This time I chat with author, freelance writer, and horse enthusiast Susan E. Conley. Susan came to the horse world later in life, and like most of us found horses had a huge impact on not only her creativity but her sanity as well.
Resident in Ireland for twenty one years, Susan E Conley went horse crazy at the tender age of 41 and 11/12ths. In 2006, she finally got up the nerve to get up on an actual horse as opposed to reading and dreaming about them, and it’s been harder and easier than anything she’s ever done yet.
Susan is a graduate of Pratt Institute with BFA in Communication Design. She has worked in the field since the summer between sophomore and junior year and counts The Village Voice, New York Magazine and Entertainment Weekly as past design experiences. She has a Master of Philosophy in Irish Theatre Studies from the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, an Honours Degree in Psychology, and a diploma in Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning.
She worked as journalist soon after moving to Ireland as theatre critic and as a feature writer on lifestyle topics. Susan is the author of three other books: Drama Queen; The Fidelity Project; and the soon-to-be-rereleased That Magic Mischief. She is at work on her next ‘horse book’ as well as a new paranormal/historical romance series.
Susan was not born in the saddle and didn’t even get near a one until she reached middle age. It never even occurred to her, as a child, to pine for a horse. She doesn’t run a yard, compete at a high level, or even own her own horse (yet.) After fourteen years though, she’s still in love with everything horsey and member of her yard’s riding club; she stands as safety officer and is hoping to compete off-yard in 2020.
What type of books do you write, and how long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for, yikes, over thirty years. The very first thing I wrote was a one act play that got produced as part of a competition Off-Off (Off) Broadway. I made a short film of it and continued to write plays and screenplays while working on independent films and with an independent theatre company — all while working as a magazine designer as the day job. I moved to Ireland from NYC in 1998 and without any contacts in either realm, via journalism, turned to writing books. I’d classify myself as an ambivert and while I like getting out and about, I had the space to find that sitting by myself making up stories is truly my bliss point.
I am the author of three novels, all in the romantic comedy vein, and I’ve recently signed a contract with Sourcebooks for a new romance series, The Shapeshifters of the Beau Monde, a Regency era historical/shapeshifter mashup.
Many Brave Fools: A Story of Addiction, Dysfunction, Codependency…and Horses is my first memoir. I had started blogging about taking up horseback riding in mid-life following my divorce from an active substance misuser, around the time that people were getting blog-to-book deals. I didn’t get one of those! I keep plugging away with it regardless, querying agents, revising, engaging the services of an editor, revising. I was thrilled when my proposal/manuscript was accepted by Trafalgar Square Books.
How did you get started writing?
I think I started writing because I am the poster girl for voracious reading and then became so invested in the power of narrative, as delivered by theatre and film, to fulfill not only the desire for entertainment but also for expressing unifying concepts. In terms of performance, there’s nothing like sitting in the dark with strangers and experiencing catharsis; as regards writing, living a story, for as long as it takes to read it, is so powerful. I wanted to be part of that world, part of providing that for people.
What is your biggest inspiration for writing?
I don’t know if I have an inspiration so much as I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t write. I might try knitting maybe, or do more art… I remember, when I was shopping Many Brave Fools to agents and getting no joy, I was thinking I’d just quit, and that notion lasted, quite literally, all of two heartbeats.
What is the most common comment that you get from your readers?
I think they appreciate the use of humor in my writing. There are aspects of Many Brave Fools that are dark and not funny, but my sense of humour still prevails. Readers find the memoir unexpectedly funny, which is the highest praise to me.
What is the message that you want to convey to readers?
After I finished my masters at Trinity College, I worked as a freelance journalist writing about the arts, and I did many interviews with practitioners in theatre, visual arts, writing, you name it. I always wanted to represent their projects faithfully but I also wanted to be able to give a look-in on their process and why they did what they did. I think that has carried over into my own work: that your intentions for your life and your goals are achievable and the trick, I suppose if you want to call it that, is to be flexible along the way, to readjust yourself continually, to keep your vision intact but to know that the journey is not a straight line from A to B.
Do you have horses? Tell us about the horses in your life.
I don’t have horses, but I do have schoolies that I ride consistently. I seem to have a knack for getting horses who hate going, to go. It may be that my leg is titanium because of having to get horses who won’t go, to go — it’s a chicken and egg scenario! I also am very sweet on whichever horse I’ve got, and as school horses don’t get much loving, I think that makes a difference. My current mount had a long stretch of disengagement but I am happy to report that his mood is elevated since we’ve been working together. Pony nuts may something to do with it…
What role do horses play in your creative process?
They save my sanity! Not gonna lie, but indigenous endorphins are the absolute business.They clear the cache of all the garbage that accumulates from daily life. And that’s not the physical activity of riding, but also the mental relief I experience from simply setting foot on the yard. You can’t think of anything else when you’re around horses, and it’s so freeing and yet so focused,; the knock on effect is that my mind feels free and focused off the horse.
What is your biggest struggle as a rider and how do you deal with that struggle?
Not having enough time/money to ride as often as I’d like. I feel like I’d be even better fixed mentally and creatively if I could get four rides a week — I’m only on two at the moment. I’m always in the market for more freelance work but lately it has required going in to work in other people’s offices rather than at home, which prevents me being up at the yard.
As regards my actual riding, it’s always something: my heels had started coming back up over fences last year. That’s sorted, but now my lower leg has got loose again? Eh, so, I’m working on that at the moment. Once that’s solved I’m sure another issue will rear its head. No pun intended.
What is your biggest struggle as a writer and how do you deal with that struggle?
It used to be time, but I’ve gotten good at using how ever much I have. Even if I take a current manuscript out for lunch when I’m day-jobbing, and write a few lines or make a few corrections, I’m moving the story forward.
In the beginning, when I had no notion that I could achieve what I set out to do, so I’d hold on until I could, like, spew it out in one piece — like a whole chapter, or whatever. Now I have more confidence in my process and I trust it, so I can consider a few lines of dialogue work well done.
My recent struggle is a good one, having to write to a contracted date. Up to now, I’ve had a healthy draft done before having it taken up by a publisher. The second novel of my mashup series is due in September and I’m sweating it a bit. The good thing is I’ve got the framework hammered out, I had a great freelance edit on the first novel from which I learned a ton, and I’m trusting my process (as above) and doing whatever amount of writing I can, every day.
What advice would you give a beginning rider?
I was and continue to be so fortunate in my instructors. The level of quality I enjoy is astonishing, and I know this because I’ve been around the mounting block a few times — I’ve experienced only okay teaching as well as very poor. I did some ‘riding around’ to see other places and ride other horses, and wasn’t too impressed. So my advice would be to shop around. Try a bunch of different places and pay attention to ho you feel after a lesson: do you feel like you’ve learned something and feel good, or do you feel bad? No one, at entry level, should ever be made to feel bad. If you’re not having fun and feeling like you are an amazing being, learning how to do something new, then move on.
What advice would you give a beginning writer?
Embrace the notion of a shitty first draft! Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott if you have not already done so; if you have done, read it again. She gives us all permission to write something imperfect, and speaks eloquently about perfection as the oppressor of creativity.
Listen to all the advice that other writers, the internet, and random strangers have about how much you should produce on any given day, when you should write and how often —then throw it all out as you figure out what your own process is. Mine changes from work to work: one novel required that I rise with the lark and write, which I hated with a passion; I wrote the first versions of every chapter of my masters’ thesis in cafes; the framework of the novel that is launching my new series was wrought during lunch hours. Feel free to take this all in and ignore it, too!
Some bullet points: I spent a lot of time giving my stuff to friends to read, and have learned that doesn’t work for me … If you’ve got to a place with your manuscript where you think may want to query agents or publishers, invest in an edit from a professional … Read your work aloud, it makes such a difference! … Time off from writing is as important as writing … and holy moly, put that pad and pen by the bed for when you wake up with ideas, I still have not learned this lesson and lived to regret only last week.
And kind of like the horseback riding advice, adapted: enjoy yourself, love the things you are trying to relate, and remember you are an amazing being doing something new, every day.
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