Prolific author Stacy Gregg has written 23 children's books including two Pony Club series. The former fashion editor talks about writing kick-ass heroines and the nature of obsession.
1 Do all your books feature strong female characters?
Yes. History has always been told by men so I like to do a feminist revisit through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. My six hardbacks are all based on true stories. The Princess and the Foal is about Princess Haya of Jordan who has been ground-breaking in the Middle East. Most have dual narratives set in the past and the modern day.
2 What about your latest book, The Fire Stallion?
Brunhilda is based on the Queen of the Valkyries. She instantly leapt off the page and kicked ass. It was so fun writing the sword fight scenes. People think I write pony books but what I really write is epic action adventure stories that happen to have a girl and a horse in them. There's a touch of romance in this one but you're not sure if she will kiss him or kill him. The social climate always influences my writing. This is a Trump era book; there's an anger that men think they have a right to control our destiny.
3 Do you choose your settings based on interest in a historical period or a breed of horse?
Both. With The Diamond Horse my editor sent me a book on rare horses which had a picture of this incredible dragon-like horse with a broad forehead and Asiatic cats eyes. I noticed the breeder was a Russian count who had a palace in the middle of nowhere and had murdered Peter the Third so Catherine the Great could take the throne. He had a daughter called Anna so that's where the fiction kicks in; what was her life like in that castle? Kids have the same issues with their parents regardless of era; 'Dad's not paying attention to me and he likes my brother better'.
4 You visit all of your exotic locations for research. Is that a factor in your choice?
Of course, you have to set a book where you want to go on holiday. It is really important that I go to the places I'm writing about to capture the feeling you get from a place. For my latest book I went to Iceland where they ride the same breed of horse the Vikings rode. Standing on the Law Rock in Thingvellir where the Vikings brought the tribes together and Game of Thrones is shot, I absolutely felt what it would be like to be Brunhilda.
5 You write at least a book a year. What's your writing process?
I do most of my writing in cafes. Having people around makes me focus, probably from my time as a journalist in newsrooms. Nicky Pellegrino works on her novel at the table next to me, it's really fun.
6 The heroine of The Thunderbolt Pony, set in post-quake Kaikoura, suffers from OCD. Why did you choose that topic?
Touring South Island schools, it was confronting to see how many kids have post-traumatic stress disorder. My own daughter has OCD so I wanted to write something addressing anxiety. Having a clinical psychologist help her develop techniques to manage OCD has been a game changer.
7 Before writing books you used to be a fashion editor. Is there much cross-over between the fashion and horse worlds?
There's a strong connection; both appeal to obsessive people locked into their own all-encompassing universe; they even speak their own dialects that sound like Klingon to normal people. Both love good outfits and arguably are for people with more money than sense. You don't find anyone tougher than horse people and fashion industry people are incredibly smart and hardworking. They're also dry and self-deprecating about the fact there's something slightly ridiculous about it all.
8 In the 12 years you spent as fashion editor at the Sunday Star-Times, Fashion Quarterly, Style and your website runwayreporter.com, what was the most challenging part of the job?
I was incredibly lucky to work in a purple patch for New Zealand fashion during the mid-2000s when the industry was healthy enough that I could be critical. I felt my job was to serve the consumer, rather than the designers and I wrote about fashion as a serious business. If I was doing it now I'd be much more anodyne because local businesses are in such a precarious position due to fast fashion.
9 Did the designers respect your critical approach?
Mostly. I did get some hate mail. I got sent a dildo in the post by Lucie Boshier. I had a bad falling out with Anna Stretton when she put a boar's head on a bride and an ongoing, tiresome feud with Denise L'Estrange-Corbet. So it wasn't clear sailing; I was checking the mailbox for anthrax at various points. I didn't seek conflict but I had bold opinions and they were never half-formed; I knew exactly what was happening internationally and if designers were derivative or plagiarising. I also elevated talent and celebrated the collections that knocked it out of the park. It was an invigorating environment.
10 Why did you switch to writing books?
Because I wanted to create something of my own rather than commenting on other people's work. The flip side is I'm quite robust when it comes to being reviewed. It was hard to find my persona as a children's author. Kids on tour have certain expectations. I'm not a zany, rainbow wig sort of person and jodhpurs and hard hat didn't feel right so I've settled for being everyday, civilian me.
11 You spoke in the Sex and Death Salon at last month's Word Christchurch Festival. What is the role of death in your children's books?
My mother died suddenly a week before my 16th birthday during an angiogram and I went away to boarding school. Death is pivotal to all my stories. There's no more powerful device than having kids lose a loved one – horse or human - and seeing how they come back from that. Every Disney movie starts with the death of a parent. It's a tried and true trope; eliminate the parents because they ruin the fun. Parents never say, 'Sure, go ride your horse across the wilds of Iceland' they say, 'Have you got a warm jacket and are you going to be back in time for dinner?'
12 Did you like boarding school?
I loved it. It was only the second year King's College took girl boarders so it was kind of a social experiment. There was some quite extreme hazing from boys whose fathers didn't want girls at the school; the motto is 'manliness prevails'. But having grown up in Ngaruawahia, it was an eye opener. I hadn't considered a tertiary education let alone operating on a global level. Their 'Masters of the Universe' ethos was a real mind shift from the culture of 'Don't aspire to too much and you won't be disappointed'.
• The Fire Stallion by Stacy Gregg, HarperCollins, $24.99 RRP