It is my honor—and I mean that truly—to host author Judith Tarr today.
I first read Tarr’s work in the 1990’s, and continue to be swept up in her stories the moment I read the first page. Her novels encompass the fantastical and historical traditions fantasy readers yearn for, and entwines them with characters who are vibrant, real, flawed, and ever striving. Among my favorites of her works are the White Mare’s Daughter and Arrows of the Sun. Both open trilogies filled with marvelous things. The Washington Post said of her work, “Judith Tarr is as confident in describing the battlefields of war as she is in exploring the conflicts of love,” and I must say I agree completely!
So when it looked possible to include Tarr’s newest novel in the Weird Western bundle—and as a debut!—I was biting my fingernails until she said yes. This woman of sharp observation, honed craft, and polished wit tempered with wide life experience has offered you, my darlings, an opportunity to read Dragons in the Earth through StoryBundle before it’s available to anyone else.
And on top of all that, she agreed to answer a few questions for me!
Dragons in the Earth takes place in Tucson and surrounding areas. I’ve a love for the desert myself, and your respect for the land of your adopted home comes through in your work so strongly. You mentioned elsewhere your reasons for settling in the desert. What has surprised you about desert living? Is that a warning or an enticement?
As I’ve said elsewhere, I moved here for my health. What I didn’t expect was for it to be as livable as it is. “It’s a Dry Heat” is true. I can’t handle humid heat at all, but here, while it’s challenging (and I have to be out in a lot, with the horses), it’s amazingly tolerable. It does not hurt, either, that we build for it, design for it, and plan for it. We make the most of what cool we can find or manufacture.
The other surprising thing, from the being outside all the time standpoint, is that while the desert is notoriously full of snakes, scorpions, and attack cacti, swarms of biting insects are remarkably rare. I can be outside at night without getting eaten alive, and horseback riding in warm weather doesn’t require six layers of Kevlar and a quart of fly spray per horse. We do get barn flies around the summer rains, and mosquitoes if there’s standing water, but it’s nothing like what I dealt with every spring and summer in New England.
I moved from Indiana to the foothills of eastern Colorado, so I completely understand the joy of (mostly) insect-free outdoor enjoyment!
Now, I’m a dog person. A dog person who adopts rescue pups and helps others understand their adopted dogs who have “a past.” What I’ve loved about reading your accounts of working with horses, on your blog and through Patreon, is comparing your explanations of equine communication to canine communication. Can you share a little bit about communicating with horses—the nonverbal exchanges, the predator-prey alignments, the differences between mares and stallions—and the depth you chose to include in your novel.
Now this could be a book.
And it is! Right here, folks can find Writing Horses—your fantastic guide to including horses in a novel without triggering horse-knowledgeable folks to throw said novel against the wall. Or across the stall.
Or a library!
As briefly as I can put it, horses communicate through movement, through body language and through what can be best be described as manipulating energy. They’re extremely subtle, and extremely complex in their interactions. Humans are at a severe disadvantage here; we’re focused in our heads, we’re loud, we’re clumsy, we lack nuance. Horses are extremely patient with us, but it’s a rare horse who doesn’t eventually just give up and stop trying if it’s constantly exposed to oblivious human body-screamers. That’s the checked-out barn potato but also the crazy spookmonster who freaks out about everything.
If a human tries to communicate with a horse on the horse’s own level, even if the effort is at best a clumsy approximation of what a horse would do, the horse tries very very hard to accommodate. That’s especially true of sensitive horses, and horses raised with the expectation that the humans will try to pay attention.
Then things happen. Like you’re longeing your horse on a 20-foot line, and not saying a word. “Riding” him from that far away. Moving him, changing his gaits, with tiny shifts of your own weight and attitude. Or you’re standing with your horse and you’re breathing with her and she started off anxious about something outside, but now she’s breathing slow and deep along with you, and the anxiety is gone. And stays gone as long as you keep that focus.
Mares and stallions? Ah, the myths. Most basically, stallions aren’t the wild hormonal maniacs they’re made out to be. They’re strongly controlled by their instincts, yes, but it’s the mares who control them. Which means human women get along great with stallions. Better than men. A man can be a rival, but a woman is the alpha mare, and he’s wired to defer to her.
Just recently I was going to ride my stallion, but one of my mares wanted the session. As I led him past her, he went nutty. She was driving him off his tiny head with her targeted mareness. I seriously could not get him to focus–and he’s well trained, very smart and wise, and bonded to me. She manipulated him right out of the session. So she got the ride, and he calmed down the minute he was back in his stall with his pile of hay.
And these aren’t even ancient Powers hiding on a ranch outside of Tucson.
Well. Maybe that’s not actually true.
Dragons in the Earth puts together a bunch of elements we often associate with isolation and solitude—a desert setting, caretaking, spiritual and magical undercurrents. What choices and opportunities do you find this provides your characters and their developments?
It lets the characters be very much a part of the landscape and the climate and the overall spirit of the place. At the same time, since that isolation happens just a few miles outside of a city of half a million humans, on land that’s been occupied continually for millennia, there’s the option of entering the urban energy sink and using that to power certain aspects of the magic. Which I will be contemplating for the sequels, because Tucson Magic is a real thing, and it’s urban as well as desert and wilderness.
That’s the thing about the city, in fact. Twenty minutes outside of a heavily populated area is desert or mountain or forest. There’s real wilderness out there. Mountain lions and bears. Bighorn sheep. Saguaro forests. Then you turn around and drive down and you’re in the mall or the University or the barrio.
And even there, you’ll find tiny enclaves: houses with a pipe pen and a couple of horses in back, a garden that’s been there since the Spanish Colonial days, an old sacred hill that looks down on the inner city. There are thousand-year-old pit houses in the middle of the city, or at highway interchanges. And cutting-edge aerospace and biotech, and the airplane graveyard out by the air base.
The stories write themselves.
Would you share your most memorable desert experience? Your most memorable equine connection? Either or both?
Oh gosh. There are so many. The mare manipulating the stallion with her hormones–that was a couple of weeks ago. She does things like that all the time. So do the rest of the horses.
For pure desert experience, one of my favorites was a couple of years ago. A writer friend was in town researching a book, and we went down to the Presidio and poked around the remnants of colonial Tucson. From there we headed to Saguaro National Park West, and back in time: we climbed Signal Hill to see the petroglyphs. It was the summer Solstice, 109 degrees F, and we were up on the edge of the sky, where the old ones left messages for the gods and each other. That was a very Tucson day.
What’s coming up next for you, and how can folks who love Dragons in the Earth be informed?
I’m working on a sequel to my space opera, Forgotten Suns, and also on the next Tucson Magic/Horses of the Moon story. I talk about these things intermittently on facebook (with much horse and farm detail), and more often on twitter, where I’m @dancinghorse. Twitter is a good place to find me.
I also have a Patreon, where I post bits of horse and farm news and snippets of fiction. That’s here: https://www.patreon.com/dancinghorse
As a Patreon supporter myself, I can highly recommend it!
Thank you so very much for your time, Judy!
Judith Tarr’s current new release, Dragons in the Earth, is available exclusively through StoryBundle until September 8!
If you’re ready for more, check out Dancing Horse Farms for information on Tarr’s writer mentoring, and her Horse Camp for Writers.