JD Horn, the writer behind the popular Witching Savannah series, is a wonderful man who has always had a fascination with the paranormal. “I’ve always loved paranormal stories. I’ve always loved stories with magical elements,” Horn said. This fascination and love has come from watching Dark Shadows since childhood and growing up reading mythology, reading books by Stephen King, and much more. This love of the paranormal went into his first book series where he was able to write about witches who live in the Savannah.
Since he was a teenager, Horn wanted to be a writer. With a partial manuscript in hand, he went to college and took creative writing and literature classes. However, reading classic books written by the masters of yore as a teenager aspiring to be a writer can be rather daunting. Due to this, Horn felt as if he couldn’t live up to the writing expertise of the classic authors. Taking a few more years in school, he graduated with his MBA and discovered he was rather good at financing. “I spent several years working in finance, but I realized that I was doing something that I didn’t love and that I really needed to take the chance and see if I could become the writer I always wanted to be,” Horn said. “I am now a full-time writer. I have five published books. I’m married, I have two step-kids, and I have two dogs I absolutely adore.”
When taking his chance as a writer, Horn created a new manuscript for a new story. He found an agent when searching for a company who would publish his manuscript. His new agent took his manuscript to a few different editors who all responded with similar answers: they really liked his story, but there were a few different reasons why they couldn’t sell it. After hearing the reasons from the editors, Horn had to make a decision. “I thought, ‘Okay I can either be completely discouraged or I can take these notes and look at what they’re saying.’ And one of the elements that they [said] was that they were looking for books with a strong heroine. I thought, ‘If I’m going to pick a heroine, I want to use the Joseph Campbell monomyth, the hero’s journey.’ And just the whole suggestion of using something that is theological in essence made me want to do a witch story,” Horn said. “I’ve always loved witch stories and when I realized I was going to do a [story] about a young woman learning about her own power as a human being, it seemed natural to make her a witch and I just ran with it.”
Horn said he has spent years studying not only the fictional aspects of witchcraft, but also the people of the real world who practice it religiously as a form of Wicca. On top of studying witches and the paranormal, Horn also had to do a lot of research on the Savannah area of the States: the main setting for his Witching Savannah book series. “The current-day Savannah is an absolute gem. It is one of the most beautiful places in the country,” Horn said. “For the first three books, I went a few times and spent six or seven weeks in the area. On top of reading, I went around and I talked to the natives. I interviewed people. I made friends with tour guides because they are a great resource for historical information. I walked around and made notes about everything. I can tell you which way the traffic flows in certain parts of town. The one thing I’ve learned is that you can have unicorns flying through the sky and no one is going to say anything, but if you’re using a real setting and have someone make a right turn on a street where people can only turn left, you will hear about it.”
Though researching the current-day Savannah took a few weeks, the real challenge came when Horn was researching for the fourth book of his series, Jilo. Jilo serves as a prequel to his first three books and, while those three books occur within a span of roughly about six to seven months, Jilo takes place within the span of close to 30 years, so Horn had to learn what Savannah was like between 1932 and 1960. Even with the research being a bit of a challenge, Horn loves to conduct it. “I am a research nerd, I actually really enjoy that, and I love going places,” Horn said. “I love walking around. I love going up to people who don’t expect you to ask them questions. I enjoy going up to people who are often ignored and ask them to tell me stories, like the elderly people.” One interesting, yet disappointing fact Horn discovered during his research was that he could not insert every bit of information he read and learned about. “One of my disappointments about Jilo is that there is supposedly an unexploded atomic bomb not far from Savannah out in the ocean. And I was convinced that I was going to find some way to use that, but I never figured out a way to work it in,” Horn said. “Part of what you learn when you’re writing, as you write more and more books, is that you can’t include all of your research.”
Horn did not self-publish his books through Amazon, but he did go through Amazon to publish his series. Amazon’s science fiction/ fantasy imprint, 47 North, read the story arch Horn had mapped out for his first book, The Line, and loved the idea for the book; however, they told Horn they wanted two more books to go along with it. Horn was more than thrilled to receive this news, for he had ideas for a whole series anyway and was given the opportunity to write it. As a new writer, Horn said he has been very lucky and very blessed during his experience with 47 North. “You hear a lot of bad things with Amazon; that has not been my experience at all. The people that I work with are very caring, very committed, they love books, they love reading, and they just want to be able to help you shares stories. I could not be happier with my experience with 47 North,” Horn said.
The Witching Savannah series was well received, especially for a series written by a first time author. After it was finished, 47 North came back to Horn and asked if he wanted to write more for the series. Horn decided to go backwards in the series and write a prequel story about a particular character who became a fan favorite: Jilo. Horn loves Jilo and swears that she created herself. “She seems so real to me at times, so when I was given the chance to revisit the Witching Savannah world, I knew I wanted to spend more time getting to know Jilo. It was both a blessing and a curse to get back and try to write Jilo’s life because at first, I thought, ‘Okay, I know Jilo so well. This is going to be so fun. This is going to be so easy.’ Then I started writing and realizing that the Savannah when Jilo was a young girl and a young woman was very different from the Savannah of today. It was very much under the Jim Crow law and it hit me suddenly, out of nowhere, that I was a white middle-aged Southern man, and here I was, trying to get into the head of a young black woman at this period in time. It wasn’t easy. To be honest, I had a bit of a breakdown trying to write the book because I thought ‘I’m not qualified to write this book.’ So I started reaching out to different people, different organizations in that area to try and get a bit more insight and hopefully not get anything wrong,” Horn said. “I wanted Jilo’s story to be right. I wanted to be as historically accurate as possible for a fantasy novel. I didn’t want to belittle what these people went through. I was challenging to write, but I am proud of what came out.”
“Part of the reason is that I wanted to establish where Jilo had come from, who her people were, how she ended up being such a combination of warmth and crankiness. The part that makes me sound crazy is that Jilo wasn’t talking to me. She would not tell me her story, so I started going back, saying, ‘All right, who else is around you who will talk to me?’ May was really the first one who started saying, ‘Okay, I’ll come to life and tell you.’ So May and Jilo’s father, Jesse, those were the two character who warmed up to me first and were willing to cooperate while Miss Jilo decided that she was going to come around until [much later],” Horn said. “[Jilo] wrote the first two books. It was almost like, you hear writers talk about how it feels like they didn’t create a character and they didn’t create a story and I always thought that that was just crazy talk. But I have to tell you, these characters, they come alive and they take on their own personalities and Jilo really did dictate the lines to me, making sure she had a very large part in it. She knew she wanted to live. I got the feeling from her because when she would communicate with me, I kind of got the feeling that she had given me two books and she wanted me to give her one back. She wanted me to learn what her story was on my own than have her just hand it to me.”
While Jilo can most certainly stand on its own as a story, Horn would like for readers to read his Witching Savannah series in the way he wrote it: by reading his first three books before Jilo. “There is one thing you learn when reading the end of Jilo that will give you a different perspective on the entire series,” Horn said. “A part of me thinks that, in a way, [the reader] might get a much richer perspective.” However, Horn is not against readers reading Jilo before his first three books of his series. No matter the order read, Horn wishes for his readers to take away that many problems and issues still exist in the world that need to be resolved, even though many have been solved in the past. “Story wise, I would like readers to see there is a different way of doing urban fantasy. That it’s not necessarily linked to romance. That you can put in more substantial issues, political issues, familial issues,” Horn said. “I think urban fantasy has a lot of life to it. It gives you a lot of opportunities to blend fantasy and realism to comment lively on a lot of things you couldn’t necessarily comment on otherwise, including Jim Crow.”
More stories may be added to the Witching Savannah series in the future, but Jilo proved to be quite the project for Horn. So Horn has started a couple of new projects. One project is a paranormal story unrelated to his first series that takes place in New Orleans and he hopes to have it finished and published by the beginning of 2017. His second project will be another series, but a non-paranormal mystery series that takes place in his old neighborhood in Portland and will more than likely be published in the next couple of years. Through research and having grown up in the South, Horn has captured the true essence of Savannah while sprinkling in paranormal elements in his Witching Savannah series. He said that “You can take the boy out of Tennessee, but you can’t take Tennessee out of the boy.” Though he writes urban fantasy and loves the paranormal, Horn has high hopes for reality and for this country. “I am one of those people who believes that everyone is equal and everyone deserves a chance. This is the country that is most likely to deliver that,” Horn said. “I have high hopes for this country and my writing reflects that. I think that our best days are ahead of us.”