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An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Debbi Michiko Florence

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the award-winning author of JINGLE DANCER (Morrow, 2000), INDIAN SHOES (HarperCollins, 2001), and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001)(Listening Library, 2001). She is 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 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. Cynthia's more recent titles are a picture book, SANTA KNOWS (Dutton, 2006) and a young adult gothic fantasy novel, TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007)(Walker UK, 2008). She makes her home in Austin, Texas; with her husband, author Greg Leitich Smith.

Thank you for coming back to be interviewed again!  This time we’re talking about your newest novel – TANTALIZE.  Quincie Morris has more than her share of problems - including being in love with her best guy friend who also happens to be a hybrid werewolf and preparing to open a vampire-themed restaurant amid a mysterious murder.

 

How did TANTALIZE come about? Tell us a little about your writing process during this particular story.

My initial inspiration for TANTALIZE was the classic DRACULA by Abraham "Bram" Stoker (1897). The novel includes among its vampire hunters a Texan, Quincey Morris, "a gallant gentleman," who dies after helping to destroy the master vampire. Living in Austin, it occurred to me that I could bring the tradition "home" to Texas, and so I did.

At the same time, I wanted to write a book set in a restaurant. During the late 1980s, I paid for much of my college education waiting tables at Chi Chi's Mexican Restaurant and at the restaurant of an athletic club.

To me, restaurants are fascinating in large part because they're like interactive theater. They feature thematic décor, staff in "costume," mood-setting music…

For obvious reasons, people don't usually think about vampires and restaurants together. But that juxtaposition freshened the blood, so to speak. It allowed me to offer something new to the old tradition.

How did Quincie Morris evolve as a character through your drafts?

Initially, my only idea was to write "not Rain." Cassidy Rain Berghoff was the protagonist from my first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001). She has a gentle humor and a quiet, lyrical voice. She's sensitive, she's grieving, and she's something of an artist. As a new novelist, it was a challenge to move onto another girl focal character.

That said, Quincey wasn't the original protagonist of TANTALIZE. I'd started with Kieran, and the first draft is from his point of view. The problem? Quincie was the one in the greatest jeopardy. Plus, there is a long, disturbing history of weak (victimized, demonized) women in the genre. I was looking for more than somebody to play "the girl," more than a clichéd romantic leading lady. So, I followed the stakes back to her.

During this time, I began writing short stories. This was the best thing I ever did for my craft. I tried male POV, stronger humor, upper YA, a quick range of characters. I learned and built confidence and kept returning to the novel in progress.

I wrote letters from Quincie and interviewed her and ripped a photo out of a magazine to serve as her model (which looks nothing like the cover art). I found her soundtrack. I wrote to the music…

Before I knew it, I had a strong, ambitious heroine who had a love interest but wasn't defined by it.

You live in Austin, TX where TANTALIZE is set.  How did you go about creating this alternate vision for your city?

Austin is an eclectic college town and booming capital city. It's artsy and entrepreneurial. The people are laid-back. In some cities, if you approached someone with a camera and said he'd be a good werewolf model, he might not take it so well.

Basically, I shot twelve rolls of film in Austin's Bouldin Creek, Fairview, and Old Enfield neighborhoods. I visited open houses and took photos and left with floor plans and the blessings of real estate agents. I dined at every Italian restaurant in town. I also talked to a few more…shall we say…gothic souls.

You seem to have a fascination for vampires, or at least an appreciation!  How and when did this come about?

I've been reading in the genre since junior high. This may sound counter-intuitive for a horror fan, but I was a fairly overprotected only child and, consequently, it was difficult for me to handle conflict.

In elementary and junior high, I was shy, book-smart, and targeted by the local queen bee. In "Buffy," Joss Whedon placed the mouth of hell under his fictional high school. I'd suggest to him extending the analogy by placing the heart of hell under a junior high or middle school.

On the upside, once I was a tween, my parents let me read whatever I wished. At least metaphorically, horror novels gave me the opportunity to face down the monsters.

How much research on werewolves and vampires did you do?  How much did you fabricate for your own story purpose?

I was well read in the genre going in, which helped. But specifically in support of writing TANTALIZE, I read cover-to-cover more than a hundred books related to vampires and shape-shifters.

I stared with the oldest literary treatments and then went backward to the folklore and forward to the modern reinterpretations. I studied the monsters' images in pop culture, how they related society at different times. I also considered scholarly works and literary criticism on each of these fronts.

On a lighter note, I also enjoyed watching classic and recent films as well as a number of programs (including the history of Halloween), which were available on DVD from the History Channel.

I drew my mythology from the literary rather than film tradition. However, I did shrug off some of the traditional sensibilities. I've already discussed the role of women. I also elected not to demonize "the dark foreigner" (traditionally the Eastern European), employing instead a multicultural cast, and expanded the forces of good beyond Christianity to include other faiths.

What was the most fun thing about this project?

Imagining Sanguini's, the fictional vampire restaurant in the book.

A number of readers have written asking if it's real (perhaps not with supernatural characters but based on an actual restaurant) or said they'd dine there every night (which sounds perilous to me).

What was the most challenging?

Going in, I was interested in doing…not a traditional, linear series, but rather a number of stories in the universe. My hope was (still is) to pick back up at ending of TANTALIZE in two books to follow ETERNAL, which I'm working on now. TANTALIZE was written with that in mind.

However, I quickly realized there would be questions about my executing such a big departure from contemporary Native American realistic fiction. So, I would have to prove with the first book that there would be an interest in more.

This was a few years back, before talented authors such as Lisa Yee were writing books like SO TOTALLY EMILY EMBERS (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2007). There was still an attitude that authors from historically underrepresented communities were in the field to write realistic, curriculum-friendly stories grounded in their own cultures—period.

When I first began saying in Q&A sessions that I was working on a gothic fantasy, the initial reactions were along the lines of "You're kidding, right?" A couple of well-meaning close friends even sat me down and said I would lose my existing reader base.

(As I mention this, though, it occurs to me that the actual Native community has been nothing but enthusiastic and supportive throughout.)

So, one challenge was claiming my inner gothic author. Now, just five years later, none of this seems to be an issue at all. Sensibilities—or at least perceptions—can shift quickly in publishing.

You have written many books and stories.  Any preferences?  Special likes about each genre?

For me, the protagonist's age and story content dictate the form. I wouldn't write a picture book about Quincie from TANTALIZE or a YA novel about Jenna from JINGLE DANCER.

What I like about the picture book and short story is that they're containable. You can hold the whole thing in your head at the same time. The novel is more a beast, more of a commitment. It's sort of the difference between a date and a relationship.

How have you evolved as a writer?

I'm better at plot and less self-indulgent when it comes to pretty language.

Do you frighten easily?

Not really, but I have a handful of phobias: heights, enclosed spaces, germs, children under three, and lettuce. On the kids, it's not so much them but the fear that I'll drop one. Someone told me that their heads hadn't grown together yet, which made me nervous. Also, it's not really the lettuce per se, but what might be lurking in the lettuce.

What are your food favorites when dining out?  How about when you’re dining at home?

Above all else, I'm a sushi/sashimi enthusiast. At home, I adore my husband's toxic potato salad. Fortunately, he hardly ever makes it because it has something like ten zillion calories per teaspoon.

What are you working on now?

I'm diving into a revision of ETERNAL, which is set in the same universe as TANTALIZE. It goes deeper into the heart of the universe.

Quincie and even her hybrid werewolf best friend Kieran are largely on the outskirts of their world. Plus, she's not the most reliable first person narrator.

ETERNAL will bring readers to a center point of the fantasy structure.

How can fans contact you?

My email address is posted on my main author site at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com; however, I now receive literally hundreds of emails a day. I can promise to read every one. I can't promise to respond in each case. In addition, LiveJournal and MySpace users are welcome to leave me comments via those social networks. The URLs are:

http://cynleitichsmith.livejournal.com/

http://www.myspace.com/cynthialeitichsmith

Thank YOU!

Interview © June, 2007 by Debbi Michiko Florence
Ticket info - call 800-555-1212

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For more about Cynthia, check out her web site:

Cynthia Leitich Smith

 

You can also read her blog:

Cynsations