Interview with Author Barbara Bryan

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author Barbara Bryan, about her writing and her book, Topanga Canyon: Fire Season, Compulsively readable and brilliant novel about a teenager from Chicago who tries to make sense of himself, his new environment, and his place in the world after getting exiled to his grandfather’s horse ranch in California. (Read the review here.)

Barbara Bryan first fell in love with horses on a pony ride in New York City’s Central Park at the age of four. Since then, she has ridden whenever she could on whatever she could. From Western Barrel Racing to Three Day Events, she has cherished them all.

Barbara’s love and respect for horses only intensified when she encountered the horrid practice of soring on Tennessee Walking Horses.

During the Covid Lockdown, Barbara decided to use the time by writing a book that would shine a light on soring through the adventures of Matt and Ariel in Topanga Canyon.

She is part-owner of the Interactive Café in Santa Monica, CA. (Interactive-café.com). She delights in talking about horses, equestrian life, and eradicating the practice of soring. Please stop in and share your knowledge and stories. Show her a picture of your horse, and coffee is on the house.  Learn more at

Before I begin, I would like to thank you for requesting this interview about my first novel, Topanga Canyon: Fire Season. Your questions allowed me to explore how this book evolved; I am genuinely grateful.

Tell us a little about how Topanga Canyon: Fire Season first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?

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, located in Santa Monica, CA, 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 continuing 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, over the years, Congress has passed legislation 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.

Are any of your characters based on real people you know?

My main characters began as stick figures comprised of fragments of people I knew. But, as we spent more time together, they morphed into new individuals. Ones I wanted to know and wished were in my life. On the other hand, I formed Sinclair out of the evil attributes of an old riding instructor of mine. When I was Matt’s age, I took riding lessons from a well-known instructor who, although he truly loved his horses, was not above beating them. Regrettably he was not the only equestrian I came across to use this method.

For me, at that age, it was quite a dilemma. Here was an instructor who I idolized and looked up to using methods I found abhorrent. He justified the beatings by saying that’s how it’s always been done. Now, he was incredibly successful and very well-regarded in his field, winning trophy after trophy. But as a teenager, I struggled to rectify this and felt totally helpless. So Matt became the person I would have liked to have been so many years ago.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

My favorite chapter is Chapter 9: Forgotten Gloves, when Matt finds himself trapped in Black Water’s stall. Cowering in the corner, with the massive stallion towering over him, a terrified Matt is convinced Black Water is going to stomp him to death with his sharp hooves. Overcoming this moment of abject terror and turning the dire situation around is the first time Matt realizes he can control his life through the choices he makes.

What are your favorite books?

This is a tricky question to answer. I have so many favorite books that I return to over and over again that the list would be very long. So I will put the first book that comes to mind: Watch For Me on the Mountain by Asa Earl Carter. It’s about Geronimo and the Apache Nation.

And the last book I read was Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs by David Philipps. At first glance, a book about Geronimo and one about the U.S. Navy SEALs seem very far apart. But both are about everyday individuals who, faced with insurmountable challenges, refuse to give up and place the people’s welfare above themselves.

Topanga Canyon: Fire Season takes place on a California horse ranch. Where does your knowledge or horses and ranching come from? Did you have to do specific research?

At age four, I first fell in love with horses on a pony ride in New York’s Central Park. Since then, I have ridden whenever I could on whatever I could and have been fortunate enough over the years to have spent some time on a few horse ranches. I’ve tried to make this story truthful so that when my memory became fuzzy about certain aspects, I double-checked the facts through friends and other horsemanship books.

There is an underlying theme of pushing for social change and greater good in Topanga Canyon: Fire Season. Was that something you knew you wanted to include before you even started writing the book, or did that theme appear organically as you were writing?

I am so happy you asked me this question because it means I succeeded in one of the themes for this book. I began to write this story when we were all held captive by Covid and was amazed at the strength, perseverance, and kindness shown by the people living in my town, my state, and my country. It was important to me to somehow include the idea that “social change and the greater good” are achievable goals.

Why did you decide to use the medium of a novel/writing to communicate the message of your activism?

I believe that books have a staying power that stretches over time. Besides, writing this book gave me the luxury of having 324 pages to get my point across. I hope that doesn’t sound too flippant.

Are you involved with horses or pro-horse activism today?

My current project is ASPCA’s Right Horse. Right Horse helps anyone who wants to adopt a horse to do so. Now, how wonderful is that? These horses, ranging from every breed and discipline, are matched with the perfect new owner – ensuring a loving home for each horse. Which in turn frees up a stall to help another at-risk horse. Talk about a win-win situation. Doesn’t matter if you are a beginner rider or an experienced one, Right Horse is skilled in finding the perfect match for you.


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