Kay and Remy

About Me

Places are important to me, both in life and in the nonfiction books and novels I write. The first home I can remember was a unique place, but I didn't know it at the time. Sarasota, Florida was flat and warm, with white sand beaches and bold tropical flowers bursting out everywhere. Lots of writers, artists, and cutting-edge architects (of whom my father was one) lived in our town. But it was also, during my childhood, a circus town, winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey bigtop show.

Because Sarasota was my home, it never struck me as unusual to see Ted the Giant, “little person” Harry Doll, or Emmett Kelly, the famous sad-faced clown, strolling down Main Street or cruising the aisles at the local grocery store.

Emmett Kelly

Emmett Kelly as "Weary Willie"

Sometimes I went to school with circus kids; they’d join our classes each November when the long, silver trains pulled into town, and then vanish again in the spring when a local priest would bless the trains and send them on their way to cities and towns all across America. I was totally jealous of the Cristiani girls, daughters of a famous equestrian family. They had dark hair and eyes, strong, graceful bodies from riding and vaulting upon horses every day, and the rich smell of sawdust and animals clinging to those bodies (or so I imagined). They seemed older than the rest of us, and somehow sparkly, even without the spangles and spandex of their performing costumes.


These elephants seem amused.

Now, looking back from far away and years later, I wish I had paid more attention to my surroundings. But all I noticed then was the huge absence in my life of the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world: a horse.

Finally, when I was seven or eight, I got to start riding lessons. My instructor was Captain William Heyer, a tall, sixty-something Dutchman and world-famous equestrian retired a few years earlier from the circus.

Capt. WIlliam Heyer

Captain William Heyer

It didn’t matter to me that the Captain was famous and slightly exotic. It only mattered that for an hour each week, I could breathe in the scent of horses, touch their soft hides that rippled with muscle, and sit on their rolling backs. The enormous, docile circus elephants calmly regarding our lessons from their pen across the road from my teacher’s riding academy were just part of the package.

That one hour with horses wasn’t nearly enough. I still didn’t have my own horse and didn’t see any way I ever would. So during the rest of the week, when I wasn’t in school, I lost myself in reading. The stories I read were not about my odd little town, but about faraway places and people I could only imagine. I read everything, from biographies to comic books to Life Magazine. But mostly, I read books about horses. Since I also liked to draw and sketch, I often tried draw the horse of my dreams, but it turned out horses are much easier to imagine than to draw!

With just one older brother whose interests were different from mine, and few kids my age in the neighborhood, I spent a lot of time alone with my dog—a little dachshund named Lady who went everywhere with me. Sometimes I made up stories to tell her while I pedaled my bike around the neighborhood, climbed trees, or explored the vacant wooded lot next door. Lady was a great audience. She’d look me straight in the eye, cock her long-snouted head in deep concentration, and hang on my every word. She never once complained that my monologues were boring or too long.


One of our favorite places was a narrow strip of neglected beach at an inlet to Sarasota Bay just down the road from my house. There I would sit on the seawall and daydream about all kinds of imagined happenings going on just across the water, on a tiny, uninhabited island overgrown with mangroves and seaweed. Convinced I could detect paths leading into the dense overgrowth, I conjured Indians and sorcerers, ghosts and runaway slaves, families of feral children—anything that struck my fancy—all living their stories within the dark, mysterious recesses of the island I transformed, in my mind, to a kind of Robinson Crusoe set. On at least one occasion, after some minor injustice I’ve long since forgotten, I packed up some provisions and announced that my dog and I were “running away to the bay.” My mother waved us goodbye; I’m pretty sure we didn’t last past dinnertime.

Years later, after two colleges (both in sunny Florida), one degree in English literature (plus minors in journalism and sociology), one husband (Lans, the great guy I met at the first college at 17 and married three years later), multiple assorted jobs (hotel maid, editorial assistant, preschool teacher’s aide, newspaper staff writer, freelance magazine journalist, constant scribbler of stories, articles, and poems), yet another college degree (a master’s in publication design and creative writing), and even after I had become a mother to a little girl and then a little boy . . . I finally got a horse of my own. That’s when I knew that some things are worth waiting for.

Asa and Finn

Asa and Finn, my senior office assistants.

By then I was living with my family and an ever-growing menagerie of animals in south central Pennsylvania, where the winters bring not circus trains and elephants, but snow and ice and cold rains. Each fall, there are flaming orange and red leaves and the smell of wood smoke; in spring, bursts of shimmering pastel flowers and asparagus; in summer, rolling, green fields from which come delicious sweet corn, juicy peaches, and perfect tomatoes.

I write, research, and dream, surrounded by dogs, in a stone farmhouse built two decades before the Civil War. Sometimes I imagine Union soldiers tromping through our fields, or long-skirted women cooking over the large, open hearth in our basement. Whitetail deer creep across the creek to our apple trees at night, peacefully coexisting with foxes, owls, rabbits, hawks, and other wild things.


Our neighbors include farmers and factory workers; they produce vegetables and milk and meat, as well as potato chips, Peppermint Patties, and Harley Davidson motorcycles. Not so far away, Amish families plow fertile fields with teams of draft horses and mules.

To me, this is an exotic place.

I still love stories and animals—and stories about animals—and I can still lose myself for hours in books that transport me to faraway places and times. But now, I also try to pay attention to the peculiar, wonderful, and strange things right in front of me—all around me—just waiting to be discovered.

Remy and Me

Remy and me. Who needs wings to fly? Hooves will do nicely!