Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Q&A with Susanna Bailey




Susanna Bailey is the author of the middle grade novel Snow Foal. Her other books include Raven Winter.  She is a lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University, and she's based in the UK.


Q: What inspired you to write Snow Foal, and how did you create your character, Addie?


A: I wanted my first book to feature Looked-After children (those in foster-care) in central roles, in a vivid story that could be enjoyed by any child (at their own level) but that might open discussion – and empathy – around the experiences of children in Care, who often have a difficult time in school, both educationally, and socially.


I hoped that such a story of loss, change, and ultimately, of enormous courage and resilience, would also strike a chord with children outside of the “system,” many of whom will have experienced similar things, albeit in a different context.


Equally, I wanted my story to offer a degree of healing and hope: a way through, if you like.


The introduction of the abandoned foal meant that I could promote the healing bond that can exist between child and animal, whilst also telling Addie’s story of separation, learning, and new possibilities “in parallel,” via this tiny, motherless creature.


That I chose a new-born foal, rather than any other animal, arose from a writing exercise in my MA class. I “saw” a dishevelled foal in a barn, “heard” a winter wind whistling through the rafters there, and “noticed” a child standing hesitantly in the doorway.


The child – who I initially thought a young boy – became Addie, whose lonely isolation in a strange environment, as she comes into Care, could be graphically suggested by the move to a remote winter-white setting. That thought brought me to the wilds of Exmoor, and made the foal a wild pony.


Addie herself developed naturally, I think, in some ways a “composite” of real children with whom I’d been privileged to work, but also, she just “arrived and spoke as herself,” if that doesn’t sound too mystical!


The name Adelaide popped into my mind, and I just knew that my girl would be known as “Addie” – her mam’s name for her. That she would insist upon it!


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book said, “Emphasizing parallels between Addie’s longing for home and the wild pony’s displacement, Bailey’s third-person narration follows a fiercely resolute heroine on a gradual arc of hard-won acceptance around the challenges of her mother’s recovery.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m extremely pleased with it, because it picks up on the central messages - and complex realities - that I so wanted to communicate.


Given that Addie’s story reflects aspects of the lives of children in the real world, I felt a huge sense of responsibility in writing it. Her emotional journey needed to come through with authenticity and nuance, out of respect for such children and their families.


Whilst thrilled if readers fall in love with the snow foal himself, it was important to me that the novel not be simply received as a “sweet pony story,” or one that suggested neat, unrealistic endings that are essentially dishonest and unhelpful.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t! I’m not a writer who plots and plans, although that might make life easier and less stressful!


I very much let the story take me where it wanted, led, I suppose, by a strong sense of who Addie is, how her feelings would direct her to act, and the ways in which the Care system processes (and her mother’s recovery) might roll out in the circumstances.


In fact, the ending we now have arose in collaboration with my editor. My initial ending saw the foal re-settled at the farm alongside Addie. The re-written version (not to give too much away, just in case!) better indicates Addie’s learning about “best interest” decisions, and her emotional growth.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The natural world around Addie is very important in her emotional journey – as it is for little Jude, Sunni, and Gabe, the other child characters in the novel.


The turning of the seasons, new growth after winter, plants thriving in the correct soil; the blooming of spring flowers planted by the children all support their newly forming understandings and emotional healing.


As Addie’s foster placement is on a working Exmoor farm, I needed to research not only which trees and plants would be found there, and at which point in the year, but also to research the farming calendar: to know what would be happening when.


Addie witnesses the birth of lambs, and although I could draw on first-hand experience of the birth of puppies and kittens, getting the lambing right necessitated watching several live videos, and a visit to a local farm. I also read books on sheep farming across the year. It was fascinating!


My research into the wild pony herds of Exmoor was both thoroughly enjoyable, and yes: surprising. I was able to spend time at an Exmoor Pony show, chatting to breeders and learning about the different herds, their coat colours, character, and aptitudes.


Google searches revealed their long history, as well as the physical adaptations that have enabled them to survive – and thrive – for hundreds of thousands of years. Fossil remains trace the presence of horses on Exmoor to 50,000 BC!


I was also interested to learn of the protective winter-round-up of new foals and their mothers; of the concerted efforts to preserve the purity of the ancient Exmoor line, rather than for it to become diluted by inter-breeding with the wild herds on neighbouring Dartmoor (as sometimes happens).


I particularly enjoyed researching the legendary Exmoor beast: the great cat that is said to wander the Exmoor hills. The mysterious sightings, and unsolved “disappearances” on the same ground…


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently finishing my fourth middle grade novel, which publishes in the UK in July 2023. I’m not at liberty to say too much about quite yet, but I can tell you that it features siblings in the UK Care system and is set on the historic North Yorkshire coast. And, of course, there is an animal at the heart of the story…


I also have a novel for adult readers “in my drawer,” partially written, which I am keen to complete. This looks at the impact of adoption of a traumatised child on a fragile marriage and is also at its centre, a love story. (Title: “If Not Madness…”) So, if I can just create a few more hours in the day….


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I lecture in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, teaching aspiring new writers for young readers. I have five children, two grandsons, and a first granddaughter soon to arrive, out in Spain. My second grandson is USA born, and living in LA. He can’t wait to see his Nana’s books in the school library and bookstores…


Thank you so much for your questions and for your interest.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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