Leanne Owens is an English teacher who has lived in the outback, written for horse magazines and Horse Talk TV, and bred many national champion horses. During her years in the outback, she saw how outback children could drive cars, operate bulldozers, ride horses and motorbikes, muster ten thousand acre paddocks, cook, and do more things than most city adults. This inspired her to write about the horse-hating city cousin who visits her outback family in Horses of the Sun, the first book of her Outback series. As our Author of the Day, Owens tells us all about it.
Please give us a short introduction to what Horses of the Sun is about
Horses Of The Sun is the first book in The Outback Riders series, and it is based in the Australian outback. The three Winter children of Sunhaven Downs use humour to help cope with the arrival of their surly city cousin, Amy, who detests everything about the country, from the dust to the lack of shops. Amy has to stay with them for an entire year while her parents are overseas and, since their lives centre around horses and she hates horses, it looks as though it is going to be a difficult time for them all. They don’t realise that their cousin is hiding a secret that could save the lives of their family, but not all of their lives. The story gallops to a crescendo of clashing events during a storm when tragedy and courage change their lives forever.
What inspires you to write about a city cousin who hates horses?
The inspiration goes back almost thirty years, but is also entwined with my current daily life. After finishing my first uni degree, I went out west as a governess on outback stations for a few years and I saw how outback children could drive cars, operate bulldozers, ride horses and motorbikes, muster ten thousand acre paddocks, cook, and do more things than most city adults. It amused me when I first arrived to have an eight year old drive me in a Toyota tray-back from one station to the next, about twenty kilometres on private property, all the while explaining about the paddocks, fences, stock and trees that we were passing as he balanced on a couple of cushions behind the steering wheel. I saw first-hand how some city visitors were amazed (like I was) at what these children could do while others seemed determined to prove that their urban lives were better, and that conflict usually had hilarious results. These days, as I teach at schools far from the outback, I find children and teens are fascinated by stories of outback life, and all of that, together, inspired me to write about the horse-hating city cousin who visits her outback family – conflict, humour, clashing lives and a story that is fun to read.
Why do you enjoy writing stories set in the outback?
I lived in the outback for seven years, meeting and marrying a typical outback man who had grown up on his family’s sheep and cattle stations, just like the Outback Riders. He was a brilliant horse rider, played A grade polocrosse, trained racehorses, had his pilot’s licence, could operate and repair all machinery and displayed the resilience and humour that I wanted to show in these books. Like the children in Horses Of The Sun, he spent most of his childhood and teen years at boarding school a thousand kilometres from home, and his stories of what it was like to come home for school holidays inspired me to capture that in words so that others could understand. My husband and I now live far from the outback, but it remains in your soul, and I wanted readers around the world to have a taste of the outback by following the lives of the children growing up there.
Tell us more about the mysterious Min Min lights - why did you choose to include them?
The Min Min lights are a fascinating phenomenon occurring mainly around the Winton region and channel country in outback Queensland, where the book is set. Some claim the lights are merely headlights refracted by heat waves from sources beyond the horizon, but since Aboriginal stories tell of the Min Min long before European settlement, that is unlikely. I only saw them once, or I thought I saw them – fuzzy lights on the horizon that seemed to follow me at night – but one of my friends had a close encounter with the lights that left him shaken. His vehicle was broken down on an outback track at night, and he watched car headlights approach, but the car was strangely silent…then the two lights went up and over him and continued away, just a metre or so above the road, still shining back at him like headlights. He described them as two silent orbs of light, and he had no idea what they were. Over the years, I’ve told my students about the Min Min lights and they have been so captivated by the stories that I realised they deserved a role in these books. Mind you, I put an imaginative twist on their existence that goes beyond the real stories of the Min Min.
Family relationships play an important role in this book. Why?
I think one of the main tragedies of our western civilizations is the loss of connections. Even fifty years ago, growing up in Australia or England or America, we saw children connected in so many ways to everything around them: connected to their family, their friends, their communities and their land, from family picnics in the country to weekly community events like Church. I think part of being human is having this empty space within that needs to be filled, and being positively involved with family, friends, the community and the land helps fill that space, and if those connections are missing, then young people are at higher risk of filling that space with alcohol, drugs, violence and destructive behaviours. The happiest students I see now are those who still have those connections but, sadly, there are so many lost young people who haven’t had the chance to learn how important these connections are, so, in these books, family relationships are given an important role. Family isn’t always parents and siblings – family is made of those people who love and support you and want to make your life better.
Does this book have an underlying message? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
Mainly, I hope readers will enjoy a story about life in the outback. I guess there are many underlying messages, and they are things I try and pass on to my students in the classroom: we are resilient, we can overcome all that is thrown at us, we will face tragedy and we will go on, humour helps us cope, and life is amazing. Also, we need to dream of all that we could be, but the dream is just the start: we plan, we work hard, we overcome setbacks, and then we achieve those dreams.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I think I’m one of those ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ people. I have always ridden horses and have won scores of national and state titles with my stallions, Days Of Gold and Nights Of Gold, and I judge at horse shows around Australia, but I have many horse friends who are much better than I, so I’m not egotistical about my achievements, though I know enough to make the horse riding part of my books appear knowledgeable. I have a Masters in Education, so you might think I’m a master of that trade, but I am surrounded by such gifted and dedicated teachers that I recognise my Masters is more a testament to writing good assignments than being a brilliant teacher. I paint and draw, mainly horses, and have sold paintings around the world but, again, I know many artists who make my talent look like finger painting, so I recognise I’m not a master of that trade. Oh, and procrastinating – that is perhaps the one thing in which I surpass all people I know, and I’ll come back later and
The book also deals with grief and loss. Why did you take this approach?
When I was younger, the books I loved the most were the ones that took me to the depths and heights of overwhelming emotion, the ones that broke my heart and had me crying, the ones that made me feel. I wanted readers to explore those feelings of grief and loss, to work through them and realise that we can go on, even after losing those we love.
Readers say that this series is a bit like a mixture of the Nancy Drew and the Black Stallion books... would you agree with this?
I’m absolutely thrilled that anyone would make those comparisons – I certainly wanted to have mystery mixed with amazing horses. Mind you, I haven’t read any of those books, though I did see the first Black Stallion movie, so at least I know I didn’t try to copy their styles.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on several books at present. There’s the fourth book in The Outback Riders series, Horses Of The Rain, which has the teens another holiday older and immersed in more humour, action, danger and mystery as they face devastating floods. For the first time, the story moves out of Australia as Amy and her friend Polo (you meet him in Horses Of The Fire) try to discover what happened to her father. I’m also three quarters through an adult novel, Zo, about four rich and powerful Australians who grew up together, and they walk away from their lives to help a childhood friend who has become mentally ill and suicidal – it is an exploration of love and friendship, and there’s a big mystery attached to their friend which will have them questioning everything they understand about life. The third book on the go is neither wholesome nor inspiring: The BFN Murders, a humorous murder mystery as a group of foul-mouthed, irreverent outback women try to unravel the bizarre murders in their small town while they shamelessly pursue the attractive city detectives sent out to solve the crimes – that is most definitely unsuitable for children.
Where can our readers discover more about your work or interact with you?
People can find me on Facebook where I’ve just started a new page called ‘The Outback Riders Series’ to replace the previous pages for the individual books. They can email me at [email protected] and I do enjoy seeing photos of horses that are important to readers. Also, if anyone did an internet search of my name, Leanne Owens, along with search terms like ‘Days Of Gold’ or ‘Quarter Horse’ they should find plenty of information and photos about me and my horses. I enjoy interacting with readers of all ages and try to answer all emails.