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Life Overnight Turned Upside Down

Author Interview
Barbara Bryan Author Interview

Topanga Canyon: Fire Season follows a teenage boy from Chicago who is sent to live on his grandfather’s horse ranch in Topanga, CA. What was the inspiration for the setup of your story?

I’ve never been disciplined enough to keep a daily journal, but I do enjoy chronicling moments and thoughts by writing short stories when time allows. And when the Coronavirus countywide “Stay at Home Order” took effect in Los Angeles, turning my life, and everyone else’s, instantly upside down, I found I had a lot of it.

Overnight everything came to a halt. A few designated businesses were allowed to remain open if deemed “essential”: as long as the employees followed a strict regimen of cleaning, mask-wearing, and intensified hygiene.

Our small café was one of them. Granted, we had the option of closing, but we were desperate to have some sense of normalcy in our lives and the lives of our customers, neighbors, and friends despite the constantly terrifying, changing world of Covid. And that the simple act of brewing coffee and baking muffins would signal our trust that that world would, one day, return to normal.

Santa Monica had become a ghost town. Hours would go by before anyone entered the café. And the unknown deadly threat of Covid and the sudden lack of control over our future began to get to me. I began to write a short story about Matt, a teenager whose life overnight turned upside down, and how he dealt with the frightening new circumstances

Around the same time, I came across an old interview from 2014 on NPR about Tennessee Walking Horses.

Now, Walking Horses are an American breed started by Albert Derment in the late 1800s in Tennessee. Albert bred horses, and late in his life, he purchased a rather plain-looking small black stallion named Allan, who had this uncanny ability to walk at different speeds. Now that might sound like a simple thing to do, but other horses cannot do that. And because Allan could walk at different speeds riding him was like sitting in a rocking chair. So Albert Derment began breeding the stallion with this genetic quirk to see if his offspring would also carry that trait. And some of them did. This selective breeding resulted in what is known as the Tennessee Walking Horse. They are beautiful to watch with their heads held high, their front legs fully extended, and their long flowing tails as they fast walk around a show ring.

Unfortunately, to ensure show horses raised their legs higher, some unscrupulous trainers invented the practice of soring, which is applying a caustic material on the horses’ legs so that the pain would make them raise their legs higher. Granted, legislation through Congress has been passed to eliminate this decades-long abomination, but the laws were basically toothless. The most recent bill H.R. 5441 117th Congress, reintroduced as the PAST Act of 2021, is still pending. I hoped that by highlighting this ongoing practice, people would once again become aware and get involved in ending soring once and for all. And I was convinced that my main character Matt would be able to do that.

Why choose this place and time for the setting of the story?

Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga Canyon is next to 16,000 acres of Topanga State Park. With its deep canyons and slopes dotted with oak trees, this pristine park allows one to envision what California looked like a hundred years ago when the indigenous people, the Tongva, thrived in the Los Angeles Basin. Topanga Canyon is a magical place where one can be transported to another place and time. And I did not know how to write about the Canyon without bringing in a character of Tongva heritage. I thought Topanga Canyon was the perfect place for a horse ranch where Matt could be introduced to that reality and Los Angeles today with its vibrant and evolving indigenous community.

What were some challenges you felt were important to defining your characters in this story? 

As my little short story grew into a much longer project, I found that the more time I spent with my main characters, the more solid they became.  It took a while to ensure that each one had their own voice and did not blend into one another.  I had to be careful to avoid every character saying the same thing in trying to get a point across.  It was important that each one had their own point of view and were true to their age and gender.  This was easier said than done.

Will there be a follow-up novel to this story? If so, what aspects of the story will the next book cover?

I enjoyed my time at the High Stepping Ranch. And Matt keeps leaving articles on my desk about Horse Therapy, also known as hippotherapy, and how it is used with people with PTSD, Autism, and physical disabilities. Silas’s boots banging down the hallway as he complains about the proposed Convention Center slated for the pristine Canyon reverberates in my head. And Esmerelda keeps whispering about researching the Tongva language. So I would enjoy doing a follow-up novel.

Author Links: Amazon | GoodReads

Matt, a teenage boy from Chicago, is exiled to his grandfather’s horse ranch in Topanga, California by his alcoholic mother. There, he must learn to adapt to an alien lifestyle filled with strangers and animals he finds terrifying.

As Matt’s new life unfolds and his love for horses grows, he realizes that his grandfather is in danger of losing his beloved ranch due to outstanding debts. Desperate to keep the ranch, his grandfather leases out one of the barns to an unscrupulous horse trainer named Robert Sinclair.

Matt soon witnesses the antiquated and brutal methods of training Sinclair uses on his Tennessee Walking Horses. Confronted by an unwillingness by everyone at the ranch to oppose Sinclair and his use of horse soring, Matt searches for a way to make the outside world aware of the horse’s needless torture. With the help of his friend Ariel, they devise a plan to expose Sinclair and his brutal methods. But will the fury of the yearly Santa Ana winds ignite a devastating fire and give Sinclair his chance for revenge?

Topanga Canyon: Fire Season by Barbara Bryan weaves a tale that reignites the essential truth that we all intrinsically possess the courage to face the myriad of challenges in today’s world and restores the knowledge that, through us, change is possible.
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