrian boarding school in Kentucky, in the States.


STACY GREGG: And that was kind of vaguely based on my time at boarding school when I was--


STACY GREGG: --growing up, as well. So, you know, I've got a very waste not want not approach to writing, pretty much. If it's happened to me, I'm going to use it in a book.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Well, one thing that I know for sure hasn't happened to you is that you weren't a princess from a Jordanian royal family.


And I don't say that as a slight. It's just a fact. But I was wondering if you could maybe tell us a little bit about this book, 'The Princess and the Foal,' because it's based on an incredible real-life princess and the story that she had with her particular horse. And can you tell us a little bit about this story, and then how you came to find out about it or researched it?

STACY GREGG: Well, and you say I wasn't a Jordanian princess. But the bond that I had with Princess Haya when we met is-- and I flew out. She's now married to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who was the ruler of Dubai. So that was where we first got together.

And I had sent her a letter saying, look, I'd love to write a novel that's actually based on the true story of your life. And so she got back in touch. And I flew over and met with her. And what we did have in common as soon as we met was we had the same influences and we both loved horses. So we started talking about Walter Farley's 'The Black Stallion,' which was one of my favourite books when I was a kid growing up. And it was one of her favourite books as a kid growing up, too.

So when we clicked on that and I said, to me, you're like Alec Ramsey-- it's the same degree of heroism that you bring to the story-- because she would go on to compete in this incredible competition, The King's Cup, which she does in real life. And she does these the most incredible things with her horses.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: So it sounds like you had a great bond with the princess. And, I mean, you met her a couple of times or had really great insights into her life.

STACY GREGG: She was incredibly generous in letting me do the book.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: That's fantastic. But I guess from your work as a journalist, your research comes naturally and actually informs some of your other stories too. Would you like to tell us a little bit about some of the other stories that are based on historical figures and times?

STACY GREGG: Yeah. Well, I think absolutely for me writing these books has been my way of quickly learning the history of the world. Because every one of them has taken me to different places, to different countries, and to different eras. And I'll often write books as dual narratives, so that they are partly set in the modern day with a modern day heroine, and they'll also be set in the past.

And I think in the case of 'The Diamond Horse,' that's set in Russia, partly in the time of Empress Catherine the Great. The back story from Catherine the Great's time is about a girl called Anna. And she's going to inherit the estate from her father. And she's going to train up and continue the breeding line of these Orlov Trotters. So it's about how the horse breed came into existence.

And it's the story, I guess-- often, my stories are kind of told with a feminist viewpoint and slant. So I'm thinking, well, when Anna took over from her father, who is clearly a cruel, and brutal, and ruthless man, her approach to horse breeding would be slightly different to the count's. And it's about the conflict between the two, and this vast menagerie of fantastical creatures that he has at the estate, and her growing up in the middle of nowhere in this snowy wilderness with these horses and Siberian Tigers.


STACY GREGG: It was a fun book to write.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Wow. Stacy, while you're here, we're going to ask you a little bit if we can about how you research your books. A lot of your stories take place overseas or involve foreign, faraway lands. And it sounds awful, because I'm guessing you have to travel there.

STACY GREGG: [chuckles]

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: So I'd love to hear about how ideas take hold. We've heard some of the ways that you've reached out and found out about your subjects. But if you've always had this inclination to write stories with horses at the very heart of them-- and the incredible, often female, characters that accompany these horses on their incredible journeys. So how does it happen? And how long does it maybe take you to write one of your standalone stories?

STACY GREGG: Right. My standalone books-- now that I'm working on those-- and they always have, as you say, a travel element and a historical element. So, yeah, tough job for me. I have to go to some of the most amazing places in the world. For 'The Diamond Horse' I went to Moscow. For 'The Girls Who Rode the Wind,' that's set around the Palio, the world's most dangerous horse race, which is run on the city streets in Siena in Italy. So I went to Italy for that.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Just that horse race, in particular, I didn't know much about. And I think seeing it in person must be quite an incredible sight.

STACY GREGG: It's amazing. And I think the thing for me when I went to work on that book was I was a little bit worried about that one. Because this is a race that they run through the city streets. And there's a town square, and the horses will race around the square. And they're within the confines of these stone buildings that are right up against the cobblestones of the streets.

And I got introduced to a-- I had a contact that took me to one of the farms where they train and prepare the horses. And they're incredible horses. They're not thoroughbreds. They're Anglo Arabs that are bred specifically to race in the Palio. And the Palio jockeys, the fantinos, these guys are amazing.

The relationship between-- I met a Palio jockey called Trecciolino, who has won the race 13 times. I mean, it's a cutthroat race. And the relationship he had with his horses was heartbreaking. It was so inspiring for me.


STACY GREGG: He would open the stable doors, and the horses would just stand inside their boxes with nothing holding them there. And he would just sort of move around. And they'd kind of come up to him and nuzzle him. And when I watched him actually ride the horses too-- because they ride bareback in the race. So he rides bareback all the time, often without a bridle. So the degree of horsemanship, and the bond, and the love that they had for each other-- I thought, people who love horses this much, they're not going to do the wrong thing by their horses.


STACY GREGG: So that was really special. And that is why research on the ground is important. And I stayed in a castle that the castle of the four towers in the book is based on.


STACY GREGG: It's just there is no substitute for kind of going there and doing the research.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Yes. I guess a lot of the students that write to us and ask us about how people write want to know often whether it's the person or the plot. For a lot of authors, for you, it sounds as well like a combination of both. But when you're thinking and you have an idea for something, do you find it's all about the character or about the particular horse that you're writing about and then you go from there? Or is every book a bit different?

STACY GREGG: What happens for me is it all seems to fall into place and come together. And it's kind of almost like own magical process. And it's a magic that you're pushing, because you are looking, and you're hunting, and you're working towards it. But with 'The Diamond Horse,' which is set in Moscow with Count Alexei Orlov's estate, [inaudible], in the time of Catherine the Great. And it's about this rare breed of horse, the Orlov Trotter.

And I'd actually been sent a book on rare horse breeds. My editor at HarperCollins in London was having a big office clearout. They were moving offices. And she sends me this book in the post going, found this under my desk. You might like it. And I literally flipped it open. And the first page I came to was a picture of this horse that-- and 'Game of Thrones' had just started screening at that point, and this horse looked like a dragon.


STACY GREGG: I mean, it had the most incredible face-- like, these enormous Asiatic cat's eyes, and this wide forehead, and this muzzle that tapered down to virtually-- it was beautiful. And then, at the same time, they had the most bizarre physique for a horse. They had really big, powerful legs-- an incredibly long body because they have an extra rib compared to most horses-- massive hooves like dinner plates that kind of-- they're built to suction onto the black ice in the treacherous Russian winters. And they were incredibly fast as carriage horses. There was no faster horse in all of Russia or even Europe at the time.

So I thought, wow, that horse is spectacular. And then I started looking at the backstory. And there's this crazy count that lives in a winter palace surrounded by all these bizarre animals that he's basically breeding in a form of almost, like, an alchemist's way of creating. And he's got two kids, a daughter called Anna and a son called Ivan, who will grow up in the palace. And so I just kind of started building the narrative around them.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Well, I think a lot of the students that are doing the Premier's Reading Challenge who start writing something often get a bit stuck. And do you have any advice for young writers that you sort of cling to when you're struggling maybe to get a story out or trying to plot something out? Do you ever feel like you hit a bit of a roadblock? And do you have any advice?

STACY GREGG: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, I think it really helps I plan before I start. So I will map out my books. And I think it doesn't matter whether you're doing a short piece of writing or a novel. You need to map out where you're going. And I won't stick to my map. I will change things. But I will have a chapter breakdown, so I have some sense of where my book's going to end up.

And it makes it so much easier when you're on those heartbreaking chapters, which for me are usually five and six, where you think, oh, my god. I can't write for toffee. This is dreadful. And I have no idea how I'm ever going to get there, but you will. Because you have a plan. You know where you need to be. So it makes the process a lot easier if you do it that way.

And I also think on days when I think I'm completely talentless-- and I think every writer has those days. And if you talk to other writers they're like, oh, are you at that stage of your book.


STACY GREGG: It kind of can pull you through it to know that you just need to get to the end somehow. And on the bad days, I still write. I don't kind of go, I've got writer's block. I'm leaving it. I push through.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: OK, so you push through.

STACY GREGG: And I may come back to my desk the next day and go, well, the 4,000 words I wrote yesterday are useless and I'm heffing them out. But you will have progressed something in your mind. And so sometimes you need to write the bad words to get to the good words.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: That's great advice for anyone who's writing at any age. Thank you very much. Thanks so much, Stacy, for sharing those ideas with us.

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