Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Welcome Cynthia Leitich Smith and Diabolical

Today I’m welcoming my friend and mentor and fellow Texas author, Cynthia Leitich Smith, whose new YA paranormal, DIABOLICAL, part of her TANTALIZE series, is out now! Cyn lives in Austin and I once teased her that we should rename Austin ‘Cyn-City’ in honor of her. All puns aside, Cynthia Leitich Smith is not only talented and at the top of her craft, she is also generous and warm and a million other adjectives that all mean made of awesome.

So let’s get down to business.

First a little bio:
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of TANTALIZE, ETERNAL, BLESSED, DIABOLICAL and TANTALIZE: KIEREN'S STORY (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).
Her website at 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 was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.


Indiebound link:

And now for the interview. Today I wanted Cyn to talk about two main topics: What it takes to build and maintain a writing career for the long haul and what it’s like to have two writers in the family, since her husband, the equally talented Greg Leitich Smith is also working and successful author.

Here goes:

JP: One of the reasons I’m so honored to have you as a personal mentor is that I admire not only your body of work but also the incredible diversity and longevity of your writing career. Can you talk a little about where you started and how?

CLS: Thank you, Joy. I’m the one who’s honored.
My early strategy—or lack thereof—could be held up as a model for what not to do.
About a year after graduating from law school, I quit my job as a law clerk in Chicago with the intent to write full time. I was newly married, carrying a heavy student debt, and I didn’t have a single word down in manuscript form.
Crazy, right?
But I’d begun reading fiction again—comics and books for young readers. Law school had given me the confidence to believe that I could achieve any goal. And after the Oklahoma City Bombing, I felt personally compelled to make a more positive contribution to the world. I took a long walk home that day, sat on a pier, and talked to some ducks in Lake Michigan.
It was the strangest thing. I didn’t have to think hard about it. I knew there was nothing more important to me than creating books for kids.
So, I went home and told my husband, Greg Leitich Smith, that’s what I wanted to do with my life, and he totally supported my decision. Now, he writes for kids, too.
Greg and I moved from Chicago to Austin, which back then had a lower cost of living. I took a part-time job as a tutor in a program for students from migrant farm families at St. Edward’s University. I also joined the fledgling Austin chapter of SCBWI, under the leadership of a dynamic young woman named Meredith Davis, and soon afterward, signed up for a life-changing private workshop or two, taught by children’s authors Debbie Leland and Kathi Appelt.
Kathi and my other initial mentor, Jane Kurtz, both wrote a variety of books, and so it didn’t occur to me that such a varied career was unconventional or risky or that I couldn’t aspire to the same.

JP: What tips can you give writers who are just starting out in their careers about maintaining and nurturing a career for the long term?

CLS: Read, both in those categories that call to you creatively and those outside your specific areas of interest. Read a variety of books—across age markets, formats and genres. They don’t have to be obvious models to inform and inspire. Be especially sure to read outside of your comfort zone. Creating art is all about thriving, innovating amidst uncertainly and chaos; reading books that challenge you is a smart way to steel yourself.
Find your tribe, a community of people, a partner—someone or, better yet, several someones—to support you along the way, preferably those who understand that it’s an ongoing journey. And while you’re at it, punt the naysayers. I’m not suggesting you surround yourself with Pollyannas or those who won’t stretch you, but rather that you associate with folks who’re all about how and not whether you’ll achieve your dreams.
Write. I can’t tell you how to write. Actually, that’s not true. I could highlight countless ways to write, and the conversation surrounding such strategies can be helpful. But ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out the formula that works best for this time in your life and your current work(s) in progress, with the understanding that you’ll no doubt have to evolve eventually.
Follow your passions. Think hard about writing the book only you can write. Think hard about writing the book that scares you. Once you’ve gotten that first novel manuscript under your belt, perhaps try something different than rewriting protagonist after protagonist in variations of your own image. This is your chance to see the world through fresh eyes. Take it.
Don’t fret trends, but don’t shun them either. If the wind is at your back, enjoy it while it lasts. The only constant is change.
Don’t play writer at the expense of writing, unless you just want to be a member of the community rather than someone who ultimately produces books. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hang out with children’s-YA writers. Who doesn’t love that? But don’t fool yourself into thinking that your attendance at an endless array of conferences is a substitute for words on the page. If you’ve been hauling that same old tired manuscript to critique group for the last three years (without re-envisioning or beginning a new project along the way), take a break and work on something else.
Celebrate! Celebrate if you finish a scene or a chapter or reach the end! Celebrate personal rejections! Celebrate your sales and awards and readers mail! Yes, there are challenges to the writing life. Sometimes it requires Teflon skin. Occasionally, it’s okay to indulge in some comfort ice cream or have a good cry. But writing and publishing children’s-YA books is also a glorious, magical pursuit. Never lose sight of that. Enjoy!

JP: Anyone who knows you knows that you balance many obligations: your books, your blogging, teaching and mentoring for the MFA program at Vermont College, speaking engagements… Can you talk about that balance and how you achieve it?

CLS: For all of us, balance is an elusive goal, a forever work in progress. I’m on leave right now from VCFA, though, in 2012, I’m teaching several workshops around the U.S. and taking a couple of private students a semester. At various points in my career, I’ve pursued more or fewer short projects, more or less long-distance speaking, been to varying degrees available to nurture new voices. The formula changes with my circumstances and passions.
However, I am committed. I appreciate that, in this global marketplace, I’m competing against thousands of incredibly talented writers from around the world. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? For precious few contracts. At the same time, I’m someone who’d rather work cooperatively, so I’ve chosen to compete primarily with myself and do what I can to help raise up and shine a light on the community and conversation of books.
Beyond that, I put quality time into both my writing and the business of being an author. But so does Laurie Halse Anderson, Libba Bray, Heather Brewer, Jennifer L. Holm, Robin LaFevers, David Levithan, David Lubar, Mitali Perkins… I could go on and on.
No matter how much we may long for balance, publishing consistently and (by industry standards) successfully, requires sacrifice and dedication. I’ve come to terms with that.
After all, the top doctors, engineers, accountants, plumbers, coal miners, rocket scientists, athletes, and musicians work pretty darn hard, too.

JP: What’s a typical writing day like for you? Writing week?

CLS: I’m on the computer by 8 a.m. By 11 a.m., my goal is to have blogged, touched base with my networks, answered my email, and responded to any publishing/media/event-related inquires. I spend the lion’s share of the afternoon focusing on my work in progress.
After Greg comes home from his day job, we have dinner together and then I either write or do damage control on the author front for another couple of hours. Weekends are a godsend because there are fewer interruptions, though many book events tend to fall on Saturdays.

JP: Your husband Greg is also a writer with many books and projects of his own. What’s it like to live—and work— under the same roof as another writer? Does it have its own set of challenges? Or are you guys just proofreading merrily over dinner every night?

CLS: In addition to his after-dinner writing session, Greg also works on his manuscript first thing in the morning or after a run. He’s an early bird and may put in three hours of writing on a Saturday before I wake up.
Beyond that, we do serve as each other’s first readers. We’re tougher and more direct with each other than we are when we critique other people. After all, Leitich Smith is a joint brand in the business.
You know, I’ve seen author spouses who’re competitive with each other to negative ends, but that hasn’t been an issue for us, possibly because we met as first-year law students (and whatever challenges would’ve probably arisen then).
I enjoy traveling and speaking with Greg more than going out into the world on my own, though I do both fairly regularly. It’s a gift to have someone who understands that when you’re staring out the window, you’re not ignoring him—you’re unraveling a plot snag.
And certainly, we’ve both benefitted from having the other’s books out there during our respective career ebbs and flows.
But big picture, it’s simply fun—what a gift to share the writing life with someone you love. I appreciate his ongoing support, and it’s a treat to read his terrific stories before anyone else does. I can hardly wait for the release of Greg’s upcoming novel, Chronal Engine (Clarion, March 2012).

JP: Anything else you’d like to tell us as DIABOLICAL (great title, btw) comes into the world?

CLS: Diabolical is the fourth book in the Tantalize series and concludes the super arc inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s about second chances, a final test of heroes Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda, and a rejoicing of how much they’ve grown. Diabolical is the most fantastical, funny, romantic, scary, jaw-dropping book in the series to date. It’s a hell of a ride.

Cynthia's 2012 Tour Schedule

Feb. 10 Austin, TX

BookPeople YA Fantasy Panel

7 p.m.
Vicious Valentine: featuring authors Jordan Dane, P.J. "Tricia" Hoover, Mari Mancusi, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and L.A. Weatherly---moderated by Sean Petrie. Whether you love love, hate it or fear it, be there for spooky cool refreshments and scary bookish fun!

March 8 Albuquerque, NM
Alamosa Books Author Event
6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

March 10 Tuscon, AZ
Tuscon Festival of Books
(plus school visits)

April 18 Houston, TX
Texas Library Association Conference
(two panels and signing)

June 11-15 Sandy, UT
Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers

July 11-15 Southampton, NY
Southampton Writers Conference

August 13-19 Montpelier, VT
17th Annual Postgraduate Writers Conference


Janet Fox said...

What a terrific interview. Wonderful questions and great insights from Cyn. I can't wait to read Diabolical!!

Dotti said...

Cynthia never ceases to amaze me. I always take any advice she gives to heart. Great interview.

McCourt said...

Such a wealth of experience and insight - thanks for sharing!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks to all, especially Joy!

Samantha Clark said...

Great interview, Joy and Cynthia! Thanks for sharing. Wonderful advice. Lots to take home. And thanks, Cynthia, for sharing about your wonderful life with Greg. You guys are indeed a team, and it's fabulous to have someone so supportive but also and honest critic under the same roof. You guys are an inspiration!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks, Samantha! I'm honored and blessed. Greg is a gem.

Shana Burg said...

This is an inspirational interview on so many levels. Thanks, Cyn and Joy!