Meet Julia Soplop, author of Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped US History.
FQ: Just reading your bio, you’ve spent a lot of time documenting animal behavior around the world. What made the horse such an attractive subject for you?
SOPLOP: One thing that fascinates me about the horse is that, unlike most domestic animals, the horse exists as the same species in nature. Selective breeding by humans has really only resulted in superficial changes in horses. We can observe how horses naturally behave in their bands in the wild, then turn around and observe how they behave in the stable in their artificial social setups and indoor environments.
At the same time that I was becoming interested in observing and photographing wild horses, my young daughters begged me to sign them up for riding lessons at a local stable. I’m not an equestrian, and the idea scared me! However, they were relentless in their plea, and I finally gave in. What I didn’t realize was how much I would enjoy lounging in the barn watching domestic horses one morning a week for the last four years while the girls rode. It’s interesting to see how the natural behaviors of horses evolved over thousands of years to stay alive on the Great Plains, like being startled by a loud noise or an unfamiliar sight, still exist and wreak havoc in a home environment. A domestic horse that has never encountered threatening wildlife is still on guard at all times for the possibility of a mountain lion jumping on its back!
FQ: Is there a place you’ve been, or a specific animal/mammal you’ve researched, that you loved? Along the same lines, are there any places/animals you long to travel to and investigate that you haven’t yet done?
SOPLOP: When I was in college, I traveled to Madagascar for a couple of months as a field research assistant to study the behavior of sifaka lemurs. Look for sifaka, because they are adorable and have the most interesting way of moving, called vertical clinging and jumping. Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar and critically endangered due to habitat destruction and climate change. I’m honored to have spent time watching them, because sadly, they may not last much longer.
I have a cousin who is a great white shark researcher. In better times, he travels to South Africa to study them. I would love to go with her one day to observe her work, when traveling is safe again and when I have the guts to climb into a cage in waters full of sharks.
FQ: As an author and photographer, how do you feel about the illustrator and writer “team”? His team certainly worked well; Have you done other projects together?
SOPLOP: I had been a fan of Robert Spannring’s art for several years before we started working together. As soon as the manuscript began to take shape, I realized that his particular style could help bring to life some of the historical events and scientific concepts he was addressing. I was very honored when he agreed to illustrate it, and I think we both came away from the project proud of the end product. His art really elevated the manuscript. I hope we can find an excuse to work together in the future!
FQ: When did you become a history lover? Is research something that has always fascinated you?
SOPLOP: I’ve always liked reading about history, whether in non-fiction or historical fiction. But when I started homeschooling my children several years ago, I began to think more deeply about how limited my traditional history education had been, as it was for most people in my generation and still is for many children today. today, and how I needed to do better for my children. I did my job to make sure that when we studied a historical event, we read from numerous perspectives, not just the traditional party line that discounts the experiences of many actors in history. Curating my children’s history education fueled me to want to help amplify the stories of those largely left out of the historical narrative.
FQ: What inspires you to sit down and do this whole study? Are you excited about books, music, travel, something specific that makes you want to start writing a book?
SOPLOP: Equus Rising grew out of a history curriculum I wrote for my children. When we decided to spend a year studying United States history, I wanted to do it in a way that would grab our attention. Our mutual interest in horses gave me the idea to tell the story of our country using the horse as a common narrative thread to tie together events that we normally study in isolation but are highly connected. This approach also allowed for the inclusion of figures often written about outside of traditional stories: women and people of color. Once I started collecting the information, I realized that there really was a story in there that hadn’t been told consistently. The curriculum was transformed into a book idea.
In general, I am very curious and can find inspiration in almost any direction I look. My experience in documentary photography and writing has shown me that there is always a story in the making if you are willing to listen closely enough to hear it.
FQ: What advice would you give to a person who wants to start a career like yours: field study/research/writing?
SOPLOP: The path to becoming a nonfiction writer isn’t as clear cut as many career paths. If you want to be a lawyer, you take the LSAT, go to law school, and then pass the bar. Congratulations, you are a lawyer. My professional path has been much more tortuous. I have always had an interest in research, especially in the fields of biology and public health, as well as writing and photography. But at the end of college I realized that I didn’t want to be a science practitioner; I wanted to be a writer who could communicate research in a way that would help non-specialists understand the important technical issues that influenced their lives.
Becoming a credible communicator on any topic requires understanding the basics well enough to identify the experts in the field and ask them the right questions, so you can accurately write about the significance of your findings. Looking back, I’d say that my coursework as an undergraduate and then a graduate student in medical journalism was split fairly evenly between content courses, such as biostatistics, epidemiology, neuroscience, animal behavior, and courses on how to communicate evidence of effectively to a wide audience. .
My top piece of advice for nonfiction writers is this: Follow your curiosity by working to gain both content knowledge of your subject area and writing skills. Allow yourself to pivot. Take advantage of exciting opportunities when they arise, Madagascar!, even if you’re not sure if they’ll help you advance your career. They probably will. And if not, they will be a great conversation starter. Also read extensively. Write constantly. There has been nothing traditional about my career, but every class I’ve taken, every book I’ve read, every professional experience I’ve had, has contributed to my ability to chart my own path, which has been quite satisfying.
FQ: Are you interested in someday writing fiction? And are you currently working on something that you can inform the readers about?
SOPLOP: Actually, I’ve had a draft of a novel on my shelf for six or seven years that I furiously wrote during NANOWRIMO while my kids were in preschool two mornings a week. There’s a reason it’s still on the shelf. You need some serious help! Every few years, I pick it up and make some adjustments. Then I feel overwhelmed and save it again. Let’s just say I’m a better fiction editor than a writer. Though I think I’ll finish it at some point.
I am currently working on two projects. One is an ebook called Unraveling the Desktop Publishing Process that I plan to publish soon to empower freelance authors. The other is a much larger project that I’m still researching and sketching out. It is a book to help non-scientists become more effective and responsible consumers of health and science news. I started planning this book before the pandemic, but now it seems more timely than ever. I think some people are realizing that they could probably use a little help in this area, even if they are generally educated and informed. A part of me wishes I had finished the book before the pandemic, so that it can help people navigate the onslaught of research that is coming their way. The other part of me has been fascinated by closely following the publicly unfolding science surrounding COVID-19, as well as the intense misinformation campaigns surrounding it. The book practically writes itself.
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