Realizing Her Dreams

Local author fulfills her childhood goals of riding horses and writing


Author Susan Ketchen

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

She wasn’t exactly “a writer” in those days, but neither was she “not a writer.” Her work involved lots of writing and, once in a while, she found time to play with creative writing. “I never decided not to be a writer; I always figured I’d get to it sometime,” says Ketchen.

Then, in her early 30s, she decided to go back to school and become a therapist. Finally, she earned her first degree, a bachelor’s in general studies, and then (alongside meeting the man who would become her husband, moving to Calgary and leasing another horse) went on to earn her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

All this kept her awfully busy, but writing never faded too far into the background. There was lots of writing for school (including her master’s thesis, which focused partly on the connection women have with horses), and she also published two parodies of therapy in the Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies (her sense of humor is very evident in her book).

In the early 1990s she moved to the Comox Valley where she became a Registered Clinical Counsellor and ran a successful private practice for years.

After Ketchen closed her practice in 2004, she finally could make the time to write fiction in earnest.

“I wanted to know if I could do it,” she says. “Doing it” meant sitting at her desk for two to three hours every morning. It also included taking a course on how to write a novel with Matt Hughes at North Island College.

“The course was great,” she says. “It saved me a lot of floundering around. It helped me structure what I needed to do. And it was very practical; it included things like how to write a cover letter [for a submission to a publisher] and how to format your manuscript.”

As well, Ketchen joined a writers’ group for support and feedback.

After about two years, and numerous rewrites, Ketchen had produced a novel. Unlike Born That Way, this first novel, entitled Malice in Dairyland, was aimed at adult readers. Ketchen describes the book as “the story of a woman whose life follows a well planned trajectory until her hand attempts to push her husband into the path of a milk tanker truck while they are out on a bike ride.”

She sent it out to find a publisher. And in a somewhat roundabout way that sowed the seeds for Born That Way. The first manuscript currently sits, for the time being, in that time-honored depository of first novels, the drawer.

“I was waiting for a publisher to get back to me and was told it would take three months. I thought, ‘Oh, three months—what will I do? I’ll just write another novel.’ That was, well, optimistic, but turned out to be true. I became very disciplined with my time,” she says.

Three months later she had the manuscript of Born That Way. She sent it to a few people for feedback, including author Brian Brett, who was writer-in-residence at Haig-Brown House in Campbell River, a teacher friend, and a medical person (the novel has a medical component). Once she’d received and incorporated the feedback, she Googled ‘Canadian publishers of young adult fiction,’ and made a short list of appropriate publishers.

Ten manuscripts containing the first few chapters went out by mail and email. A couple of months later, an email arrived from Oolichan Press, a small BC publishing house based in Lantszille, saying they were interested.

“There was lots of dancing around the living room,” says Ketchen. That was last fall; the book came out in April 2009.

Currently, Ketchen is embarking on a new adventure: promoting her book. She has given readings at Vanier High School, the Muir Gallery in Courtenay, and the Nanaimo Library.

As well, she is at work on a new book, a sequel to Born That Way, tentatively titled Made That Way. “It’s half done and I’m really enjoying it.”

Ketchen is a member of the local dressage club, and the writers’ society. She is also a monitor with the Wildlife Tree Stewardship Program, which, she says, gives her an official excuse to spend many hours staring out the window—at the eagles nesting at the edge of her property.

Although Born That Way is not a novel that focuses especially on a sense of place, it seems very clear that Ketchen-as-writer is rooted in her home—not just her house, fields and horses, but also the particular rural-urban mix of the Comox Valley.

“The Valley does a bunch of things for me that I wouldn’t get somewhere else. It’s a rural lifestyle, with access to town but it’s a small town, there’s some comfort to it,” she says.

“A friend recently asked me what I’d do if I had a week to live,” Ketchen says. She pauses and then points toward the patch of floor right in front of her. “I’d be right here!” Writing and riding, as she’d originally set out to do.

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2 Responses to Realizing Her Dreams

  1. Susan sent me a copy of your article, which I adored……..brilliant journalese, straight into the character of the person and a real knack for doing that well. I’ve nagged her into book signings at Spruce Meadows (!) as I’m Alberta based, and hope the book reaches out to many teenagers here too……… thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, thank you!

  2. …..loved your article, its style and real grasp of how to get into a person’s character…….I write (and teach) writing, reading, and backcountry material and this was pure pleasure reading …….. I connected up with Susan through a horse contact, and now have nagged her into a book signing in Alberta at Spruce Meadows (I’m Alberta based)……..I hope she finds a journalist there with your same acumen! A pleasure to read, thanks!