Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling YA author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, and the forthcoming Diabolical (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton). She has also published several middle grade and YA short stories.
Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and 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.
Welcome to Jagged Edge! Would you like to tell us a little about yourself?
I tend to think of myself as a mid-to-southwesterner. I’ve lived in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Illinois and Texas. I’ve moved up and down, not back and forth. But of late I’ve made a home for myself here in Austin, and I intend to stay.
I share an old house with four cats—three adopted from shelters and one found as a stray—and my very cute husband, author Greg Leitich Smith. His upcoming book is The Chronal Engine (Clarion, spring 2012).
When not writing, I love to visit museums, watch summer blockbusters, and visit in my parlor with my author pals. I’m arguably one of the social coordinators of Austin’s children’s-YA literature community, and I adore bring book people together.
I love Rain Is Not My Indian name. I'm pretty sure it's one of the books the lead me to being such a bookaholic. I know its kind of old (not as old as I thought) But it is amazing I actually still own it from when I was younger.
Thank you! I’m honored. Rain Is Not My Indian Name was my debut novel, and it celebrates ten years in print this year.
For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s the story of Cassidy Rain Berghoff, a mixed-blood Native American girl who—after the sudden death of her best friend—slowly reconnects to her family and intertribal community through the lens of a camera.
I know it was a while ago but what led you to write Rain Is Not my Indian Name?
I have this theory that most writers begin with a story that has quasi-autobiographical elements, whether they’re recognizable or not. Like Rain, I was a young journalist (though with a pen, not a camera). I also spent my teen years in northeast Kansas and had a fondness for small towns like fictional Hannesburg, where the story is set.
Beyond that, I began with a question: How do we heal after a great loss?
I’m a huge fan of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and other books like it that end on a moment of hope for healing. I wanted to take the next step, picking up Rain’s story six months later and considering it as a process rather than a destination.
Out of all of your books, who is your favorite character and from what book?
This answer surprises me, but I guess I’d have to say it’s Holler Loudly, the title character of my latest picture book. Holler has something to say. All he wants is to be heard. But he has to figure out the right time and place to make noise. He has to figure out how to frame his messages. That’s a writer’s journey, to be sure.
What inspired you to write?
Growing up, I had a Walter Mitty childhood. I spent a lot of time in my head, playing make-believe—often drawing inspiration from favorite fictional heroes like Wonder Woman and Princess Leia.
According to my mother, I began writing with real intent in first grade, dictating a poem to be given as a holiday gift to my teacher. (My verbal vocabulary probably exceeded my written.) By second grade, I was writing short stories, and from there, I went onto poetry and journalistic writing before focusing more fully on fiction.
So I was a writer—a storyteller—from my earliest days. I don’t know that I needed inspiration per se. I was simply being myself.
What authors influenced you as a writer?
I’ve already mentioned Katherine Paterson. I would also add Judy Blume, Stephen King, Annette Curtis Klause and Joss Whedon.
What is your favorite quote? Why is it your favorite?
My original children’s writing teacher, author Kathi Appelt, urges her students to “write like your fingers are on fire.” What she’s saying is: Get out of your own way. You can revise and polish later, but first, get the words down.
If you could jump in to a book, and live in that world, which would it be?
Ah, that’s a tricky question. Some of the fictional worlds that I find most interesting also are the most perilous. To be completely honest, though, I’d say it’s the DC Universe. I distinctly remember thinking on 9-11: I wish there was a Superman.
What is at least one thing that every writer needs to have or do?
I recommend a minimum of two cats.
Are your books different to your personal favorite books by other authors?
Yes and no. I read broadly, avidly, and I’m a fan of literature for all ages from picture book readers to grown-ups. So, I love Native fiction, realistic contemporary fiction, and Gothic fantasy. But I also adore science fiction, poetry, and historical settings.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I enjoy mid-stream revisions, where I’m far enough along to see the possibilities for improving the manuscript and still have the opportunity to make them happen.
Least favorite part of the writing process?
With picture books and short stories, I love it all.
With novels, the rough draft is the toughest part for me. I’m in the midst of that now, and while I enjoy the discovery process, I also fret a bit that the story may not have the girth to sustain the form. Of course that’s more about fear than process, but the line between the two can seem slippery at times.
What are you currently working on?
This week, I reviewed my publisher’s art notes on Eternal: Zachary’s Story, a graphic novel which is being illustrated by the brilliant Ming Doyle. I’m also on the first-draft stage of Smolder, which will be the fourth prose novel in the Tantalize series.
The Tantalize series is set in a multi-creature-verse populated by vampires, angels, a myriad of shape-shifters, ghosts, demons, and pesky humans. The books are Gothic fantasies with diverse casts, a girl-powered slant, some humor and romantic elements.
Right now, the prose novels are: Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, the forthcoming Diabolical (due out in January 2012) and Smolder. The graphic novels are Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, which will be released in late August, and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, which is still in progress.
What else can your readers look forward to?
I’m excited that my essay “Isolation,” will be featured in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (Harper, August 2011) and my short story, “Mooning Over Broken Stars,” will be published in Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, January 2012).