Author Interview: Part 1–The “Cynsation” of Cynthia Leitich Smith

Teen Reading Week is finally here! We don’t know about you, but we’re buried to our knees in young adult novels. Poor features editor Katie Bayerl has to wade through them to reach her desk each morning. Okay, so maybe we’re exaggerating just a little. But, we’re not exaggerating how much we love than hearing teens talk about their favorite books and authors.

To start the conversations this week, Teen Voices interviewed New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith. The author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick), Smith was nominated for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten. While we’re waiting for the winners to be announced this week, we wanted to get inside the mind of this popular young adult author. Where do all her ideas come from? Keep reading as Smith shares her writing expertise and inspirations with Teen Voices.


Teen Voices (TV): What first inspired you to become a writer?

Cynthia Leitich Smith (CS): I’ve always written—poetry and short stories in elementary school, journalistic articles in junior high through law school. But I decided to write fiction full-time after the Oklahoma City bombing. I have strong ties to Oklahoma. Much of my family lives there now or has in the past. My tribe is based in Okmulgee. Not many years before I’d been working in Bartlesville myself.

For me, the tragedy was a reminder that life could be fleeting. Being in my twenties was no excuse to put off my dreams. And in the face of such destruction and despair, I wanted to create, to lift up and share something positive.

TV: You’ve delved into several different genres (realistic fiction, paranormal, graphic novels) and age groups (picture books through young adult). Out of all of your books, is there one that makes you most proud?

CS: Like many authors, I’m most fond of my most recent work. Diabolical—due out from Candlewick in January 2012—puts a cap on the stories of my core Tantalize series protagonists, Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda. It’s the most fun of the quartet—the biggest, boldest, funniest, most heartfelt, romantic and horrific. There will be at least one more story set in the universe, but featuring different protagonists.

TV: What motivates you to write for books for teens in particular?

CS: You can write every bit as sophisticated a book for teens as you can for adults, but there’s no room for self-indulgence. Teens won’t tolerate being preached at, and their attention will wander if you go off on some idiosyncratic tangent.

Beyond that, teens are so vibrant. So alive. There’s a heightened intensity to adolescence. Incidentally, it’s also a new invention. Not many generations ago, we considered even young teens ready to pursue careers, marriage and family. Now, we’re in this odd place where they’re considered an adult (or very close to one) for some purposes but not others. They’re rapidly gaining responsibilities and life experiences, but their power, resources and accountability are still very much a work in progress. It all happens unevenly, which is highly conducive to story.

TV: Where do you get your inspiration for your stories? How much does your own experience come into play?

CS: I’d say every story, every character, has a piece of me in them.

It may be something tangential. In Blessed, for example, the Wolf training pack is in Michigan because I went to law school in Ann Arbor. It’s based in a German-American town because I attended the wedding of a law school classmate in Frankenmuth and occasionally make day trips to visit German-American towns here in Central Texas.

Or it may be a more significant tie. When I was a teen, I worked as a waitress—first at a Mexican chain restaurant and then the restaurant of a high-end athletic club. Restaurants are terrific stages for drama. They offer thematic décor, menus, costuming. Sometimes people burst in song. I transferred much of that experience to Sanguini’s, the vampire-themed restaurant that’s a major setting in Tantalize and Blessed.

TV: Have any of your writing projects been outside your comfort zone? How did you face that challenge?

Artistically, I seem to thrive on variety. However, I feel the most vulnerable about projects that spring from my own personal life. Most recently, I wrote an essay “Isolation,” which appears in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (HarperTeen, 2011). It reflects on my own experiences with bullying.

TV: How does your experience as a Native American woman influence the stories you choose to tell or the way you approach them?

CS: It’s influenced my predisposition toward Native characters, especially in my realistic fiction. Beyond that, I don’t know how self-aware I am about the affect of my cultural backgrounds on my writing. No doubt they play a role, as does my husband’s Asian heritage, my professional history (journalism and law), and my experiences living in the mid-to-southwestern U.S. But pinpointing it? That’s hard.

TV: You’ve been a strong voice in promoting diversity in literature for kids and teens. Why is this issue so important to you?

CS: To me, diversity means that anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers. It’s important because it’s true and because it’s wonderful news. Both in the real world and in the worlds of our imaginations, we need all the heroes we can get.

There’s much to be said for seeing people like you (in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, region, income, fandoms, whatever) in books. It reinforces the idea that you belong in the community of books. On the flip side, we can all better appreciate each other through heightened understanding. Looking through the fictional eyes of someone different from ourselves is one way to gain a better awareness of his or her experiences and perspective.

TV: In an ideal world, what would true “diversity” in YA literature look like? Is there anything readers can do to help make this a reality?

CS: Essentially, the world of books would mirror our real one, both in realistic fiction/nonfiction and fantasy. You can do a great deal with fantastical metaphor that illuminates our lives from a slant.

The best thing that readers can do is to read. Read broadly. Read out of their comfort zones. Read about people who’re alike and different from them in a myriad of ways. Talk about the books they’ve read. Recommend them to friends. Purchase them if possible, but checking them out of the library is really helpful, too.

Who are Smith’s favorite literacy characters? Check in tomorrow to Part 2: The “Cynstation” of Cynthia Leitich Smith, to find out!