Clare Balding has always had a love for animals – and was genuinely disappointed to find out she was not a dog when she was younger. So, the next best thing was to surround herself with a variety of four-legged friends.
Luckily, she grew up on a racing yard, so it was pretty easy. Clare became a champion jockey in her early twenties and dreamt of winning the Grand National, or riding at the Olympics. She ended up turning her attention to radio and television broadcasting and has since presented coverage at multiple Olympic, Paralympic and Winter Olympic Games, as well as the Grand National, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and Crufts. And of course, she also has author on her CV.
We caught up with Clare to chat about her affinity for animals and how a fellow notable author was the one who encouraged her to write her children’s series about the racehorse Noble Warrior.
Which children’s writer do you most admire and why?
I love Michael Morpurgo – he writes about complicated and deep subjects really well and he challenges children to think differently. He is also particularly good at writing about our relationship with animals and how important it is for us to respect the natural world.
What was your dream job when you were young?
I wanted to ride at the Olympics for Great Britain on the three-day-event team. I had dreams of standing on that podium, singing the national anthem, tears running down my cheeks with pride. It’s unlikely to happen now but in a strange way, the dream has come true in that I have been to six Olympic Games and five Paralympic Games.
Tell us about a children’s book you’ve reread many times.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell is an extraordinary piece of writing. It was her only book, written towards the end of her life to raise money for the newly formed charity the RSPCA. The narrator is Black Beauty himself, who goes through various different lives with different owners, some of whom treat him kindly, some of whom do not. It is a story about animal welfare told in a moving and personal way.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I have had a couple of very good editors for my adult and children’s books. They have made it clear that I shouldn’t 'head hop' from one character to another – stay true to a single narrator or close to the lead character; and that I should 'show, don’t tell', which is easier said than done.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
I loved Jojo Moyes’ new novel called The Giver of Stars set in rural America. It’s based on a true story of a group of women who delivered books on horseback to far-flung houses in 1930s Kentucky. Jojo went over there to ride the routes herself, and it is written with all her usual empathy and creativity. She has a great gift for being able to bring characters we care about to life.
What inspired you to write your book?
Michael Morpurgo himself told me to start writing for children, and I embarked on this series of novels about a young girl called Charlie Bass, who buys a racehorse by accident. This third book was inspired by the work I have seen at Riding for the Disabled and the riders I have met and known through presenting the Paralympics. It’s about being a good friend, being brave, challenging yourself and working as part of a team.
What’s your ideal reading scenario?
I read every evening but my absolute joy on holiday is to be able to read for hours every day, consuming new books every couple of days. It feels like such a luxury, and during this period of lockdown, I’m going to try to set aside reading time so that I can feel as if I’ve achieved something – as well as for the enjoyment of it.
If you could spend the day with a fictional children’s character, who would it be and why?
I would like to meet Paddington Bear. I think he’s a very kind and sensitive soul and he would be a fun travel partner. We would have good adventures together and make friends wherever we went.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love the escapism of it, imagining characters coming to life and creating situations and events for them. Once the story is written, I really love the reaction of the children who read it. When I visit schools and literary festivals, it is such a joy to hear their thoughts and answer their questions.
If a genie could grant you a book-related wish, what would you wish for?
I would love to be able to understand what animals are saying and to communicate with them, like Doctor Dolittle. I think it would be just amazing to be able to talk to dogs, horses, cats, dolphins, birds, lions, elephants and even spiders.