*I am galloping flat-out across a field of tall grass on the back of a horse I have never seen before. I am so full of excitement and happiness that my chest could burst. The horse’s ears are perked and he requires no urging to keep the pace, and that’s just as well because I have no reins, no bridle, no saddle.*
The opening paragraph from *Born That Way*, Susan Ketchen’s young adult novel, does an excellent job of describing her experience with the writing and publishing industry: a wild gallop to success.
“I wrote the first draft in three months,” says Susan, “and after revisions, I sent queries off to 10 publishers. In June 2008, Oolichan Books of Lantzville asked to see the whole manuscript, and by October, they had accepted it for publication.”
Susan, a retired marriage and family therapist, lives in the Comox Valley. Sylvia, the main character in her novel, was born to love horses. Susan says she was born to love writing. From the moment she learned to write, she began scribbling poems and writing stories. During her senior year of high school, she entered two short stories in the *Miss Chatelaine* fiction competition. She was awarded a prize for one of them along with publication in the magazine. A few weeks later, the editor asked if she could publish the second story as well.
While the national attention from *Miss Chatelaine* might have signaled a lifelong literary career, Susan put creative writing on hold while she explored other options. Over the next several years, she switched career directions several times, studying psychology, accounting and law. Her law studies convinced her that she didn’t have the personality for working in the adversarial atmosphere of a courtroom, and she eventually returned to her love of psychology, graduating with an M.Sc. in Marriage and Family Therapy from California’s Loma Linda University. She then set up a family therapy practice in the Comox Valley.
“The only writing I did during those years were reports and case notes,” she says, “but when I retired four years ago, I signed up at North Island College in Courtenay for a non-credit course, How to Write Your First Novel. Matt Hughes was the instructor and he taught me the structure of a novel, and what editors are looking for in a good story. I spent the next two years working on an adult novel.”
An editor invited Susan to send him the whole manuscript, saying it would take him two or three months to evaluate it (eventually he turned it down). Wondering what to do with her time while waiting for the editor’s decision, Susan decided to try her hand at young adult fiction. She had heard that there was a growing market for that genre, and so she set to work. Within three months, she had the first draft completed.
Susan tries to be disciplined about her writing, working at it as though it’s a business, though she admits to being a pretty easygoing boss. Her writing desk is in a bright, second floor studio on her hobby farm on the banks of the Tsolum River, just north of Courtenay. From the large window, she can see an eagle’s nest in which two eaglets were raised last spring. In the field down below, her two horses, Blazer and Lollipop, quietly graze.
“I like to get to my desk by 9:30 in the morning and work steadily for three to four hours,” she says, “and I don’t worry too much about the first draft because, with computers, I know it will be easy to revise my manuscript later.” Susan loves to read both non-fiction and fiction. Two of her favourite authors are Elinor Lipman and Jane Smiley, but she won’t read fiction while working on a manuscript. “I’m afraid that reading another author might interfere with my own writing voice,” she says.
Having just turned 55, Susan wondered how successfully she had entered the mind of a 14 year old. While practising family therapy, she had enjoyed working with young teens. “They are smart and not yet inhibited in what they say. They see things from a different perspective,” says Susan. She was given an opportunity to test drive her story last fall when Vanier High School had a Put Everything Down and Read Week. Susan was invited to read to two Grade 11 and 12 classes, and she was gratified to see that the students enjoyed Sylvia, and they laughed in all the right places.
In *Born That Way*, Sylvia feels she is a misfit. She is small for her age. Her cousins and classmates talk about hairstyles and dream about boys. Sylvia is mortified when her mother suggests she put highlights in her hair, and she dreams only of having her own horse. “The book is not autobiographical,” says Susan, “though some of the things did happen. For example, as a young child, I always enjoyed books about horses, and I had to wait until I was in Grade 10 to finally have a horse of my own. We were living in Nanaimo, and I kept him at a boarding stable. While Sylvia’s love of horses is based upon my own interest, her parents bear no resemblance to mine. For example, my mother wasn’t like Sylvia’s mother, a psychoanalyst who attributes everything her daughter does to some sexual impulse.”
Despite a busy schedule promoting this first novel, Susan is working on the sequel and has an idea for a third volume as well. “This has been a very exciting time for me,” she says, “and I would urge other seniors who have always had a passion to resurrect their dreams. The ride may not be as fast or in quite the same direction as mine, but the effort will be rewarding.”
Born That Way ($12.95) is available from Canadian booksellers. Susan Ketchen may be reached at www.susanketchen.ca
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER ISLAND
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