Episode 83: On Riding Cross-Country Solo, Following Your Calling & Presence with Melissa A. Priblo Chapman (Equestrian Author Spotlight Podcast)
Episode 83: 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 Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback Author Melissa A. Priblo Chapman. You'll learn ...
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About Melissa A. Priblo Chapman
Melissa A. Priblo Chapman is a freelance writer who has had work published in magazines including The Western Horse, Good Dog!, and Doggone. Her story “Gypsy, Cross-Country Dog” appears in the book Traveler’s Tales: A Dog’s World alongside the work of such renowned authors as John Steinbeck and Gary Paulson.
Chapman has been a paid speaker to over 100 organizations in regard to her solo cross-country trip and is a member of the Long Riders Guild, a worldwide league of equestrian adventurers. Chapman is a married mother of four and lives in Upstate New York. She rides every day and continues to share life with her horses and dogs. Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback is her first full-length book.
Melissa A. Priblo Chapman Interview Excerpt
Carly: How your love affair with horses start?
Melissa: My deep love affair with horses goes back to my earliest memories. My parents were baffled by it, but they say “horse” was my first word. I was definitely obsessed. I honestly remember constantly thinking and dreaming and writing about horses. In fourth grade my teacher asked my parents to try to get me to write or spell or do something else that wasn’t related to horses. I never out grew it.
Carly: Tell us about your memoir.
Melissa: DISTANT SKIES is the story of a very normal 23-year-old girl, who just couldn’t let go of this dream of wandering the countryside on horseback. I knew I wanted to go west, and it seemed like California was where you stop when you head west from the east, such as NY where I’m from. The book starts before I leave on the trek, explaining how the horse, Rainy and the dog, Gypsy and I became a team, and it follows the progression as we make our way across the country.
It tells of some of the adventures we had and people and situations we encountered along the way. At first I was surprised when people called it a memoir. I thought of it as an adventure story. But now, with years of life experience between then and now, I also came to realize it is a classic example of a coming-of-age story. There are many ways young people navigate the path between youth and adulthood, and the traditional paths of careers, college, and commitments did not seem like a good fit for me.
I know now that this was my way of testing myself and having a very unique experience that would help me and guide me in life, and it absolutely has done that. And I’m happy about that aspect of the book, but at its heart, I still think of it as an adventure story.
Carly: Why did you choose to write such a personal memoir?
Melissa: That question makes me smile because when I started to write I thought I was going to share the adventure part of it, and definitely the stories about some of the amazing and kind people who became part of our story. But it was not possible to write of that without the emotions that are connected to all of it – the soaring joy of moments out in the natural world, the loneliness of such extended solitude, the ways that goodbyes affect us, the incredible bond with Rainy and Gypsy and then Amanda. Emotions of every type are so entwined with every story I simply couldn’t have written it without it being deeply personal.
And emotions are something we humans all have in common, we don’t feel them all the same way of course, but we all have them. The part where I get kind of dismissed by my back-home boyfriend for example. I left that in there not because it was so important but first, to showcase the reaction of a stranger to my distress, (in the story Diamond Jim) but to show that you do gamble with certain things when you walk away from your life. And also, because I think that feeling is something that everyone has dealt with at some time and can identify with. But I learned from these experiences, and though I didn’t want to be heavy handed about it, I believed that maybe someone else reading the book may be inspired to keep going when things are difficult, or to keep after their dream.
Carly: What made you decide to embark on the journey, at 23, with no cell phone, GPS, etc.?
Melissa: It was my own little dream, since I was very young. For as long as I remember, I always wanted to be outside and around animals. I’d see trails and dirt roads and I always wanted to explore them. On a horse of course. And as I got older, I was very drawn to the idea of being, as I like to say, untethered. At that time things like cell phones, GPS, and the other means of constant contact that we have now didn’t exist. But the idea of that, being “out there” like that didn’t frighten me, it actually excited me and called to me. It sounded like freedom and I think that is what I really wanted to experience.
Carly: How did this adventure change your view of building relationships with animals?
Melissa: First, persistence – I think you have to have it for most undertakings, don’t you? You are a writer, and you have completed and marketed several books so you know that persistence and/or perseverance is required if you make up your mind to pursue a goal. You learn to stick to things even when it’s hard. At the same time, I think it’s important to be in touch with all that you feel, and to feel sure that you are persisting on the right path!
I’m glad you asked about building relationships with animals. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about and something that I have spent all of my life caring about. I have a small barn, and my ideal number in the barn is 3 equines. This is partly financial, but also because building a relationship with a horse (I’ll stick with horses for now) is very very important to me. More important than riding. And I think the key to that is the amount of time you have to spend with these wonderful animals. Not just riding or doing chores, but hanging out with them, doing things other than “work”, being a good observer, learning who they are as individuals. The greatest thing you can give a horse is your time.
With Rainy, Gypsy, and Amanda, we were together all day every day. We shared every moment, ate together, slept near each other and so on. It was an unusual situation in the modern world but it made it so that we could almost read each other’s minds, and sense what each other were feeling. So the trip taught me to learn who a horse is, observe and most of all give your time and share experiences with them. In my own experience, that is how a bond and relationship with an animal grows,
Carly: How did you decide which photographs to include in the book?
Melissa: It was hard to choose which photos we used in the book. But there are not as many as you’d think, especially compared to today when we have cameras in our phones and people take numerous pictures all the time. In the era of my trip, film was on rolls and I had to send the rolls home, then send them off to be developed.
Also, as we traveled people took our pictures quite often and I’d ask them to send one home to my mother but of course many of those I never saw. So we tried to choose what best represented the overall feeling of the story, and the progress of the journey and the places we traveled through.
What was actually harder was choosing which stories to keep in and which ones we had to take out. At the beginning of the book I wrote “every road is a story” and truly, it is. Every road, every trail, every person we met, every hour in that life seemed to have something worth remembering.
Watch the Distant Skies Book Trailer
Carly: Is there a chance for a companion piece?
Melissa: Oh, that’s a great question to hear! Since the book came out, I have had more than a handful of people ask about that. I even had 2 people, who heard me mention stories I had to cut, ask if I could email them the stories that aren’t in the book! What writer wouldn’t love hearing that! It would be wonderful of course to expand on DISTANT SKIES in any way.
But the book is very linear – it’s a journey with a beginning, progress, and a clear end. So I don’t know how that would work, but of course I’d love that! I am absolutely open to anything that keeps this story and our adventure going and being read and shared by others. It keeps the journey alive for me and it warms my heart that people are moved by our story.
Carly: Did this trek restore your faith in humanity, as so many humans helped along the way?
Melissa: I think it would be more accurate to say it confirmed my faith in humanity, because I had a healthy dose of it before I left. I’m an optimist, and always believed people would help us if we needed it. I remember reassuring my parents of that very thing. I didn’t grow up with horses, and my family could not afford to make my horse dreams come true, so I had to work that out and make it happen as a young person myself.
Long before I set out on the cross-country trek, I had had mostly positive experiences with horse people, and had seen how even when they are competitive, if a horse or a horse person needed help, people showed up. But I had no idea how much and how deeply other people would touch our journey and become part of the story. It solidified my belief in the basic goodness of humans.
Carly: As a woman traveling alone with animals to care for, how did you keep a level head during varying challenges?
Melissa: It’s hard to explain, but there was not a high level of anxiety for me on the trip. There was situational stress, like crossing a bridge and a truck starts barreling toward you, or losing the canteen, or being lost occasionally, or worry for the animals, that type of thing. But giving in to anxiety was simply not an option. I had to be the one “in charge” and keep us all safe.
It sounds funny but really the lifestyle was very free flowing and low stress. Of course we had our share of high stress situations, because it was an adventure and that is the nature of adventures, but the majority of the time, this was just me and my animals riding all day, looking at the land, feeling the breeze and the sun and the rain. It was peaceful and natural to me. All these years later I still occasionally have dreams of us riding somewhere, and that is the feeling of it.
Carly: Is there one moment of the trip you'd like to share with listeners?
Melissa: I had to stop and walk away for a bit when I read this question because so many memories came flooding into my mind. And you know, I realized they were all “little” moments. They were where I felt the deep connection to Rainy and Gypsy and Amanda, and to the land we were standing on. I tried to describe that feeling in several spots in the book, one was in “Diamond Day” when the animals and I all took an afternoon nap amongst the rustling grass of the west Kansas plains, and again in “On the Wild Trail,” where it was just us and no sign of humans.
So in that vein, I’d like to tell of one moment in the western Arizona hills. We were up on a high ridge at the end of the day. I was pulling off the saddles and packs and I turned the little transistor radio on, and it was just a low murmur as I brushed the horses. As they put their heads down and nibbled on grass, something caught my attention and I stood still and listened. It was the station on the radio – it was from LA. Not syndicated, but live with weather and traffic reports. I hardly turned on that radio any more as the areas we were in were so remote. But it was the first time we’d gotten a station from California, and in that moment it sunk in how far we’d come, and how close we were to accomplishing the goal we set out to reach.
It was exciting. I could picture the city and lights and people and traffic. And then I smiled and turned it off. I leaned against Rainy for a moment and listened to the light wind, and watched the sky change color and I knew, I just knew how lucky I was to be up on this ridge, with these exact 3 animals, at this exact moment in time. It was that very feeling of connectedness and rightness.
I feel like the animals and our beautiful country gave me the ability to open up and feel how we are all connected and feel at the same time a deep union with the animals, and feel the spirit of where we were. It’s a beautiful feeling, and I wouldn’t trade the moments like that for anything. But I’d like to add that though the horse trip taught me to live in the moment and appreciate like that, you don’t have to be off on an adventure to experience that feeling. Any time we slow down and appreciate what is around us can give us these little moments.
Carly: Tell about experience with Rainy, Gypsy and Amanda, and thoughts on the healing power of animals and our need for connection.
Melissa: The special bond that grew from the time I spent living on the road with my animals is a great example of how deep that bond can be. I never felt truly alone. Even now spending time with animals is a major part of my life. I think being close with animals reminds us to use our senses and listen to our instincts sometimes. It reminds us to slow down and notice things more through their eyes. An animal that knows you senses your feelings, so I think that someone in need of healing can find comfort in that, and in the way the animals choose to be near us, when they don’t have to. It touches something inside.
Carly: What inspired the title of the book?
Melissa: The title DISTANT SKIES, refers to a poem that was written for me while on the journey, by Reid, a character you meet in the book. When I returned to “the real world” those words stayed in my mind. As soon as I started working on writing the book, I never thought of it in any other name. The sub title, AN AMERICAN JOURNEY ON HORSEBACK, is more literal and sums up exactly what it is, and how truly American the urge to wander and go west is.
Carly: Is there I message in your book that you hope readers will grasp?
Melissa: I hesitate a little to say there’s a message because I don’t want to be preachy and I understand that what is important to me may not be to someone else. Riding across the country doesn’t give you the answers to everything but it certainly gave me life lessons and taught me many things that help me navigate life. So I do think that the idea of pursuing my own dream may inspire someone else to try their dream.
And I think there are stories in there that convey the idea that when things don’t go as planned then you work through it and keep going, which is a helpful concept in life in general. I think it may inspire some readers to slow down, wander outside a little and to live in the moment, and to see our animas as true companions and partners.
And since the book came out during the pandemic, I’ve had a few readers tell me that the book made them rethink the solitude of the past year, that solitude can sometimes be a positive thing, and the book helped the get through these hard times or gave them a lift. When they tell me these things, it makes me happy to know the adventures Rainy Gypsy Amanda and I shared can touch and maybe help people.
Carly: How did you go about writing a memoir, and how did you get started?
Melissa: I didn’t think much about writing a book when I was on the trip or right after. But I always wrote. My sister and I were both “kid writers” making up stories and for me, poems. But I kept getting asked to speak about the trip, and I could see how some of our stories touched people and it inspired me that people were so interested in our stories.
I felt like my first job was to get everything down, every story that mattered. I figured that was my pile of clay, and then I would begin to shape it and mold it. So over the years I’d write a story, come back to it and trim it or add to it until it felt right. My first draft was around 1000 pages long! But I kept at it, and eventually I had work I was proud of. I loved writing it. There were times that were discouraging, even very discouraging, but I believed in it, which is a powerful tool to have in your tool box.
Carly: What hurdles did you face when writing about your personal life?
Melissa: The first hurdle was a technical one, I had to find the time in a very busy life, and then have self-enforced discipline to do the work. But on the personal side, it was a little daunting to write openly about my emotions. There were times when I’d work on a story and then I’d sit back and think, this is just about my own experience and how I felt when something happened. Why would anyone else care about this or read it? And times like that were very discouraging.
The hardest to share are the negative feelings: fear, sadness, loneliness and self-doubt. But the feelings I wrote about are all real, and all people feel the same things sometimes. And I knew I had to express those things because along with the good emotions, they were true and relatable. The story would not have been a true story without them.
I will tell you I had a brief time, when it came close to the time it was being released, I kind of questioned if having it out there in the world was what I really wanted. It is, after all, though polished and edited and cleaned up, the journal of a 23-year-old girl! I had a few minor moments of nervousness about sharing that! But I overcame all that by reminding myself that I’m a pretty open book any way, and I felt pride in the work I had done on my writing. You have to have a bit of a fearless heart and put your real self out there to write something true and personal.
Carly: Do you have advice for aspiring memoir authors?
Melissa: I’m sure there are other more experienced authors that would have great advice, but for me, the first step was to make sure I had everything written down. Don’t worry about grammar, form, flow any of that. Just get the stories written, and then the next step is you go back and work on them. And work and work!
If you have a busy life, as I did, I tried to make small goals. I’d say, I just have to look at that Flagstaff story and clean it up. Those small bits add up. Another thing I found is that as a reader of memoirs, you have to find a way to write that isn’t “all about me”. Even though you are telling your story and sharing your feelings, I think it’s good to phrase things in a way that not only shows how you feel, but helps them feel it too.
And another bit of advice was mentioned up above – being fearless about showing your truth, good or bad. I think readers are intelligent and can sense when something doesn’t feel “real.” And this is related, but I think your writing improves when you stop writing with an eye to how others will view it, or what other people will think. I learned to just “write real” and if no one liked it, so be it, I’d have to accept that.
Lastly, I think it’s important to care about what you’re writing about. It will show through in your style and your voice. And it will help you keep going during the inevitable discouraging times. I know there were times when I was working on the book that I thought, even if this never gets published, I’m going to keep working on it. I’ll be disappointed, for sure, but I’m still glad I wrote it and got it done.
Carly: What it has been like working with your publisher Trafalgar Square Books?
Melissa: When I felt my book was ready to be sent out, I had to learn all about book proposals. They vary greatly from one publisher to the next so you can’t just work on one and send them to all different publishers. I had had my eye on Trafalgar Square/Horse and Rider books as a hopeful one because I own some of their books and I liked how they were all about horses. When I first spoke to Rebecca from Trafalgar Square, I immediately felt comfortable and then when she told me what the comments were when the small committee there read some of my writing, I knew right away it was the right place for my book.
They have been very supportive and since this is my first book, they have been patient and very helpful teaching me about the whole process. They have access to different avenues that get the book out in the world that I would never have known about on my own. I remember one phone conference, it was me, Rebecca and Martha on the phone, and when I hung up, I realized I felt like I was part of a team. Much of writing is a solitary pursuit so that was a great thing to feel!
Carly: What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Melissa: I certainly wish I had more real training in writing. And in the business end of writing proposals, and of course in marketing and promotion. But I keep learning and trying!
Carly: How do you reach readers?
Melissa: As you know this past year was certainly an interesting time to have a new book released! There was no opportunity to do any thing live or in person. But the flip side of that is that it opened the door to do interviews and talks any where at all thanks to Zoom, Skype, etc. So I have been able to reach people that are not geographically close.
I enjoy talks, readings, and interviews as the book is a subject that is dear to me. I also have been asked to speak with book clubs, where readers can give me feedback and ask questions and that is fun and rewarding as well.
When things do open up more fully, I hope to visit some of the places from the trip to get the book known there too. Small towns and rural places and the people there will hopefully be glad to see they are in the book.
Carly: What is the hardest part of being an author?
Melissa: I’m happy to say there is no part so far that I consider hard, except for maybe making the time to keep writing and working on writing. For me, the only thing that is kind of a struggle is time management. I sometimes wake up in the night and worry, did I forget an interview somewhere? Did I answer that email? So I’m trying to train myself to try to be more organized with my time and commitments.
Carly: What I the best part about being an author?
Melissa: I hate to over use this word, connections, but the journey was very much about connections, with animals, with people, with nature. And the book has become about connections to. I cannot express how much it means to me when someone tells me the book lifted them up when they were feeling down, or that they felt like they were traveling along with us.
I had a sailor out at sea near Portugal send me a picture of him reading DISTANT SKIES on the deck of his ship, I’ve had a woman with a serious health situation who has been in bed for four months tell me she saves the book and just read a little each evening so she has something to look forward to, I had someone tell me it inspired them to go out and spend more time with their horse who had been fed but not much else over the past couple of years.
I can almost choke up just writing about these things, it just touches my heart to think the adventures Rainy, Gypsy Amanda, and I shared are now helping some one else. And I’ve heard from relatives I lost touch with, old neighbors, and so on. I feel the connections just keep growing and it means the world to me.
Carly: Tell us about your speaking career.
Melissa: As soon as I was back home, I started getting asked if I would come and talk about the horse trip. It started with organizations that had nothing to do with horses! Churches, schools, different administrations and organizations, along with 4-H and similar groups. People seemed to really respond and then word of mouth kept it going.
I never advertised in any way. I did it quite a lot in the first years back, but even in the last decade or so I’d still get an occasional call to come and talk about the trip. And I did do freelance writing so the idea of a book was there, but seeing how people who heard the talks responded to the stories definitely inspired me to believe there might be interest in a book.
Carly: What is The Long Riders' Guild?
Melissa: The Long Riders' Guild is an organization the supports and records all long-distance equestrian travel. It is worldwide, and includes historic rides as well. You have to have ridden over 1000 contiguous miles and be nominated to join. It’s a great website and I recommend looking at it (Longridersguild.com) to read about some very interesting equestrian adventures.
Carly: What’s next, what are you curious about?
Melissa: Great question! I’m curious about everything! Especially if it involves horses, dogs, the outdoors, adventures, travel, human connections, and so on! I do have a curious nature, so I have a notebook full of ideas. But I actually am almost finished with a children’s book, and am at the dabbling stage with my first attempt at fiction.
And I also have a goal to do something with some of the stories from our journey that are not in Distant Skies. Even if it’s just to save them in a readable form, or put some out on a blog, I don’t know yet.
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Carly Kade is an award-winning 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!
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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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