S.D. Smith Tells His Story
The popular middle grade novelist on how he learned to tell stories (and what’s next)
This interview originally appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of FORMA’s print edition. Photographs are by Graeme Pitman.
S.D. Smith writes from his property in rural West Virginia, in a little shed that he calls The Forge.
Originally meant to cover a cistern that stored food items raised and lowered by a rope and pulley system, it is maybe eighty square feet. Thanks to the previous owner, it became a garden and tool shed for many years. But under Smith’s watch, it’s become a haven for creativity and community. It’s here that Smith wrote most of his Green Ember books, the first of which was published in 2014, and the last of which is due out this winter. The series has reached hundreds of thousands of readers and the audio version of the first book reached number one on Audible, no small success for a self-published author that doesn’t have the backing of a major publishing house. Smith’s success stems from the old soul at the core of his stories; and his playful, imaginative interactions with the many young fans who devour his books.
When considering his literary achievements, Smith is demure, reticent to give himself too much credit. He gladly talks about the magic of receiving mail from children the world over who have given him the chance to be a writer full time, and he acknowledges his younger brother, Josiah, who, a few years ago, quit his job to support Smith’s work full time. He seems genuinely surprised that any of this happened for him, and he repeatedly refers to his West Virginia roots, where he grew up, for a time, so deep in a holler there was nothing behind the house but rocks. He tells how he and his family were poor, not to enrich his own story, but as if he wakes up every day and pinches himself at the opportunities he’s been given.
This is what makes the The Forge the perfect setting for an interview. It’s small and humble, but a place for serious work. There’s a writing desk in one corner (a basket of fan mail next to one leg), a recliner and a small (but busy) a/c unit in another corner, and a bookshelf lined with books written by Smith’s various author friends (along with a smattering of prayer books) in a third corner. The walls are hung with artwork created by Smith’s children, and a beautiful map of Middle Earth drawn for him by his older brother. And thus the place is itself an ode to the community that Smith seeks to cultivate, and the thoughtful approach he takes to his work.
Earlier this autumn, Smith, sitting at his desk and playing with his favorite action figures, chatted with FORMA about his own story as an author and what he hopes to work on next.
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Two years ago you quit your job to write full time. Was that always the goal? When you were young did you know you wanted to write full time?
I probably didn’t know what “full time” meant, but I do think that I caught the bug for storytelling when I was really young, and part of that was being read to at a young age. Mom read us The Chronicles of Narnia and a teacher read us The Boxcar Children. I had a teacher who read us Little Women and I loved the character of Jo. I loved that she was a writer. For some reason that made the vocation more accessible to me. I realized that it was something people could do. It didn’t feel as distant. That was like a little door opening to me. I realized that writing is something that people do—and why would you want to do anything else?
Yeah, Jo wasn’t some kind of elite. She was from a regular American family and she had this talent that she pursued.
Right. Even though she was a woman and I was a little boy, I still felt like we were countrymen. So I started writing little stories when I was young. We had a border collie when we were kids and I would write stories that were Lassie knock-offs. And then I loved Star Wars and Star Trek. I loved anything that smacked of fantasy or science fiction from a young age. I wrote little science fiction stories. One was called “The Great Space Race Interruption.” It was an interstellar battle that interrupted the outer space Olympics. I made illustrations of creatures from Jupiter and Mars and Earth fighting each other. I would use a highlighter to create the little laser strikes. So I loved that. But that didn’t translate into a love of reading for some reason. I didn’t have a lot of models of men or boys that read a lot, particularly fiction. So that kind of went by the wayside. But I’ve realized more recently the vocation of storytelling was always haunting me, in the best sense. And I realized that there was always some element of world-building in my play from a really young age. I didn’t want to make what was in the Lego box [the way it was designed to be made]. I never wanted to make the prescribed things; I always wanted to just make my own stuff. There was always a story going on. We were not wealthy and we would play with paper airplanes. I would make a fleet and I would have a small group of these five elite little units of planes, and I used crayons and colored them a different color. They were my elite attack squad. So looking back, I was always inventing games.
Do you think that what you’re describing—the way you played, the way you told these stories—was escapism for you?
I’ve never thought about that before. I would say there would have to be some element of escapism. But it was more like that was in me and it was bubbling out. I always had dreams as a kid. I always had really vivid dreams. A lot of imagery was happening in my head all the time. I was captivated by the snatches of stories that I heard. I would always go into those worlds. I feel like it was very natural so I never thought of it as escapism. I never thought of it as running away from something. When I was really young we lived in what we called a “holler” in West Virginia—the hollow between two hills. Dad said we lived so far back in the woods that nobody lived behind us and I interpreted that in a fantastic way. It sounded amazing to me. I thought, “Wow nobody lives behind us.” I thought we could just keep going back and back and back, and you would never find anyone. That became like a story in my mind. I felt like it was an overflow of my own imagination and our surroundings felt like a canvas. I didn’t feel like I was escaping a prison. I felt like more like I was living in a canvas.
Now I hear from and meet thousands of kids and I see it in them all the time. I see that there are lots of kids like me. But I didn’t know a lot of kids like me at the time. I loved sports and we had a little Nerf basketball hoop, and we played hours and hours of that. When nobody else was playing I was making up my own stories with that. I wasn’t pretending to be Magic Johnson or Jerry West, but I had a guy that I invented who played for this team called the Richmond Rebels. And I invented their league and their season and his story and how good he was. He was not me. I had this whole story about him and I was playing as him.
That sounds very familiar to my own childhood imaginings, like there’s something innate in everybody and we each express that in a different way. Maybe some more purposefully than others.
And we outgrow it, I think. There are creative and beautiful elements of childhood which tend to be beaten out of us by the hard realities of grown-up life.
Do you feel like when you’re writing you’re putting back in whatever was beaten out? Or maybe it’s been beaten down and you’re pulling it out for yourself? Are you bringing out the child in you or focusing your adult imagination in a childlike way?
I think that the gift of those kind of activities in childhood is in self-forgetfulness. You might call it escapism, but I would call it imaginary play, and when we’re having the most fun, when we’re the most engaged, we have a short period of self-forgetfulness. I feel like that happens in sports, too. I’ve been getting back into playing sports in a really “old man” kind of way. I love the fact that sports are a place where there’s not a whole lot of anxiety for me. Some people struggle with anxiety during games . . .
You mean nervousness?
Right. Some people throw-up or something like that. And even though I’m an anxious person naturally, I didn’t feel that on the court. I didn’t feel that on the field. I felt like I could forget myself in the act. And even now when I’m watching my favorite sports, one thing I love about it is I sort of forget about my own problems. I forget about myself. And I think that sometimes happens with worship. You’re not focused on yourself for a little while and it’s such a relief. Well, this sort of storytelling is like that. That’s probably my favorite thing about the act of storytelling, of writing. I can be in the forge here and I can be working away for hours and I’m just in it. And it’s just coming. I’m discovering. All that weird stuff that writers say about the mystical experience.
You get carried away.
Yeah, it’s just happening. And then someone will knock on the door and it scares me. It’s alarming because it’s waking me up to the real world from which I was so far gone. And that sort of self-forgetfulness is reminiscent to me of what it was like to be a child. So it’s like I’m playing for a living.
Do you want your stories to offer a chance at self-forgetfulness for the children who are reading them?
I want children to discover more about who they are via an adventure. I think about self-forgetfulness as a perk of the job for myself. But I do feel like we are experiencing the same kinds of things, because the kids who love the stories are wrapped up in the reading in the same way I’m wrapped up in the creating. And it does feel like a gift that’s been given to us both.
When you’re writing these stories and you’re thinking about your audience, these kids, do you feel like you have a responsibility to say something? You know, we were actually listening to a podcast on the way up here and the hosts were debating whether a movie has a responsibility to the culture that it exists in, whether the creators have a responsibility to stick to some kind of moral code. Do you feel like its your responsibility to say something specific in your stories? Or is that a secondary goal?
I never think about saying something. I can say that pretty honestly. I don’t mind looking back and discovering that something was said. You know in a fairy tale where a kid tries to find out too much about why the magic is happening and they get burned because of that? I’m respectful of that process enough to not want to touch it. Tolkien describes stories bubbling up out of the leaf mold of the mind and he says that all the things that are dropped there help grow this new thing. I have respect for that and I feel like the best way for me to try to say something is to be something, to become something. Because the words on the page are coming out of the overflow of my own heart. And because my storytelling is for kids, and because the first telling was to my own children, there’s a whole lot of love associated with it. In that sense it’s pretty simple. What I love and what I care about are deep in my heart and these stories are going to have the flavor of my loves. There are always moral considerations; I try to be sensitive to the kids who are reading. I try not to go overboard on depictions of evil or things like that, but that’s just self-censorship; it’s the way you take care of your readers. It’s good hospitality.
Do you feel a responsibility, though, to make it clear that evil is evil?
Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Chesterton talks very wisely about the fact that fairy stories don’t introduce evil to children. Children already know about the existence of what he called “the bogey”—the enemy, the evil, the dragon.
Three-year-olds have nightmares, right?
They do. They already know. And so what fairy tales do, according to Chesterton, is give us a St. George to fight the dragon. So I don’t like stories that are “safe” for the whole family. I think that’s dangerous. I think that some of the work of my tribe of Christian writers is more dangerous because of the absence of evil, the absence of a genuine threat or genuine darkness—darkness that feels authentic. C.S. Lewis said that since it’s so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. I’ve got that on the wall here in the forge and is a little bit of a creed for me.
Do you think that if you were writing for high schoolers, or even for adults, you would be comfortable having villains that are a little more complicated or have a little more gray area in them? With a little more complexity in their choices?
I think so. It feels very popular to indulge and almost celebrate wickedness because it’s so real and so edgy. And I just don’t think evil is that interesting. There’s a Simone Weil quote which I’ll probably get wrong, but it’s something about how imaginary evil is always interesting but real evil is boring, barren, monotonous. And imaginary good is always boring, but real good is exciting. I’m not a big fan of the current trend of the antihero. I like to see the contrast, and I’m more interested in the complexity of the so-called good characters and the evil that they face. There’s a difference between a guy who loses his wedding ring in a septic tank—and he gets down in there to find the wedding ring—and a guy who goes for a swim in it because he wants to be edgy and interesting. I like the story of somebody going through something, battling something, but I don’t like the indulgence in darkness.
When you’re thinking about your characters, though, do you ever feel like you need to make sure that your heroes are flawed? Doyou feel like you have to create contrast between the good and evil, between the heroic and the villainous? Like you have to sometimes imbue your heroes with flaws?
My examination of that kind of thing usually happens in retrospect, not in the act of creating.
Do you mean in the revision process? Or in the years later when the book is done and you look back at it?
Probably more in the years later. The characters come out and they’re there. I think they’re complex because I’m morally complex and these characters come from me. Not necessarily in the most interesting way, of course.
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You mentioned the idea of stories overflowing from your heart. Now that you’ve attained some degree of notoriety and popularity (and you have a box of mail at your feet from children), do you feel any added pressure? They value your stories and so the things that are overflowing mean something to the lives they live, the kind of children they are, and who they become. Does that give you pause?
I am a pretty introspective person by nature so I’m generally trying to avoid being more introspective. But, sure, I am concerned. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also realized that I’m a mixed bag and what kids are going to get from me is going to be complex. But these stories aren’t vehicles for my therapy. It’s not real deep stuff. I kind of feel like I have my nephews and nieces, and my kids are around, and I’m telling them a story. I try not to think about the stakes being too high. I try to think of it very locally. This is a nuance that all writers have to deal with: There are a lot of kids out there and I have an awareness of them, but they also feel like my friend’s kids. I try not be too reflective about that side of it. I try to focus on what I can control. And what I can control is that I can try and tell a really good story. So I try to keep it fairly simple. But I believe in a God of providence who loves these kids and is willing to hear my prayers about what I want for them. And he has been saying “yes” to a lot of those prayers for a long time in a way that makes me feel a lot of gratitude. So, in contrast to a lot of my life where I do struggle with anxiety, in this area I haven’t felt a tremendous amount of anxiety. And because these stories are so natural to me and my family, they don’t feel like a pretense. It’s hospitality and generosity.
So what do you want this whole thing to look like? What are your long-term goals?
Did you watch Lost? I hated how that show ended.
Didn’t like purgatory, huh?
I loved the show and I hated how it ended. I’ve always disliked open-ended endings. “This book is supposed to be a trilogy but now it’s going to be twelve books because it sold really well.” I feel like that can be a temptation. Because the books are doing well and a lot of people like them, it is a good business strategy to keep writing Green Ember books. But I had a pretty strong desire to wrap up the main series. So it’s four books and it’s over. And there’s nothing after that as far as I’m concerned. The last book is called Ember’s End—and it’s the end. I wanted to finish it and I wanted to do it when I was alive. And I’ve had a strong feeling of relief. Hopefully I’ll feel that way when people get the books.
I’ve got plenty of other ideas. One thing I love about the series is it does have a lot of side doors that I leave open. From the very beginning I’ve left breadcrumbs all over the place. Some I didn’t even know about. And I’ve left opportunities here and there and I think of them as breadcrumbs that will lead me back to some other kinds of stories.
Breadcrumbs for you more than for the reader?
Right. They’re openings for me. I don’t know how I would steward them, but I’m interested in telling stories in different ways, via different kinds of media. But I’d also be content if we just publish a few more books and we were done with that. That’d be great. We love what we’re doing, but it is open and I like that.
Do you see yourself always working on stories for kids?
I would be happy to write novels for adults. Most of the ideas I have for the next things involve stories that I think will appeal to young people. One of them may be a little bit older than what I’m doing now. But I might grow with my audience, too. I might want to write something for them as they get older. I feel pretty comfortable with this audience. I’m aiming for the whole family. I didn’t do that necessarily at the beginning, but I’ve received such feedback from so many adults and families that enjoy it together. My favorite movies are movies I can watch with my kids. And I’d love to create things like that. That’s my hope.
We’ve talked around the concept of responsibility. And you mentioned before we did the interview—off the record, so to speak—about this place that you’re from, West Virginia. You said that a lot of people move back here because the place seems to get in their bones. Do you feel a responsibility to represent this place in your stories, to provide some kind of voice for it in the stories that you’re telling, the things that you’re writing?
That is a wonderful question. I absolutely feel very much of this place and for this place. I love West Virginia like I love my mother, faults and all. Biases and all. That’s another thing that I don’t have to pretend. It’s not an act and anybody that knows our family couldn’t doubt the authenticity of my love for this place. So I do feel a responsibility in my vocation as an author to represent this state and these people well. And part of that is related to the resentment that a lot of Appalachian people feel about how they’re represented in our dominate media. People from WV and other mountain cultures are almost always villains, backwards people, racists, that kind of a thing. We have to be honest about some of the things that are true about our history. But I’m interested in a counter-bias. I’m interested in sharing some of the better parts of WV because I feel like it is so neglected. I couldn’t have written the stories that I have written without having the experience of being rooted in this place. There are some very direct ways that it shows up in the Green Ember stories, like one of the heroes in the series is a coal miner. And there are secret citadels in the main series called Vandellia, which is a name for the area of this world. West Virginia was almost named Vandellia.
So those characters have experiences which are similar to the experiences of West Virginians that I know and love. It’s interesting that you asked that question right after asking about what else I might be writing because I keep thinking about the stories that are more close to West Virginia in an overt way.
Do you feel like you want to turn away from writing about animals to people? Is there any instinct to do that?
Oh sure. The rabbits were accidental anyway. I mean, as many people have pointed out— sometimes very critically—my rabbits are not like Richard Adams’ rabbits, which are very rabbity. Watership Down is the best rabbit book ever in my opinion. It’s so wonderful. I’m not trying to do that. My characters are more like people.
Like the beavers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Beavers would never drink tea, people say.
Yeah, I’ve gotten some of that. Rabbits don’t have hands. They can’t hold swords.
You are from West Virginia; you are aware that rabbits don’t hold swords.
I was down on a book tour in South Carolina and my friend said to me very pejoratively, “So you’re still doing this rabbits with swords thing, can’t you mix it up and do mooses with bazookas or something like that?” So I went that night and wrote the first chapter of Mooses with Bazookas.
David Kern is editor-in-chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and head of multimedia for the CiRCE Institute.
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