Root Magic Interview with Eden Royce
Last year I just didn’t read enough fantasy novels to my liking. This year? I’m making up for lost time. And what better way to kick everything off than with a debut that really gets you thinking?
Check out this description:
Debut author Eden Royce arrives with a wondrous story of love, bravery, friendship, and family, filled to the brim with magic great and small. It’s 1963, and things are changing for Jezebel Turner. Her beloved grandmother has just passed away. The local police deputy won’t stop harassing her family. With school integration arriving in South Carolina, Jez and her twin brother, Jay, are about to begin the school year with a bunch of new kids. But the biggest change comes when Jez and Jay turn eleven— and their uncle, Doc, tells them he’s going to train them in rootwork. Jez and Jay have always been fascinated by the African American folk magic that has been the legacy of their family for generations—especially the curious potions and powders Doc and Gran would make for the people on their island. But Jez soon finds out that her family’s true power goes far beyond small charms and elixirs…and not a moment too soon. Because when evil both natural and supernatural comes to show itself in town, it’s going to take every bit of the magic she has inside her to see her through.
This story is inspired by rootwork, which author Eden Royce grew up learning. Rootwork is a type of African American folk magic based on West African spiritual traditions; and also includes the folklore and traditions of the Geechee people and the Gullah language, a vibrant mix of English and several African languages formed when the first slaves were brought to the United States, which is still spoken today in parts of the Carolinas.
Can you blame me that I wanted to know more? Most of the interviews on this blog come when I’m approached by publishers. In this case, I approached the publisher myself. There was a lot I needed to know:
Betsy Bird: I really appreciate your speaking with me today. To begin, how are you and your family faring right now with the COVID pandemic?
Eden Royce: Thank you for asking. We’re managing; I hope you are as well.
BB: So tell me more about rootwork. What’s your personal connection to it, and how did it inspire the creation of this book?
ER: Rootwork, sometimes called hoodoo or a host of other names, is a spiritual and magical practice using what the earth provides to protect and heal. It was created when enslaved Africans were brought to the U.S. With their beliefs and knowledge, paired with the knowledge and help of local Indian tribes, these people were able to preserve those beliefs, allowing them to morph and change because plants and animals and soil were different than what they were used to.
My great-aunt was a rootworker and I know many rootworkers now. It is still a living, growing folk magic. Root Magic was born because I had never seen rootwork or any Southern Conjure magic portrayed in a book I’d read or a film I’d watched as a kid that presented it as a positive practice. So many people who incorporate conjure magic in their work choose to show it as an evil rite with destruction as its only purpose. I wanted to add my voice and my personal experience with rootwork as a nourishing, nurturing, protective practice.
BB: Though you now live in Kent, England, you grew up in South Carolina. I’ve been noticing an ever-so-slight uptick in the number of middle grade novels set in the South recently. Would you characterize this book as being a part of the Southern Gothic tradition or something entirely separate?
ER: I’m a writer of Southern Gothic, but I’m also a writer of speculative fiction. Some might say those two things are diametrically opposed, but they are the core of my writing and they blend seamlessly. Historically, Southern Gothic has always been considered literary writing as opposed to genre, such as sci-fi or fantasy, or horror. Also historically, Black writers have been excluded from the genre. You don’t see many of us listed when you search online for “Southern Gothic writers”.
An MFA student I spoke with told me one of her professors said Southern Gothic as a genre was dead. I couldn’t disagree more. But it has changed. It has morphed into including the fantastic and the speculative and the surreal alongside the usual literary tenets of the genre. All of that to say, ROOT MAGIC is a Modern Southern Gothic novel.
BB: What books did you read when you were a kid? And what books would you pair alongside ROOT MAGIC?
ER: I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid. I read lots of Newbery winners like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton as well as books my mother still had in the attic from when she went to college like The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Alongside ROOT MAGIC, I’d pair Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith and The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste.
BB: Excellent choices! Now was there anything you wanted to include in this book but had to leave on the cutting room floor (so to speak)?
ER: ROOT MAGIC is the first full-length novel I’d ever written, and I had a lot of ideas in the original draft. During revision it became clear there might have been a few elements too many with all of the other challenges in the book. So several characters and storylines got the chop.
BB: Is this a standalone novel or is there always a chance of a sequel?
ER: Root Magic was written to stand on its own and there are currently no plans for a sequel, but if I were to revisit Jez and Jay and the Turner family, then those ideas I had to cut might be a great place to start!
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
My next book is another Southern Gothic middle grade novel that’s set in present day.
Many thanks to Ms. Royce for taking the time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Mitch Thorpe and the folks at Harper Collins for helping me direct my questions to her.
Root Magic is on shelves now.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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