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How A Father And Son Came Together To Tell Stories About ‘Virtue And Hope’

With their new book, father and son co-authors S.D. and J.C. Smith are looking to tell fun stories that are rooted in a Christian worldview.

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The “Green Ember” series by S.D. Smith has sold more than a million copies, reigned as the No. 1 bestselling audiobook worldwide on Audible, and impressed readers of all ages with thrilling, classically moral tales. Now father and son co-authors S.D. and J.C. Smith are embarking on a new series, “Jack Zulu and the Waylander’s Key,” a saga “centered on virtue and hope.”

Book one, released on Oct. 4, brings a novel set of heroic, fearless, and tangible characters to the Smiths’ limitless new world, sure to satisfy readers’ thirst for epic adventure in an ultimate quest. I sat down with the bestselling co-authors to talk about, among other things, how they managed to tell a story with the right balance of adventure and virtue and what it’s like for a father and son to work together so closely.

Q&A with S.D. Smith

The “Green Ember” series is set in a fantasy world in no specified time; but this new series opens in Myrtle, West Virginia, in 1984. What made you decide to place the book in that specific place and time?

I grew up in the ’80s, so it’s a familiar setting for me, and J. C., my son and co-author, has come to enjoy a lot of the stories that were born out of that era. So many of those stories still have cultural weight, like “Star Wars” and “E.T.” and “The Karate Kid.” We wanted to tell a story set in that period that, instead of being weighed down by vice and horror, instead centered on virtue and hope.

Jack Zulu, a mixed-race West Virginian, is a complicated protagonist with the traits of a classical hero: strong, athletic, smart, well-liked, and honorable. Is he intentionally archetypal?

I love Jack. His father is a South African (Zulu) immigrant, and his mother is a West Virginia girl. Since I am an Appalachian who spent his teenage years in Africa, I relate to his sense of being divided between cultures and confused about finding his place and purpose. Jack is grounded in the truth of the remarkable capacities of people we know from the real world, but he is a rare person. He is, in a realistic way, a heroic ideal. His struggles and limits are around ambition and greatness, not as much around capacity. He’s going to be great, but will he be good?

In the “Green Ember” series, characters express a strong sense of morality but no stated religion. In contrast, religion in “Jack Zulu” is intentionally incorporated. What drove your decision to include that in the storytelling?

This book is in no way an allegory, nor is it best seen as what most people think of as “Christian Fiction.” But we wanted to be honest. So much sci-fi and fantasy is written with a pretense that enlightened beings don’t practice religion, nor do they even acknowledge its existence — except to deride it. This is silly and unfaithful to most human experience. We present a world where it’s not unusual that kids go to church and parents pray and that religion factors into everyday life. For us, the story must comport with reality. And therefore, since it takes place (at least partly) in a real time and place, we wanted to tell the truth about what the world is really like. The book’s core is rooted in the Christian worldview, as has been most of the great art and literature throughout history. We aren’t ashamed of that in the least.

In writing this book, you collaborated with your son. Tell me about that experience.

Fans of my “Green Ember” books may think I let my son join me in a new fantasy world I created, but it’s really the opposite. J. C. invented this world, originally developing it as a TV show when he was 13. He kindly invited me to join him in adapting it as a novel together. And it’s been an awesome experience. I love co-writing with him. At 16, he’s got amazing story instincts and incredible drive, but he pairs that with humility and generosity that makes working alongside him a pleasure. I’m super proud of him as a dad and, at the same time, I feel really blessed to get to work with such a talented co-author. It’s been a win-win.

You continue to find stories to tell through the “Green Ember” series. Will “Jack Zulu” continue in many directions, or is it a series with a finite end?

It’s probably going to be a trilogy, but we are open to that changing based on how the story develops. We both love satisfying endings, and so we are aiming for that. We won’t overextend the series for any reason. The world of the Wayland is open to innumerable adventures, and so we are building a playground to create in for many years. Jack Zulu is a first thrilling step into those adventures.

Q&A with J.C. Smith

At what age did you develop the Jack Zulu character? What was your inspiration?

I first conceived this story when I was 13 years old. I remember wanting to see a sprawling fantasy adventure with a very nostalgic, American take on that type of adventure. Jack comes from a familiar pool of heroic characters — he’s got a little bit of Luke Skywalker, a little bit of Frodo Baggins, blended with this unique Zulu heritage that comes directly from my dad’s experience growing up in South Africa. Our hope is that there’s enough familiarity paired with fresh material for this to be an engaging and truthful adventure for readers.

You initially created Zulu as a television character. How was he adapted to become a literary hero?

The character of Jack Zulu didn’t change significantly from television to novel format. One advantage of writing for the page as opposed to the screen is that you get a much deeper look into a character’s psyche. In a novel, you’re essentially living inside Jack’s head — you hear all of his thoughts and feel what he’s feeling. It’s an entirely different task to communicate these things onscreen, and the novel format really gives readers a chance to experience this adventure alongside Jack. It’s a magical way to tell stories. 

Tell me about the experience and process of writing alongside your Dad.

Writing alongside Dad has been an incredible experience. We’ve collaborated on stories together before, but never to this degree, and it’s such a superpower to have a partner in the process. It’s kind of an unfair advantage to have this deeply familiar connection with your co-author. We’re able to collaborate so much more effectively since we live under the same roof. We like to take walks together just about every day and often hash out story details or talk through ideas during those neighborhood treks.


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