Marta Acosta interviews Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalizing Talk about Werewolves


“Horror is a wonderful metaphor for adolescence. You’re a shape-shifter in your changing body. Your raging hormones are the beast within. You’re transforming…but into what? “

Cynthia Leitich Smith

 

Cynthia Leitich Smith, who has been called “Anne Rice for teens” (Bloomsbury Review) is here this week to discuss her writing and her latest novel, Tantalize. Cynthia will be stopping by to respond to comments about her books, werewolves, and Young Adult (YA) fiction. 

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MARTA: Congratulations on all the honors you’ve received for your novel, Tantalize! I love the name and cover of your book because we all want a story to tantalize us. Would you please tell us a little about it?

 

CYNTHIA: Thank you! Tantalize is the story of Quincie Morris, a teen girl who’s helping to relaunch her family’s Italian restaurant with a vampire theme. It’s a great idea…until some real vampires show up.

 

MARTA: You’ve hit two huge trends right now — the paranormal and celebrity chefs. Was that just by accident, or were you responding to the whole werewolf/celebrity chef zeitgeist?

 

CYNTHIA: The spooky angle is one I’d wanted to explore for a long time.

 When I first began writing, I took the common advice, write what you know. For me that meant stories of intertribal Native communities in the mid-to-southwest.

As time went on, though, I decided to also try writing the kind of book I most enjoy reading. When I walk into a bookstore, the horror/Gothic fantasy section is my first destination, and then I’ll swoop by paranormal romance, Gothic historicals, and vampire chick lit. Call me enthralled!

Moreover, I’d long intended to write a book set in a restaurant–drawing on the music, menu, decor, staff uniforms and so forth to set the stage. (Like Quincie, I’d worked in restaurants in my late teens). And, yes, I found the celebrity-chef phenomenon amusing–my husband is a huge “Iron Chef” fan.

The juxtaposition of these influences was my kick off.

MARTA: Let’s talk about the setting. Austin is a thriving center for culture, music, and funkiness. How did the location influence or inspire your story?

CYNTHIA: The Lone Star setting was inspired by Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, which includes among Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters a heroic character named Quincey Morris, a Texan. I named my Quincie (with a gender flip) in his honor.

Austin is the place I now call home. When I began the novel in 2001, I was living on South Congress (in one of those apartment communities that are gated in case…I don’t know…the .com workers decide to riot). The area is in the midst of a cultural and culinary boom, including old-school hippies, gentrification, liberal politics, the “live music capital of the world,” going green, and any number of tattooed, pierced, and multicolorfully-haired individuals. I just adore it.

Congress Avenue Bridge, right down the street, is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony.Tantalize, there’s a group called BADL (the Bat Anti-Defamation League), which concerns itself with possible PR fallout from the vampires on our city’s beloved eco-mascots.

So, I drew on all of that–the diversity, the rhythm, the politics. For example, in Tantalize, there’s a group called BADL (the Bat Anti-Defamation League), which concerns itself with possible PR fallout from the vampires on our city’s beloved eco-mascots.

MARTA: You’ve written books for a variety of ages. What were the challenges when writing about teens for both a teen and adult audience?

CYNTHIA: It’s interesting. I’ve done a early chapter book short story collection (Indian Shoes) and a ‘tween or middle school novel (Rain Is Not My Indian Name), but I seem most drawn to picture books (Jingle Dancer; Santa Knows) and upper-level YA.

My mentor Kathi Appelt has said that these two seemingly opposite groups, little kids and teens/twenty-somethings, are alike in that they’re both at the periods when they’ll grow and change most rapidly–physically, emotionally, and in terms of their power in the world.Also, these are both age ranges at which people want whatever it is they want–from a binkie to a boy–with such undeniable passion. That’s fuel for story.

With all that in mind, I focused on my characters, especially my protagonist. Quincie is both a sensualist and straightforward, which shows in her voice and approach to conflict.

I put myself in her hands and trusted that the YA audience could keep up.

 MARTA: Why a gothic novel? Do you think the gothic novel has any particular appeal to those on the cusp of adulthood, and, if so, why?

 CYNTHIA: Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” has been quoted as saying that high school is hell. Or at least it feels that way.

Horror is a wonderful metaphor for adolescence. You’re a shape-shifter in your changing body. Your raging hormones are the beast within. You’re transforming…but into what? It’s a scary time.

 MARTA: What were some of your favorite books or themes when you were a young adult?

 CYNTHIA: I did read a fair amount of Stephen King and Dean Kootz as well as, say, Judy Blume and everything from classics like A Tale of Two Cities to my mom’s romance novels and my dad’s James Bond series. I’ve also been a huge comic/graphic novel reader since I was very young.

 MARTA: You’re a member of the Muscogee Nation, and your writing reflects our multicultural society. As a Latina, it was important for me to present a non-stereotypical Latina in my novels. What do your readers will get from your stories, beyond the entertainment?

 CYNTHIA: I love that about your writing. Along with Sherman Alexie and Joseph Bruchac, I’m one of the first youth authors to portray Native characters in contemporary settings (the vast majority of books published in the area are historicals), and I’m heartened to see progress on that front.

However, I’d noticed that in youth genre fiction–mystery, suspense, horror, fantasy–characters who weren’t white were, if present at all, relegated to walk-on or sidekick status. These books are so popular with young readers, especially reluctant readers, and that broke my heart.

My fictional spooky world reflects the diversity of our real one in an integrated way across the span of good, evil, and that really intriguing area in between.

MARTA: What’s next for you? Will we be able to follow Quincie’s adventures?

CYNTHIA: I’m writing like a fiend! My next YA, tentatively titled Eternal, will be set in the same universe and will feature different characters, though careful readers will notice nods. I hope to then crossover the casts, returning to Quincie, in another novel to follow. There is a global arc of the universe that will become more apparent over time, as will the ties to the Dracula mythology. I also have a Gothic graphic novel in the works.

What else? I just turned in a short story co-authored with my husband, Greg Leitich Smith, for an upcoming Little, Brown anthology called Geektastic, a project of Cecil Castellucci and Holly Black’s. And I’ve agreed to write one for Deborah Noyes’ next horror collection for Candlewick Press.On the picture-book front, I look forward to the release of Holler Loudly, an original southwestern tall tale to be published by Dutton.

MARTA: Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

CYNTHIA: My main author site is Cynthia Leitich Smith.

In addition, I host a number of blogs–two on children’s-YA literature called Cynsations at and also on Live Journal (this is essentially the same blog at two locations), one on genre fiction and my life behind the scenes called Spookycyn. I also can be found at MySpace.

MARTA: Anything else you’d like to share?

CYNTHIA: Thank you!

 

comments:

Marta said…

Cynthia, since I’ll be working on my first YA novel, do you have any suggestions?

Liz in Ink said…

Great interviews, gals! (Marta … I have your books on loan from my cousin Barb Garton who raves all about you!)

 

Marta asks: Cynthia, since I’ll be working on my first YA novel, do you have any suggestions?

Hurrah! I’m so thrilled that you’re entering the ranks of YA authors. You’re such a talented writer and obviously well read in the genre, so really here are a couple of tips for writing for this younger audience (though there are TONS of crossover readers): (1) YA writing tends to be more immediate than reminiscent; (2) YAs are a smart, savvy audience that’s reading books published for the traditional adult market, too, so you don’t have to worry about writing “down” to them. They’ll keep up, no worries!

Mari asks: I am as well curious as Debbi asked above. With the difference between writing a graphic novel and a traditional being more like a screen play for the more Gothic works how do you research and prepare?

Like approaching any kind of book, you begin by reading. I’ve been reading comics regularly since I was four or five, so in a way this is my embracing my earliest reading roots. Even back then, in, say, superhero comics, I found much to love. When the world was saving “let the boys win,” Wonder Woman was saying it’s okay to be smart and strong. Currently, I subscribe to about 40 books a month, some comics and some graphic novels. I’ve been studying how-to books, and the consensus on format at least seems to be that there isn’t much of a consensus. But there’s still great information there. And fortunately, I have friends who are graphic novel writers themselves who’ve offered to share their tips and pitfalls.

 

Marta said…

Cynthia, thanks for your advice about YA fiction.

Liz, I love Barbie! She told me she was passing along my novels to relatives and friends. I like your blog, too: http://liz-scanlon.livejournal.com/

 

Hi, Cyn. Great interview! Do you ever reach a point in your writing process where you’re bored with either your characters or the book? If so, what do you do? If not, what’s your secret?

 

Christine asks: Do you ever reach a point in your writing process where you’re bored with either your characters or the book? If so, what do you do? If not, what’s your secret?

Hm. I think there are two scenarios: you’re stuck in process or the plot seems predictable and the humor obvious just because you’ve read it a thousand times.

If I’m stuck, I seriously ratchet up the stakes, take everything to a higher, more intense level. If I’m just sick of looking at it and convinced I’m an abomination to literary history, I set it down, and usually do one more polish before sending off.

 

Daniela said…

I must say, I just remember seeing “Tantalize” on the self in the bookstore, and thought “wow that looks like a really good book!” Now every teen that comes into our store and is looking at books that contain that supernatural stuff, we make sure they know about Cynathia Smith’s book, there have been a lot of people hooked and I must say that I am extremely excited to find out more about this new book you are writing. I know I will be happy to see it published and I’m sure a large amount of others will be too!!!

 

Thank you, Daniela! I’m honored. Thanks too to the wonderful and talented Marta and all who posted questions!

If you’d like a free signed Tantalize bookmark and bookplate, feel free to send me a snail mail addy at:
http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/site_info/contact.html

If you’re a teacher, librarian, or bookseller, and you’d like a stack of autographed bookmarks, no problem! Just let me know, and I’ll zip them right off.
Thanks again!

 

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