‘Willa of Dark Hollow’ author explores magic of Great Smoky Mountains

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Willa of Dark Hollow' (Part 1)

His Disney books are flying off the shelves and might be coming to a screen near you.

Author Robert Beatty joined WTOP for a look behind the magic of “Willa of Dark Hollow.”

“It’s the story of a 13-year-old girl,” Beatty told WTOP. “She belongs to an ancient race of Indigenous people who live deep in the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains in 1901. It’s got a bit of a historical background, but it’s also filled with mystery and magic as well.”

The forestry themes are similar to “FernGully” (1992) and “Wolfwalkers” (2020).

“She’s been taught by her grandmother to love and understand the forest and all the animals within it, but the loggers start cutting down the trees and destroying her world,” Beatty said. “She has to tap into her powers to save the people and animals she loves.”

Why set the story in the Great Smoky Mountains?

“I actually live in Asheville, North Carolina,” Beatty said. “The story itself takes place on Clingmans Dome near Gatlinburg on what’s called the Little River and also Cades Cove,” Beatty said. “You don’t have to specifically know the Great Smoky Mountains to enjoy it. You can think of it as a magical forest separate from its actual physical location.”

Born and raised in Michigan, Beatty loved fantasy novels as a kid.

“I used to love reading books like ‘The Sword in the Stone,’ ‘The Book of Merlin’ and ‘The Hobbit,'” Beatty said. “I ran out of books to read and my mom said, ‘There’s an old typewriter in the closet, so get to work. Try playing with that.’ … I started writing my first novel when I was 11 and I’ve been writing novels ever since.”

He found success with the “Serafina” book series, inspired by two field trips.

“I got roped in by my wife to go on a field trip with one of my kids to a Revolutionary battlefield,” Beatty said. “I noticed the kids were just looking around at an empty field, they weren’t really feeling it, so I got them together and we started reenacting the battles. … I came home and told my wife that I wanted to write a book for kids that would bring history alive.”

The second trip happened at the historic Biltmore Estate in Asheville.

“We were at Biltmore Estate,” Beatty said. “We were down in the basement on a tour and we all started talking about how cool it would be if we created a character named Serafina who lived secretly in the basement of Biltmore Estate. That was where the original idea came from and that became my first book series and the first book I ever got published.”

Serafina has spanned four books and even made cameos in the new Willa series.

“Serafina does show up in the ‘Willa of the Wood’ book, which is the predecessor to ‘Dark Hollow,'” Beatty said. “They take place in the same time period and roughly the same location, so it is possible for the two characters to meet.”

Both have become No. 1 New York Times bestsellers translated into 22 languages.

“It may end up on Disney+, but not necessarily,” Beatty said. “It could also end up on Netflix, Apple or HBO. I am working with a television studio with the actress Amy Adams. She and her daughter love ‘Willa of Dark Hollow,’ so we’re working together to bring Willa into a live-action TV series.”

Still, his favorite sounding board remains his wife and three daughters.

“I have my built-in focus group,” Beatty said. “We work very collaboratively. I’ll read it out loud, they provide feedback and I’ll revise it. It takes us a while, but we try to produce the best story we can, then we take it into their school, read it to the kids in their classrooms and get their feedback to further improve the story. Only when we think it’s perfect does it go to my editor at Disney.”

Young readers are the target audience, but it can be enjoyed by entire families.

“It’s a book written for young people 8 to 14, but also for adults as well,” Beatty said. “There’s a lot of daughters reading it with their grandmothers and that sort of thing.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Willa of Dark Hollow' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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