Debut YA Is a Witchy, Jamaican-Inspired Fantasy

Posted by Sharon on April 1, 2021
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Ciannon Smart has been holed up in her England home since the pandemic began a year ago, but by no means has she been idle. She’s been on deadline for her second book all while gearing up for her debut young adult fantasy novel, Witches Steeped in Gold.

So, like the rest of us, she’s been inside. “I don’t see the sun much when I’m on deadline anyway, but I am lucky to have a garden,” she notes. 
Because she’s in England and her publishing company is in the U.S., she would have interacted with readers and fans virtually anyway—something she’s grown used to—but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some disappointment. “I know that a few of my friends when they were debuting, they got to go out to New York, so that would've been lovely to do a bit of traveling and to meet my team in person, because I love flying and I even love airplane food,” she says. “In some respects, I expected it, but in other respects, it's like, ‘Aww, I would've liked to hop on a plane.’ ”

Even still, she’s excited to share her story with the world however she can (and whichever way is safest). “I enjoy being creative and finding different ways to connect with readers—whether it's reels or Instagram posts—so I've just been having a lot of fun there and not taking it too seriously,” she says.
Witches Steeped in Gold is a dark debut that pulls from Smart’s Jamaican heritage. It follows Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot, two witches raised in enemy camps who enter into a deadly alliance in order to take down a common, greater evil and save their island. Filled with magic, mythology, and a hint of romance, it’s been compared to the cat-and-mouse approach of Killing Eve—minus Villanelle’s great fashion and plus strong, compelling Black characters, of course. 
Smart spoke to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about the oral history of Jamaica, her favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process, and what we can expect from book two.

Goodreads: Have you always wanted to write fantasy books?

Ciannon Smart: No, I took fantasy for granted. I grew up with Lord of the Rings and my dad reads Brandon Sanderson, but I just didn't really accept fantasy for the longest time. I also didn't think that I had the imagination to build a world.

So I started [writing] contemporary fantasies and kept everything very safe and familiar, and then Witches kind of just exploded into this world that I wasn't anticipating when I initially set out to write the book. I really wanted to set it in a Jamaican, Caribbean-inspired world, and everything just snowballed from there.

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GR: Talk to me about the inspiration behind Witches Steeped in Gold.

CS: I visited Jamaica several times as a kid, but the most apropos trip was when we visited Rose Hall, which is this plantation where this alleged white witch enslaved people. It's a beautiful house, but what was really interesting was that she used her slaves and the Obeah magic they brought with them from Africa—this really taboo, dark, ritualistic magic—to help her kill her three husbands. I was only, like, 11 at the time, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool.”

[When I started writing,] I'd read Shadow and Bone and the Throne of Glass series, I read all of the dystopias, but it wasn't until after reading An Ember in the Ashes when I was like, “Oh my god, this is a brown protagonist. I can actually not just be a side character, I can be a front-runner in a story.” There weren't really any other stories at that time for me to read fantasy-wise that had Black protagonists, so I decided to write that story. And I only ever wanted it to be about witches because I love magic, I love this idea of building a world based on this super dark and taboo law from Jamaica. It had to be about that, even though it was ten years after that [visit to Rose Hall] that I decided to write it.

GR: Outside of your trip, what kind of research did you do for the book…obviously there’s a lot of magic and folklore, and characters speak patois throughout. Were there specific aspects of your Jamaican heritage that you wanted to make sure to include? 

CS: Oh, definitely. My mum was actually born in Jamaica and—she'd kick me for saying this, but—whenever she's angry, she definitely reverts to patois. I was an interesting child for my mum, probably. I'm the only girl, I have five brothers, but I've definitely been in the most trouble as far as getting injured in sports or being in trouble at school for being too chatty, so she would bust out into patois, and I would hear it a lot growing up.

And then there are some monsters in Witches because I love a good monster in a book or film. I grew up hearing about the Rolling Calf, which is this monster that appears at the crossroads, and this Jamaican vampire as well that has different variations across the Caribbean. I loved hearing about those women who shuck their skin and slide through the night to suck blood from their victims. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I definitely wanted it to permeate the story. 
As far as research, I was really luck,y actually, that the summer before my book sold, I went to Jamaica for my mum's family reunion and I got to go around and see all of the places I hadn't seen since I was a kid and just immerse myself in my aunts, who still live out there, and various cousins. [I could] listen to them talk and really pick up the cadence. With Witches Steeped in Gold , I really wanted it to have a lot of rhythm and flow because a lot of the history of the Caribbean is oral and I really wanted to reflect that in a subtle way throughout the prose in the book. So it’s been a lot of word of mouth because the history isn't as well recorded as Western history, in the traditional sense of writing it down. 

GR: I was on your Instagram recently, and I love that you’ve been documenting your writing journey because I feel like, as readers, we don’t know or even necessarily appreciate how much work goes on behind the scenes. What would you say was the hardest part of the process? It doesn’t really seem like you’re a fan of editing, but I could be wrong…

CS: I love editing. Actually, I really struggle with drafting. This has been a really weird situation for me because I’ve been drafting book two on a deadline, so I haven’t been able to just take my good sweet time producing this story. I've really had to knuckle down and get it done really quickly. So that's been the toughest part for me, to write because I have to as opposed to just picking and choosing the days I want to write.

I love the editorial side of things, though. I love making things pretty; evaluating it with a different hat and looking at it through a critical eye, that's definitely my favorite part by far. 
I also really love sharing realities in my Instagram stories. I definitely came to this career totally blind, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I get to make up worlds for a living, it's going to be so easy.” In some respects, it's the best job I've ever had, I absolutely love it, but it definitely is physically taxing because you're so stationary all of the time, as well as mentally taxing. It’s definitely surprised my non-publishing friends and family regarding how much work goes into it. They'll say, “You're doing edits again? You have another deadline? What do you mean you had admin?” because the emails are never-ending. 

GR: Do you get a lot of responses from readers on Instagram?

CS: I do AMAs [Ask Me Anything] on Instagram every now and then, and I had a few DMs from people just saying, “Thank you so much for this honest insight into publishing.” I also have these chats with other author mates where we say we write to sell dreams and the reality is often sometimes the reverse, like pulling an all-nighter to finish a book.

I've just signed nearly 40,000 tipped-in pages so people can have books that are signed, which was such an awesome bucket list dream for me, and then on the flip side my shoulder is absolutely killing me and I’m probably going to be injured for life. [Laughs.]

I love what I do, and I'm very grateful that I'm able to do it, but I definitely didn't expect lots of the things that have happened. 

GR: The book alternates back and forth between the perspectives of the main characters, Ira and Jazmyne. Why was it important to include both of their voices throughout the book? And was there one you enjoyed writing about more?

CS: I read Gone Girl years ago, and I loved the unreliable narration. I loved the idea of not knowing who to trust. So as far as Ira and Jazmyne, having both of them was like my way of playing them off each other. I like keeping readers wondering right up until the end and, in fact, throughout the series [about] who will come out on top. Who do you want to come out on top? This person is doing this thing and this person has this plan and it impedes with this other person is doing, and it all just becomes like, “Oh my goodness, I have no idea who is going to emerge victorious.” So I love those kinds of structural mind games and definitely having characters who are somewhat antithetical playing off one another. It's just fun for me to sort of torture my readers. 
As far as perspectives that I loved writing…. It's really funny—largely Ira has been my favorite. She has all of these cracking one-liners, she's really irreverent and mischievous, and she's always thinking. That's been fun for me, like, “Where is this character going to go next?” and she often says the things that you might think, I might think, but never say out loud because we try to be decent people, but she doesn't care about that. So she was a lot of fun for me to write, but I definitely enjoyed editing Jazmyne's character. Ira didn't need as much work. But when I signed with Harper and started writing with Alice, my cracking editor, we worked the most on Jazmyne. So watching her character evolve over the course of book one and book two has been the most rewarding thing for me. I didn't really like her in the beginning, she's a little bit of a doormat, we just have totally different personalities. But building her strength in a way that's not physical, I really enjoyed that part of the edits. But I can’t really compare, I love all of my children equally.

GR: Well in that case, I know it's probably hard to pick, but if you had to choose your fighter, would it be Jazmyne or Ira?

CS: Can I pick someone else? 

GR: Absolutely.

CS: It’s a little cheat, but I think I would actually pick Kirdan or one of the boys to be my fighter. 

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GR: What are some books you’re currently reading and loving?

CS: I'm reading an ARC of The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody and it's really fun, I love middle-grade fantasy.

I'm also part of this witchy coven with a few other 2021 debuts who have witchy books coming out, so there's Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley that comes out in March, Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic that comes out in the summer, which is about witches in a Toronto-inspired fantasy world, and there's also Lore by Alexandra Bracken.

GR: You mentioned some books in the beginning, but are there any other books—fantasy or otherwise—that kick-started your interest in the genre?

CS: I started with the dystopias…. I read Divergent, Hunger Games, and probably a million others that followed a similar premise. I always read and I think I took it for granted—it was just another thing that I did—and it wasn't until I started buying books for myself in my late teens that I realized that I really loved the fantasy genre. Because I [initially] read mainly contemporary, I was a huge Meg Cabot fan and the romances she wrote and really romances in general. And then I fell into fantasy through the dystopia genre, and I absolutely loved it. I did read The Hobbit as a kid as well, but, again, it's one of those things that I took for granted until you mature and you really explore what you like and then you start to be a lot pickier as far as reading. 

GR: I know that you play the piano, and it seems like music plays a big part in your life. Does it also play a big part in your writing process? 

CS: Literally up until maybe last week, I could not write and listen to music. I usually have Grey’s Anatomy in the background. I’ve never been able to concentrate because I have to sing or get up and move, but then the Shadow and Bone trailer came out—by the way, how amazing did that look?—and I loved the music that was playing by the composers 2WEI. I fell down a black hole of listening to their songs on Spotify, and I have been able to write and listen to them. They definitely have been moved onto the Witches Steeped in Gold playlist, which I keep ongoing just to embody the vibes in the book. So there's music from Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and there's some contemporary music as well as lots of rap. There's a variety, and it's included in my pre-order campaign so readers will get a link to the playlist. 

GR: Has it been a challenge for you writing during the pandemic, and if so, what have you been doing to get over that hump?

CS: It has definitely been a challenge to concentrate. I'm used to being in the house by myself and I was supposed to have moved out, but I’ve been stuck in this house with a sibling and a parent. I usually had a schedule: I would get up, I'd go down and workout, and then I would saunter about the house and settle down to work in silence. There's not too much silence in my house anymore since the pandemic. So I've got some noise-canceling headphones; I'll open the door and bark at my family to keep it down because I'm trying to concentrate. 
I worked mainly from home before the pandemic anyway—I took a sabbatical when I got my book deal—and then I went back to work, and so working from home hasn't been so much of an adjustment, but not having that silence and not having that calm atmosphere where I can just sink into it has been hard. Second books are also notoriously difficult [to write], so book two and the pandemic have both been bucking up against one another throughout this process. Is it the pandemic or is it because it's book two, and I've got all this pressure to make this world familiar, recognizable, but also better, bigger, and different? Riding that line between the two has been causing me the most problems this year. 

GR: Can you tell us anything about the next book in the series? 

CS: I love book two so much. Expect the world to grow; book one is primarily set in Aiyca, and then in book two we definitely see some new places. Building those worlds was a lot of fun for me. The girl who didn't think she could write a fantasy world had a lot of fun building these worlds and creating new rules!

And then, of course, expect lots of twists right from the jump. I don’t know how to say this without spoiling it, but there's something that happens in book one that won't make sense until you read the first chapter of book two. And my editor has said that it's her favorite part of the series so far.

There's more romance in book two. I wrote some scenes, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m going to have to write a list for my family—like, do not read these chapters.” And then new and old enemies. I'm excited about book one, but I'm definitely like, “Everyone hurry up and read book one so that you can read book two now.”

Ciannon Smart's Witches Steeped in Gold will be available in the U.S. on April 20. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Charles (new)

Charles Fantastic cover art!

message 2: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin Bramwell This looks and sounds awesome!

message 3: by Emma (new)

Emma I cannot wait for Witches Steeped in Gold, the more I read about it the more excited I get!

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Another book reminding me how broke I am!

message 5: by TMR (new)

TMR Excited for this so much.

message 6: by Nicholas (new)

Nicholas Perez Still reading my ARC!

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