Sam Smith—also known to his loyal readers as S. D. Smith—is something of a mountain man. Or at least that’s what he would have you think. He likes to pretend he’s a simple man with simple tastes and this is true only inasmuch as he’s pretty much a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. When everyone around him is eating duck confit and reveling in a charcuterie board he’s enjoying a hamburger and fries. He seems to think this is a character flaw. I think it’s part of what helped him raise more than $55,000 (an amazing sum in the world of self-publishing) last spring towards the publication of his new book, Ember Falls. And I think it’s what has helped him acquire thousands of dedicated fans worldwide.
Plenty of mountain men have the ability to spin an epic yarn, but it seems unlikely that many of them can quote J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis at length. Yet this is Sam Smith. He may eat simply, but he is a well-read, deep thinker, and all that good reading and deep thinking has revealed itself profoundly in his rabbits-with-swords adventure series for young adults (and their parents), which began with The Green Ember in 2014. This series is readable and approachable and deeply moving all once, a worthy successor in the long line of high quality, Christian-authored fantasy stories.I think the stories are about big things, but they are shared through the experience of accessible characters.
As the new volume in the series hits the market, Sam was kind of enough to sit down for a chat about his West Virginia heritage, the stories he grew up on, and what he hopes his books will do for his readers.
The interview been edited slightly for clarity.
You have said in the past that growing up in West Virginia inspired a lot of your imaginative wanderings. How so?
I can trace several features of my earliest memories of living in an Appalachian “holler” that formed my thinking, but probably more so my capacities and expectations for what was good. There was a very real sense of adventure, and a wild landscape on which to enact my own vividly imagined stories. This sounds pretty fancy, but it means my hick brothers and my hick self ran around in the woods, creeks, and caves all the time. There was always a guiding narrative of some heroic tale. Sometimes it was located only in my mind, but most often it was shared adventure, shared stories. I always thought of us as poor, and by most accounts we were. But there was a kind of wealth present for which I am very grateful. I think that’s an experience many West Virginians and other Appalachians identify with and understand.
So were you a story-teller from the beginning?
Only in that way in which most children are storytellers. That is, before we start indoctrinating them in the falsehood that the world isn’t magical.
Is that what happened to you?
Maybe somewhat. It’s a little like falling under an evil spell as the clarity of childhood evaporates in a hazy fog of cynicism. But I remember what it felt like to wake up again under the re-enchanting work of Lewis and Tolkien. And then Chesterton came along and explained what had happened. Of course I regularly still need to be shaken and dragged awake. I need to be reminded that the world is magical and this story I’m living is more far-fetched and fantastic than any I’ve merely read.
Is that what you hope your own work will do?
That would be wonderful. But I have to separate those things in theory and execution. I have to think about the story first. I love to make stories. I want them to be good. If something special is happening outside of that (or through it), I feel like I can’t focus on that.
When did these stories first come to you?
The stories I am known for (across the galaxy and probably beyond), my rabbit tales, came up very naturally while I was sitting on the porch with my daughter, who was then a toddler. We watched the wild rabbits hopping around in our yard, and I told her stories about them. As she got older, the stories got more sophisticated. Later, her younger brother joined in and the stories grew and grew. It was 8-10 years before I wrote down anything of what became The Green Ember. It was a long rough draft.
So were you trying to tell the kind of stories you grew up on? Did you feel a responsibility to provide that for your own kids?
Not consciously. I just loved stories, and I believed they would feed her soul. I wanted to give them to her because I loved her. It was more like making and serving a meal than anything grand in my imagination. But maybe making and serving a meal is more grand than we usually suppose.
You said already in this interview that Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton opened your eyes to the magic in the world. How does that show up in your novels?
Nothing consciously, but undoubtably there are traces of what has moved me in my stories. I love them, and it would be silly to pretend they haven’t influenced me. But I think it’s futile to try to imitate their work and I don’t believe it would honor them or be of much value to my readers. Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings’ origins,
“One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”
I don’t want to escape real life, I want to be confronted with it, but given new eyes.So Tolkien and Lewis especially have been there, but what bubbles up from the leaf-mould of my mind comes from a million places, and I can’t trace that accurately, nor do I very much want to. That would be to engage in what Lewis himself hated and called the “Personal Heresy.” I look at my own stories and see more resulting from my childhood love of Robin Hood than maybe anything else, but I’m probably a poor judge. Lewis and Tolkien are in my heart, and I could hardly love them more. Do Lewis and Tolkien’s influence show up in my books? A faded picture of Buckingham Palace might adorn the wall of the most modest hamlet hovel.
You seem to see yourself as a simple man, and I suspect that’s not false humility. Perhaps that comes with the way you were brought up. But do you think of your stories as simple too? There’s certainly complexity in what happens in the stories, especially in the way your characters grow, but there also seems to be a lack of pretense within them.
I think the stories are about big things, but they are shared through the experience of accessible characters. That’s a Tolkien thing, of course. We can go on this epic journey with great lords and high elves and angelic wizards because we experience it through the eyes of simple hobbits. It’s genius. My stories are simpler by far, kid-sized in some ways, but they do have an epic scope. But I think they are accessible for lots of kids because the characters are rabbits. And more than that, they are young rabbits. When The Green Ember was published, I thought I had written a book no one would read. I was afraid the ideas were too big and serious, so young kids wouldn’t be engaged, but that older kids wouldn’t read it because it featured rabbits. But somehow, it seems like the opposite has happened. I think part of that has been the harmony of the simple and epic. And my false humility has probably fooled a lot of people into giving it a chance, too.
Well, false humility rarely convinces people to invest $50,000 in a sequel, which is what you raised in your Kickstarter. How did that come about?
I feel like you’re underestimating the power of false humility. What do you want to see, true arrogance?
Kickstarter is a good tool for small publishers and independents, and we were happy to have had a good response to ours for Ember Falls (The Green Ember Book II). Part of the challenge of being small and not spending much on marketing is that it can be a challenge to find the folks who loved the first book. We were pleased with the Kickstarter, and it was a good start on that aim. The Green Ember has mainly spread through word of mouth, so I hope the same is true for Ember Falls. I believe in the story, and I want to keep telling it, so I hope the audience keeps wanting more. As Chesterton always usually said sometimes, “Buy S. D. Smith’s rabbit books. All my fellow zombies love them.”
That Chesterton. He’s always saying stuff.
Much has been made recently of the role of Christians who are artists. On the one hand there’s the idea that Christians should create work that is meant to be didactic in its approach. On the other hand, you have those who believe their first goal should be to tell a good story and to avoid being evangelical in their work. Has this been a struggle for you at all?
I mean, I’ve wrestled with it in theory at different life stages like everyone else. But for these stories, I haven’t had any moments of doubt or confusion about that. I have told the story as straight and faithfully as I am able, without being too worried about what zealous utilitarians or the insufferable culture snobs think. I’m positive the poles of both camps will find things to complain about, because that’s the whole point. I’m already worried about too many other things to indulge in being afraid of being evaluated along those lines.
I will say that, while I’ve been quite far from the “utilitarian” camp for a long time, I find the other pole more nauseating at this point. Almost nothing is less exciting to me right now than hearing Christians scramble desperately to demonstrate, “I’m Not With Them!” when a new Christian movie (or whatever) comes out.
I get the honest part of the critique of much of “Christian” art and I share many/most of those concerns. But the condescension and scorn is often espoused by people on the sidelines, people with limited or no understanding of how hard it is to work for years to create something and to share it with the world. Smarmy criticism is easy, vulnerable creation is hard.
Tolkien once said that truly great Fantasy stories are “story-making in its primary and most potent.” He referred to the best fantasy stories as “rare achievement in art.” To you, what makes a great fantasy story?
My stories are such low fantasy that they barely make the category, so I’m anything but an expert on this. But I think Tolkien was reacting to the then-popular notion (in his academic world and beyond) that fantasy might make for a pleasant diversion for people of low taste, but it could never amount to any high achievement in the arts. Of course that snobbery is still around and it’s employed to marginalize fantasy literature, children’s literature, and “genre” literature in general. I respond enthusiastically to this snobbery with a hearty boo & hiss combo.
For me, great fantasy (or Speculative Fiction more broadly) is all about possibility and about gateways to better seeing. It’s about transcendence. I love what we talked about earlier, magic that reveals what’s (already, really) true about humanity and creation. I don’t want to escape real life, I want to be confronted with it, but given new eyes. I want to see characters I love go through internal challenges I recognize even if it’s in a world, or circumstance, I don’t. But even that world, at its best, will reveal a lot to me about mine. And though it’s not unique to fantasy, I always want to see with new eyes and so expand my experience of what it’s like to be human.
No matter how magical the setting of the story, I want to experience a sharp self-forgetfulness that somehow (magically?) makes me more fully myself.
Does writing primarily for children enhance this challenge at all? Maybe bring it into focus somehow?
Maybe it does. I like storytelling that aims for clarity and hospitality to readers. I want to be as clear as possible so they can see what I see. That just means trying to get out of the readers’ way and removing barriers wherever possible (such as clumsy writing). I know I don’t always succeed at that aim, but that is, for me, the goal. So that’s the target in every kind of writing, but it’s easier for me to be motivated in that way when I think of how powerful and formative stories can be for children. It’s easier, I think, to be driven by love.