BLOOD AT THE ROOT Author LaDarrion Williams on Crafting a Magical Black Boy Story, Rejection, and Southern Culture

The wonderful worlds of wizardry, lush lands of fantasy epics, and all sorts of fictional adventures in between feature so many elements. There’s magic, monsters, adventure, action, and much more to craft narratives that whisk us to universes. The themes of these stories often intertwine with different sociopolitical viewpoints, providing commentary on the world we live in. But, it’s done with the flair of aliens, spaceships, wands, and maybe even a lightsaber. Or, if we’re really lucky, it is simply a fun romp that taps into our escapist nature. 

One part of magical and fantasy narratives, specifically books, that could always make room for improvement is representation. Why does it seem to be so hard to imagine a whimsical world or a space saga with non-White leading characters? One demographic that is oft overlooked is young Black boys. Many of their stories, film or otherwise, tend to center on similar narratives. But what if they wanted to be wizards and wield magic? 

That’s what writer LaDarrion Williams delivers in Blood at the Root, a New York Times bestseller novel that features a young man’s journey at an HBCU for those who are young, Black, and magical. He learns about his family roots and mysteries and finds a new set of family at Caiman University. Nerdist caught up with Williams to talk about his nerdy childhood loves, crafting Blood at the Root, Black Southern culture, and more. 

Nerdist: What were the nerdy franchises and interests and stuff that captured your attention as a kid?

LaDarrion Williams: I was a Disney kid back when Disney Channel was the good version because I don’t know what these kids got nowadays. I remember when the new Disney Channel original movies came out, you had to sit at home on Friday night at seven o’clock to watch them… I was the nerdy boy that was watching all of those movies every Friday night. And I remember when High School Musical came out and Camp Rock, all of that… I always [loved] ‘90s black cinema, watching all of those movies really shaped me. Some of those movies I’d had no business watching when I was a kid!

Yes, Love and Basketball, The Wood, Love Jones

Williams: Yeah! Even The Best Man. Watching that now as an adult is wild! But those movies shaped me. I remember watching Eve’s Bayou and really becoming very fascinated by not only the story, but the magic that it had, the southern mystery that it had. And also, The Mummy with Brendan Frazier. But yeah, that’s what I grew up on. I have a big range of movies that I used to love watching growing up.

Love it. So how did you get into creative writing? 

Williams: I’ve always been a creative kid, but I really didn’t take it seriously until high school. I was in detention and, once you finished all your homework for the day, you had to do something. They don’t just let you sit there. And the teacher at the time, she gave me a newspaper or a book, and I was like, “well, I kind of just want to read a book or something.” I don’t want to read a newspaper all day long. And little did I know it was the play “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. And I read that play literally from front to back. And I really resonated with Walter Lee Younger… I was like, “man, these characters sound like my family.”

And I was like, “I kind of want to write something like this one day.” …the next year I got into theater, I was always the choir kid. I love singing. I love the arts, but I didn’t take it seriously until I think the 10th or 11th grade. And I started acting and doing theater, and my theater teacher gave me the play “Fences” by August Wilson. I was blown away. 

So I wrote a play about two people trapped in a hospital room during Hurricane Katrina, and come to find out they were dead the entire time. It was like The Sixth Sense. I don’t know why I wrote that at 17. When I wrote that, I won a competition and first place in playwriting in the state. My teacher was like, “I think you’re going to be a playwright. I think you’re a writer, you’re an actor, you’re a creative.” That’s what ushered me into creative writing. 

And look at where it got you! You’re here now with a successful book. Tell me about your journey with Blood at the Root, from conception to the present. 

Williams: The conception of it came in the middle of the pandemic. It was the pandemic and a lot going on in the country… I was binging The Originals and The Vampire Diaries at the time, and I was just like, “man, I’m tired.”

The Vampire Diaries made me so mad! Justice for Bonnie.

Williams: Listen, they won’t see Heaven, whoever created that. So I was just kind of angry about the type of representation we were seeing. And then Lovecraft Country came out, I was like, “whoa, wait, what?!” It just felt so refreshing. Once Lovecraft Country came out, Twitter was going crazy every Sunday night. But it was really when Beyonce dropped [her album] Black Is King as well. I was finally being fed creatively after a long time… I tweeted and said, “what if Harry Potter went to an HBCU?” It was random. I don’t know where it came from. I’m just randomly tweeting. Everybody kind of gravitated towards that tweet and I think it kind of sparked something. And so people were like, “you got to make that.”

And I was like, “well, I can’t make it in the middle of the pandemic.” We could barely get toilet paper. I’m not going to go out and shoot a whole film… I started writing the television show because Blood at the Root wasn’t supposed to be a book. It was supposed to be a TV show. I moved to LA to be a TV writer. 

I wrote the pilot script and me and my friends did a Zoom reading of it and people were like, “man, this is really cool.” I was sharing pages on Twitter and people felt like they were with it from the conception, from the tweet to the short.

That’s so cool. How did you eventually get to making the short film? 

Williams: People started donating money and were reaching out to me… I asked my friends to go shoot the short film. And everybody was like, let’s do it. And I was like, okay, let’s go do it… We snuck onto the UCLA campus to shoot the magic school [scene]. Shout out to them for not arresting these Black people for making a short film there during the pandemic! 

I realized I had something very, very special because it was really cool to see my friends being in this fantasy space. We felt like little kids playing again. And when we got done with the short film, we posted it on YouTube and Amazon Prime and people were having watch parties. 

I remember when that happened and it was great! Why didn’t you move forward with Blood at the Root in the film space? 

Williams: I was thinking Hollywood was going to come calling. I had this short film that’s viral. At the time, people were going viral and getting brand deals. They were getting TV shows, even though it was the pandemic. But when things started opening up, I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t get a manager. I couldn’t get nobody to even look at the short film. It was getting rejected from every single short film festival that we submitted to… It got rejected from every single one. 

That is so surprising! 

Williams: Yeah. Having that rejection toppled on me every single day, checking my email every day, I got very depressed about it. I was embarrassed because I was like, “oh, I’m going to be this big shot with this movie.” And nothing came of it. But I started to fall in love with this story even more. After a year of trying, my friends were like, “hey, why don’t you turn it into a book?”

…I saw The Hate You Give. I saw Children of Blood and Bone. I was like, “well, okay, so there are Black books that are making it.” I asked the bookstore clerk at Barnes & Noble if there were stories with Black boys. I want to see myself and be able to relate fully to the character. We went over to the YA fantasy section and we couldn’t find anything.

I’ve noticed that many Black fantasy stories will include Black girls prominently but the boys not so much. 

Williams: Black girls absolutely deserve everything and more! But when it came to the Black boys, I was starting to see a certain type of story being published. I was like, “Why are they getting killed by police? Can Black boys not live too?” I literally made the declaration right there at the bookstore that I would write this story. I locked myself in my apartment for 12 days and I wrote the first draft of Blood at the Root, the book. I took ideas from the short film and the television pilot script, and I put it into the book and created this full story about this Black kid named Malik Baron going to a magical HBCU.

You get to meet his friends and you get to go to classes and all of that. I was going to self-publish it but I worked with an editor, Margot Westin, a Black woman for Louisiana. She said, “LaDarrion, you got to traditionally publish this novel.” I know you want to self publish it. And I was like, nah. At that time, publishing really didn’t want Black boys in YA fantasy. She eventually convinced me. We worked really hard and I ended up getting an agent, whom I worked with for a year. We went to publishers and I was getting the same rejections I was getting from the short film. “We can’t connect to the character, we don’t know how to market this.” 

Mmmhmmm, we all know what that means.

Williams: Right?! But in January of 2023, we eventually signed with Penguin Random House for a three book deal. And now here it is, Blood at the Root book one is out. And I’m currently working on the sequel. 

That’s an amazing journey. You got delayed a few times, but you ultimately were not denied. What are your ultimate hopes for this trilogy and how it’ll affect the YA space?

Williams: I really hope publishers are more open to not always trying to think about white audiences. Because I think ultimately what they are saying is that they think audiences can’t connect to Black people because you don’t see Black people as human. At the end of the day, we connected to a little white British boy going to magic school. I connected to him even though I grew up in Alabama. I didn’t know nothing about the UK. I hope that publishers are more open to all types of Black stories, especially Black stories that are set in the South that do not always try to center whiteness. 

split image of ladarrion williams and his book blood at the root
@photosbyJamal/Penguin Random House

I hope that Black girls, little Black kids, queer kids, Black boys, like everybody, I hope they could see themselves in the story because Malik can be you… I also hope people are open-minded to Malik. He talks with a Southern twang, he cusses. He is angry, he is vulnerable, he’s everything. And I hope people are more open to that, to seeing that type of character in the publishing world and also in audiences. I hope they’re open to receiving it.

I certainly hope so, too. And I want people to have a more open mind when it comes to reading about and engaging with Black Southern folks and our culture. There’s always these stereotypes and thoughts about our perceived intelligence or the lack thereof based on how we talk. I want people to reject that notion and maybe Blood at the Root will help with that. People love to consume Black culture without acknowledging that a chunk of Black American culture as a whole comes from the South. I say this as a Carolina girl. 

Williams: I know that’s right! The South got something to say, just as OutKast said, right? But I think people don’t realize that. I think I’m out here in LA and I’m just like, “y’all, some of the stuff that y’all are doing is from the South.” …a lot of us don’t know about the great migration. People went from Mississippi to Chicago to Alabama. A lot of people came from Alabama to LA and Texas and Louisiana. You don’t think they brought their customs and their traditions and stuff with them?

I think about my mother, I think about my father, my grandmother, my aunties, and seeing them. And they’re reading books probably for the first time in a long time. And they say,”man, this grandmother sound like me.” Now they feel seen and they feel edified in the book. And I think I want to show that the simplicity of life in the south, the poetry, the language of the everyday people, that’s what August [Wilson] did.

I love it and I hope so many people feel seen and that we get to celebrate Black culture and the joys of magic in Blood at the Root.

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