Greg Leitich Smith is a lawyer by day and YA author by night. That makes for a busy life. Combine that with the fact that his wife Cynthia Leitich Smith also a wonderful and prolific writer and you have a very creative home. Greg was born and raised in Chicago but now calls Texas home. His latest book the Chronal Engine is set in Texas. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for the readers here at Book Reviews and More.
1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
I would be a patent attorney, which is what I do now, at least during the day. It's a nice combination of logical thinking, writing, and learning about new technologies.
2. How do you balance your time between writing and practicing law?
It tends to go in cycles, but broadly speaking, if I have a project, I get up early and write a lot on weekends. Usually, I'll try to do at least an hour of writing in the morning and then go to work. After dinner, Cynthia will usually put in at least another hour - it helps to have another writer in the family, so we tend to be understanding with each other about writing deadlines and demands.
3. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?
I was always a strong and avid reader and I remember thinking sometime in grade school that it would be neat to write novels for a living. I even started one or two, but I was a lousy typist and the idea of writing things out longhand was just a bit too much. (Ironically, though, I wrote a complete draft of CHRONAL ENGINE by hand, using four or five legal pads).
Eventually I followed my interest in math and the sciences, but also sort of vaguely held onto the idea of maybe writing a novel. Someday. So when Cynthia started writing, it all came together again and I started writing right about the time she sold her first book.
4. What authors influenced your writing style and format?
I don't know about style, but CHRONAL ENGINE was essentially originally conceived as Swiss Family Robinson but with dinosaurs and a bit of Jules Verne. Which means, if you want to go all the way back, Johann Wyss and Daniel Defoe and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle and, well, Jules Verne.
5. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
Hmm. I don't know that this is anything I didn't know at the beginning, but I think writing is a bit like engineering: no matter how much analysis you do (and however necessary that might be), ultimately it comes down to synthesis. If you want to be published, you have to finish projects. Regardless of other temptations, whether it's reading groups or workshopping or writer conferencing, ultimately you have to put the time in on the actual writing.
6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
Every novel seems to be different, but I generally try to have a similar process. I get a lot of ideas, but very few seem to have enough there to become a full-fledged novel (Sometimes, I'll combine ideas…). Once the idea gels, I try to come up with a character who would be suitable. Along with the character, I try to get voice and the rudiments of a plot. With CHRONAL ENGINE, of course, the idea of going back to the time of the dinosaurs is great, but it's not a story. There has to be something and someone driving it.
Once I get those, I'll begin a preliminary draft. This usually is only about seventy-five pages long - it's just to get a feel for the character and where the story is going. I'll also make notes on what I need to research.
After that, I'll make a five-column table, assign one cell per chapter/scene, and write a brief description in each cell of what happens in the corresponding chapter/scene. If I put it down to 8 point type, I can see the entire novel on one page, which helps to see character arc, where things slow down, and if it makes any sense at all. It's kind of an outline in that I'll insert scenes as necessary but I don't necessarily stick to it on subsequent drafts. And then I'll get back to writing and will usually go through another five or six (at least) drafts before I send it to my agent.
It usually goes through at least one round of editorial, which can involve a major revision (not just "polishing").
7. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
I usually try to pick something period or thematically appropriate. With CHRONAL ENGINE, naturally enough, I listened to the soundtrack from "Jurassic Park." With TOFU AND T.REX, centered around a delicatessen in Chicago owned by a German-Polish family, I listened to a lot of polka music. With NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO, which involved a family named Brandenburg, I listened to a lot of Bach. I'm currently working on a novel set in the 1930s, so I'm listening to Cab Calloway, Cole Porter, and Benny Goodman, among others.
8. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
They do feel real. I don't typically get glimpses of what they're up to now, but every once in a while wonder what they might be doing….
Actually, Hans-Peter, from TOFU AND T.REX, almost made a cameo in CHRONAL ENGINE. I figure since he was so into dinosaurs, he might be majoring in paleontology by now, perhaps as a grad student for Prof. Pierson-Takahashi…
9. One of the greatest strengths in your books are the characters, they are so solid and believable. The characters you create, are they reflections of people you know, composites of different people you know or entirely your creations?
Thank you. I like to think that the characters are entirely my own creation, although I'm not sure that that is quite true.
If there's one thing that ties them all together is that they are all extreme in at least one, and in many cases, more than one way. They also tend to be relatively smart.
I think most of my friends and the people I knew as I was growing up (and even today) fit into the same demographic. So I guess I would say that they're inspired by, but not based on, the people I hang out with. I'd also have to say, though, that there's probably a little of me in each of them, as well (including the rat-finks)…
10. What is your favorite character that you have created and why?
I tend to like all my protagonists as I'm working on them.
From a purely craft standpoint, though, I think my favorite would have to be Tim, from NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO simply because he - a minor character in a book with three protagonists - tied all three threads together. And it came as a surprise to me (and the reader, I think) when he did.
It was one of the things that made me realize that everything you put in a book has to have a reason and that the solution to a plot problem might be just sitting there in an early draft.
11. Some of your earlier books are currently out of print, have you thought of rereleasing them as ebooks?
I am discussing possibilities with my agent for re-releasing them both as ebooks and paper books.
12. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?
I have a new semi-comedic science fiction book for which we've agreed to terms, but we haven't received paperwork yet, so we're waiting to make the official announcement. I expect to receive editorial comments next month, with publication tentatively planned for Fall 2013.
I'm also getting ready to send another science fiction project to my agent to shop.
13. The way the Chronal Engine is written is could have numerous spin off books. How many more books do you have planned in the Chronal Engine series? Do you have a time line for the releases?
This is another thing my agent and I are discussing…
14. The Chronal Engine is written in part in homage to a long tradition of adventure books. If you were to pick three or four in that genre to recommend what books would you suggest?
If we're talking classics, then I would have to recommend starting with Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
15. Do you think we will see any more books set at the Peshtigo School in Chicago?
Perhaps. I'd have to come up with a suitable story that also fit the tone of the place. I sort of have a rudimentary idea in mind but I'd like to reissue the first two books before I commit to anything.
16. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?
I read a lot of science fiction and mysteries (as well as nonfiction) back then. Some of my favorite authors at the time were Guy Gavriel Kay, Anne Mcaffrey, Rex Stout, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Heinlein. I also read most of Stephen R. Donaldson, Raymond Feist, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, Orson Scott Card, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dick Francis, Robert Parker, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Barbara Hambly, R.A. McAvoy, and Katherine Kurtz. I also read every Star Trek novel that was published in the 1980s and still think that Diane Duane's were the best (she's also the author of the Young Wizards series).
As to nonfiction, I didn't really have favorite authors, although I read most of William Manchester and David McCullough. I loved (and still love) history and biography and the stories behind inventions and things that we don't think about that often.
17. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?
I have for too many favorite books and authors, a lot of which are discussed on my blog (http://greglsblog.blogspot.com). Authors whose next books I'm anxiously awaiting include Megan Whalen Turner, Kenneth Oppel, David Macinnis Gill, Brian Yansky, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Uma Krishnaswami.
18. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?
Hmm. I sort of think that one should know how to think prior to getting to college. But college does open up opportunities to think about and experience things one might not already be familiar with.
19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
I suppose HOW TO SURVIVE ON AND ESCAPE FROM A DESERT ISLAND would be a little too on the nose :. Not including my wife's novels (and yes, I'm cheating a little, but let's assume we're talking omnibus editions where necessary):
King James Bible
Complete Works of Shakespeare
The Lord of the Rings
The Thief series
The Enormous Egg
The Tantalize series (Really. I've read all of them in manuscript but never the final novels. Don't tell my wife).
The Westing Game
Any Introductory and Advanced Calculus text (provided I also have a pencil and paper).
20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
I would tell them to read and master the basics. You have to know the rules before you can break them.
Thanks Greg for taking some time to answer out questions and I look forward to many more books from you as time goes on.
Books by Greg Leitich Smith:
Ninja, Piranhas, and Galileo (2003)
Tofu and T. Rex (2005)
Chronal Engine (2012)
Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (2014)
With Cynthia Leitich Smith:
Santa Knows (2006)
Author Profile and Interview with Greg Leitich Smith