By Kaley Kiermayr
Today we’re pleased to welcome Ciannon Smart to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel Witches Steeped in Gold, out April 20, 2021!
Iraya has spent her life in a cell, but every day brings her closer to freedom—and vengeance.
Jazmyne is the Queen’s daughter, but unlike her sister before her, she has no intention of dying to strengthen her mother’s power.
Sworn enemies, these two witches enter a precarious alliance to take down a mutual threat. But power is intoxicating, revenge is a bloody pursuit, and nothing is certain—except the lengths they will go to win this game.
The “seed” for Witches was planted when you went on family holiday to Jamaica. In the years since, how did that “seed” grow, and what nurtured it?
That trip was my second as a kid and my first time visiting Rose Hall. I was obsessed with all things creepy and eldritch. I grew up with Goosebumps and horror, and I loved Sabrina the Teenage Witch, so visiting Rose Hall was completely awesome! I grew up in England, and there weren’t a lot of things that catered towards me as a kid. So learning that there were Black witches was amazing, and I made my parents find me the book the legend of the witch of Rose Hall is based on. I was hooked.
But I didn’t really think of myself in a story or as a writer until I was fifteen or sixteen. I was eleven and going into high school when we went on that holiday, and I was a year away from leaving high school when I was first like, hey, I could write stories. It wasn’t until I read the Ember in the Ashes that I was like, hey, this is a brown protagonist! Why didn’t I ever think that I could have a Black protagonist?
So what nurtured that “seed” was years of reading fantasy with this growing desire to see myself as a central character. I read all of these fantasies that I admired, and I wanted to write my own. I thought: What would you like to read about? That trip to Rose Hall! I wanted to read a book about Black witches, filled with all the things that I personally love. A rich world, a morally grey protagonist, twists and turns, and darkness but also light. But it took a long time to realize that I could write a book like that. I never thought that I would write a totally new world. I didn’t think I had the imagination to do it, but also to position a Black character as a central figure in the story, and not as a crutch or the magical negro trope.
And then…well, I went to university up north and I live in the south of England, close to London. There are lots of Black communities, lots of ethnic communities. So going up north was a bit of a culture shock for me. You know, you grow up and have questions about who you are and where you come from, and that definitely set the scene as well, just wanting to connect with where I was from and what that meant.
What made your inner narrative shift from “I didn’t think I could” to “I can do this”? Was there an event, person(s), or intuitive feeling?
Well, my family is amazing! Industry-wise, I sat down with this agent, Davina Andrew-Lynch, at a writer’s festival. She said, “The idea is great, but the plot and everything else needs a lot of work.” That first draft had an Obeah witch, but she was in a Western-adjacent fantasy world. I said to this agent: I have this idea to write a Jamaican-inspired world, but there aren’t any books like that. There’s nothing that I have as a kind of benchmark. I said, “I think I’m going to have to make up this entire world and I’m not sure if I can do it.” She said, “I think you should do it!”
Around the same time, Children of Blood and Bone was announced. I went onto the #PitchWars website and I read Tomi’s sample. I followed her interviews and I was like, okay, my book is very different. But this woman has put out something brave and new, and I’m going to do that as well. So Children of Blood and Bones’ announcement and that agent who gave me the kick I needed to be a little bit brave and take a risk were just so important in Witches’ timeline.
After that initial “seed,” how did the book develop? What elements of it came to you first and how?
It started with a girl—Ira—in prison, and it remained that way. She was fighting to get out and get revenge for her family, and she was hiding her identity from everyone. In terms of structure, it was not a great book to begin with. The writing was very pretty. I was very hard on that, to the detriment of everything else!
After #PitchWars, I was a much smarter writer, very conscious of the areas that I was weak in. Then I found my agent and it felt like, OK, now you can be a bit braver. Alice, my editor with HarperTeen, was another person in my corner. [Growing as a writer] is really about becoming brave and comfortable in your skin and having someone standing behind you saying, “I believe that you can do this, and we’re going to work on this!”
All of the risks that I wanted to take, I was then able to take. But it took a long time to get to the place where I was confident in the story that I was telling and had the tools to tell it, and could also acknowledge the areas in which I needed help. Becoming a storyteller required a respectful craft and working on it. That’s why Witches is the twisty, knife-in-the-heart book that it is because I put in so much groundwork to build that story.
Witches is not a historical fantasy, and you drew from many stories both factual and fictional to create it. What research did you have to do to write Witches?
Lots of it is definitely my imagination! The story was born from the idea of Obeah, which is incredibly taboo and dark. Slaves from Africa brought it to Jamaica. Then it was banned because the English and Spanish believed that the slaves from Africa who practiced Obeah were more rebellious. They banned it because they didn’t understand it. And the slaves were just not putting up with their BS, understandably! Obeah is still feared today. It’s still something that people are reticent to talk about, which is something that I used to help build this book.
I’m a huge sucker for research. There’s a second language in the book that some of the characters use to commune with the ancestors. I discovered that in a YouTube video, and then I discovered someone had tried to translate it, and he had written this book with this different patwah dialect. I managed to dig up an online PDF of that and use it to help me write some of the chanting that the characters do to commune with the dead in the book. I should have been a research assistant.
What are one or two interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I found this vampire! In the book I used the Trinidadian name, soucouyant (in Jamaica, Ole-Higue). It’s a woman who sheds her skin to fly through the night and suck blood.
Oh, and Nanny of the Maroons! She was a resistance fighter, called an Obeah witch because she used tactics that colonizers were unfamiliar with. They, of course, wrote her genius off as witchcraft. She and the Maroons helped inspire a group in Witches that are a bit like the female warriors in the Black Panther.
Africa has so many stories, many gods, and different creatures. Jamaica’s history and mythology is a bit harder to excavate. But it’s so worth it when you do. The traditions and sayings and practices are unique and niche to the island, which I love.
Do you have any advice for writers who might read this and feel they’re on a similar trajectory to your literary path?
Be brave. Be daring. Be a maverick. Don’t try to shape your work to fit the criteria that are already out there. If it’s not fitting in, then in the future, people’s work might fit your story. Don’t worry about it. Write the story that you want to and that way you’ll never be disappointed because you didn’t write it to win an award, to be someone else, or to fulfill a trend. You wrote it because it was the story that you wanted to read.
After having successfully accomplished your debut, what are your next goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
I posted something about dreams in my Insta stories this morning. I said that for the longest time, an agent was all I wanted. It’s a huge hurdle to get an agent, so I didn’t think of anything beyond that. When my first agent asked, “Do you have a list of publishers?” I was like, “Um, no? I didn’t even know if I could get you!” So my dream is always growing. I’m always finding that I have something to reach for that I didn’t think about before.
I oscillate between acknowledging one dream and also smacking it down to the dark depths of my subconscious: I’d love to see Witches realized on TV as a series. And I really would love to be an NYT Bestselling Author. Even saying that to you, I’m like, oh god! But maybe not with Witches. Let me take some of the pressure off my poor debut book. In my career, I would love to be on the list.
And I want to keep writing books about girls who do bad things for morally ambiguous reasons. I’m working on one story at the moment with my new agent. It’s definitely not fantasy, but it is packed with characters that would get on well with Ira and Jazmyne, in that if they’re all standing in a room, none of them would have their backs turned to one another!
Of Jamaican heritage, Ciannon Smart grew up in a small town in the south-east of England. As the only daughter in a house full of boisterous sons, she developed a voracious appetite for reading from an early age, preferring anarchy in stories rather than real life. In YA she loves her heroines exactly as she loves her villains: willful, wily, and unpredictable. When not writing, Ciannon can be found reading, painting, or taking the long way home to listen to a good song more than once. Witches Steeped in Gold is her first novel, and you can learn more about her at www.ciannonsmart.com.
Kaley Kiermayr is a Boston-based editor, freelance writer, and marketer. She is currently an Executive Assistant at The Theater Offensive, a nonprofit that produces liberating art by, for, and about queer and trans people of color. Previously, she was Fiction Editor at F(r)iction literary anthology. She received her Publishing MA at Emerson College. In her downtime, she enjoys getting involved with LGBTQ+ literature and writing projects.