Ronald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.
Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?
Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.
Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.
BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?
RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.
I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.
BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression?
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.
BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.
BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next?
RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.
Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.
After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!
BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.
I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.
I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.
BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers?
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.
BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore.
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.
Also, crab cakes.