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New #1 Best Seller Set in the Smokies Got Help from GSMA authors

Posted by | 07.26.2018
Steve Kemp and Janet Rock take a break while hiking in
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The husband-and-wife
team, both of whom are experts on various aspects of the national
park, say they were "flattered" to be asked to consult on the new
#1 Best Selling book Willa of the Woodby Asheville, N.C.-based
author Robert Beatty.

Discovering historical and biological accuracies about a place is easy when you ask the area experts. That’s exactly what Asheville, N.C.-based author Robert Beatty did when he consulted two Great Smoky Mountains Association authors for his latest New York Times #1 best seller, Willa of the Wood.

Steve Kemp worked for GSMA for 30 years and authored several books and articles, including Trees of the SmokiesWe’re Going to the Mountains and Who Pooped in the Park. His wife, Janet Rock, who recently retired from a long career as the Smokies’ park botanist, is co-author of Wildflowers of the Smokies.

“Janet and I were flattered to be asked to work with Robert Beatty on his new series of books set in the Great Smoky Mountains,” Kemp said. The first installment in the series of two books, Willa of the Wood, debuted in early July at #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

Beatty, who hit it big as a historical fantasy fiction writer in 2015 with his Serafina series set in the dark, subterranean corridors of the Biltmore House, will read from Willa of the Wood during two special events in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Saturday, Aug. 11. Park visitors can meet the author first at Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, N.C., at 9 a.m. A second, similar program will get underway at 1 p.m. at Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Both events will include a presentation by the author, Q&A, a book signing, and lots of free Willa/Serafina swag. Live creatures from Willa’s world, including birds of prey from the Smoky Mountain Raptor Center in Maryville, Tenn., and a “gray wolf” (a rescued wolf-dog cross) from Wildefell Wolves in Harriman, Tenn., will accompany the author to both locations.    

Beatty, who said his motivation for writing his books is “to write stories about unusual and heroic young girls for his three daughters,” had spent a fair amount of time exploring the Smokies, enjoying the mountains and getting ideas for places and events for his new series. He solicited help from Kemp and Rock because, he said, “even though my books are fantasy, I want them to be historically and biologically accurate.”

Consequently, if Willa or another of the book’s characters finds a plant in the Smokies, they find it in its proper habitat at the correct elevation. The “day-folk,” turn-of-the-20th century farmers and loggers, are historically accurate in their lifestyles, physical structures and material goods.

“Steve and I were also impressed when we learned that Willa has the power of the forest within her,” said Rock. “Anyone who has spent time in the Smokies knows these ancient forests are powerful places indeed. They are some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests on Earth and have existed here for millions of years without major disruption from glaciation or ocean inundation. Scientists continue to document ways that forest plants exchange information through their roots and microorganisms in the soil.”

The Cherokee, who have resided in the Smokies for over 1,000 years, have long celebrated the power of the forest. They have passed down hundreds of stories of all-powerful mountain spirits and talking animals with magical powers. Beatty weaves some of these traditions into his new series.

“One of our biggest surprises from working with Beatty was the degree to which he collaborates with others,” said Kemp. “He shares his early drafts with friends and colleagues and asks for their honest opinions on every paragraph. That is truly an unusual attitude among writers, especially one as gifted as Beatty.”

Yet, the things you are most likely to enjoy about Willa of the Wood are the grit of the characters and the author’s ability to create almost unbearably suspenseful situations. “Even though Beatty is a soft-spoken and empathetic person, he puts his characters through the wringer,” Kemp said. “Anyone who reads the first page of this book will find it’s an irresistible thriller.”

Set in 1900 in the Great Smoky Mountains, Willa of the Wood follows an orphaned 12-year-old girl who is one of the last members of an ancient race of forest people who live in tune with the trees and animals. Willa spends her days and nights foraging from the forest and scavenging from the log cabins of her greatest enemies, the axe-wielding “newcomers.” Through a series of action-packed encounters and an unexpected kindness, Willa begins to realize that both the newcomers and her own people are not what she’s always been told. This revelation sets in motion her quest for a new home and a new sense of belonging in a changing world. The book is written for readers ages 8 to 108.

Willa of the Wood books will be available for sale from Great Smoky Mountains Association at both events. Those who would like their Serafina books signed should bring those as well, but please note that Serafina books will not be on sale at either location. All purchases of Willa of the Wood from GSMA support this national park. In addition to the visitor center locations, you may purchase copies by calling 865.436.7318, Ext. 226.

Great Smoky Mountains Association is a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its mission is to promote greater public understanding and appreciation of the park of through education, interpretation and research. Proceeds from visitor center sales and membership dues from more than 28,000 individuals has allowed GSMA to contribute more than $40 million to national park program support since its inception 65 years ago.

For more information about GSMA, visit and by calling toll-free 888.898.9102.