• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Stacy Gregg. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/Listener

The runaway success of children's author Stacy Gregg

Stacy Gregg quit journalism to become a full-time children’s author. Now her hugely popular Pony Club Secrets books are making the jump to international television.

Last Monday, Stacy Gregg called her agent in London and, at both ends of the call, champagne corks popped. They were celebrating another milestone in Gregg’s professional life – the first day of production in Auckland of the TV series Mystic, based on Gregg’s Pony Club Secrets books. They’re beloved by pony-mad girls aged from eight to 12 years and have sold more than two million copies.

Now, the books are being adapted, with Gregg’s involvement, into an “environmental drama” in a co-production by UK-based Slim Film and Television and local producer Libertine Pictures for CBBC, the BBC children’s television channel, Australia’s Seven Network and TVNZ.

Gregg, who is working on her 26th novel, set in London, Paris and the south of France – “I set my novels in places where I want to go on holiday” – is thrilled and relieved that filming of Mystic is under way. Despite working in the tough worlds of journalism and publishing all her life, she was nervous until the cameras started rolling in West Auckland. Her 20-year-old daughter, Issie, who shares her love of horses, works in the movie industry as a costume runner, a good job, according to her mother, for a young woman with OCD – “Issie has great attention to detail.”

Gregg has combined her love of writing and riding. Photo/Supplied

Gregg, her boyfriend and Issie live in Auckland’s Herne Bay, overlooking the Waitematā Harbour. Her mother, Glenda, died when Gregg was 15, leaving behind Stacy, younger sister Kirsty and their father, Roger.

One of her most popular books, and the only one entirely drawn from a real-life character, is The Princess and the Foal. It’s based on horse-mad Princess Haya, daughter of King Hussein of Jordan, who also lost her mother when she was young. In the book, her love of her horse, Bree, sustains her. The epilogue notes that Princess Haya went on to become an Olympic equestrian, marry the ruler of Dubai and have children. (There has been no happily ever after. Since publication of The Princess and the Foal, Haya has fled Dubai and is embroiled in a custody battle for her two children.)

Gregg has also written the first of a new six-book series, Spellbound, aimed at the five- to eight-year-old market and due for release in about 12 months. The Spellbound books will also be horse-related, but given the age of the readers,  heavily illustrated, says Gregg.

Mother Glenda, guiding younger daughter Kirsty, was scared of horses. Photo/Supplied

Your books, despite being aimed at a young audience, don’t shy away from confronting topics like death and natural disasters. Presumably, you’re drawing on your own experience?

Often, you’ll find with authors – and more with children’s authors – a sort of “stuck in aspic” mentality. I feel as if I’m always slightly 12 years old and it’s not a stretch to write to that age group. I think that is partly linked to some sort of emotional sense of denial about everything that happened to me – I can comfortably revert to that time when things were good before things turned less good.

Do you mean with your mother dying and you being sent to boarding school?

Yes, but, to be fair, I was going to go to boarding school anyway, but I did feel as if I was being sent away. Kirsty had horses, too, and we both went to boarding school after Mum died. I had to sell my pony and go to boarding school, and that was the end of family life as far as I saw it. Writing books has been very cathartic, and I am able now to write characters that don’t constantly reflect that. But, certainly, in the first Pony Club Secrets book, Mystic and the Midnight Ride, the horse dies in chapter three. I’ve always been very comfortable and very focused on death in my books. You can’t put that in if you are not somebody who’s been through death.

I’m imagining it’s quite an emotional process, then, as you write. Do you find yourself in tears?

Yes, hugely. You get quite engaged emotionally with your characters and relive these things. I’d hate to say that’s the benefit of my mother dying but I don’t think I could have written the books if she didn’t.

At Dude Ranch, Henderson Valley, in the early 1970s. Photo/Supplied

You’re prolific – more than two dozen books in 20 years …

I have to be prolific because I’ve never had a grant. I’m not working on the model of an author who is supported through creating literary work. I’m working on the model of “write books, get money”, and, to do that, you have to write a lot of books. You have to keep producing work for your backlist to be worth something. Publishers will only stock your previous work if you’ve got new work coming through and keeping the market active for what you do.

You’re known to prefer writing in a cafe than in a quiet study – how does that help the creativity?

I actually find it really good since I moved [to Herne Bay]. It’s said that the worst thing a writer can have is a view, but I love looking out to sea when I’m writing and I do like working from home now. But I also really like sitting in cafes because it reminds me of being in a newsroom and having a deadline, knowing that the editor’s waiting for your copy. You just block the world out and hit your keyboard really hard.

How do you explain the enduring love, especially among young girls, for books about ponies?

The thing is, it’s enduring and it’s not. When I did the first book in Pony Club Secrets, pony books were dreadfully out of fashion. I didn’t realise that.

Gregg enjoys working from home. Photo/Rebekah Robinson/Listener

What led you to start writing them?

As a kid, I loved pony books. The Jill books by Ruby Ferguson were fantastic. She broke down the fourth wall and spoke directly to the reader. She was enormously dry and acerbic. Ferguson had a longtime rivalry and hatred of Enid Blyton – a lot of what she writes about Jill and the dynamic with her mother, who is a children’s book author, is Ferguson having a stab at Blyton, which I always enjoy. I also love the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. So, I thought if I was going to write a series of books, well, I knew about horses because I’d been a pony-club kid growing up and it was the obvious thing to do.

Where, other than in New Zealand, are your readers?

I’m quite big in France and I do well in Spain. Italy has really gone well. They’ve been buying all the standalone hardbacks that are based on true stories. Then you get tiny rights deals with places such as the Czech Republic and Poland. The only Arabic deal I’ve done was The Princess and the Foal and it’s the same in the US. I always thought it odd that, of all my books, the Americans choose the one about a Muslim princess.

Since you wrote it, Princess Haya’s life has become much more complicated. Are you still in touch with her?

I tried, but I now understand that at the time I was trying to reach her, she was in hiding in Germany. It’s a terrible situation. I’ve had a bad divorce, but not like that. I was enormously concerned for her when I heard what had happened. I had met her and travelled to Jordan and spent time at the palace where she grew up and in the royal stables. I also met all the people who had worked for her and knew her as a kid. So, it was a really heavily researched book. She is the only person I’ve ever met whose real life is more extraordinary than fiction.

On her horse, Cam. Photo/Supplied

Your books seem to be aimed squarely at girls, but do you have boy readers, too?

The truth about publishing for this age is that crossover between genders is literally the Holy Grail. JK Rowling achieved it; most people don’t. Think of the Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths or David Walliams’ books – those are boys’ books. They’re heavily illustrated throughout because boys often don’t have the attention span to read text without an illustration breaking it up. When I go around schools, I love talking to co-ed classes, telling the real-life stories in the standalone novels. For example, The Girl Who Rode the Wind is about the most dangerous horse race in the world. They’re not just pretty, sweet pony books. They’re gutsy, epic adventures.

But the covers are stereotypically feminine, with pinks and floral motifs …

The covers reflect the fact that marketing has to be aimed at the peak of the people you’re talking to; for me, that is eight- to 12-year-old girls. I can’t turn around and say, “I’d like my jackets to look like Michael Morpurgo’s,” because I have to be realistic. I don’t feel as if I write for girls but someone still has to buy them. A grandmother still has to go into a shop and say, “I’m looking for something for my nine-year-old granddaughter – what can I get?”, and feel confident that she can pick something out. So, there’s sales and marketing and then there’s what’s behind the jacket. They are two different things and that’s just the reality.

This 20-year writing career has been a great success, but before that you were a fashion magazine editor. Do you miss that?

I do, but I was there during the golden years when New Zealand fashion was so healthy that I could afford to be quite critical and acerbic. My job was to serve the consumer, not the fashion designers; it was my readers who mattered. So, if I thought a collection was worth buying, I’d say so, and if I thought the collection wasn’t worth buying, I would just comment on how lovely the shoes were.

Researching Prince of Ponies in Berlin’s Grunewald Forest. Photo/Supplied

What’s changed?

Fast fashion has made it so difficult for good fashion to make a living. And there’s also been this glut of influencers whose opinions I really don’t care about, but who somehow now sit in the front rows, holding phones up, vacuously filming things. I feel as if a lot of the intelligence got drained out of the industry a while ago, and it would be really hard for me to inhabit that universe now.

What do you think your mother would have made of your ongoing love of horses and your success with these books?

She hated ponies. She was really scared of them but there was nothing she could do. We were horse mad and so she caved in and she plaited manes and tails and loaded horses on floats. It’s a very feminist sort of world where you’ll see tiny little women driving big trucks with eight horses on board. And there are no men at Horse of the Year: it’s wall-to-wall girls and ponies, some 17.2 [hands] warmbloods that could crush you. These women just handle them. There’s no room for being soft; I find it’s quite a good antidote to urban life. Horses are the ultimate mindfulness, really – you can’t not be present and you can’t take other stuff with you. It frees you up.

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.