Episode 44: On Thoroughbreds, Turning Passion into Business & Finding Words Inside a Writing Barn with Patrick Smithwick (Equestrian Author Spotlight Podcast)
Episode 44: Welcome to the Equestrian Author Spotlight podcast! In each episode, you’ll hear inspirational stories from horse book authors including writing advice and marketing tips to help you write your own horse book. If you are an author, aspire to be an author, or simply love horse books then you are in the right place!
In this week's episode, you'll meet Thoroughbred trainer, writer, and teacher Patrick Smithwick. You'll learn ...
Watch Patrick Smithwick's Interview on YouTube!
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About Patrick Smithwick
Patrick Smithwick has been working with horses all his life. At the age of fifteen, he began riding for his father, A. P. “Paddy” Smithwick, the legendary Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey. He worked his way through college by exercising Thoroughbreds and riding steeplechase races at major East Coast tracks and at hunt meets from South Carolina to New York State and in the mid-West.
Patrick has won awards for the writing of newspaper features, short stories and magazine pieces while working at as a Chesapeake Bay waterman, newspaper reporter, and teacher of English, Creative Writing and Medieval History. He holds a B.A. and an M.L.A. from Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. from Hollins College (where he met his wife-to-be—it was love at first sight), and an EFM (Education in Ministry) from the University of the South.
The author lives with his wife Ansley on the ten-acre farm where he was raised in Monkton, Maryland; he writes every morning in the refurbished milking parlor in the barn, looking out at his two Thoroughbreds, and one very intelligent miniature donkey who at feed time pushes his nose against the window of the writing room while stamping his feet. Most afternoons, Patrick hops on retired steeplechaser Riderwood, and goes for a cross-country ride, galloping over a 2,000-acre area in conservations easements, the fox-hunting country of the Elkridge Harford Hunt Club.
Patrick is the author of the award-winning Racing Trilogy, including Racing My Father, Flying Change and Racing Time. He’s also written the histories: The Art of Healing, Union Memorial Hospital, and Gilman Voices, 1897 – 1997.
Patrick Smithwick Podcast Interview Excerpt
Carly: You have been working with horses all of your life. At a very young age, you began working with your father, the legendary steeplechase jockey, A.P. Smithwick, who became a trainer after retiring from riding.
You then worked your way through school and college by exercising Thoroughbreds at major East Coast racetracks and riding steeplechase races at such venues as Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, and hunt meets such as the Maryland Hunt Club and the Grand National.
Tell us about your love affair with horses and how your father influenced it.
Patrick: First, I should mention my mother. She was my teacher during the early years—but I never knew I was being taught, and it never seemed like work. She was constantly getting young ponies that’d we train to go cross country, that we’d hunt, that we’d show—and then, with the exception of my favorite, Queenie, that we’d sell. She also taught riding—which meant I was teaching riding as a boy. My friends would come over, along with friends of my sister’s. Mom and I would tack up half a dozen ponies and we’d ride around the countryside like a posse, stopping and visiting people, people joining us on horses as well as ponies, our posse growing, Mom laughing, having the best time.
Then I went into showing—I had one of the top ponies in the area, Twinkle, and we’d pick up the ribbons. She was beautiful—jet black with a white star. And she was a handful, like a little Thoroughbred. The judges loved her and so did I. She taught me a great deal about how to ride right on the edge, how to maintain good jumping form while at the same time letting her open up and go full tilt, fast.
At a young age, I moved into riding Thoroughbred horses. This is where my training crossed over from my mother to my father. My first horse was a small retired Thoroughbred with a big heart called Crag. He was one of my father’s favorite steeplechasers. Pop started working with me, and then, suddenly, in the fourth grade, I was riding him in a big show around here, and we won the championship—beating all the adults. That was one of the most fulfilling days of riding in my life. Pop won one of his last races on Crag; I won, the next year, my first race on Crag. His stall was ten feet from where I sit—on the other side of the wall with bookshelves in this writing room in the barn.
At 15, I began galloping racehorses for my father at the racetrack, and then at 17, I started riding races. I soaked up tips, information, habits every single day just by being around my father and his friends, many of whom were later inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame (and one, Bobby Burke, into the Open Jumper as well as the Hunter Hall of Fame), and hearing them talk.
Carly: You live on the horse farm where you were raised in Monkton, Maryland, with your wife Ansley and you have three children: Paddy, Andrew and Eliza. Tell us about your family, your herd, and your Maryland farm.
Patrick: I love our farm. Every square foot has a memory: this is where my father had to get behind Tote’m Home with a whip and we got him to jump his first fence, a little spread fence, the summer he and I went on to win at Saratoga Springs; this is where I used to jump Queenie over the stream; in this tree was my tree house where I pulled up the rope ladder so no one could interrupt, and read Tom Sawyer; in this secret room, high up in our big bank barn built before the Civil War, I had the Coo-Coo Lilly Club – and in fact, was its president, and the chief author of its Rule Book and the many detailed and torturous initiation rites, inspired by Tom Sawyer.
When my father was training—we had about ten horses on the farm in light training and Mom had her hunters and ponies. The other twenty racehorses in full training were at Delaware Park or Monmouth Park or Belmont Park or Saratoga Springs.
My wife Ansley is an incredibly talented and gifted educator. She has held just about every position at Oldfields School, one of the country’s oldest all-girls boarding schools, including Head, for the past forty years – with the one exception of never being head of its renowned riding department. Her field in teaching is French, a language she speaks fluently and effortlessly, to my chagrin—as I am always trying to polish up my French skills.
I’m very close to my children. My son Paddy is a pediatric dentist in Denver. My daughter Eliza works in marketing, design and promotions and also lives in Denver. I am extremely lucky to have her as my marketing manager; she has designed my website www.patricksmithwick for all three books and she does a fantastic job marketing the books on social media.
Carly: Tell us about your books.
Patrick: I suppose each of my books comes from wanting to write about what and whom I love.
The first, Racing My Father, is about growing up in a very different lifestyle, a sort of 18th century lifestyle, where I went to work with my father most mornings from the age of 15 on, and actually went when I was even younger and was a “hot walker” on the track. I loved my relationship with my father. I loved my entire upbringing, though many would call it tough. I had to grow up early: working every day of the year and even on Christmas—galloping horses at 5:30 a.m. at Pimlico Racecourse before classes at Gilman School and on the weekends. I saw parts of life that others my age couldn’t imagine; sometimes I had a blackberry brandy and a slice of beef jerky for breakfast after galloping seven horses in the freezing temperatures of Old Hilltop (Pimlico) in the winter, before going to classes. All sorts of interesting characters in those pubs, taverns and watering holes, both male and female, and I listened.
The second, Flying Change, is about making a big change at mid-life. Everything was going smoothly, job, career, family …. Hmmm. What did I decide to do? At the age of 47, the age my father died, I decided to go back to riding races, and I decided to focus on riding in one of the toughest steeplechase races I know. So it is about my love of horses and racing and the countryside. Flying Change is the flip side of the first book. Racing My Father was about my love for Pop. Flying Change is about being a father, my intense love for my three children, and handing down to them through riding with them what Mom and Pop had given me: my inheritance of knowledge of the horse—most of which is nonverbal.
The third, Racing Time. This was difficult to write, emotionally draining to write. It often had me trembling and tearing up and thinking about the great beyond. It is primarily about my love for my childhood friend of a lifetime, Tom Voss, who went on to become a Hall of Fame trainer. And it is about my love and devotion to two other men, flat trainer, Green Beret veteran of Vietnam, Dickie Small, and boxer/horse whisperer/singer Speedy Kiniel. The three died within a six-month period of one another. I gave the eulogy at each funeral. Racing Time—we baby boomers are Racing Time.
Carly: Flying Change won the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Best in Racing Literature award. That is amazing! Tell us about the award. How did winning such a prestigious award make you feel?
Patrick: Winning the award gave my spirits a great boost. What I loved the most about it was being supported by my best friends, children and wife Ansley. In particular, two nights before the award best friend Tom Voss (who was an important figure in the book) informed me he was flying (from Maryland to Kentucky) for the “acceptance”—which was not a sure bet! It is organized so that three finalists are at the ceremony. Each gives a short talk. Then there is an incredible void, a vacuum in the room, a silence, as Shane Ryan walks up onto the stage, takes his time!, gives a little talk about the three, and then, finally, announces the winner.
Writers struggle to get their books attention—to lure readers to their books. In this case, the award is given the year after the book is published. So winning the Ryan Award gave the book a boost in recognition—along with a stamp of success. And then, when I got home, my core group of five childhood friends threw a party for me—where for the one and only time, they made me the center of attention, even with their wives there!
Carly: Did you do anything special with the prize money?
Patrick: The ten grand: I took my wife and children out for a big dinner. I invested part of into pumping up marketing on the book. I invested the rest in providing the time and energy for the next book, i.e., I was teaching full time then, but I was able to turn down one or two freelance writing jobs, and could instead work on my writing.
Carly: Tell us about your writing routine. Do you write every day? Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
Patrick: Yes, I write every morning. For years, as a youth on the racetrack, I arose at 4:45 and was on my first horse at 5:30. Then, when I went “white collar” and had to be teaching or at the office at 8:30, I began getting up early, having a cup of coffee and writing for an hour before even getting out of my pajamas.
I wrote my first book, Gilman Voices, this way—arising at 4:30 each morning, and writing before driving to work. Nowadays, my best scenario is to arise not quite so early! How about 5:30 or 6:00? Dress, feed the dogs and horses, have juice and granola, bring a cup of coffee up to my wife in bed, and go straight to my writing room in the barn without talking to a soul, without looking at my cell phone, without hearing the news, without opening an email—all the while building up, thinking in the back of my mind of what I’ll be embarking on that morning.
Carly: Tell us about your studio. You call it your writing barn.
Patrick: Here I sit in the barn I love. Above me is the huge loft where I played as a child and have worked hard stacking hay and straw. Beside me are two pups wanting to go out and chase the donkey or that goose getting too near the door. Further out is the stream which serves as the prologue for Racing Time and is a favorite of critics. Over my head is a hand-hewn chestnut beam—running the entire length of the barn. I still have the old double swinging doors from when this was a cow shed—and every morning when I open the bottom door, I place my hand on a deep, smooth indentation worn there over 150 years or use.
Carly: How did you go about writing a memoir? How did you get started? Talk us through it.
Patrick: The core of Racing My Father is based on an autobiographical short story, the first one I’d ever written, published in a magazine. Late one night when an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, I’d read “My Old Man” by Ernest Hemingway, a story from a boy’s point of view about his father, a steeplechase jockey riding in France and Italy. It had many sections I liked; I knew it and understood it from deep down. My father had recently had a terrible fall in a race at the age of 39, forcing him to end his career—he was then the winningest steeplechase jockey in America.
The next morning, early, I arose and wrote. I wrote about the day he had that fall. I was with him the entire day. I wrote it as a love story to my father and to racing, and I wrote it as a present for him, to show my love. I sent it to a horse magazine, and it was accepted immediately. The editor called me in the evening after receiving it in the mail that day. He loved it and would publish it in the August issue—perfect time, for the Saratoga race meet.
Boy, I thought, this writing life might be all right! Well, I learned in the coming years that it wouldn’t always be like that.
At Hopkins, I was writing lots of fiction. At Hollins University, in the graduate department, I was writing fiction, most of it autobiographical. Yet, during these years I also had incredibly interesting times and adventures—the best training—working on small newspapers, making daily deadlines, interviewing whomever I wanted, seeing my byline “above the fold” day after day, and getting immediate feedback from readers—back in the day when everybody did read the paper.
After a while, when not making newspaper and magazine deadlines, I realized that I had such an unusual background, with interesting characters, and incredible occurrences, that I didn’t need to fictionalize it. I became very interested in the memoir before it became popular.
I studied West With the Night by Beryl Markham, Growing Up by fellow Hopkins alumnus Russell Baker. Annie Dillard walked into the Hollins University cafeteria for the long coffee-fueled breakfasts she loved, threw up her arms and announced: I just won the Pulitzer Prize. That was for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’d read that summer.
Carly: Since these are memoirs, do you keep a daily journal or do you just recall these past experiences as best as you can?
Patrick: I did write journal entries that became important in the creation of my last two books. In the early morning before going to work, I’d write my experiences and feelings while they were hot, get them on paper, raw, unpolished, fast, while I had the details in my memory. (I had a “Racing Journal” that I kept when I returned to being a jockey at fifty—and it forms an important section of Racing Time, although I changed and reworked it to fit the needs of the book—mainly, I made it focus on one horse and Speedy Kiniel who loved that horse) I had no idea at the time of writing these journal entries how or even if I would use them.
For instance, there are quite a few letters to my deceased friend Tom Voss in Racing Time. I wrote them because I had to, after his death, and because I wanted to communicate with him. And I wrote many more letters and journal entries than appear in the book.
Carly: Which hurdles did you personally face when writing so openly about your life and how did you overcome them?
Patrick: I consider each of my books a non-fiction novel, or a literary memoir. That is, I use all the techniques of a novelist with the main difference being that the events and people are real. I try to tell the truth—even when it does not put me in a good light. I do not want to hurt or embarrass anyone, and yet for the book to have tension, pace, even a little suspense, there does have to be friction as well as some characters who might be unlikeable or unsavory. This can be a very difficult part about writing the memoir, and at times makes the memoir an art form that puts you in more of an artistic straitjacket than the novel.
Carly: Is there a message in your memoirs that you hope readers will grasp?
Patrick: Yes, but I’d rather they read the books and come up with their own messages. That’s one point that has been very gratifying to me: people like my books for very different reasons. And I’ve discovered that the books speak to them according to what is going on in their lives at the time, according to their interests. In general, readers find my books inspiring—though in many different ways—and this is very gratifying to me.
I do not write specifically for the horsey reader. Though the background of my trilogy has been horses and racing and riding, I write for the general reader. I hope my themes and topics are universal ones, and I’ve been very pleased that my readers come from both the horsey side of the pub as well as the literary corner of the bookstore: and best of all is when they are combined.
Carly: How long does it take you to typically write one book?
Patrick: Until the past two years, I’ve written each of my five books while having a full time job. Thus, about five years each to answer the question. But that is not really how its done. Usually, I am concluding, wrapping up, editing and rewriting one book while starting early sections of another.
Carly: Were there any authors/other writers who inspired or influenced your style?
Early on: Ernest Hemingway inspired me, especially his short stories. Then Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Henry Miller! and Robert Frost. Thoreau.
Through teaching I fell in love with Shakespeare’s plays and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The French: Baudelaire, Camus, Anais Nin, and Proust’s Swann’s Way, which I just finally read last year.
The Irish: Yeats and Joyce. Tonight I’m concluding a course I’m taking on Ulysses with a Joyce scholar. And the Welsh poet—Dylan Thomas.
Modern: Poet and memoirist Annie Dillard. Chinua Achebe. Toni Morrison. The great short story writer Thomas McGuane. The poet Henry Taylor.
I love being immersed in a big novel or epic: Homer’s Odyssey, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s Swann’s Way.
And I’ve enjoyed diving into trilogies or multiple interlocking books by one author: William Matthiesen’s Watson trilogy; Cormac McCarthy’s the Border trilogy; Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man; Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet; Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County saga is a favorite and has been very influential to me.
Carly: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who want to write a memoir?
Patrick: Read the classics: Thoreau’s Walden, Montaigne’s essays, West with the Wind, and other more modern memoirs. Also read good novels. Then, get the ink on paper; start with that one sentence, the one paragraph, the one chapter—like a non-fiction short story.
Write it. Then write another. Let them build on one another. Go ahead and do the writing without pulling any punches. Tell the actual truth.
Later, if need be, parts can be deleted. During that first draft, turn “the editor” off in your mind—let the words gallop across the page, take chances, experiment once in a while—if you feel like it. Keep going. Suddenly you have 125 pages. You can go back later and edit and reshape, move sections around, change the sequencing, and, the toughest part—make those cuts.
Carly: You are traditionally published. How did you end up working with your publisher? Tell us what it has been like working together?
Patrick: First publisher: we wanted Racing My Father to be out in the early spring. For several weeks, every night after teaching all day, I worked with three different editors.
Monday—I’d be working on Part V with the editor who didn’t understand grammar very well.
Next night, Tuesday—I’d be working on Part I with that one editor who drove me crazy who had absolutely no sense of humor.
Wednesday—the super literal editor who wrote EXPLAIN after every scene (Henry Miller: Never explain) would send in Part II. And the other two editors would have questions for me on their sections.
Ha! That was wild, but I’d luckily had a similar experience for getting pieces out late at night, on deadline, when being a magazine writer working with multiple editors.
In the end, we got the book out on time, and I was pleased. That publisher had a very good system with its distributor, and the book was placed in book stores all over the country, and even in airport bookstores.
The next two books, I did differently. Once I had a good, solid rough manuscript, I’d send it around to four or so readers, get their reactions. Then, I’d work on it some more, and a few months later, send it to my tougher, more literary critic-friends, get their reactions.
I’d keep rewriting, reshaping, polishing until I was ready for my absolute toughest critic—send it to him. Finally, the book would go to publishers. It’d be rejected. Rejected again. I’d make more changes. More rejections.
Finally, gratefully, I’d find a publisher. At this stage, the publisher and I would engage a tough, persnickety, detail-oriented proofreader who would find all sorts of little, tiny changes still needing to be made.
By this time small bookstores had closed, even larger ones. Mainly the big, bureaucratic ones were still open. And Amazon was becoming King. Thus, I now put much more emphasis on combining giving readings with book signings, and on social media.
Carly: It looks like you had creative control over your book covers. Was that the case?
Patrick: Yes, I had complete creative control over the past two books. On Flying Change, I worked directly with a top photographer. On the second I worked directly with a highly skilled artist—Sam Robinson. I also worked closely with him on developing the twelve illustrations in the book.
Carly: What do you wish you had known when you started out?
Patrick: First, I think of an infinity of different paths I could have taken when “Two paths diverged in a wood, and I— . . . “ But when I look back on it now, all the ups and downs, all the adventures, all the friends, all the very many different jobs and ways to support my writing, all the times I was down to my last dollar and hoping that freelance check would be in the mailbox because after all the story has been out for three weeks now, people are talking about it, they’re calling me up about it, it’s turning out well, the magazine is getting good press—and me, I still haven’t been paid!
But when I look back on it all, it has all been good for my writing. I would be tempted to say: I might not have had to make it so hard on myself so many times, the times I had a good, well-paying steady job, such as being Director of Publications at a big time school—but left it to gallop horses in the mornings and write in the afternoon; the time, immediately after marrying Ansley, I left the nicest, cushiest, most fun job as a newspaper feature writer to go work on the Chesapeake Bay as a waterman—dangerous work—and that winter the entire Bay froze over and men drowned; I could’ve held on to those newspaper, magazine, teaching jobs—kept my life in a more steady lane, made more money, saved more money, been more at ease with the family finances—but then, that wouldn’t have been me; I did take that different path Frost writes about—and as Henry Miller says, and as I quote in Flying Change: “I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap into the dark.”
Carly: How do you reach your readers?
Patrick: Working with small publishers, I have to be very hands on. Best for me are venues—parties, clubs, museums, private residences—where I can do a half an hour reading, and then sign and sell books. I also stop at tack shops, book stores, feed stores, even liquor stores—give them a good deal, and they usually love selling my books.
Nowadays, with small bookstores being squeezed out, I am doing more on social media. That “I” is slightly apocryphal. My daughter Eliza is modernizing my marketing. She has designed a wonderful website patricksmithwick.com for all three books; she runs my Facebook pages and Instagram. And through Eliza I found Carly Kade Creative and this opportunity to do my first podcast!
Carly: What is the hardest part about being an author?
Patrick: The hardest part is finding the peace and quiet and place to write. Early on, it’s difficult because one has to spend so much time making the almighty dollar. Thus, one has to have great self-discipline—to lock himself away during those non-business hours, Saturday and Sunday mornings perhaps—and write, when your family and friends would like you to be around. In other words, you have to make sacrifices—and then you also need the time to read, which is really a major part of your occupation.
Also, today the technology gives—you can communicate with people so quickly, you can do research so effortlessly—and yet it also takes away. One has to get away from the beeping phone, the incoming emails, the Instagram messages, the Facebook posts! In the pre-high tech days, my favorite writing room was a garret up on the third and empty floor of a former hotel; it only one electrical device: a plug for the light. I had a legal pad, a few books, and a manual Royal typewriter. And no one knew where this room was.
Nowadays, I love this writing room in the barn. In the early morning, if I am writing a first draft, I don’t look at my cell; I turn it off, and I leave it out in the garage in my car. I also do not bring the Internet connector-gadget into my writing room. Then, in the afternoon I can check for incoming messages, texts, etc.
Blizzards are great! Especially when you’re a teacher. Snow days—a surprise. Suddenly you have time. I made major progress on my last book when the electricity was off, the schools were closed, the Internet was down—and here I was with an old-fashioned legal pad and a pen and a story I wanted to tell.
Carly: What is the best part about being an author?
When it’s going well, when the words are flowing onto the page, when you walk out of your writing room after a good morning knowing you have a good draft of the first half of a chapter down and you’re stepping away at just the right time, and can’t wait to pick it up in the morning exactly where you left off without missing a beat, when you’re focused and in the zone and in the universe of your work and making connections and seeing possibilities and moving, moving, writing, like riding a race, like skiing down a slope, that’s the best part of being a “writer.”
Author? It is a wonderful feeling when you hear from a reader who not only appreciates what you know you’ve put into a book, but who digs deep and comes up with some concepts that rather astound you in a positive way. It could be about how the book affects the reader—in a way you wouldn’t have predicted but are so grateful to hear. It could be how a certain passage moves a reader. It is also very rewarding to hear a reader analyze or explicate a passage in a knowledgeable way, showing that he or she picked up on every little nuance.
It’s great fun to hear, “I read this to my husband in the afternoons during our vacation,” or “We had a wonderful time driving to Maine in the pickup truck with the full front seat, Rob was at the wheel and I was snuggled up to him like the old days before bucket seats, reading your book. We could hear your voice.”
Carly: Not only have articles been written about you in the most popular equestrian magazines out there, but you are also a freelance writer who contributes to them. How did you get into freelance work for horse publications?
Patrick: Right out of Johns Hopkins, I went to work for newspapers. Later, I worked for magazines, often doing investigative journalism. My writing had little to do with horses. Then, I started writing memoir-like short pieces, putting them in horse publications. After breaking away from the world of horses for a decade or so, I came back to my roots as a writer. Some of the stories became chapters (highly altered) in later books. And later, to promote books, I put chapters or sections in magazines.
Carly: What might a reader be surprised to learn about you?
Patrick: I love all sorts of sports, and I think it is very important for a writer to get exercise to clear his/her mind out, and to stay in shape—to combat that standing or sitting for hours at the desk. I ride as often as I can (there was a time when I was riding for a living, that I galloped 21 race horses a day); I bicycle, ski. In the winters I work out on a stationary bike and a rowing machine which I have set up in the top of the barn; I slide open up the huge back door and look out over the fields. In the summers, I love swimming.
Carly: What’s next? What are you curious about right now?
Patrick: I am writing a book about searching for my son Andrew, two-tour Marine veteran of the Iraq War and now living somewhere in the Southwest as a homeless survivalist. I have the ink down on 300 pages.
Carly: Would you consider trying your hand at fiction?
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Carly Kade is an award-winning independent author, horse owner, creativity coach, and the host of the Equestrian Author Spotlight Podcast. She helps fellow writers start, grow, and expand their author careers. Creative writing makes her spurs jingle!
Carly's award-winning In the Reins equestrian romance book series was written with horse lovers in mind, no matter which discipline they ride. The horses are as vital to moving the story forward as the human characters are.
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Carly Kade writes for anyone who loves horses, handsome cowboys and a great romance. Creative writing about horses makes her spurs jingle!
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