Book Nerd Interview
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weeklybest-selling author of the TANTALIZE series and FERAL series. 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 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 atcynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.
What was your first introduction to YA literature, the one that made you choose that genre to write?
As a young reader myself, I didn’t have the breadth and depth of choices available to teens today. I do remember studying William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders from English class. But most of my attention as a reader was focused on superhero comics and science fiction/fantasy published for grownups by authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley and Dave Wolverton.
My ah-ha moment about writing YA came years later, after I’d graduated from law school and was living in downtown Chicago. I caught a glimpse of Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause at Border’s on Michigan Avenue. It was displayed on top of a shelf in the YA section, and I picked it up, read the flap copy and put it back. I’m not sure why exactly, but I couldn’t get the book out of my head. The next day after work, in a snowstorm, I hiked from the Loop back to North Michigan to purchase it and dived right in. I was instantly captivated by the mystery, the horror, by werewolf protagonist Vivian’s passion, strength and loyalty to her pack.
Did you learn anything from writing Tantalize series and what was it?
I learned to trust my subconscious. When I started writing the first book, I had this vague idea that I wanted to celebrate Abraham Stoker’s themes of the outsider, of gender and power, of the meaning of faith. I wanted to play and have fun with his mythologies as well as build out my own from there.
As the series progressed, to my delight, I discovered that I had, on instinct, planted clues in each book that would fuel those to follow.
What do you feel is the most significant change since book one?
The multi-creature-verse of the series has emerged more clearly and also steadily expanded.
With book one, I focused on vampires and a myriad of shape-shifters (from classic werewolves to cutting edge werearmadillos. I recently read somewhere that I had invented the werearmadillo). Of late, readers are invited to dance with not only those mythologies but also angels, demons, ghosts, sorcerers, and more.
Which character have you enjoyed getting to know the most over the course of writing Tantalize Series?
I’m a sucker for secondary characters, and I’m going to pick Harrison, who’s first introduced in Eternal. He’s the personal assistant to the reigning Dracula, has been raised among humans that for generations have dedicated their lives to serving the undead, and he takes a somewhat reserved and cavalier attitude about the whole situation. His growth arc is extraordinary and inspiring and more formidable than anything I expected from him. Dickens’ Sydney Carton can eat his heart out.
Characters really do surprise you sometimes.
For those who are unfamiliar with Zachary, how would you introduce him?
Zachary is hands-down the most gorgeous, popular and charmingly flawed of all of my characters. He has the best of intentions, always acts out of love, mostly for his girl, Miranda, and usually ends up in ever more trouble because of it.
I can’t imagine a more entertaining date or devoted lover than the guardian angel Zachary.
What part of Kieren did you enjoy writing the most?
His intelligence. Sure, there’s the manly virility, the animal passion, and the loyalty to his beloved Quincie. But a brilliant character demands more of the writer. He’s not going to make a foolish decision. He’s most likely to solve the mystery so our heroes can defeat the monster.
He’s a thinker, and he makes me think, too.
Which of your characters do you feel has grown the most since book 1 and in what way have they changed?
Miranda. When we first meet her, she’s quivering in the face of her high-school queen bee. She can barely stand and speak, even though it’s her dream to become a stage actress.
By the end of the series, she has the earned confidence to pit heaven against hell and can hold her own against the archangel Michael himself.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I’d love to write a scene between Sergio, the manager at Sanguini’s (a vampire-themed restaurant at the center of the series), and Roberto Morales, Kieren’s father. They’re both smart, thoughtful human men on the fringes of these fantastical stories.
I’m curious as to how much they’ve each gleaned with regard to the horrific and miraculous events that have unfolded. They do know each other, and there’s even a passing reference to them off-stage, having Sunday brunch with their respective significant others. I’ve just never put them front and center together.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Kathi Appelt is my children’s-YA writing teacher, and Jane Kurtz mentored me early in my career. They’ve each been a godsend in different ways. My Candlewick editor, Deborah Noyes, also is a tremendously accomplished and acclaimed author, and my books are so much better because of her guidance and support. I likewise have close friends who’re gifted voices like Uma Krishnaswami and April Lurie and Rita Williams-Garcia. And I do treasure their insights. But mentor per se is harder.
I came of age as an author as part of the Austin children’s-YA author community. We all started out unpublished, sort of holding hands and wandering clueless into the magical, dark forest. I was the first of our now incredibly successful gang to break through on the national scene.
I guess it’s the community itself that has mentored me, been my cheerleader, best friend and held me steady in the light.
What is your happiest childhood memory?
Kathryn. When I was a preschooler and she was a toddler, the most adorable little girl moved into the house next door to mine. I wanted a little sister, and I chose her.
We were inseparable. She used to wait at the corner for me to come home on the bus from elementary school. My family relocated only a few years later, but we stayed close—spent as many weekends and holidays together as possible. It didn’t matter that I was a handful of years older. I had plenty of age-peer friendships, but once I turned sixteen and could drive, all that meant for Kathy and I was that we no longer had to wholly rely on our parents to bring us together. She’s still the dearest person in my life.
My happiest childhood memory isn’t especially remarkable in and of itself. It’s the greater context that makes it sing. I was spending the night on the L-shaped sofa in the bonus room of her parents’ new house. We each took one side, sleeping feet to feet, after staying up all night laughing and talking and watching movies and eating pizza. It was a safe place. She was—and is—my safe person. The family I chose for myself. I was completely content.
I think about that when people minimize the feelings of the young. When I think about my readers, I respect that they’re feeling real, deep pain and loneliness and joy and respect and admiration and fear and love. I remember being there, experiencing all of that, and I’ve never forgotten.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
I used to call my grandma Dorothy. I usually wouldn’t tell her what was wrong. It just helped to hear her voice, and she was great at making me laugh. She helped to ground me and, by example, she helped me to define myself as a woman, both in the things she did right and the things she did wrong.
She’s no longer with us, and I miss her every day. But she left me an antique gold watch on a long, gold chain, and when I wear it, I feel closer to her.
When "slipped" angel Zachary and his werewolf pal, Kieren, arrive under suspicious circumstances to a mysterious New England boarding school, they quickly find themselves in a hellish lockdown with an intriguing assortment of secretive, hand-picked students. Plagued by demon dogs, hallucinatory wall décor, a sadistic instructor, and a legendary fire-breathing monster, will they somehow manage to escape? Or will the devil have his due? Best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith unites heroes from the previous three novels in the Tantalize Series - including Zachary's girl, Miranda, and Kieren's love, Quincie - along with a fascinating cast of all-new characters for a suspenseful, action-packed clash between the forces of heaven and hell.
The multiple points of views from the slipped guardian angel Zachary, werewolf Kieren and Miranda give the perfect delivery for the final book in this remarkable series. The return of Miranda was a nice touch as the characters from the previous books are finally pitted together for a wonderful finish. The introduction of new characters, Vesper and Nigel, gave more depth to the plot. The twists that Cynthia laced the finale with will have readers on the edge of their seats. There are moments that are simply stunning that will leave readers’ mouths hanging open. The creepiness is sometimes difficult to bear but Cynthia’s writing style is so addictive that no matter what she throws at you, you will continue to read on. Just when readers think that a twist that is presented is just over the top and out of this world, Cynthia comes back with another one the tops it. It is this writing approach that keeps the story interesting and difficult to put down. The building towards the end is the perfect way to end the series and will satisfy all of your heaven vs. hell, paranormal romance, and vampire/angel cravings.