One of the first blogs I discovered, when I started blogging almost three years ago, was Cynsations. Then I quickly found Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website. Between these two resources (talk about organized and easy to navigate), one can pretty much find anything worth knowing in the children’s book world.
ETERNAL: YALSA’s 2009 Teens Top Ten Nominee; February 2009 Book of the Month, Native America Calling; February 2009; Featured Title, “My Borders Monthly”
HWM: Why children’s books? How did you get your “break” into getting published?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: My mom was the person who first suggested that I try writing for young readers, and at first, I was reluctant. I was a recent law school graduate, in my late twenties, trying so hard to be whatever a grown-up was. I thought I wanted to shake off everything about being a kid.
But my mom had begun taking me to the public library when I was a little girl and did so—up until about fourth grade—more Saturdays than not. I read avidly and anything…children’s books (especially the Newbery winners), superhero comics, my dad’s TARZAN paperbacks, even my mom’s paperback romances on the sly.
So, in my twenties, living in Chicago, I haunted bookstores. I remember going upstairs at a large indie bookstore in the Loop and noticing Angela Shelf Medearis’s DANCING WITH THE INDIANS (Holiday House, 1993) and then, weeks later, finding Annette Curtis Klause’s BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE at Borders on North Michigan Avenue.
Each was a revelation—DANCING WITH THE INDIANS because it featured Native characters who weren’t bad guys, and BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE because it absolutely beckoned to me.
At the time, I was working as a law clerk in the Office of the General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Social Security Administration (there was a reassignment in there somewhere), and I was sitting at my desk in a federal office in Chicago, on the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing. It affected me deeply—because of the horror of the tragedy itself and, I think, because I have such strong Oklahoma ties.
The atmosphere wasn’t like it was after 911. There wasn’t this idea of an ongoing threat (arguably there should’ve been), but rather people were eager to explain away the incident as the work of “fringe” men who’d been caught. I didn’t have any fear of working in federal building, but the bombing had reminded me of the brevity and preciousness of life.
I took a long walk home and found myself talking the whole thing over with some ducks in Lake Michigan (ducks are excellent listeners). I could hear myself saying that there was nothing I valued more than youth literature. I wanted to be a part of that world. Now.
So, with the blessing of my sainted husband, and not so much as one word down on paper, I quit my day job. (Don’t try this at home).
My “break” into publishing was organic. I had a picture book manuscript, “Something Bigger,” pulled out of the slush pile by Rosemary Brosnan’s assistant at the now-defunct Lodestar. Rosemary asked for a revision, and I sent her another picture book manuscript, “Jenna, Jingle Dancer” to consider while I worked on that.
JINGLE DANCER (2000) was eventually published by Rosemary at Morrow/HarperCollins, and “Something Bigger” turned into one of the short stories in my chapter collection, INDIAN SHOES (HarperCollins, 2002).
That said, it was my emphasis on the craft of writing, rather than on publishing as a business that got me there. My “break” was reading, writing, revising, becoming active in a critique group, and taking classes from author Kathi Appelt.
HWM: You’ve written contemporary Native Indian books for children, short stories, as well as fantasy. What do enjoy about these different genres?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: What I love most about writing across formats is how they inform each other.
I’m always vaguely flabbergasted by folks who begin as fantasists because the burden is so much higher. You have to succeed at all of the same elements as you do in realistic fiction and, at the same time, craft a resonant, integral, and internally consistent fantasy element. I couldn’t have written fantasy without having mastered
the skills of realistic fiction first. I’m sure of it.
The short story as a form has been the greatest gift to me. It’s more containable and feels less risky than the novel. The time commitment is less. The psychological and publishing pressures are less.
I first tried humor, “boy” voice, and upper YA, for example, in the short form. Don’t get me wrong, the short story is a wonderful end unto itself. But it’s also a tremendous lab for experimentation and confidence building.
I would like someday to write a grounded fantasy with a Native protagonist that appeals to mainstream teens and rings true to Indian readers and allows them to better imagine themselves as heroes in magical and make-believe worlds.
HWM: November is all about celebrating Native American Heritage Month over at readergirlz. I was shocked how difficult it was to find good books, that treated Native Indians with respect, rather than as a stereotype. Why do you think this is the case, even in 2009?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Big question. It’s a combination of reasons.
The first is that many folks in the United States—including some in youth literature–are still in an active state of denial (or ignorance) about the nation’s history with regard to Native people and our reality today. Especially the former is painful—after all, we’re talking about child abuse, rape, land theft, and genocidal efforts.
Perhaps because of misplaced ancestral guilt, it’s easier for some to believe that we all had a great time together at the first Thanksgiving and then Native people either (a) became savage warriors who had to be exterminated or (b) mysteriously died out through no one’s fault.
Certainly, that’s—to a significant degree—what’s still taught in American schools.
Of course there are some terrific teachers and school librarians trying to counteract this, but possibly the majority of Americans are carrying false information about Indians, delivered by our educational system itself.
I’ve had my share of school visits where the very young students had already been taught that Native people were either scary or extinct or both—taught not only at school and through books but also from other media and influential adults.
Grandma says, “My, aren’t you the savage little Indian!” (I overheard this in a bookstore, said to a young child who was misbehaving.).
To further complicate matters, a significant number of people who think of themselves as open-minded tend to equate “Native American” with either (a) supernatural, super-ecological largely inhuman creatures or (b) a tragic, defeated and dying people whose glories (and achievements) exist only in the misty past.
It’s a mess.
That’s the big-picture challenge.
Extend that to books, and often you’re looking at authors (a) who’ve been raised in that mainstream (sometimes contradictory) belief system, (b) who honestly don’t begin to realize how off-base many/most of their assumptions are, (c) who’re consulting “original” resources drafted by enemies of Native people, and (d) are trying to connect with a mainstream audience that shares many of their same biases. You get the idea.
It’s entirely possible to write across race successfully. I do it, and I have no intention of stopping. Miranda, the protagonist from ETERNAL (Candlewick, 2007) is Asian (Chinese), and I’m not. Kieren, the protagonist from TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY (Candlewick, 2011) is Mexican American, and I’m not. And I fully realize that we’re humans. We all make mistakes.
But in writing cross-culturally about Native people, it’s critical for non-Indians to begin as if they know absolutely nothing, take a significant amount of time to acquaint themselves with the truth, and proceed in a patient, open-hearted, and respectful manner. It can be done. I’ve had friends and students and colleagues who’ve done it. But you have to stretch, perhaps more than you might realize at the beginning.
That said, writers are only a part of the equation. For the reasons I mentioned above, readers—including gatekeepers—may be more likely to find that an inaccurate book that embraces popular stereotypes rings “true” to them than one that reflects Native realities.
For example, over the years I’ve had several readers mention—some in a questioning way—my inclusion of Native characters with a higher education in my books. Cousin Elizabeth from JINGLE DANCER is an attorney. Aunt Georgia from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001) is a retired school teacher and a science teacher at that.
The final big reason is numbers and interest level. Native people are 1.5 percent of the population. As I mentioned, there are certainly writers who succeed in writing cross-culturally about American Indians, but when it comes to writers from within the communities, the pool is small. We need to nurture interest and aptitude where we find it.
Likewise, our numbers of Native teachers, librarians, reviewers, editors, agents, marketing people, and bloggers are small and in some cases non-existent or at least statistically non-existent.
We need more friends, more loud mouths who advocate for quality Native voices and visions and well-executed cross-cultural additions to the body of youth literature.
I also have a love of the European classics. I took honors English in high school and completed a concentration in English at the University of Kansas.
I also had strong feelings about the quintessential vampire-mythology novel DRACULA by Bram Stoker (1897), especially the character of Mina Harker and what had happened to her since.
By today’s feminist standards, there are certain elements of Mina’s depiction—such as being sent to bed by her husband (to protect her supposedly delicate sensibilities)—that are appalling. But big picture, you could make an argument that she is the protagonist. That windbag Van Helsing gets all the credit, but it’s Mina who props up the soggy men after Lucy’s death and organizes all the information and tracks the monster, using Dracula’s power over her against him.
She can even use that newfangled device, the typewriter.
In the 1931 movie “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, Mina is just “the girl,” “the victim.” That’s it. She doesn’t help in any way. She may be dangerous in a sexual way, if the vampiric infection takes.
(Throughout the history of literary/film vampires, much is made of the juxtaposition between the virgin (or at least sanctified) female victim and the demonic woman with any sexuality. That interested me too.)
rancis Ford Coppola’s 1992 “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” starring Winona Ryder, Mina is the reincarnated late wife of the Count, and falls in love with him again, even after he’s threatened the life of her beloved Jonathan Harker, murdered Mina’s much-adored best friend since childhood, Lucy, and is revealed as a demonic undead serial killer.
Yikes, how much weaker could she get?
Gothic fantasy traditionally deals with gender and power, and I wanted to write about that theme. And as I dug farther into Gothic literary history, I realized that its other core themes—including the “dark” other (which back in the day meant “Eastern European”), invasion, and plague—were still as pertinent today as they’d been in the 1800s.
HWM: You’ve written from both the female and male POV. What are the challenges for each one?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I focus more on writing the individual than the gender, but I was intimidated at first of trying a male POV protagonist, especially because my husband, Greg Leitich Smith, is a fellow author and has been known to remark on “boy” voices that don’t ring true to him.
Writing a male voice is something that I tried first in a YA short stories—“A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate,” which appeared in MOCCASIN THUNDER: AMERICAN INDIAN STORIES FOR TODAY, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005) and “Riding with Rosa,” which appeared in “Cicada” magazine (Vol. 7, No. 4, March/April 2005).
HWM: When you wrote TANTALIZE, did you know there would be companion books, ETERNAL and BLESSED?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I hoped. I hoped enough that I wrote the book with that in mind. But I also knew it was a long shot. From a publishing perspective, a book series doesn’t come easily, and at that time, my previous sales figures were quite respectable for a literary trade multicultural author, but they didn’t exactly signal a likelihood of a “big” bookstore, multi-book sale.
Fortunately, the success of TANTALIZE opened up the possibility for more books in the series—both prose and graphic—including quite arguably the rest of Quincie’s story.
Sometimes you just have to go for it.
HWM: You have a wonderful way of adding humor in your books. Are you a naturally funny person?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I’m hysterical. No, really, I do often use humor when I speak, both at the podium and informally. When people laugh together, it’s the greatest meeting of the minds.
HWM: What types of research do you do for your books?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: With the Gothics, which are the most recent, I studied the original folklore from around the world and early literature up to present day, including books for adults and young adults and film and pop culture.
For TANTALIZE, I spent hours pouring through Eastern European cookbooks, including historical cookbooks. For both TANTALIZE and ETERNAL, I walked the paths of my heroes through their settings, cameras in hand. I’ve also spent quality time researching the Ice Age animals—from bears to armadillos—that inspired my shape-shifters and spent a lot of time talking to the Big Boss about guardian and arch angels.
HWM: It must be wonderful exploring first love as a theme in your books. Do you believe in love at first sight? Or are you more a fan of get to know the person?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I absolutely believe it’s critical to get to know the person before giving away part of your heart or building them into someone they might not be.
On the other hand, I first met Greg at a law school party in Ann Arbor, and I distinctly remember looking across the crowded yard, my gaze resting on him, and thinking, I am going marry that guy. And I did.
So, I guess it’s important to love yourself first, to take care of yourself, but be open to magic when it appears.
HWM: What can you tell us about BLESSED? Or any other writing projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: BLESSED picks up where we left off with Quincie at the end of TANTALIZE and crosses over the casts of TANTALIZE and ETERNAL. A graphic novel adaptation of TANTALIZE, from Kieren’s point of view and including lots of new scenes, is also in the works.
On the children’s fiction front, I look forward to next year’s release of HOLLER LOUDLY (Dutton), a humorous original southwestern tall tale, illustrated by Barry Gott.
HWM: You’re very involved with encouraging and helping other writers, through your blog and website. How do you find the time and what have you found to be the most rewarding about these projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I work on my blog far in advance. Though there’s always some timely information, at least in the weekly round-up of news and links, most of the features are pre-formatted months in advance. Right now, Cynsations posts are pre-formatted through Jan. 14, 2010.
When I quit my day job to become a writer, it was a commitment not only to my own work but to the body of literature and the community that creates and connects it.
I’m so pleased that Cynsations and www.cynthialeitichsmith.com (hopefully) make some contribution to the conversation of books, and I’m honored to shine a light on my colleagues. I sometimes talk to authors who’ve pinned their definition of success on this or that award or income point, and, well, awards are great and I need to eat…but I just feel amazed that I get to be a part of this inspiring, faerie-dusted world.
HWM: You’re also a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts – Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA Program. Is it hard to separate the teacher from the writer when you work on your projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Not really, but it’s an interesting question. Mostly, I try to unlock what my students’ vision for their writing might be—perhaps even before they’ve fully realized it—and then try to figure out strategies to best facilitate their improvement and eventual success.
HWM: What do you l
ike writing the most: the beginning, middle or end of the story? How long does it take for you to figure out the end?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I often know the end before I begin writing. Middles can be deadly. I have an MTV generation attention span, and much of my readership has a Wii attention span.
Reversals are key.
HWM: What is your writing routine?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: It’s totally dependent on the other demands on my time. I often feel like author Cynthia Leitich Smith—with all of her travel, speaking, promotion, teaching–is the biggest obstacle to writer Cyn.
But I typically post to my blogs and catch up on social networks and email correspondence in the morning. Then I write in the afternoons and evenings and on weekends and holidays. People always feel sorry for me when I say that. But I love to write at Christmastime. I love it.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: It’s advice I gave to myself actually. When I was in my early apprenticeship, I read all of Paula Danziger’s books in order of publication. From the beginning, her writing was solid and kid-friendly and funny and engaging, but I could see her craft develop over time. I decided that my only goal would be to keep improving—even if that meant taking some scary risks and maybe even stumbling all the way.
HWM: What advice would you give to all those NaNoWriMo writers out there?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: When you’re done with the draft, print it, read it, then throw away the draft and delete the file. First drafts are all about discovery. Take the lessons learned from that exercise, and then get to work on draft number two.
HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: A girl reader had written me after reading TANTALIZE to say that she was infuriated by Quincie’s independence—“true love means giving up EVERYTHING!!!! so the boy will love you!!!!”
She wrote back a couple of months later to apologize for “yelling” at me. She said that she’d been in an abusive relationship, that her girlfriends had all urged her to stay in it because the boy was cute and “at least you have somebody.”
TANTALIZE, and especially Quincie’s value system, shook her up. The girl wanted me to know that she’d broken up with the boy with “the temper when he drank.”
My books have a feminist undercurrent, though I’m not writing Slayers (“Buffy” fan that I am). My female heroes are much more “everyday” girls than that. And I err on the side of the theme, pushing aside the message per se.
But you know, I’m glad that girl isn’t with that abuser anymore. And if my hero Quincie had even the tiniest thing to do with that, I say bully for both of them!
HWM: If you found a way to go back to your tween years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Miranda from ETERNAL, so we would both have the courage to step on stage sooner.
HWM: What makes you laugh?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: My rambunctious kitties, my awesome writer buds, the goddess that is Libba Bray, the combinations of bumper stickers on Austin bumpers, and hummingbirds. I just adore hummingbirds.
HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Most of all, I would want to be able to speak dolphin because dolphins are in the know, and I bet they could make me laugh too.
Thank you so much, Cynthia!