Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward - Excerpt, Interview : Featured Author

Abbey senses something special about the little man tending to the reindeer who, along with a century-old farmhouse, a barn full of animals, and fields abounding in woods and pasture, was a gift to Abbey from a stranger. Abbey and her husband, Steve, move in just before the holidays. They have been together since the '60s, eloping when Steve returned from Vietnam. Now with Abbey's cancer in remission, they're looking forward to their boys coming home for Christmas.
Turns out this Christmas proves to be more magical than anticipated as Abbey realizes an understanding never thought possible through the rekindling of a belief rooted in childhood. Of course it's who delivers this gift on Christmas Eve that gives Abbey and Steve the strength to face their greatest challenge.


“Honored as a Mom’s Choice Awards Gold Recipient in Adult Fiction”

Besides the woods, the barn set far back in an open field was the other place Steve and Abbey hadn’t explored. With work and settling in, they hadn’t found the time. But that didn’t mean they weren’t curious. A clause in the old man’s will specifically dealt with the imposing structure, home to a few sheep, about eight horses, and a herd of reindeer. Details stated the barn was not to be disturbed. It was to be kept in proper repair and the animals were to be allowed to “live, graze, and flourish without interruptions in a routine established long before time.” A caretaker had been appointed and he was “dutifully aware of his responsibilities-those that were obvious and those that were not.” A trust fund for carrying out such terms was in the hands of the lawyer.

Abbey hadn’t thought about what all that meant. She assumed the old man’s reclusive lifestyle had a lot to do with it. He’d obviously bonded with the animals and probably thought of them as his family. When one dies it’s normal to have everything in place for those left behind. Now with an oversized tree needing to be felled and brought inside, it was time to meet the caretaker.

Snow kept falling as Abbey headed out to the barn. The walk was invigorating. She hadn’t realized how far it was from the house. Now up close, she got a better sense of the barn’s massive size. The Green Mountains and quaint homesteads with picket fences far off in the distance provided the perfect backdrop. Peering inside, she didn’t see the man she’d only noticed from afar. Abbey knew he was around somewhere. His truck was parked in the same spot it was every morning.

“Hello? Hello? It’s the lady from the farmhouse. Hello?”

Once inside, Abbey slid the door shut and looked around. She wished Steve was with her. He would have loved the wood and architecture. Haylofts were brimming. A movement of sorts guided Abbey to another door. This one was slightly ajar. Peeking through the crack, Abbey was delighted by the sheep scurrying after a cat that seemed to have the upper hand.
“They do this every morning, miss. It’s a game they play before they’re fed. I was hoping you’d stop in?”

“I’m Abbey.”

“I  know.”

“You know?”

“I read the will.”

“I still don’t understand why my father and I were chosen.”

“In due time.”

“How long have you been here,”

“I’ve been caring for the animals as far back as I can remember. Would you like me to show you around?”

“Yes. I’d enjoy that.”

“My name is Thomas. Excuse the mess. It’s a busy place this time of the year.”

Whatever it was about this man, Abbey couldn’t put her finger on it. She couldn’t understand much of what he said. He was shorter than he looked when driving in and out. He had to be up there; older than Steve, who was two years older than she was. His little, beady eyes gave him a serious look as he worked about the animals. He had a way with them. She watched as he spread the bales.

The cat followed Thomas as he led Abbey into a granary where sacks upon sacks were stored.

“You must go through a lot of hay over the winter.”

“Yes, Miss Abbey. Oats too.”

Opening another door, Thomas waited for Abbey to go first. She counted at least six of the eight horses in stalls.

“The others are outside,” he explained.

Thomas guided Abbey through yet another door which lead them out behind the barn, hidden from view of the farmhouse and passersby.

“Breathtaking,” remarked Abbey. “I’ve kept my eye out for them. How many?”

“This herd. About twenty.”

“There are more?”

“Most certainly. There has to be.”

The only reindeer Abbey had ever seen were from a distance. It was mid-August. They’d taken the boys to a family attraction in the mountains. Because of the humidity, the few reindeer present were hiding under any shade they could find.

“They’ve just been fed, Miss Abbey. They might get a little frisky.” Thomas walked over to a smaller one standing off from the rest.

“Come meet the runt of the herd.”

“They’re so soft. Their antlers are amazing. “Staying by the little reindeer, Abbey soon found herself surrounded by the entire herd. They weren’t shoving. They seemed content.

“Reindeer can size a person up pretty quick. Looks like they sense your gentle spirit.”

Lingering awhile longer, Thomas explained. “I must excuse myself. I have to get back to work. There’s much to do these last few days.”

That reminded Abbey to ask Thomas if he’d give Steve a hand with the tree.

“I saw the ribbon in the woods. I’ll come a little earlier in the morning. Have your husband meet me here.”Thomas took Abbey back to where she came in.

“It was a pleasure meeting you. I know you’re busy Thomas. I have a long list today, too.”
“Stop in anytime.” Thomas went back inside. He mumbled something about a list but she didn’t catch it.

Abbey felt like a kid trudging through the snow. Her footsteps from earlier had disappeared. Past Christmases flashed through her mind as a cluster of chirping birds disappeared into a cedar hedge. From big wheels to BB guns, Christmas seemed to mark the boys’ paths to maturity. The farther along they went, the more the wonder faded.
“Can’t go back. It’s just what happens,” Abbey told herself. She picked up speed as the thought of a cup of coffee pushed her through the mounting drifts.


How did you start your writing career?

I grew up in the country. There were four houses in a row all full of relatives. The old farmhouse where my grandparents raised six daughters and farmed the surrounding fields was the hub. My cousins and I were always outside playing-in the fields and barn and granary and pine grove; on and around the creek. But our favorite place was the old chicken coop which our grandparents and parents gutted and filled with the remains of an old, abandoned one-room schoolhouse. This included desks, chalkboards, and books-all kinds of books.  We spent hours in that coop converted to a clubhouse playing school, putting on art shows, carnivals, pretending. Often if I wasn’t reading a favorite book from authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Carolyn Keene-I was “writing”a book. I’d fold paper in half-and then begin my story.

My love for books-both reading them and writing-began in my childhood, growing up in the country and playing and pretending. I wrote about this in a story which appeared in the Chicken Soup for the Soul Book titled, “Christmas Magic” released 10/10.  In this story I write about my favorite Christmas present ever-a simple pine desk made for me by my grandfather. The desk had a single drawer and when I opened it, I found a pad of paper with a #2 sharpened pencil. This moment, combined with my playing in the chicken coop clubhouse put me on the track to becoming a writer.

 Tell us about your current release

“The Reindeer Keeper” is my heartwarming Christmas story for adults released October, 2010. In August, 2011 it was honored as a “Mom’s Choice Awards Gold Recipient in Adult Fiction.” To tell you a little about the book:

     Abbey senses something special about the little man tending to the reindeer who, along with a century-old farmhouse, a barn full of animals, and fields abounding in woods and pasture, was a gift to Abbey from a stranger. Abbey and her husband, Steve, move in just before the holidays. They’ve been together since the ‘60s, eloping when Steve returned from Vietnam. Now with Abbey’s cancer in remission, they’re looking forward to their boys coming home for Christmas.

Turns out this Christmas proves to be more magical than anticipated as Abbey realizes an understanding never thought possible through the rekindling of a belief rooted in childhood. It’s who delivers this gift on Christmas Eve that gives Abbey and Steve the strength to face their greatest challenge.

To read more about the book, check out the video book trailer and follow my blog please visit

Reviews have been positive including Barbara Hannah Grufferman-author and Huffington Post Columnist who said, “The Reindeer Keeper is a tremendous Holiday Classic.”

What was your first sale as an author?

My first sale was a short story entitled, “Gabe’s Great Save” published in Highlights for Children. It was about an over-weight young boy who makes the winning goal in a shoot-out in the last soccer game of the play-offs. The storyline mirrored my son who was young and over-weight. I’d submitted the story to Highlights for Children for their annual fiction contest. While I didn’t win the contest my story was chosen to be published that year. Most–including my son-never knew about the story. I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone because they’d know I was writing about my son and I didn’t want to embarrass him. It was tough enough for him amongst his peers. So my first sale as a published author went unnoticed-except for me!

When in the day/night do you write and how long per day?

I work fulltime. Living with me is my adult son who suffers from schizophrenia so my time is limited to late at night. Time per day varies. Sometimes it is half an hour; other times a few hours if I don’t fall asleep at the computer. Saturdays I get back up before 5 a.m. and write until my son gets up. I keep a pad of paper with me throughout the day and write down whatever goes through my head related to what I am working on. I’ve learned over the years to value any spare moment I can find. I don’t waste any time with TV for time is precious.

 What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing your books?

Whenever I envisioned myself as a writer it was always of children’s books. In my mind the stories would be quicker to write and easier to sell. Everyone loves sweet little children’s books. After becoming a mother storylines were constant so that’s where I focused my efforts. I eventually did have two children’s picture books published. I even became a self-taught illustrator in the process but the more I went down my writing path the more I felt something tugging at me. When I was growing up- playing and pretending in the chicken coop clubhouse I was a writer, in my imagination, of books for adults. But later once I actually began writing I chose writing for children just because I thought it’d be easier.

I met an author of adult fiction at a critical time in my writing career. I had this idea of a Christmas story for adults mulling in my head but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit down long enough to write a book for adults that would make sense; a book that would follow a storyline from beginning to end and all fall into line and attract adult readers who’d be hooked from page one-and on through the end. I was my worst critic and the story wasn’t even written! That author told me it is so much harder writing for children. That if I’d been successful in getting published writing for children I would certainly be able to do the same for adults, pointing out children are harder to write for because they are honest critics. If they don’t like a book they will let you–and anyone else who will listen-know.

So 3 years ago after Christmas I sat down to write “The Reindeer Keeper” and found the process much more satisfying and engaging than writing for children. The story flowed right out of me. Now I have my adult readers asking for my next book which I have started to write. It’s another Christmas book entitled, “The Snowman Maker” due out Christmas, 2012.

 What was the scariest moment of your life?

The one moment that remains the scariest was when our 6-month old became hospitalized with the croup. He’d just been released from the hospital where he’d been admitted with bronchitis. It was a Sunday evening. He was sound asleep. Around midnight I heard what I thought was a semi-truck going by the house. The problem with that was we lived in a residential neighborhood. Semis never passed by.  As I stood there listening, fear overwhelmed me when I realized that horrible noise was coming from my son’s room. I yelled for my husband to get up as I flew towards our baby. Flicking on the light I found him struggling to breathe; near blue in the face. Without a second to waste I scooped him up; told my husband to call the ER and alert them. He stayed back with our 4-year old. Frantic to find my keys, I tipped over a flower vase and nearly vomited in fear our baby would die before I’d get out the door.

But I made it there and for three long days he struggled to breath inside a tent of mist and vapor. We couldn’t see him except for when the nurses pulled him out to change his diaper. This was gut-wrenching. His eyebrows were all frost.  Inside that tent, we could hear his gasps for air. As he’d breathe in we’d desperately wait for him to exhale. We never left his side. I stayed awake by doing hopscotch on the tile floor. In the middle of the night of the 4th day the doctors decided they needed to perform an emergency tracheotomy. We waited for what seemed forever. Exhaustion mingled with the stark realization that we could lose our son consumed us yet we had to remain calm for our little boy. As we waited in the small room by the elevator I remember talking to God and asking that this little boy who’d been sick since he was 3 months old be given the gift of life again on this dark and cold February morning. God heard me. As the elevator door opened, his doctor stepped off. Behind him was a hospital bed surrounded by staff with IVs and monitors. Before we could see our son the doctor explained the surgery went well. His prognosis was good. He told us not to be alarmed by the metal plate in our son’s neck or the tubes used to suck out the thick guck oozing out of the hole in the middle of that large plate. A machine would be used to suck it out over the next few days, keeping his airway clear. We said we understood. We felt a bit relieved. As they pulled that bed out of the elevator we approached our little baby who looked so little against the stark whiteness of the sheet with machines all around him, a huge metal plate covering his neck, and traces of dried blood here and there. All I remember after looking at him was saying in panic to the doctor, “You killed my baby!”

I woke up later that evening-at home-in my bed with my mother sitting beside me. I’d collapsed from exhaustion. My husband remained at the hospital. I was instructed to stay in bed until I felt strong enough to go back. I did get back that evening and over the next few days was even able to turn the suction machine on to clear out the stuff oozing out of that metal plate. About a week later we brought our little boy home.

 What is your favorite meal?

Without a doubt, tuna fish in any form. Tuna subs, sandwiches, casseroles; stuffed inside acorn squash (yes-I do this), creamed over toast-however I can get tuna fish I will eat it. I tell the story of when I was 9-months pregnant I had what I called a “tuna attack.” I was at the grocery. My cart was full when this overpowering urge for tuna consumed me. I asked a clerk to watch my cart. I waddled out of the store and into my car. I drove home and frantically opened a can of tuna. I couldn’t wait for the sandwich. I ate the tuna right out of the can; then went back and bought my groceries.

 If you could apologize to someone in your past, who would it be?

I would apologize to my mother who passed away several years ago. Ours was a love/hate relationship. She-as we all do-had her faults and those faults drove a wedge between us when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I became older-and a mother-that I understood a little more where she was coming from; understood she had dreams and responsibilities and heartache I never knew existed when she was alive. A mother-daughter conflict wove its way into “The Reindeer Keeper.” It wasn’t planned. It just fit. I wish my mother was alive to read the story.


Barbara Briggs Ward is the author of the award-winning Christmas story for adults-“The Reindeer Keeper.” She has been published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book entitled, “Christmas Magic” released October, 2010. Her short story, “A Brown Boy of Our Own” will be published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul Book-“Family Caregivers”, March 2012.  She is the creator of the Snarly Sally children’s picture book series and has been published in several magazines, including Highlights for Children, McCall’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal. For more info:


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