Wednesday 27 October 2010

Cynthia Leitich Smith - Author Profile

Cynthia Leitich Smith is an author with something to offer for everyone. She is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author. Her gothic trilogy consisting of Eternal, Tantalize and Blessed are all from Candlewick Press. She is an award-winning author for her books for younger readers which include Holler Loudly, Jingle Dancer, Inidan Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name all from Harper Collins. She is also a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her web presence is extensive, her website is listed as an ALA Great Website for Kids and was also named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest. She can also be found online at her blog Cynsations is listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community.

1. Your earlier books (Jingle Dancer, Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes.) were centered around the lives of modern day American Indians. Do you have more stories to tell in that genre?

My recent Native fiction has been in the short form. I had a story, "A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate" published in Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori M. Carlson. It's set in Austin, and though realistic fiction, fans of my Gothics may recognize a certain fictional costume store that appears in the story.

I also look forward to the publication of "Mooning Over Broken Stars" in Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls, which will be released in spring 2012. My story is a companion to one by Joseph Bruchac. Joe is an icon in Native youth literature and a great guy. Early in my career, we appeared at a couple of the same library conferences, and I was too star struck to say "hi." I'm so honored to have our work featured together.

2. Your third book in the trilogy of Tantalize, Eternal and Blessed is due out early next year, do you plan on writing more books in this world?

Yes, I'm working on another novel that involves the four main heroes and finishes the conversation of sorts between my books and Abraham Stoker's Dracula. First, though, Blessed will be out January 25th.

I also have graphic novel adaptations in the works. Tantalize: Kieren's Story will be out next August. Eternal: Zachary's Story will follow.

I've had the chance to pour over Ming Doyle's interior illustrations for the Tantalize graphic, and I'm thrilled with how she's brought the characters to life. I can hardly wait to see it inked.

3. What is it like being a husband and wife writing team? You have worked on a few projects together Santa Knows and your contribution to Geektastic. Do you have any future collaboration projects planned?

"Fun" is the first word that springs to mind. Greg and I typically begin by brainstorming the story, taking turns on revisions, and then reading aloud together until we've settled on the final version.

Right now, we're busy with our own projects-me with my Gothic fantasy series and him with his upcoming tween novel.

Greg's The Chronal Engine: Ahead of Time will be out in 2012. It's a mystery-adventure time-travel story about three teens who use their reclusive grandfather's time machine to travel back to the Age of Dinosaurs to rescue their kidnapped sister and solve a family mystery.

So, at the moment, we don't have a joint manuscript in the works. But I suspect that we will again in the future. That said, we serve as each other's first readers and most candid critics. A manuscript may come back with the note: "This isn't ready to leave the house with the family name on it."

4. Who were some of your biggest supporters and contributors to your early success?

First, Greg. I quit my day job to write full time without so much as a manuscript in progress. (Don't try this at home). At the time, we were carrying a heavy student loan burden from law school and relocated from Chicago to Austin in part because of its lower cost of living. Talk about a huge show of faith! I'm so pleased that he's writing and publishing stories of his own.

Kathi Appelt was my children's writing teacher. In the late 1990s, I took a transformative workshop at her family's limousine cattle ranch in La Grange, Texas; and then taught with her both locally and, later still, at the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Meanwhile, Jane Kurtz-likewise now on the VCFA faculty-encouraged me professionally, offering career insights and introducing me to my one-time online critique partner (and current pal) Toni Buzzeo.

Beyond that, the Austin area youth writing community was a godsend. Anne Bustard, Betty X Davis, Meredith Davis, Lindsey Lane, and Jerry Wermund have been there from the beginning. On the Chicago front, authors like Sara F. Schacter, Franny Billingsley, Carolyn Crimi, Gail Giles (now outside Houston) and Esther Hershenhorn all offered support, early on.

5. Your books are taught in public, high school and university courses, have you ever taught them yourself?

I've referenced them in teaching, but for the most part, I leave that to other folks. That said, I do offer teacher guides, discussion guides, and other related support materials on my author website.

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

I'm afraid every book has had its own process.

Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, began as scribbled notes on the back of an envelope. Over the course of 80-plus drafts it evolved from a sister story to one about a girl who brings together her jingle dance regalia with the help of women of each generation of her family and intertribal community and then dances to honor them.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name had a previous life-including a different plot and characters-in a manuscript called "Two Wings to Fly," which thankfully never saw publication. Rain took about a year and a half to write, much of which was spent listening to Meatloaf.

Indian Shoes began as a short story, "Something Bigger," which my Harper editor passed on. It ended with the sun coming up, an overdone picture book convention. Then I wrote another story about those same characters and a pair of moccasins, "Indian Shoes," that worked for her.

When she took the manuscript to committee, the suggestion came back that it might be better served as a short story collection. I agreed. So I revised "Something Bigger" into "Night Fishing," turning the sunset into a meteor shower, and then wrote four more stories to complete the bunch.

The Tantalize series began with world building. I read Gothics published for teens and grown-ups from modern day to the old-school classics and then took a look at the folklore from around the world that preceded those.

All of this took time. I began making notes on the story in late 2001/early 2002 and didn't finish revisions with my editor until 2006.

The first draft was from Kieren's point of view, and then it occurred to me that Quincie was in more jeopardy and switched to her perspective. By the time I wrote the graphic adaptation, though, I had a better sense of Kieren and his own story to tell.

World building has continued with each of the books as I stretch to incorporate new settings, creatures, and characters.

Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott, has the distinction of being my longest book in the making. The first draft is dated 2002 and the last 2008. It began as a contemporary realistic story and ended up a historical tall tale. I "gave up" on it two or three times but along the way greatly benefited from editorial letters on a couple of near-miss submissions, editor (now agent) Mark McVeigh's insights, and a lecture on the picture book by editor Melanie Kroupa at VCFA.

7. What of your books was the hardest to write and why?

Each of them came with its own challenges. Especially because I write across formats and age levels, it's tough to compare. I will say though that my greatest obstacle now is time, balancing the business responsibilities of Author Cynthia Leitich Smith against the creative needs of Writer Cyn.

8. What of your books is your favorite and why?

It's always the book I've just finished, so right now that would be Blessed. In Tantalize, the protagonist Quincie P. Morris is an unreliable narrator, made unstable by the magic and unholy blood contaminating her. In Blessed, she's (mostly) more in control of her mind but also must battle to maintain that.

In nodding to Stoker, I took some risks with the structure and theme. It's smarter, funnier, more romantic and horrific than the preceding books. I'm happy with how the novel came together and eager to share it with YA readers.

9. Some of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?

My understanding is that it's arguably easier to scan in a hard copy and distribute that online. That said, I do routinely patrol the web for illegal copies of my books, pass on the information to my agent, and in such cases, my publishers are equipped to deal with them (and do).

My advice to fellow authors is to be diligent and proactive, especially those of us who aren't independently wealthy.

10. You spend a lot of time on your blog and website. Yet you always seem ready and willing to interact with your fans, forums and chats. Between writing books, teaching and your web interactions, do you have time for any other hobbies?

First, my web designer, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys, keeps the website updated on a monthly basis and is the genius behind the design. Greg writes most of the recommendations that appear on the bibliographies of the Children's-YA Literature Resources section of the main author site.

That said, I'm a children's-YA author married to a children's-YA author. Most of my friends are fellow writers or other youth lit professionals. I frequently entertain the local creative community and sponsor workshops out of my home. My cats even have a couple of web pages where they recommend Kit Lit.

On those rare occasions where I take a few hours or even a whole day off (the latter of which happens once or twice a year), I love to visit museums and small-town downtowns and, yes, bookstores. My favorite current TV show is "Bones," though I'm trying "Glee" this season and so far seem to be sticking with it.

11. You spend a lot of time promoting other authors, new authors continually through your blog and on twitter. Did you have such support in your corner when you were starting out? Who and how?

I had personal support from people like Greg, Kathi, Jane and the others I mentioned above. But when I was starting out, the whole idea of authors on Web was new. I recall the Publishers Weekly article announcing that a handful of children's authors had-gasp!-websites. In fact, I may be the first person to interview children's-YA authors online and share their insights with a wide audience.

Early on, it became clear to me that support systems for Native youth literature were minimal, and that the best way to raise awareness was to take responsibility for making some positive noise.

Because I'm a person of varied interests in the field, over time, I steadily built my Web presence into a portal to the body of youth literature and publishing as a whole.

12. One of my goals in life is to find balance between body, mind and spirit. You seem to have achieved that balance in both your work and your life. What do you do to maintain your balance?

You may give me too much credit. I don't try for balance. For me, the secret to happiness is to give myself permission to follow my dreams and succeed. I get out of my own way, compete only with myself, and embrace new challenges.

13. What were some of your favorite books and authors when you were younger?

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

I also adored the Nancy Drew series, many titles by Judy Blume, and voraciously read both superhero comics and any tie-in to "Star Wars."

14. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

I'll highlight a few 2010 releases:

Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky
The Mary Quinn Mysteries by Y.S. Lee
Nightshade by Andrea Cremer
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Soar, Elinor! by Tami Lewis Brown, illustrated by Francois Roca

15. What are some of your favorite films?

"Blast from the Past," "The Blues Brothers," "My Fair Lady," "Fried Green Tomatoes," "Fright Night," "Galaxy Quest," "Jumanji," "Kate and Leopold," "My Cousin Vinny," "Lost Boys," "Men In Black," "Misery," "The Mummy," "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever," "Pillow Talk, "Pleasantville," "The Princess Bride," "Ratatouille," "Shakespeare in Love," "Spiderwick Chronicles," "Stand By Me," "Star Wars" (1977-1983), "Teen Witch," and "Xanadu."

16. What current projects are you working on or are in the back burner in some stage of development?

As I mentioned, I'm writing the Gothic to follow Blessed. I expect a revision letter on the Eternal graphic novel in early 2011.

Beyond that, I have two additional Gothics in mind, one of which is fully drafted but in need of revision and the other of which consists only of notes.

17. Are there any plans for translated editions of your book?

Tantalize is available in French from Intervista, and Eternal is available in Polish from Amber. I hope to announce more markets soon.

In addition to Candlewick Press and Listening Library (audio) in the U.S. and Canada, the series is also available from Walker (UK) and Walker Australia and New Zealand.

18. 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?

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee (PB)
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (YA)
Chance by Dian Curtis Regan (PB)
Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia (YA)
Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi (PB)
How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler (Tween)
Marly's Ghost by David Levithan (YA)
Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Tween)
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Tween)
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (MG)

19. What advice would you give to teens today, to your readers, what gems of knowledge have you gleaned in life that you would pass on?

Most of what springs to mind sounds like it came from a fortune cookie. So I'll try to personalize a bit:

Adopt a Han Solo ("never tell me the odds") attitude when it comes to pursuing your dreams. You'll never have to wonder, what if?

The sexiest, most romantic thing a love interest can do is consistently treat you well. Never stay with someone because you're afraid to stand on your own.

In the future, when you're mostly settled in one place, get two cats. Or get four. And keep them inside so they're safe from motorized vehicles.

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

Read, write, draw, paint, play, share, and rejoice.

Fail spectacularly, forget to comb your hair, take dance breaks, celebrate often, be the hero of the story of you.

Cynthia is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, her books are widely available and incredibly entertaining. She is an expert in Children's literature, which is reflected in her own writing and in how much she promotes new authors and books on her own blog. Give her books a try you will not be disappointed.

Books by Cynthia Leitich Smith:

Young Adult Books:

Cat Calls - Short Story
Tantalize Kierens Story - Graphic Novel
Haunted Love - Short Story

Books for Kids:

Holler Loudly
Santa Knows
Indian Shoes
Rain Is Not My Indian Name
Jingle Dancer


Anonymous said...

I didn't know about Cynthia's early connection to Kathi. Both terrific people & very supportive of fellow writers.

Great interview! Thank you.

Jenny Moss

Janet Fox said...

It's so rare to have someone shine the spotlight on Cyn who is one of the most generous people I know. This was a great interview! Thanks!