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An Interview with Children's Author
Greg Leitich Smith

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Greg Leitich Smith, a patent attorney living in Texas with his wife, children's author, Cynthia Leitich Smith, debuts this season with his first middle grade novel. Greg received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in electrical engineering, and went on to receive a law degree. He has a love of reading and books, which in part led him to write his debut novel, NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO. This novel has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection for January 2004!

Tell me a little about your background and what brought you to children’s writing.

I’ve always been an avid reader and thought that, perhaps someday, when I retired, I could write. When Cynthia began to write, I decided, why wait?

NINJAS is an entertaining and humorous middle grade story (I laughed out loud several places and reread some scenes just to tickle my funny bone again). You integrate science, law, school kids, and romance seamlessly. How did you come up with this story idea?

Thank you. It was fun to write, too.

This novel started out as an entirely different one but the protagonist/point-of-view character became so whiny and annoying that I had him jump in front of a moving El train (which didn’t miss). This effectively ended the novel of course. One of the secondary characters became Shohei, though.

Somewhere along the line, then, I thought it might be interesting to write a novel based on the Galileo story, but didn’t get anywhere with it, so I shelved it. My next idea had to do with the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach had about twenty children (by two wives, poor women) and the fact that most families today might have ten percent of that figure. So I had this idea of this kid who was raised in a huge family that was crazy about Bach. I didn’t really have a plot, though, until I realized that the Galileo/Bach things were the same book.

You do an excellent job of creating intelligent characters who do not come off as 'geeky' or 'shunned.' Was that your intention?

Well, the story simply wasn’t about feeling geeky and/or shunned and so there was no reason to make the characters that way or feel that way. Also, the Peshtigo School is a place where intelligence isn’t stigmatized (and I think it had to be for the story to work).

Incidentally, since our intelligence is what keeps us on top of the food chain, I’ve never understood why it should ever be considered a bad thing (Unless, of course, what’s keeping us on top is our opposable thumbs, in which case we’d better keep a closer eye on those pandas…).

I can’t decide which of the three main characters is my favorite. Elias has older brothers and a scientist father, and does not seem to share their passion for science. Honoria who exudes confidence in legal matters can’t seem to get up the nerve to tell her crush she likes him. I think Shohei though might be my favorite. A Japanese-American boy adopted into an Irish-American family, Shohei ends up dealing with some interesting situations as his parents insist that he get to know his heritage.

Do you share any similarities with your characters? Do you have a favorite?

I don’t have a favorite. I will say, though, that in its original form, the novel had only one point of view character: Elias. Honoria and Shohei, though, started taking over and very quickly. . . As to similarities, I share all their virtues and none of their vices.

What was your writing process like for this novel? Tell me about “the moment” when you learned you were being offered a book contract.

The novel started out as two pages being submitted for a writing conference at the local SCBWI chapter. The editor liked it, so I ended up submitting the entire manuscript. She didn’t buy it, but had good suggestions, although she didn’t take it on re-write, either. Then, I sent it to a couple places on my own and then got an agent, who sent it to Little Brown.

I received a fax from my agent early December; it was from Little Brown, saying (i) they liked the manuscript and (ii) were going to take it to committee in early January. They also had some suggestions about how it could be improved so as to enhance its chances of getting through committee. I was willing to try them, so I sent a revised manuscript to LB and they took it to committee. The day of the meeting, I got a call from my agent saying they wanted it AND also a second book!

I love your new web site. You and your wife, children’s author Cynthia Leitich Smith, devote a lot of time to web site development. Why?

Well, when I read and like a book by an author I don’t know, I’ll immediately go to the Web to find out about him/her. So part of it is just that. Another part (particularly with reference to Cynthia’s site), is to provide a resource for books and/or authors who might not otherwise get noticed.

Describe a “typical” work day.

A typical work day involves being awakened at about 4:30 in the morning by one or more cats who either scream to be fed or simply chase each other around the house because it’s FUN FUN FUN. Sixteen paws on seventy-five year old hardwoods (yes, we need more rugs) are remarkably resonant. I will then usually go back to sleep for another hour or two, then get up and go do law work. Sometime before lunch I’ll go to the gym or run (or both) and then go back to work. Cynthia and I will then spend the evening making and eating dinner and then, depending on our schedule, Cyn and I will work on our writing projects. Or watch Angel.

What do you do when you are not reading/writing?

Day job as a patent attorney. Pays the mortgage. Also, that seventy-five year old house? Bit of a fixer-upper… I also like to run and go to the gym to lift weights, since they’re considerably less cerebral than patents or writing. I’ve run a few marathons and done some triathlons, too, though not fanatically. And I read. Everything.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The power. I can vicariously take over the world and don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy. (Maniacal laugh).

What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

Being true to the characters and the voice.

What inspires you?

Everything. Family. Friends. My wife. Cats. Electronic calculators that use reverse Polish notation.

What can fans expect next from you?

I am working on a new novel with a tentative release date of Spring 2005. It’s a companion piece to NINJAS, that features Freddie Murchison-Kowalski (a vegan) and her cousin, Hans-Peter (not a vegan), as point of view characters.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s authors?

Read. Read. Read. You’ve got to know what’s out there to get a feel for the market, get a feel for who’s doing what. It’s also the single best way I know of to improve your craft: read, and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Interview © November, 2003, by Debbi Michiko Florence.
See also my follow-up interview with Greg, in 2004.
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For more about Greg, see his web site and read his blog.

See also my follow-up interview with Greg, in 2004.