Once Upon A Romance Interview

Cynthia Leitich Smith


December 2008

Robyn had the chance to interview YA author, Cynthia Leitich Smith. She asked some interesting questions and in return, received some thoughtful, insightful answers. Take a few moments to learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith. Perhaps she'll be an author to add to your YA's reading list...

Robyn: Hello Cynthia, and welcome to OUAR. I’m so pleased to have a chance to get to know you better. I know you have done some extensive work in children’s books, but I’m really curious about your Young Adult work. I have a tween of my own so I’m interested in the Young Adult market.  Could you tell me about your little corner of it? 

Cynthia: I love moms who care about what their kids are reading!

My focus is on contemporary realistic and Gothic fantasy fiction for the young adult market, much of which touches on first love.

Photo: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Robyn: Wow, that’s quite a personal mission statement you have for yourself. What ages do you specifically write for?

Cynthia: My core audience ranges from the tweeners (ages 10-14+) who’ve read my contemporary Native American novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins), to the crossover YAs (ages 15-25+) who’ve read my YA dark fantasy, Tantalize (Candlewick).

I’ve also written a number of short stories for the classic YA market (ages 12+) for anthologies such as Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins) and Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella).

Robyn: With the children’s you have written, what transpired that made you want to shift into writing your first young adult novel?

Cynthia: I had come close with Rain Is Not My Indian Name—as it comes at the middle school level. But really, it was my short stories that were stepping stones.

For me, the short story has been a wonderful venue for experimentation. I tried humor, "boy" voice, and upper YA for the first time in short form, building my craft and confidence, before attempting the same in a novel manuscript.

Beyond that, I had always wanted to write a book set in a restaurant. I’d worked at both a Chi Chi’s (RIP) and an athletic club restaurant when I was an older teen to make money for college. It had always struck me that restaurants were such tremendous settings for a drama. Think about it: you have thematic décor, thematic food, and background music. Sometimes someone even bursts into song.

Robyn: Having worked as a hostess in a well known Texas BBQ, I see what you mean about the setting. Cover art: Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Cynthia: That setting demanded an older protagonist than I was used to writing, and the age of the hero of course largely dictates the corresponding audience.

Robyn: I’m a somewhat compartmentalized person, so I can’t imagine taking on the challenge of writing a book. Was it a big leap going from short stories to a full-length book?

Cynthia: You might be surprised by what you can do.

The key for me is not to think about it in terms of writing a whole book but rather writing each scene at a time. A novel is an overwhelming task. A scene is not.

That said, Rain was essentially my bridge. By "adult" market standards, it’s a novella. But it taught me that I could complete internal and external story arcs with interwoven subplots.

Robyn: What is the greatest challenge in writing young adult books? Do you think your writer’s challenge is the same in the different age brackets of books?

Cynthia: My goal is simply to tell a story that is true to the perspective of my specific point of view character(s) and/or protagonists. Because they are age seven or ten or fourteen or seventeen, a sensibility particular to their maturity and interests naturally flows from there.

A novel is a novel whether it is about a teenager or an adult. The markers that make it a fit for the YA market per se—with the caveat that there are exceptions—include focus and immediacy. The YA story, for the most part, is not a vehicle for reminiscence.

You don’t look back on that first kiss. You feel it on your lips and in her heart, as if for the first time.

Robyn: When you write, do you stick to an outline or plan or do you allow the characters to write the book as they go?

Cover art: Indian Shoes Cynthia: My "system" is a bit of a hybrid one (and occasionally alarming to those to whom I describe it).

First, I do a lot of pre-writing. For example, in the case of Tantalize, I researched vampire and shapeshifter folk lore, the early literary treatments, related scholarly analysis, and then took a look at more recent literary horror, pop culture and film depictions, and of course the work of my peers in YA literature. I also interviewed a chef, visited every Italian restaurant in the city, studied wolves, cats, armadillos, and opossums…. I tore photos out of magazines to serve as models for my characters, I interviewed them, and asked them to write letters to me, and tried to sketch nuggets of scenes from each main character’s point of view. You get the idea.

From there, I wrote a throwaway draft. A first draft that no one else would see, just to get used to the voice, explore the world, and find out what I really wanted to focus on thematically. Then I printed it, read it, tossed it, deleted the file, and started over. With both Tantalize and my upcoming YA, Eternal (Candlewick, Feb. 2009), I did this twice.

Then, at some point, I finally start the first "true" first draft, the one I’ll build on until I reach whatever version will be sent to my editor. It usually begins as a chronological collection of loose notes, short takes of what I’ve learned from the above process.

From there, the story has a life of its own. I’m an enthusiastic and dedicated reviser, but first I want to make sure my foundation is worth building on.

Robyn: I must say it’s an impressive system. I think it would be daunting to me to toss the first draft and start over, but I see how it works well for you. You mentioned interviewing a chief in the research process which leads me to wonder, were you raised with a strong emphasis on your Native American heritage and culture? (Cynthia is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.)

Cover art: Tantalize Cover art: Eternal Cynthia: Early on, I never really thought of it in those terms. For a kid in the 1970s and 1980s in suburban Kansas City, "celebrations of diversity" weren’t so much the emphasis. Rather, my grounding was very personal, very feet on the ground.

As a teenager, for example, I wasn’t thinking about how my heritage was informing me in sort of majestic terms, but rather about how much I admired my great auntie, who had been raised in an Indian boarding school, who’d go onto study nursing at a university, who’d told me stories of the grandfather who died before I was born. Or when I heard classmates making "war whoops" out the windows of a team bus as we passed Haskell Indian Nations U, I knew they were making fun of folks who had aspects of identity in common with members of my family, with me.

Robyn: Are your Native American children’s books ways to reconnect with your childhood?

Cynthia: It’s a great question, but I don’t know that I need to reconnect. My inner child (children) is still very much alive and kicking back.

Robyn: Good point—I think my inner child is still my exterior adult. How does it fit into your writing?

Cynthia: Jingle Dancer, for example, is the story of a Native girl who brings together her jingle dance regalia with the help of women of different generations of her family and intertribal community and then dances at a powwow to honor them.

It’s dedicated to the auntie I mention above. I guess…it’s a way of honoring the women who meant so much to be growing up, the idea of traditions passed down from women to girls, and also celebrating the blessings of community, of extended family, and sharing that with young readers today.

Robyn: I imagine these children’s books were more difficult to pitch since such a specialized children’s book is ‘not done’ much. Did you find it difficult in the beginning to garner support for your Native American children’s books?

Cover art: Jingle Dancer Cynthia: Initially, it was a challenge because my books had contemporary settings, and there was a rather persistent idea that Native people were now extinct (I affectionately blame Natural History Museums for putting the American Indian display next to the dinosaurs). Also, a contemporary title wasn’t seen as having the same curriculum tie-in potential as a historical one, which was key in approaching the school library market.

However, in the years since, we have made much progress in communicating the idea that Native people have not only a past, but also a present and a future.

That said, all children’s-YA books that reflect underrepresented ethnic communities tend to build their audiences through word of mouth. We need advocates, champions.

Robyn: Can you give us a peek into your upcoming writing plans? Will there be any sequels coming…or more children’s books? If we promise not to tell , will you tell us what to look for?

Cynthia: Sure! At the moment, I’m working on a graphic novel adaptation of Tantalize from the point of the male lead, Kieren, as well as Blessed, which will crossover the casts of Tantalize and Eternal. I also have a couple of forthcoming short stories, and a humorous southwestern tall tale picture book (Holler Loudly) forthcoming from Dutton.

Robyn: Sometimes, I think we get to know somebody best through her life experiences. I have a few questions that are hopefully fun and give everyone a little insight into you and your life. What are the most interesting or unusual jobs you ever had?

Cynthia: I was a switchboard operator for a bank, a cashier at a gas station, a marketing intern for Hallmark Cards, a summer clerk for a 10th Circuit appellate judge, a summer clerk for a legal aid office in Hawaii, a reporting intern for the Dallas Morning News, and a tutor in English composition for college freshmen from migrant farm families.

Robyn: Wow, you do come from a varied background of work. Here’s another one for you…I’m usually able to find information about an author and her cooking skills. I dug into every source I could think of and found nothing about your culinary skills (or lack of skills). Tell us a little about your kitchen skills.

Cover art: Santa Knows Cynthia: I married a man with kitchen skills.

Robyn: Can I pat you on the back for being smart enough to marry a man who cooks? If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things could you not live without?

Cynthia: I’m tempted to say a lifetime supply of laptops and Internet access, but that’s cheating. Outside of my husband and cats, I’ll go with Marly’s Ghost by David Levithan, my iPod (complete with the "Xanadu" soundtrack), and a lifetime supply of Ozarka water.

Robyn: For our family, it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without a cheesy corn casserole & mom’s cranberry salad. To you, besides family and friends, it doesn’t seem like Christmas if…?

Cynthia: I don’t get to root for Little Cindy Lou Who.

Robyn: Thanks so much, Cynthia, I enjoyed our visit. Is there anything I might have forgotten to ask that you want everyone to know?

Cynthia: Nope, but thank you for this lovely opportunity.

Robyn: Cynthia, it’s been such a pleasure to meet you and get to know you better. I’m so excited about your books. I truly hope you have a wonderful holiday and a prosperous new year. We’ll be looking forward to reading you down the road.

Would you like to learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith?
Visit her Website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

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