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From tweet to three-book deal, this author wants to transform the fantasy genre

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The new young adult novel "Blood At The Root" follows a Black teen learning to harness his ancestral magic. But before it was a novel, it was a failed TV pilot. And before it was a failed TV pilot, it was a tweet. NPR's Kathryn Fink spoke with LaDarrion Williams about publishing his debut.

KATHRYN FINK, BYLINE: In early 2020, LaDarrion Williams was killing time on Twitter.

LADARRION WILLIAMS: I just randomly tweeted. I was just like, yo, like, what if Harry Potter went to an HBC in the South?

FINK: He didn't expect that to resonate, but people were ravenous for more fantasy stories centering Black characters.

WILLIAMS: The tweet kind of, like, just blew up everywhere, and that's when people were like, oh, my gosh, you got to make it. You know, you got to write that story.

FINK: So he did - as a TV pilot. He even shot a short film in LA, and he was sure this would be his big break.

WILLIAMS: I thought Hollywood was going to come calling, and they didn't (laughter). You know, 'cause I thought - I was like, well, I got the viral tweet. I got the viral short film and the screenplay. But that didn't happen, and that sent me into a spiral, you know, like, a really bad depression.

FINK: Eventually, a friend suggested a pivot - skip the screenplay, write the story as a novel. Williams was resistant. He didn't think the publishing industry would want this kind of story. But he did some market research at a Barnes & Noble in Burbank.

WILLIAMS: I said, hey, I'm just wanting to see, you know, some young adult fantasy but with a Black boy lead who just has magic and, you know, gets to cast spells. We walked over to the section, and she was like, oh, my gosh, like, we really don't have anything with a Black boy lead that's not really dealing with, you know, racism or police brutality. And so that's when I decided to go back home, lock myself in my apartment for 12 days straight, living off of Oreos and Cheez-Its. And I wrote the first draft of "Blood At The Root," the novel.

FINK: "Blood At The Root" follows 17-year-old Malik Baron to a fictional HBCU called Caiman University. It's full of secret powers and feuding covens, but also block parties and dorm rooms. Williams wanted to draw on the type of community HBCUs create for Black students. But in real life, he never attended one.

WILLIAMS: It was kind of my biggest regret, you know, and - of not attending. And so it's kind of like healing that regret a little bit. So that's why I set it at a magical HBCU.

FINK: He says he wrote "Blood At The Root" so that young Black readers can experience all sorts of versions of themselves in the fantasy genre. And...

WILLIAMS: One of my nonnegotiables was to have a Black boy on the cover because imagery is very powerful. It was very meticulous, the way I wanted to have him in a hoodie, you know, because a hoodie on a Black boy has been criminalized since the Trayvon Martin case. And so now you get to see this Black boy standing on the same soil that his ancestors fought and bled on, and he is literally the amalgamation of his ancestors' wildest dreams.

FINK: Williams is now tackling the rest of the trilogy. And as for a screen adaptation?

WILLIAMS: Now Hollywood is saying, hmm, hey, can we have a meeting? So I will say that a TV show is in the works.

FINK: So stay tuned. Kathryn Fink, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.