Episode 24: Sasscer Hill

Sea HorseThe Nikki Latrelle Mystery Novels are set in the high-stakes world of horse racing — a world Sasscer Hill knows well and captures in vivid detail.

It’s impossible to talk about horse racing mysteries without giving a nod to the master, Dick FrancisBut Sasscer was also influenced by Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, which she devoured as a child.

She also gives a shout out to Tami Hoag and Margaret Maron, and to Dick’s son, Felix, whose new series is set in the same realm as Sasscer’s soon-to-be-released Fia McKee series.

Flamingo

The first book in Sasscer’s new series, Flamingo Road, comes out in early 2017. 

Check out Sasscer’s blog for ongoing updates as well as more info on Irish Travelers, Fia McKee, and horses.  😉 

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, a transcript is below. Enjoy!

Transcript of Interview with Sasscer Hill

Laura Brennan: My guest today is thriller author, amateur jockey and racehorse breeder, Sasscer Hill. Her Nikki Latrelle mysteries are set in a world she knows well: behind the scenes at — and on — the racetrack.

Sasscer, thank you for joining me.

Sasscer Hill: I’m delighted to be here.

LB: I absolutely want to talk about writing and your books, but first, I want to talk about horses. You grew up around horses?

SH: I did. I took a lot of riding lessons as a child, but it wasn’t until my father died when I was 16 and a gentleman who had a lot of champion steeplechase horses took me under his wing — he was a family friend that my family had known. And I learned almost everything I know about horses from him. And then of course I ended up buying a broodmare and had my own race horses for 30 years. So, yeah, I know a little bit race horses and horses in general.

LB: It’s just an, it’s an entirely different world than anything I’ve experienced. How did you start riding competitively?

SH: The gentleman who took me under his wing, as I said, was a big-time steeplechase person, and so of course he was involved in the sport. And I loved it from the get-go. I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world, racing over fences. But scary, you know? And I ended up entering some amateur, little steeplechase races and it was scary as heck, but it was a real adrenaline rush. And a lot of fun. So I stuck with that and won a big race up in Potomac one year when I was 36, and that was my big day.

But it is, you connect with horses. When you’re really connecting with the horse, it’s like you steer him with your mind. It’s incredible.

LB: Well, you give your horses, and the books, they have so much personality.

SH: Oh, they do in real life, not just in books. They have tremendous personality.

LB: So you turned to writing, with a T, and why mysteries? What linked racing with murder for you?

SH: Oh, Dick Francis, for sure. And I started out of course with Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, and they were always filled with intrigue. And of course like all of us mystery lovers, who didn’t love Nancy Drew? And all those kinds books as we grew up, and as we got older we were reading all those wonderful English writers like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and I mean I just loved all of those. And of course I graduated to Dick Francis and that was it for me. I thought, boy, I’m gonna write like Dick Francis — or at least in the tradition of. Nobody can write like Dick Francis, and to try, I thought, would be very foolish. Just in the tradition of.

LB: I think there’s a commonality though, between you and Dick Francis, in that racing comes first for your main character.

SH: It does, for Nikki Latrelle. In the new books that are coming out with St. Martin’s, it still at the racetrack, but now instead of a jockey, I’m dealing with a female agent who works for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. And that’s kind of a different story line, but still it’s all about the horses. Because the stories wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the horses at the racetrack.

LB: I want to talk about the Nikki Latrelle books.

SH: Yes.

LB: First of all, if someone hasn’t yet picked up one of your novels, what should they know before launching into your series?

SH: Well, I think, since I just wrote the prequel, which is about Nikki when she was only 13, that is the place to start. And it’s just a novella, and it’s a fast read and it’s getting tons of five-star reviews on Amazon, so that’s kind of fun. But it does give you her background and where she came from in Baltimore and what happened to her as a 13-year-old to set her on the life that she ended up with. In the first real book, which we call Book One, is Full Mortality and I wrote that first.

LB: So was that hard for you to go back and tell her initial story after she’s already grown so much in the three books that you’ve written so far?

SH: No, it was incredibly easy because I did what you’re supposed to do as a writer before you write your first novel, you’re supposed to write the person’s whole back story, you know, and really know who they are, know the character and how they are and what makes them tick and why they have some issues and problems in their life and what happened to them. So I had written the whole back story already and I just went back to those notes and turned it into novella. So the fastest thing I’ve ever written, I wrote the whole thing in three months. Which was kind of fun, it takes me over a year to write a novel.

LB: Yours are very rich, they have a very rich world, the world of the track. Now you have ridden steeplechase, have you ridden in races? The ones — what’s the correct jargon? How should I be defining these two different things?

SH: Well, it’s just the flat track versus the steeplechase track. And they do have a few amateur races at the racetrack, but there are very few and far between whereas the hunt clubs all over the country — those are the ones that put on what they call the point-to-point amateur steeplechase races. And they also have, they’re also professional and the same thing will happen on one day. So it’s a much better opportunity for people like me to ride over the big course, over the same jumps that the pros go over.

So, I never rode at the racetrack because you really have to be licensed, you have to have a trainer stand up for you and say that they’re going to bring you on the track. I didn’t want to get into all that, and the world that I grew up with because of my mentor was the steeplechase world and it was the world I felt comfortable in riding. But then once I got my own broodmare, and started racing real racehorses that competed on big tracks, by that time I was in my 30s and 40s and 50s even, so I didn’t want to try to get on the racetrack after — You know, if I was going to be a real jockey I would have started at 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 at the latest on the flat track. By the time I started, I was already in my 30s.

LB: Well, I ask because the races, when you write about the races, they are breathtaking. They are just thrilling. And you capture so much the feel of being on that horse, in that turn.

SH: That’s because I rode in the steeplechase races and is pretty much the same thing. You go around a course and you’re competing against other people. And also, I just have a really good imagination. And when I watch my horses on the track run a race, I would go out to the jockey, I’d get a hold of him and I’d say, okay, call the race for me. And while they were still excited and really into what had just happened and how they’d won the race, they would then say, oh, you know, we — she broke on top and… And you’d just get it all. It would just like settle into your head and you would never forget that. When it’s your own horse that you raised, you bred the mare, you pulled the baby out of the mare, you raised the baby yourself and then the jockey tells you about how the race was for him… You’re not going to forget that.

LB: That just seems like such a fascinating life.

SH: It is. It is. And I miss it, because I don’t have any horses now. I had to get out. Because when you’re younger, you can do so much of the work yourself, and save literally tens of thousands of dollars. And as I got older, I had to start paying for all of these extra things that I used to be able to do myself. Eventually you just have to get out.

LB: What’s one of your favorite memories of your own racehorse?

SH: I had a horse named For Love And Honor and he was just great. He won $418,000 up in New York. Now, I sold him as a two-year-old in training and he sold for about $12,000, which at the time seemed like a great price. But, you know, when the horse that you sold goes on to win close to half a million, you have to feel like you took a gun and shot yourself in the foot.

But still, even though, just being able to watch him race on TV and whatnot, seeing him running — it became part of my identity. It was just so exciting, to watch him race. That’s how racing is for me, it’s a part of my life and it’s very exciting and I have a lot of great memories, just tremendous memories. And that’s how I write. I think about things that happened, and I get all charged up the next thing I know I’ve written another chapter.

LB: I’m so glad that you went into mysteries, but why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?

SH: I’d always been really good at writing. It was always my greatest strength in school and I went on to be an English major. Did very well in creative writing classes, and people would always say, oh, you write really well. So it was kind of a natural. Of course, when I got out of college, I immediately went to secretarial school and got a job and spent a number of years in jobs that I hated and I just wish like heck that I’d gotten an MFA and gone on to be a writer when I was younger. But you know what they say about hindsight.

LB: Well, you’ve also written – I saw that you wrote a Sherlock Holmes short story.

SH: I did. I did.

LB: What prompted that?

SH: My first publisher, John Betancourt, who is just a great guy, he runs Wildside Press, he was having us do what they call pastiches, which were radio shows. They weren’t the real Sherlock Holmes stories, but a number of people wrote Sherlock Holmes stories and turn them into great radio shows back in, I don’t know how long ago it was, 30s, 40s. So you can go back and listen to those and you could type up most of the story and then kind of rewrite it the way you want. He wanted us to do that, some of the people that were his writers, because he produces Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. So he wanted us to do some of those pastiches and turn them into Sherlock Holmes stories. So I did and it was fun. And it’s a good little story, I really like it.

LB: So you mentioned that you have a new series launching in the spring.

SH: I do.

LB: So what can you tell me about it?

SH: Well, I’m very excited about it because, it’s with St. Martin’s. I’ve finally gone up to one of the big five publishers. It will be wonderful to have real marketing behind the book and to have the book actually in bookstores and libraries, which has never happened before. I had spent some time trying to think of a new series and I had even mentioned in the last book, The Seahorse Trade, the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau is mentioned because Nikki’s love interest, Will Marshall, on the sly works for the TRPB. He’s an agent from time to time. And I thought it was kind of a neat thing, so I thought, well, you know, let’s go on with that. Let’s just write about a female agent. So I went up to the TRPB headquarters in Fair Hill, Maryland, and met with the president and chief executive officer and we interviewed for about two hours. It was really interesting and the kept in touch and they even, one of the fellows even read the first manuscript check for any errors that I might’ve done or anything I might’ve said about the TRPB. Not that would like, hurt them in any way, but that was so grossly erroneous, like oh my God that would never happen at the TRPB. So they did, they read that for me and said, you’re good to go. Which is one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten, was that one that said, you’re good to go.

LB: Oh, yeah, that’s amazing. And what a great use of the world, I don’t think we’ve ever seen someone who was an agent for the track.

SH: No, you haven’t. Although interestingly enough, Dick Francis’ son Felix is doing a couple of novels about an agent that works for the English Jockey club has an agent. So, you know, small worlds and all that. I didn’t even know he was doing that when I started doing this, we both started at about the same time. My agent said, oh gosh, maybe you’ll be in competition. I said, I don’t think so. If somebody reads his and likes it, then they see they have mine is out there, they might read it and vice versa.

LB: Oh, yeah. I think the thing in the mystery genre is, once you find an arena that you love, you read everything by every author and that field.

SH: Absolutely.

LB: I don’t feel that mystery writers are in competition particularly with each other. Mystery readers read.

SH: No, I don’t think so either. And that’s why I love writers, because we, we are all so kind to each other and we support each other. I got some wonderful reviews for the new books. I had befriended Tami Hoag on Facebook, and she gave me a wonderful review for the first book in the — Fia McKee is the name of the new heroine, the agent with the TRPB. Name is Fia McKee. So I got a great review from her, and I got a great review from Margaret Maron and some other people. You know, all you can do is be hopeful.

LB: Well, the community of mystery writers is a great community to be in, but it also seems as if the community of the track is a wonderful and supportive community.

SH: It is. It is. And I had a wonderful review from the fellow who is the Morning Line, Mike Battaglia, that’s his name. He is the Morning Line handicapper for the Kentucky Derby, it he’s also always on TV for the Triple Crown, he’s one of they have on there. And he wrote just a fabulous review for my very first book, Full Mortality. So yes, you’re right, they are very supportive and kind.

LB: And a lot of characters. Do you draw any of your characters from real people that you’ve met?

SH: Oh heavens yes. Oh yes, absolutely. Because I have known so many characters. I mean, people at the racetrack are just unbelievable, the characters. If you think of the winner’s circle, in that circle you’re going to have the groom. And this is a guy that lives hand to mouth. And he may be a drug addict, we don’t know. And then you got the trainer, and he may be a really good guy who is kind to his horses, or he may be a complete thug who would just as soon drug his horses until they drop dead as long as they win in the meantime. And you got the owner. That person could be really rich and a great guy, a strong person in society. Or he could be a crook, a white-collar crook.

And then you’ve got the jockey. In my opinion, jockeys are the greatest people in the world, but some of them have issues and problems. And the greatest star in the winner’s circle is the horse. Because there is no other being on this planet that will run its heart out and dig deep, dig deep and give you everything it’s got like a horse will. It’s incredible. So, yeah, they are all there and I’ve met them all, I’ve seen them all and I’ve seen shenanigans and I’ve seen crooked plays on the track and I’ve seen trainers that would just as soon have a horse drop dead as long as it’s making them money. And I hate those people. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing, because I like, if I can’t get them in real life, I can get them in my books.

LB: Wonderful. And you give us the pleasure of getting them with you.

SH: Yeah. It’s fun.

LB: So you have the new mystery series coming at the beginning of next year, and then what else are you working on right now?

SH: Right now the working title for a novel that I just started last month is, The Travels of Quinn O’Neil. And it’s about the Irish travelers in the United States, and they are not what’s called the Roma, the ones with gypsies. These are all people that were tinkers and horse traders in Ireland and came over here in the 1800s during the potato famine. They had a reputation for being scam and con artists. They do faulty driveway jobs and faulty roofing jobs and they take people’s money and, you know, give them a half-baked job if you will. And then they disappear. These travelers, the ones here, I’ve read all about them in South Carolina, they will have up to five or six different drivers licenses, registrations, different sets of tags for their trucks. And they leave the state of Carolina, and as soon as they go over into, say, Georgia next door, they stop at a rest stop, they switch their tags, they switch their driver’s licenses, and they put fake company signs on their trucks. And then they go around and knock on doors or however they set up jobs and they take people’s money. Now they will do — some of them are fine. It’s only 10 to 15% of these people are really con artists as far as I can tell.

But no sooner had I started writing this book about Irish travelers than I picked up the headlines, and this was just like last week, and it said 32 members of Murphy Village indicted for racketeering, thievery, blah blah blah. And I just thought, this is unbelievable. And I think that’s called synchronicity or something, I don’t know. It was really strange. So, yeah, they’re still roaming. And I’m going to be going to their trial in Columbia a couple of times. I want to sit in and watch these people, because they fascinate me.

LB: So this is not a historical, this is a contemporary, modern day story?

SH: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

LB: That’s fascinating. I’ve never heard of them.

SH: They exists. They pull their kids out of school as early as the sixth grade. They’re very isolated, they don’t mix with other people, they don’t want to change their ways. They still speak, some of them speak Cant, which is kind of a bastardized Gaelic, so that people can’t understand what they’re saying. So I learned some of the words, I have to use them in my book. They have a code word for police that’s kind of a Gaelic word, I don’t know what it is yet, I’ve just started this book. And the women are, they stay at home, and they have — the women all have big hair. I’ve seen them. They must use like 10 cans of Big Sexy Hair a week. And they wear a lot of very expensive jewelry and they have these huge houses they build out of cash. They get cash. So it’s a fascinating culture. And to turn it into a murder mystery I think will be a lot of fun.

LB: Oh, that’s terrific. I can’t wait.

SH: Well, let’s hope.

LB: Sasscer, thank you so much for joining me today.

SH: Oh, you’re really welcome. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot.