Updated: Sep 29, 2022
*deep breath* I can’t believe I finally get to tell you guys about this!
When I was in the third grade, my teacher took my class to the school library, sat us all down, and told us that an author named Jessica Burkhart was there to tell us about a new book she had coming out called Canterwood Crest - Take The Reins. The book was about a 12-year-old girl named Sasha who was going away to a prestigious boarding school with her horse, Charm. Now, I grew up in Tallahassee Florida- you couldn’t go a mile without seeing a paddock full of horses. I was a horse girl for sure when I was little and had just started taking riding lessons, so I was so stoked. Naturally, I remember next to none of the presentation- it was almost 15 years ago. But I got my first book in the Canterwood Crest series signed by Jessica, and it was my first ever signed book. It's clearly well-loved; I've read it countless times!
Twenty books later, Jessica Burkhart has a full-fledged series with over a million copies sold and is to this day, one of my favorite authors. That is why I am so excited to tell you that…drumroll please… she is to be my very first Author of the Month!!!
A few months ago, I reached out to Jessica and asked if she would be open to a Zoom meeting with me, where we would talk about her writing process, what publishing was like for her, and things she would tell her younger self. She agreed and we had the call a few weeks ago.
I transcribed the interview- there’s so much information for aspiring authors in here! I also linked a few images of her books to her favorite local indie bookstore! If you want a signed copy of one (or all) of her books, follow the link to New Copperfield's Facebook page and give them a call! Books make the best holiday presents :)
Without further ado, let's get to the interview!
Were you into writing when you were a kid or did that come later?
I was into writing when I was a kid, I started writing articles for magazines because I was trying to heal from a spinal fusion when I was 14, and that ended my equestrian career, but I knew that I needed something to fill that time that didn’t involve horses. So I thought, “let me try writing instead, I can do it from bed,” because I was bedridden for an entire year, healing. So I thought ‘okay, maybe I’ll try writing, maybe it will distract me from horses’, and it did. So I wrote articles for years until I started to think about what came next, and that was when I started to think about writing a book.
How old were you when you published your first book? What was that process like for you?
I was nineteen and in my senior year of college, I learned about NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) and I thought ‘okay, let me try this. If I fail at it, it’s only a month of my time.’ And that’s when I wrote the first (terrible) draft of Take The Reins, and the whole time I was writing it, I was blogging about it. And a junior agent saw a blog post because she was looking for horse books and my blog came up, and she sent me an email. I definitely thought it was a scam, this doesn’t happen. But I looked the agent up and she was legit, so I emailed her back, revised my book super fast, and sent it to her, and she signed me as a client.
Did you find it harder to get respect in the writing community because you were younger?
It wasn’t so much my age as it was the fact that I was writing commercial fiction, and books for kids. That seemed to put people off, like ‘oh… you’re writing the kid stuff, the fun stuff.’ Once I learned how to stand up for myself, and I was always proud of what I was writing, I think that helped me out a lot. And something to keep in mind is that an agent or prospective agent doesn’t know your age unless you tell them. All they care about at the end of the day is that your pages are great. So if you’re 14 or you’re 94, it doesn’t matter as long as your book is good.
Which character in Canterwood Crest do you relate to the most?
Definitely Sasha. I mean, she’s such a mess most of the time, and that was me- that still is me! There were so many cringe moments where she would make a mistake and I was like, ‘this is what I would do, so Sasha’s gonna do this, and make the giant mistake and make things worse for her!’ But I think she was such a relatable character, I connect with her the most. I got a lot of hate mail from parents about how dramatic the books are, and how many of her lies and mistakes were in the book, and I was just like, ‘you guys, at the end of the day, at her core, she’s a very good person. But she’s a kid, and kids are going to make those mistakes because they’re immature.’
What is your favorite book you’ve ever written?
That’s hard. I’d have to go with Little White Lies because it’s so freaking dramatic! I loved it, I had so many readers yelling at me -” why would she do that? Why would you make her betray this person?” and I loved it. I enjoyed the yelling!
At what point do you think someone should call themselves an author?
I would say once they start writing. You’re an author whether you’ve written one manuscript and gotten published or you’ve written ten manuscripts and never gotten published. I think it’s important to give yourself that title because it’s what you’re doing. You are an author and that’s if you self-publish or go the traditional route, either way.
What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
Read. Above everything else, read. Read so much. Read books that were published within the last five years, and study what you like about those. Make a note of what you liked and what you didn’t, and learn from those things. Read widely- read in age categories and genres that you're not necessarily writing in. Also, I think watching a lot of TV is important, honestly. I know that can be controversial to say, but that’s where you find human interaction and dialogue.
Is there any particular environment that you feels is conducive to your writing? Like music, a certain place, total silence vs the buzz of a coffee shop
So for me, it’s having a TV on in the background. I’m usually bingeing The Vampire Diaries or Pretty Little Liars, something I won’t pay attention to because I’ve seen it a bazillion times.
What’s your writing software of choice? Do you plan things out on paper or use a word processor?
Scrivener! I’m a new convert, over the past year, and now I will never go back to Microsoft Word ever. Scrivener is so fantastic for keeping your thoughts organized, and it’s really great for writing a series- I’m so sad that I didn’t have it for Canterwood, because oh my god, trying to keep track of 20 books and a bazillion storylines and all the different moving parts in Word Docs is not a good time. I tried it and immediately was like “take my money!”
Who is your favorite author and why?
Oh my gosh- that’s a really rough one! I’m going to go with the one that made me become a writer, and it’s Joanna Campbell, who wrote the Thoroughbred series. I devoured her books as a kid. Looking back, that series and The Saddle Club were some of those formative books for me.
How do you deal with rejection?
Even 26 books in, there’s still rejection- I got one last week. It’s an ongoing thing and I need to take an hour or two to process, think about it, be dramatic, lie on the floor, shake my fists and scream “WHY??” But then, once that passes, it’s just part of the job. I know it’s not personal, it’s just the business, and I try to remember that even if I can’t at that moment. But I really just have to keep putting myself out there. I really love the quote “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Did you find a community of writers before you published or after?
A little bit before, mostly through the NaNoWriMo forums and just talking to the people there. And after, I definitely found a community as I went through various books and putting myself out there.
How did you connect with this group and how do you feel they enrich you as an author?
Twitter has been huge for me in terms of where I make my writing friends. I feel like that’s where we all go to talk about writing the most. They most definitely enriched me as an author, you need other people who are going through the same thing you are, at whatever level of your career you’re in. It’s nice to have people who are doing what you’re doing and understand what you’re doing. Writing can be a lonely business.
Have you gotten backlash at all beyond readers being mad you made certain character choices?
Of course- you can’t please everyone. For me, that specifically was a big thing in Saddlehill, with Abby, the main character, and her stepsister both being queer. For me, I knew that with all of the book banning going on right now and all of the vitriol coming at queer authors, I knew I was putting a target on my back by doing it. But it was so authentic and so important for me to do it that it was just something that I’m preparing myself to get a lot of hate for, but it’s the story that I want to tell, you know?
Writing my current work in progress, it started out with men on horses. Big, burly men on their horses and just loving them, which I feel is unusual in literature because horse girls get such a backlash, but it’s still considered a “girl thing” to do. You have a few guy characters who ride and I loved hearing about their experiences as well.
Interesting that you said that, I hate that horse girls are so talked down about because everyone has their own truth, their own thing that they love. I really made a point to include guy riders after I got emails from guys, who had said “I ride” or “I want to ride, but I’m afraid that kids are going to bully me for it.” And I thought you know what, I need to add some boys who ride and let’s make it a positive thing so they can have some representation.
What can you tell me about your new series, Saddlehill Academy?
I’m so excited about Saddlehill. It feels really good to ‘go home' in a sense to the Canterwood universe because the schools are tied and you’ll find out how in the books. There are going to be appearances from some of our favorite and least favorite characters from Canterwood and you’ll learn what they’re up to, and what their horses are up to, there’s a brand new couple among those characters, which is really exciting, that you’ll get hinted at in book one of Saddlehill. There are just a bunch of easter eggs, which was the best part- it was so fun to weave them in!
How fun was that interview?! We had such a blast together. This interview sparked an idea for me- I wonder how many authors would be willing to talk to me about their own processes and experiences? Writing is such a different experience for everyone, and I think that writers like myself would benefit from hearing these different points of view.
I reached out to a bunch of published authors and am thrilled to say that I have not been disappointed- I have the first six months of authors lined up! These interviews will go up on the second Monday of every month! I am so excited and grateful for this opportunity and can’t wait to share these conversations with you!
More exciting news to come :)