saraharonson (saraharonson) wrote in thru_the_booth,

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Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

As promised, I am thrilled to be holding up my EASY PASS for writer, Vermont College faculty member, and blogger, Cynthia Leitich Smith.  

WELCOME, Cynthia!

Before we get down to the dirty business of business in the writing world, let’s talk about you. Details, please!

Your work:

I'm the author of five books for young readers and currently have three more under contract. I write fiction, ranging from the picture book to young adult level. I also write the occasional article for one of the professional journals.


I began by taking the quintessential writing advice—write what you know. For me, that meant stories of contemporary mixed race Native families in the mid-to-southwest. My first three books reflect this approach: JINGLE DANCER, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)(ages 4-up), RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001)(ages 10-up), and INDIAN SHOES (HarperCollins, 2002)(ages 7-up).


After finishing INDIAN SHOES in 2001, I began writing short stories, too. This form has proven a wonderful venue for experimentation—for trying upper-level YA, male point of view, and more humorous writing.


My published works include: “The Naked Truth,” from IN MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE: AWARD-WINNING AUTHORS TELL STORIES ABOUT THEIR GRANDMOTHERS edited by Bonnie Christensen (HarperCollins, 2003)(ages 8-up); PERIOD PIECES: STORIES FOR GIRLS edited by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Litchman (HarperCollins, 2003); “Riding with Rosa,” published in Cicada (2004)(ages 12-up); “A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate,” published in MOCCASIN THUNDER: AMERICAN INDIAN STORIES FOR TODAY edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005)(ages 12-up).


I continue to write realistic fiction; however, I’ve branched into fantasy. My more recent titles include SANTA KNOWS, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006)(ages 4-up) and TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007)(Walker UK, 2008)(ages 14-up).

What part of the process is the most challenging?

Learning new forms! It’s funny because originally I wanted to write what you might call “classic” middle grade novels, targeted at readers age eight to twelve. That’s one of the few areas that I haven’t published in.


I push myself hard to grow. From a business standpoint, it would make more sense to pick a market and build an audience. However, I'm a creative person first. I'm willing to take the financial hit for the artistic benefits this approach has given me.


That said, I find that the skills do transfer. Focusing on short stories and story picture books, for example, has done wonders for my ability to plot and pace novels. In fact, I used to be stronger at character and more intuitive writing, but at least for now, my structure and logic are probably more dominant.

And what do you find enjoyable?

I adore losing myself in a novel. I have this theory that once you’ve hit your third or fourth draft, all the answers to story questions are already hinted at somewhere in the manuscript. Your unconscious mind knows what it’s doing. You just have to trust yourself and your characters. I go into a deeply intuitive state, and somehow the map I’ve integrated begins to show itself.


On my last revision, I had a flash of sheer panic, and then something clicked and my understanding widened so fast that I couldn’t apply it using word processing. I had to get scissors and tape and physically move the pieces, feel them in my hands. It was fantastic.

And please, let’s hear about TANTALIZE, your newest YA novel, and a bit about what’s coming next!

TANTALIZE is the story of Quincie P. Morris, a seventeen-year-old girl who’s trying to save her family’s Italian restaurant by helping re-launch it with a vampire theme. It’s a nifty idea until some real vampires show up.


TANTALIZE is a genre bender—primarily a young adult suspense Gothic with elements of humor and romance. It's set in a multi-monster-verse, which also includes several kinds of shape-shifters. I began the story in 2001, setting it aside at times for other projects and to build skills.


My inspiration was Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. I was intrigued by Stoker’s decision to cast a Texan, Quincey P. Morris, as one of Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters. My Quincie and her Austin, Texas, setting is a tribute to the master.


That said, from the earliest literature to modern day, horror writers have tended to cast women as virgin victims or sexual monsters (in both cases literally). Taking a cue from the Joss Whedon School (“take back the night”), I framed my hero as a smart, strong, ambitious girl, who has love interests but is by no means defined by the guys in her life.


My next picture book will be an original southwestern tall tale, HOLLER LOUDLY, to be released by Dutton in summer 2009.


My next novel will be ETERNAL, another YA Gothic fantasy from Candlewick (spring 2009). It’s set in the same universe and builds on the global story but has different characters. I hope to crossover the two casts in the future.


Additional works are under contract and/or in progress. My next focus will be another short story and a graphic novel—both YA. Early next year, I'll get started on another prose novel.

Now for the nitty gritty:

Your blogs are on the favorites list of most writers I know. How did you get started? What opportunities did it create for you? Why did you decide to divide and conquer with two blogs?

Thank you! I was one of the first authors to offer a standard site. (Yes, I am of the Cretaceous era). Back then, it require much work to offer links to every children’s author on the Web. Obviously, that changed quickly.


I take my craft development very seriously. But when I decided to write full-time rather than practice law, my decision was about more than just my own books. My commitment was to the body of youth literature as a whole. My site began as a means to that end. I began adding author interviews and bibliographies of recommended books.


Later, the blog became a way for me to feature time-sensitive information—like award or conference announcements—that would never go on the main site. In addition, it provided opportunities for regular readers to subscribe.


I had initially set up on Blogger, and when I ran into temporary tech problems on that system, I began to mirror my posts at LiveJournal ( . I also feature writing life insights on Spookycyn ( and the YA-book-related information on my blog at MySpace (


Breaking news and features are posted to the blogs first and then added, if applicable, to the main site within the month. I work with designer Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys (, who's a godsend.


Certainly, the blogs and site raise my profile. The main site attracts more than two million unique visitors a year, and Cynsations at Blogger ( is its biggest feeder after Google. Consequently, I’m frequently interviewed by mainstream print media outlets, both about my own books and youth literature more broadly. There's certainly a PR benefit.


That said, after crunching the numbers, any financial advisor would tell me that my online efforts should go first. But again, my writing life is on many levels a commitment of the heart.


If someone had told me when I was a girl that someday I would grow up and actually belong in this world of magical book people, I would have been spinning in the stars.


Come to think of it, I am now.

That's so nice to hear.  
How does a new author go about creating a web presence?

If you’re doing a site, start small, invest in your own domain name, and hire a good designer. If you can’t afford to do that, begin with a blog and pick a clean format.


It’s more important to be consistent than frequent. Or in other words, it’s better to blog the first Monday of every month than every day for three weeks, not at all for two months, etc. If you need to take a break, though, don't worry about it. Just post a sign-off, saying when you'll be back.


Remember that this is your professional, not personal face. My rule of thumb is never to say anything on Cynsations that I wouldn’t say at a podium and never to say anything at Spookycyn that I wouldn’t say at the chicken lunch after I sat down from the podium.


Your style may be more informal or confiding, and if that works for you, wonderful! I enjoy a lot of blogs like that.


But do beware of forgetting that the world-wide Web is your audience. I often cringe at posts by some of my colleagues, especially new voices, that I know could cause material harm to their careers. It worries me.

Let’s talk about the unique climate for today’s writers. What do you think are the five keys to success NOW. And what do you see as the greatest obstacle?


(1)   Craft: first, last, and always. Beginning writers often seek the golden key. Craft is it. Is it enough by itself? No. But it’s the core requirement.


(2)   Know your business. Publishing is rapidly evolving. If you are producing books for the national/international library and bookstore market, you need an excellent agent, and you need to be proactive in your understanding of the industry and working with that person. Do your homework. Take responsibility for your success.


(3)   Maintain a healthy relationship with your creative community healthy. Support your friends and colleagues, but don’t compete with them. Compete with yourself. It’s wonderful to participate in the greater conversation of writers, but if for whatever reason the noise is getting to you, step back for a while.


(4)   Write your story. From a market perspective, you’re most likely to succeed with books that are both commercial and literary. But write the story that calls to you. The passion will show and may be rewarded in more meaningful ways.


(5)   Raise awareness of your work. Unless your publishing company is pouring five-or-six figures behind your book(s), no other single force is as influential in its chance of success as you. No one knows your work better, cares about it more, or is considered a greater authority on it than you. If you can,* promote!

*However, if you need to stay home and love that newborn or take care of your aging parent or provide a consistent and supportive home life for your teenager or take a break for your own happiness, honor that. You’re a human being. You’re allowed to be a human being.


For the most part, we’re each our own greatest obstacle. We tear ourselves down. We put roadblocks in our way. We linger too long in the company of poisonous nay-sayers or energy vampires or snobby divas or those who simply don’t value the creation of art. We dismiss the positive and dwell on the negative and worry more about ourselves or how we’re perceived than our skills and stories. Worst of all, we tell ourselves we can't do it.


I’m by no means immune to this. About once a year, usually when simultaneously faced with some non-publishing-related stress, I "quit" writing. It’s all very teary and dramatic, and my husband (an oddly Vulcan-like author who has no real understanding of this dynamic) should arguably be sainted for his steadfast support in such times.


And then I get over myself. Yes, it's hard. And no, life isn't fair. So what.


By the global standard and that of the human existence from day one, I lead an incredibly privileged life and I'm blessed to work toward an art I love and believe in. I refuse to be miserable doing it or to give up. A great many people were successful in large part because they didn't give up and because they maintained a positive attitude.


To that end, I have found that it helps to celebrate every victory no matter how small.


You finished your draft? Celebrate!


You received a personal rejection letter? Celebrate!


Your workshop leader says your story arc is stronger?


An agent asks for the whole manuscript?


You’ve sold your first book? Your fiftieth?


Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate! Celebrate!


Allow yourself to be happy! Be your own best cheerleader!

Many writers I know are concerned with crossing the fine line. They are people who are comfortable being modest. They keep to themselves. They grew up in a time when being a blatant self promoter turned people off. Do we all need therapy, or is this line existent? What are the pitfalls? How do you avoid the line? What advice do you give writers?

This seems to sort of manifest in a few different ways.


On one hand, if you are really shy, please don’t feel like you have to deliver keynotes or speak on panels or join a writer’s rock band to promote your book. If you hate to fly, say no to the cross-country tour. If you’re prone to blurting wildly inappropriate and offensive things, stay home. But don’t torture yourself! There are plenty of promotional options, even for the die-hard introvert. Find the formula that works for you. And if that formula is simply writing your next book, that’s fine, too.


On the other hand, if you’re always working the angle and push, push, pushing yourself on others and trying to guilt/manipulate/threaten them into doing your bidding, please do walk away from youth literature and perhaps consider a career as a Dark Lord of Sith.


And on the—cough—third hand, I’ll gently say with love and a big hug…


If you’re wringing your hands thinking, I don’t want people looking at me. I’m worried about what they’ll think of me. I’m not the kind of person who’s all about her/himself. I don't want people to think I'm self-absorbed. Blah, blah, blah.


Cheer up, little buckaroo, this is not all about you! It’s about your book. Did you write it purely for your own enjoyment? No, you wrote it to share it. So, share it!


Moreover, youth authors must serve as ambassadors for the body of youth literature and raise awareness of the importance of kids reading.


It's not just an opportunity. It's a responsibility.


Answer what calls to you. Maybe it's that standardized testing is pushing trade books out of the classroom or that library positions are being eliminated or that challenges to speech are on the rise or that there's a need to encourage new voices or that, like me, you were a child whose life was raised up by books and therefore believe every child should have that same experience.


Make your voice heard now.

Thank you so much, Cyn!  That is great, helpful advice.  I love the idea of CELEBRATING...and of  course, responsibility.  

And drivers:  Check out Cynthia Leitich's Smith's novel TANTALIZE (be prepared to open a bottle of wine with that!).  Her blog can be found at:



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