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Spooky Cyn-terview!

Today, we take a trip through the haunted Tollbooth with Cynthia Leitich Smith, aka Spooky Cyn, the fabulous woman behind Cynsations, and perhaps best known (ha!) as my fourth-semester Vermont College MFA advisor.

Cyn gives amazing tips for writing horror, defines Gothic horror, and gives us a reading list to keep us busy 'til NEXT Halloween.

The bottom of this post has an exciting contest! Hint:

The facts of Miss Cyn:

Award-winning Cynthia Leitich Smith is known for her humorous picture books, contemporary Native fiction, and YA Gothic fantasy.

Her recent books include Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)(Listening Library, 2008) and Santa Knows, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006)(Scholastic Book Club, 2007). Her latest short story, “Haunted Love,” appears in Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, 2008).

She is also a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.

Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas; with her husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Welcome to the Booth, Cyn! For the unitiated, may we have a quick summary of what Tantalize is all about?

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

Tantalize is a contemporary Gothic fantasy-suspense novel, set in a multi-creature verse. It’s the first of three interlocking stories.

The next, Eternal (Candlewick, Feb. 2009) will feature different main characters, and then the two casts will crossover in a third novel, Blessed (Candlewick, TBA), which picks up where Tantalize leaves off.

There is also graphic novel adaptation, tentatively titled Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, TBA) in the works.

Short stories set in the universe, but featuring different main characters, include: “Haunted Love,” which appears in Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P. C. Cast (BenBella, July 2008)(exclusive to Borders/Waldenbooks); and “Cat Calls,” which will appear in Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists, and Other Matters Odd and Magical(Candlewick, July 2009).

Can I just say how excited I am for that graphic novel? Very excited! Moving on, Quincie's name comes from Dracula, right? Tell us about some of the work that influenced Tantalize.

That’s right! The primary inspiration of Tantalize was Abraham “Bram” Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has never been out of print.

Stoker’s characters included a Texan, Quincey P. Morris, who was one of Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters and who, along with Jonathan Harker, actually destroys the monster. Although Morris also dies in the final battle, the Harkers later name their infant son in his honor, in some ways making Quincey symbolic of the story’s journey to future generations.

As an Austinite, I was intrigued about the decision of Stoker, an Irishman, to cast a Texan in this role. It’s often theorized that his intent was to evoke the idea of a “new nation” against an ancient evil. In any case, I thought it would be interesting to pay tribute to Dracula and bring it home, so to speak, to Texas.

However, as much as I’m fascinated by Stoker’s classic our sensibilities differ on such matters as stereotyping the “dark foreigner,” which back then meant Eastern European, or reducing female characters to virginal victims or “tainted,” well, vamps.

So, I cast an Irish-Mexican American hybrid werewolf as my morally-grounded leading man, and made clear that the Wolf in him came from the Irish side.

I also paid tribute to Stoker’s Morris with a gender flip. Quincie P. Morris—a Texan—is a strong, independent girl, one with typical teenage passions and a taste for marinara.

All that said, I didn’t look only to Dracula. I also read Gothic shorts that preceded it and a selection of related books, including critical works and more recent YA novels.

I began the manuscript in 2002, sold it in 2005, and put in the final touches in 2006.

At the time, there was a dearth of YA Gothics; however, the two that influenced me most were M. T. Anderson’s Thirsty, a darkly humorous transformation story, and Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate (Delacorte), perhaps the most feminist interpretation of the werewolf to date.

On the mythology front, I studied old folk tales of vampires and shifters from around the world as well as how they had been reinvented in literature, film, pop culture and so forth.

If you’re revisiting a tradition that’s been…shall we say, highly trafficked...I especially recommend doing your homework. It may well make the difference between derivative work and making a thoughtful contribution to the conversation of books.

You may also find inspiration in the process. I was struck by the idea that vampires could sometimes turn into wolves, and that led me to craft my murder mystery element, in which the central question was whether the murderer was a vampire in wolf form or a werewolf.

Here at the Tollbooth, we've been talking about what we think is a resurgance in old-fashioned horror in young adult novels, and we think that Tantalize, while it has elements of urban fantasy and romance and comedy, also works as a straight-up scary story. Would you agree? I've seen you describe it as "a Gothic fantasy suspense novel." Is that the same thing as horror?

In the forward to Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick), Deborah Noyes writes: “…think of Gothic as a room within the larger house of horror. Its décor is distinctive. It insists on the burden of the past. It also gleefully turns our ideas of good and evil on end.”

So, yes, Tantalize is a horror novel, in the subcategory of Gothic fantasy. Its burden of the past is shown via nods to the Dracula tradition and, say, the folklore that likewise influenced my writing.

A Gothic, like Tantalize, often has strong romantic elements. It may even be a love story. (Look at some of the language of Mina and Lucy’s letters in Dracula, for example.) However, in terms of genre, it’s not a paranormal romance.

That’s a literary tradition of its own—one I personally enjoy as a reader. One a Gothic writer should consult in her mythology research. But the way that mythologies manifest in a horror story will be crafted from a different tact.

For the purposes of literary modeling, we need some idea what literary tradition is in play. So, with the huge caveats that (a) I’m over-generalizing, and (b) there are successful exceptions, hybrids, etc.… Here are a few considerations in writing a Gothic novel.

-- The inciting incident is often horrific, a murder or other threat to the protagonist/community.

-- The central plot question, with its guiding structure and, often, ticking clock, will usually stem from that incident.

-- The mythology focus generally serves as some analogy to a real-world conflict. For example, Quincie is a vampire and she doesn’t want to be. That’s a drinking problem.

-- The monsters must be earned. It’s not enough to slap a fur coat on a character and call him a shape-shifter. His being a shifter should matter to plot and theme, the internal and external arcs. You shouldn’t be able to tell the same story without that mythology in play.

-- The reader has no guarantee of a happy ending. Ends are not neatly tied, and even a mostly positive resolution comes at a price.

For that matter, magic itself comes at a high price.

More personally, I like my monsters with a vicious set of teeth on them.

What do you think is so appealing about horror? Especially, how do you think that interest intersects with being an adolescent?

Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series, which is another major influence on my own work, was built on a realization and an insightful idea—that high school is hell and wouldn’t it be something if that lone, blonde girl in the dark alley could wallop the monster awaiting her, if she could literally take back the night.

Both of these still resonate today. High school is still hell—not every moment—but in small moments that tear at the heart. And girls… I honestly fret that we’re losing ground.

That said, adolescents are themselves real-life shape-shifters, struggling with their changing bodies. They’re battling vampirism or struggling with its temptations. If you don’t believe me, take a hard look at most ninth-grade social structures. Energy vampires? Minions? It’s all there.

Let's talk some more about the adolescent thing. Some really bloody stuff goes down in Tantalize. What keeps it a YA novel?

So long as it’s not gratuitous or exploitive, violence shouldn’t preclude a novel from being categorized for young adults, especially in an upper-level market. Tantalize, for example, is marked for ages 14+.

That said, most of the violence in Tantalize takes place off-screen. The reader will “discover” three bodies that met violent ends; however, there’s only one brief fight scene. One series of sequences is, to me, more disturbing, but I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t read it by going into detail.

Big picture, though, Tantalize is a traditional YA novel in that it’s immediate, focused, a coming-of-age story, and ultimately hopeful.

However, I’ve found that there are two aspects that particularly challenge less experienced teen readers.

The first is that the narrator is at times unreliable. I’ve talked to few readers who told me they put down the book when they thought Quincie was acting inconsistently.

After I told them that was no accident, most gave the story another try and afterward wrote back to report that they were thrilled they had.

Of course it’s okay for books to stretch the audience in a myriad of ways. But I’d like to make a special case for unreliable narrators. For worse and better, people are unreliable. We don’t always represent themselves or facts truthfully—sometimes with negative intent, sometimes for other reasons.

For example, consider the current election cycle. Whatever your political predispositions, I hope we can all agree that future and/or new voters need to be prepared to process potentially unreliable information in a critical manner. Frankly, it’s an important life skill.

The second challenge is that Tantalize is set in an “open” fantasy world, in which the fictional inhabitants know about vampires and shape-shifters.

Many young readers are more used to “closed” fantasies where only a few folks know about the magical element. I love books like this, but it’s not always necessary to take a reader by the hand and guide her. There’s something to be said for tossing her into the world and letting her figure it out on her own terms.

We absolutely love the Predator and Prey menus at Quincie's restaurant, Sanguini's. Any juicy items you decided to leave off? Or wish you could add?

Thank you! The menu was written with the help of my husband, sometimes co-author, and family cook Greg Leitich Smith, as we poured over historic Romanian, Texan, and Italian cookbooks.

It was fun, and I have spoken at a few events where planners offered a Sanguini’s inspired menu, though none with the actual dishes in the book (thank goodness).

I’ll have to refrain from commenting more on possible menu edits, though, as I suspect Quincie will be looking at them with a fresh eye in Blessed.

So, what are your Halloween plans?

I’m going old-school—horror movies and handing out candy with Greg. I’m not sure which of our DVDs will make the cut, but I’m leaning toward “Lost Boys” and “Ginger Snaps.”

This past week, I’ve already hosted an Austin Youth Lit Social--Spooky Style, and you’re welcome to check out the party pics.

Any creepy book recommendations? We're building a canon over here . . .

Sure! Here we go…

*lighter reads

Beating Heart: A Ghost Story by A. M. Jenkins (HarperCollins)(YA)
Being Dead by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt)(MG)
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte)(YA)
Breathe: A Ghost Story by Cliff McNish (Carolrhoda)(MG)
Daemon Hall by Andrew Nance (Holt)(YA)
Dead Is the New Black by Marlene Perez (Harcourt)(YA)*
Dead Girl Walking by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux)(YA)
The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick)(YA)
Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick)(YA)
Hell Week by Rosemary Clemnent-Moore (Delacorte)(YA)*
Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception by Maggie Stiefvater (Flux)(YA)
Mason by Thomas Pendleton (HarperCollins)(YA)
Night Road by A. M. Jenkins (HarperCollins)(YA)
Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz (Hyperion)(YA)
The Restless Dead, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick)(YA)
Soulless by Christopher Golden (MTV)(YA)
Thirsty by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick)(YA)
The Uninvited by Amanda Marrone (Simon Pulse)(YA)
Zombie Blondes by Brian James (Feiwel and Friends)(YA)*

On a multi-book front, there’s Holly Black’s Tithe (Simon & Schuster) and its companions; Libba Bray’s Beauty trilogy (Delacorte); Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladamir Tod (Dutton); Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series (McElderry); Darren Shan’s The Darren Shan Saga and The Demonata (both Little, Brown)…

I’m especially eager to read Lauren Myracle’s Bliss (Abrams) and Melissa Marr’s Ink Exchange (HarperCollins)(her Wicked LovelyHarperCollins) is recommended).

I could do this for a while, but I think that’s a solid start. You may also want to check out my spooky books resource page at my main website; see the list here.

Wow, Cyn. Thanks for all of the recommendations, and for your very smart thoughts on writing horror! You've got us thinking . . .And, ps, we love Bliss, and Lauren will be visiting the Booth next week!

Tollboothers! Here's your chance to win a bit of Sanguini's. Cyn talked about working with Greg to come up with authentic-seeming, very rare dishes for the Preadtor menu at Sanguini's. Join in the fun!

Think up a creepy, gross food item for the Predator menu, and post it in the comments! Or, tell us the most disgusting thing you've ever eaten.

We'll pick a random commentor (names-in-hat style) on Halloween, and that person will receive their choice of Sanguini's t-shirts, courtesy of Cyn!

We're big fans of the "I (heart) baby squirrel" version, and think it's excellent inspiration for the contest!

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( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 24th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
This is going to cause lots of eyerolling, but I'm serious. The most disgusting thing I've ever eaten (see how adventurous I am) is ketchup. That stuff tastes crazy-gross to me and I don't even like the smell. Ick!! :)
Oct. 24th, 2008 06:19 pm (UTC)
Ha! When I was a kid, I'd put ketchup on my potato chips because I love it so much!

Thanks for sharing!
Oct. 24th, 2008 10:01 pm (UTC)
I'm very picky so lots have grossed me out!

How about like in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and chilled monkey brains? EWW!
Oct. 24th, 2008 10:08 pm (UTC)
Eew! Good one.

I can practically feel that texture in my mouth now -- definitely gross.

I think I need some chocolate to wach it out.
Oct. 24th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
something that i hate to eat is sauteed mushrooms, it's a texture thing.

another is beef tongue, but i actually like the taste of that, especially in tacos. could be good for a vampire menu though....
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:06 am (UTC)
I need a way to identify you so I can announce if you win! :)

With you on the mushrooms!

Beef tongue? You're more adventurous than I . . . but agreed it would be great for Sanguini's.
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
I need a way to let you know in case you win the contest! :) If you don't want to post an addy here, email me at liz at lizgallagher.com with the subject head "sauteed mushrooms".
Oct. 24th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
One thing I can't eat is liver. It's disgusting ! My parents made me eat it as a kid and I got sick.

Thanks for the contest!
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:09 am (UTC)
Oh, man. Feeling very thankful right now that my parents never made me try that!

I need a way to let you know in case you win the contest! :) If you don't want to post an addy here, email me at liz at lizgallagher.com with the subject head "liver".
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:09 am (UTC)
Re: Thanks so much!
Thanks, Cyn!
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
The two (i can't decide which is worst!) most disgusting food i've ever had is

1. Reese's (peanut butter and chocolate?? who the heck thought of that nasty stuff??)

2. peas (those little green things? EWWW.)

both of these foods make me sick. And to jessicaburkhart: ketchup is like my favorite food xD

hylianvampire @ hotmail . com
Oct. 25th, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
Thanks for stopping by!

Nice to meet a fellow ketchup-lover, but we'll have to agree to disagree about the Reese's -- I love 'em! :)

Oct. 25th, 2008 02:26 am (UTC)
Frist of All I LOVED the book Tanailze! Soooo Good.
So...I think the perdator menus needs...

Jugular juice punch
Bloody lady finger cookies
Bloody Mary Blizzards (featured with body parts)
Spaggetti and Blood balls
Cat leg Kababbas
Blood Burger (Get'em extra rare)
Salty eyeball soup
Stake and liver....the real kind
Tounge chips

I bet no one wants to eat at my house this Halloween now....heheheheheheh smiles*
Oct. 25th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
Yes! Tantalize is sooooo good! Can't wait for the other books set in the same world.

I think you might have a real future in gross-out menus ahead of you! My favorites are "Bloody Mary Blizzards" and "Salty eyeball soup". Salty! Great touch.

Keep watching for the t-shirt winner announcement. . .
Oct. 25th, 2008 05:37 am (UTC)
Eye Tacos
In Mexico you can sometimes find Ojos Tacos, I am guessing beef. I think that could make a nice addition to the predator menu.

Love the book, just read it today!
Oct. 25th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Eye Tacos
So much fun to hear from readers who love Tantalize! :)

Eye Tacos. Wow. Agreed that they sound predatory!

A friend told me that her Mexican friends often eat insects in their street-vendor tacos . . . maybe we should offer that up for a suggestion, too!
Oct. 25th, 2008 03:56 pm (UTC)
Love the book! Keep up the good work Cynthia!!!!!!!!! =]
Oct. 25th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
T-shirt Contest
I was thinking of a new addition to the Predator Menu: Something along the lines of The Devil's Delight (aka Stuffed Sheep's heart).

Measure Ingredient
2 Sheep's hearts
1 Onion; small/chopped
1 Rasher of bacon; chopped
4 tablespoons Breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon Chopped suet
1 Little stock
1 teaspoon Parsley; chopped
1 Lemon rind; 1/2; grated
1 Egg; beaten
Oct. 26th, 2008 02:11 am (UTC)
I thought up some more for the Predator Menu....Yum, Yum.

Trunup Toe Turnovers
Skin'os with Vein sauce
Earlobe cocktails
Chopped Mystery Stakes...made fresh from the meat of the day
Braintr'tras chilled to purfection

Happy Halloween.

Oct. 26th, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
Monkey Brains
I have personally not eaten it, but the grossest thing I have ever seen is eating monkey brain while the monkey is still alive...and strapped live to the table...

Could this be real? or a Ripley's hoax? I guess I could research it...lol...


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )