This week Fillies Form are lucky enough to spend an extended 5 Minutes with Sydney Author Jessica Owers. Jessica has been writing passionately about the Thoroughbred since she can remember.
Her beautifully detailed books capture her adoration for Australia’s racing legends. Jessica explains where that passion all began and how she has been able to bring the champions of yesteryear back to life.
Fillies Form: With no history of racing in the family, from where did your fascination with horses, and the racing industry originate?
Jessica Owers: I was a horse crazy child, one of those kids that grew up clutching pony plushes, pony books, She-Ra dolls. I read The Black Stallion (the whole series), Black Beauty, The Silver Brumby, Flicka, The Saddle Club… every horse-related book I could find. I don’t believe there needs to be an origin to that sort of passion. It was simply built into me. As I got older I took horsemanship very seriously, became the best, most educated, rider that I could be. My introduction to racing? Well, that came at the age of seven when I first learned, as did most Australian children, about Phar Lap. From there, racing became all about the animal for me, the equine hero. As an adult, little has changed.
FF: You spent your time growing up in Sydney, Ireland and Scotland, how did you maintain your interest in racing? Did you read books about racing?
JO: Living in Ireland and Scotland as I did through my teenage/university years made it very, very easy to follow racing. In my opinion, this is the grassroots capital of the sport, where the miles and furlongs are god and the best horses are bred. I learned to understand the racing game through tracks like Goodwood, Longchamp, the Curragh, stiff courses that really tested thoroughbreds. I watched Channel 4, Racing UK and BBC’s coverage, and it was exhaustive in its detail, taught me so much about the technical side of the sport. Did I read books about racing? You bet, every single one I could find.
FF: We have learnt that you are a riding instructor – were there dreams of becoming a jockey?
JO: I have never had a single ambition to be a jockey (though I’m certainly light enough to be one). I prefer the slow, graceful communication that comes with equestrian riding.
FF: When did you discover that you had the knack for writing?
JO: I’ve been winning writing competitions since I was young, nothing groundbreaking of course, but they were enough to wake me up to the reality of working with words for a living.
FF: When did you decide to write your first book, and why did you choose Peter Pan as your subject?
JO: There wasn’t a moment when I decided to write my first book. I had always known I would be an author of something at some time, but around 2006 I realised my fascination with racing history had become a festering obsession. I had been researching the lives of old-time Australian thoroughbreds for many years, and Peter Pan had been prominent in that because of, believe it or not, his blond hair. But in 2006, adult that I was, I began poking into his racing record and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I knew that year that Peter’s story was much more than a 2000-word feature in a magazine. It was a book.
FF: When the book was released, how was it received?
JO: I had no illusions about modern publishing when Peter Pan was released in 2011. I was a first-time author with a remote subject matter: I did not expect my book to be a bestseller, and it wasn’t. But it crept right into the racing industry and beyond, and I was so surprised about how well it was received in both racing and mainstream media. It featured in the national and metropolitan presses, on radio stations from Perth to Darwin and beyond. In my eyes, it was a real success. How has this affected my career? It escalated everything for me. It put me on exactly the road I wanted to travel down for the rest of my life.
FF: Peter Pan’s racing colours are now registered in your name – how did this come about? You must definitely feel passionate about the horse.
JO: Peter Pan had two sets of silks during his racing career, the second only slightly different from the first. I possess the registration of the second set, which he carried from October 1934 until his retirement and in which, in my opinion, he had his finest wins – his second Melbourne Cup, his mile record, etc. I came to have the colours quite innocently, discovering that the Dangar family (his owners) had let their registration lapse entirely. I’m quite proud to possess them to be honest, because Peter Pan and I have a wonderful relationship, kind of like first love!
FF: What is the attraction of writing about the champions of yesteryear?
JO: Through diligent research and word craft, I have been able to transport readers back to an era they know virtually nothing about, tell them the smell of Doncaster Avenue in 1932 or the weather in 1948 Kentucky. People have adored these parts of my books, and in a way I feel great pride at being able to remind people through storytelling how important these horses were to Australia in their day. I like to think I haven’t just told them: I’ve shown them.
FF: In 2012 you won the Bill Whittaker Literary Award with your debut book. Describe what it meant winning such a prestigious award?
JO: It was an enormous compliment. The Bill Whittaker Award is given to the racing book that most educates the judges, teaches them something new, and so to have Peter Pan pip the competition that it pipped, it was quite incredible. It meant that the way I was writing these horses’ lives was having an impact on people.
FF: Are there any particular author/s who you admire, or who influenced your writing style?
JO: I am a very serious writer. I take the craft very seriously, especially the art of creative non-fiction, or telling real-life events in novel format. I’ve learned heavily from non-fiction tutors like Lee Gutkind, the father of literary non-fiction, and I was also massively inspired by how Laura Hillenbrand crafted the charming Seabiscuit. While no particular author has been a force in my life, I go back a lot to the 1908 novel We Of The Never Never. If I love the writing in a certain book, I’ll hold on to that book, fiction or non-fiction, and refer to it often.
FF: What is the process when researching a horse that was born well before your time? Do you become emotionally involved in the stories?
JO: I become very emotionally involved. I’ve written about two horses now, and in both instances I lived in a perennial state of their eras. In particular with Shannon, I channeled right into the horse’s character, until I felt like his guardian angel, not just his biographer. The research process is like following a trail of breadcrumbs, and I find it very easy because I enjoy it so much. It would take a long time to explain it, but for my books it spanned libraries from Sydney to Melbourne, Kentucky and Newmarket, individual homes, publication archives, race clubs and historians, websites, studs, and so many, many more sources.
FF: Apart from the books you have written, do you put pen to paper for other publications?
JO: I am also a freelance writer in addition to being an author. When I am writing books I step away from the freelance life somewhat, but in the past I have written for many racing publications, and also Outback magazine. Last weekend I had a piece in The Weekend Australian on We Of The Never Never, totally unrelated to racing. This sort of work keeps me sharp and disciplined. I really enjoy it.
FF: Your latest book is about Shannon, the phenomenal speed machine. Why did you choose Shannon? And can you give us a sneak preview into what the book is about?
JO: I chose to write about Shannon because I wanted a second book that was in a similar voice to Peter Pan, but with a far more challenging subject matter. In Shannon I had a horse that had more twists and turns in his life than any racehorse I can recall, but underpinning it all was this animal that I believe to be one of the fastest we’ve had, ever. It is an incredibly emotional story, and I don’t think readers will be ready for that. They will learn about a champion Sydney thoroughbred and his devoted, gentle owner-trainer, the incredible victories and subsequent tragedy, Shannon’s life in California in 1948, and the awkward, wrenching circumstances of how he managed to win his way into American racing esteem. I don’t think I’ll ever tell a better story to be honest.
FF: With your second book completed, have you already chosen your subject for the next instalment?
JO: I have already chosen a third subject, but I can’t reveal it just yet. Sorry!
FF: For people interested in purchasing your books, where are they available?
JO: Signed copies of Shannon and Peter Pan are available for purchase on my website jessicaowers.com. They are also available in all major bookstores, including Dymocks and David Jones and private booksellers, and online retailers like Booktopia. The eBook and Kindle editions can also be purchased by visiting Amazon or Random House Australia.
FF: In a brief paragraph, tell the followers of Fillies Form why you love racing?
JO: Racing, at its most pure, is the adoration of a horse, an animal that can stir a nation, stop a nation. Put away the betting, the money, and you have a sport that rotates around the animal I love most in the world, and at its roots, the game hasn’t really changed much since Shannon went around. The horses are still the heroes. History crawls all over this sport. I love that.