Thanks so much for visiting HipWriterMama, my blog about children's books, authors and readergirlz!

It's time for a change. I've decided to focus my attention on my writing blog, www.vivianleemahoney.com. Hope to see you there!


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

WBBT: Writing the True with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Cynsational WBBT Book Giveaway!

One of the first blogs I discovered, when I started blogging almost three years ago, was Cynsations. Then I quickly found Cynthia Leitich Smith's website. Between these two resources (talk about organized and easy to navigate), one can pretty much find anything worth knowing in the children's book world.

I'd read Cynthia's books TANTALIZE and ETERNAL, but thanks to readergirlz, I discovered more of Cynthia's books: JINGLE DANCER, INDIAN SHOES, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME.

Let me tell you, Cynthia Leitich Smith has received so many awards and honors for her work, it would fill up pages. Here's an easy link to find out about Cynthia's books and awards.

Here's some awards Cynthia has received for her last two books:

TANTALIZE: Borders Original Voices Nominee, March 2007; Featured title, 2007 National Book Festival; 2007-2008 Tayshas List; Chapters (Canada) Junior Advisory Board (JAB) pick; Featured title, 2007 Texas Book Festival; BBYA nominee; Featured title, 2007 Kansas Book Festival; Cybils nominee; Featured title, Readergirlz 31 Flavorite Authors for Teens.

ETERNAL: YALSA’s 2009 Teens Top Ten Nominee; February 2009 Book of the Month, Native America Calling; February 2009; Featured Title, “My Borders Monthly”

Cynthia Leitich Smith is simply incredible. It's been an honor to have her here on my blog. Wait until you read what she has to say. So come on, grab your favorite beverage and hang out awhile.

But wait! This just in! Cynthia is hosting a Cynsational WBBT Giveaway in celebration of the Winter Blog Blast Tour. "I'm offering a signed copy of any of my books (winner's choice) to one of the folks who thoughtfully comments at my WBBT interview and then emails me (cynthia@cynthialeitichsmith.com) to let me know (so I have your contact information). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 22." Thank you, Cynthia!

Please welcome Cynthia Leitich Smith...


HWM: Why children’s books? How did you get your “break” into getting published?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: My mom was the person who first suggested that I try writing for young readers, and at first, I was reluctant. I was a recent law school graduate, in my late twenties, trying so hard to be whatever a grown-up was. I thought I wanted to shake off everything about being a kid.

But my mom had begun taking me to the public library when I was a little girl and did so—up until about fourth grade—more Saturdays than not. I read avidly and anything…children’s books (especially the Newbery winners), superhero comics, my dad’s TARZAN paperbacks, even my mom’s paperback romances on the sly.

So, in my twenties, living in Chicago, I haunted bookstores. I remember going upstairs at a large indie bookstore in the Loop and noticing Angela Shelf Medearis’s DANCING WITH THE INDIANS (Holiday House, 1993) and then, weeks later, finding Annette Curtis Klause’s BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE at Borders on North Michigan Avenue.

Each was a revelation—DANCING WITH THE INDIANS because it featured Native characters who weren’t bad guys, and BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE because it absolutely beckoned to me.

At the time, I was working as a law clerk in the Office of the General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Social Security Administration (there was a reassignment in there somewhere), and I was sitting at my desk in a federal office in Chicago, on the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing. It affected me deeply—because of the horror of the tragedy itself and, I think, because I have such strong Oklahoma ties.

The atmosphere wasn’t like it was after 911. There wasn’t this idea of an ongoing threat (arguably there should’ve been), but rather people were eager to explain away the incident as the work of “fringe” men who’d been caught. I didn’t have any fear of working in federal building, but the bombing had reminded me of the brevity and preciousness of life.

I took a long walk home and found myself talking the whole thing over with some ducks in Lake Michigan (ducks are excellent listeners). I could hear myself saying that there was nothing I valued more than youth literature. I wanted to be a part of that world. Now.

So, with the blessing of my sainted husband, and not so much as one word down on paper, I quit my day job. (Don’t try this at home).

My “break” into publishing was organic. I had a picture book manuscript, “Something Bigger,” pulled out of the slush pile by Rosemary Brosnan’s assistant at the now-defunct Lodestar. Rosemary asked for a revision, and I sent her another picture book manuscript, “Jenna, Jingle Dancer” to consider while I worked on that.

JINGLE DANCER (2000) was eventually published by Rosemary at Morrow/HarperCollins, and “Something Bigger” turned into one of the short stories in my chapter collection, INDIAN SHOES (HarperCollins, 2002).

That said, it was my emphasis on the craft of writing, rather than on publishing as a business that got me there. My “break” was reading, writing, revising, becoming active in a critique group, and taking classes from author Kathi Appelt.

HWM: You’ve written contemporary Native Indian books for children, short stories, as well as fantasy. What do enjoy about these different genres?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: What I love most about writing across formats is how they inform each other.

I’m always vaguely flabbergasted by folks who begin as fantasists because the burden is so much higher. You have to succeed at all of the same elements as you do in realistic fiction and, at the same time, craft a resonant, integral, and internally consistent fantasy element. I couldn’t have written fantasy without having mastered the skills of realistic fiction first. I’m sure of it.

The short story as a form has been the greatest gift to me. It’s more containable and feels less risky than the novel. The time commitment is less. The psychological and publishing pressures are less.

I first tried humor, “boy” voice, and upper YA, for example, in the short form. Don’t get me wrong, the short story is a wonderful end unto itself. But it’s also a tremendous lab for experimentation and confidence building.

I would like someday to write a grounded fantasy with a Native protagonist that appeals to mainstream teens and rings true to Indian readers and allows them to better imagine themselves as heroes in magical and make-believe worlds.

HWM: November is all about celebrating Native American Heritage Month over at readergirlz. I was shocked how difficult it was to find good books, that treated Native Indians with respect, rather than as a stereotype. Why do you think this is the case, even in 2009?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Big question. It’s a combination of reasons.

The first is that many folks in the United States—including some in youth literature--are still in an active state of denial (or ignorance) about the nation’s history with regard to Native people and our reality today. Especially the former is painful—after all, we’re talking about child abuse, rape, land theft, and genocidal efforts.

Perhaps because of misplaced ancestral guilt, it’s easier for some to believe that we all had a great time together at the first Thanksgiving and then Native people either (a) became savage warriors who had to be exterminated or (b) mysteriously died out through no one’s fault.

Certainly, that’s—to a significant degree—what’s still taught in American schools.

Of course there are some terrific teachers and school librarians trying to counteract this, but possibly the majority of Americans are carrying false information about Indians, delivered by our educational system itself.

I’ve had my share of school visits where the very young students had already been taught that Native people were either scary or extinct or both—taught not only at school and through books but also from other media and influential adults.

Grandma says, “My, aren’t you the savage little Indian!” (I overheard this in a bookstore, said to a young child who was misbehaving.).

To further complicate matters, a significant number of people who think of themselves as open-minded tend to equate “Native American” with either (a) supernatural, super-ecological largely inhuman creatures or (b) a tragic, defeated and dying people whose glories (and achievements) exist only in the misty past.

It’s a mess.

That’s the big-picture challenge.

Extend that to books, and often you’re looking at authors (a) who’ve been raised in that mainstream (sometimes contradictory) belief system, (b) who honestly don’t begin to realize how off-base many/most of their assumptions are, (c) who’re consulting “original” resources drafted by enemies of Native people, and (d) are trying to connect with a mainstream audience that shares many of their same biases. You get the idea.

It’s entirely possible to write across race successfully. I do it, and I have no intention of stopping. Miranda, the protagonist from ETERNAL (Candlewick, 2007) is Asian (Chinese), and I’m not. Kieren, the protagonist from TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY (Candlewick, 2011) is Mexican American, and I’m not. And I fully realize that we’re humans. We all make mistakes.

But in writing cross-culturally about Native people, it’s critical for non-Indians to begin as if they know absolutely nothing, take a significant amount of time to acquaint themselves with the truth, and proceed in a patient, open-hearted, and respectful manner. It can be done. I’ve had friends and students and colleagues who’ve done it. But you have to stretch, perhaps more than you might realize at the beginning.

That said, writers are only a part of the equation. For the reasons I mentioned above, readers—including gatekeepers—may be more likely to find that an inaccurate book that embraces popular stereotypes rings “true” to them than one that reflects Native realities.

For example, over the years I’ve had several readers mention—some in a questioning way—my inclusion of Native characters with a higher education in my books. Cousin Elizabeth from JINGLE DANCER is an attorney. Aunt Georgia from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins, 2001) is a retired school teacher and a science teacher at that.

The final big reason is numbers and interest level. Native people are 1.5 percent of the population. As I mentioned, there are certainly writers who succeed in writing cross-culturally about American Indians, but when it comes to writers from within the communities, the pool is small. We need to nurture interest and aptitude where we find it.

Likewise, our numbers of Native teachers, librarians, reviewers, editors, agents, marketing people, and bloggers are small and in some cases non-existent or at least statistically non-existent.

We need more friends, more loud mouths who advocate for quality Native voices and visions and well-executed cross-cultural additions to the body of youth literature.

HWM: What made you venture into Gothic fantasy?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I’m spooky by nature. Scary stories have appealed to me since junior high, and I was writing the kind of books I love to read.

I also have a love of the European classics. I took honors English in high school and completed a concentration in English at the University of Kansas.

I also had strong feelings about the quintessential vampire-mythology novel DRACULA by Bram Stoker (1897), especially the character of Mina Harker and what had happened to her since.

By today’s feminist standards, there are certain elements of Mina’s depiction—such as being sent to bed by her husband (to protect her supposedly delicate sensibilities)—that are appalling. But big picture, you could make an argument that she is the protagonist. That windbag Van Helsing gets all the credit, but it’s Mina who props up the soggy men after Lucy’s death and organizes all the information and tracks the monster, using Dracula’s power over her against him.

She can even use that newfangled device, the typewriter.

In the 1931 movie “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, Mina is just “the girl,” “the victim.” That’s it. She doesn’t help in any way. She may be dangerous in a sexual way, if the vampiric infection takes.

(Throughout the history of literary/film vampires, much is made of the juxtaposition between the virgin (or at least sanctified) female victim and the demonic woman with any sexuality. That interested me too.)

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” starring Winona Ryder, Mina is the reincarnated late wife of the Count, and falls in love with him again, even after he’s threatened the life of her beloved Jonathan Harker, murdered Mina’s much-adored best friend since childhood, Lucy, and is revealed as a demonic undead serial killer.

Yikes, how much weaker could she get?

Gothic fantasy traditionally deals with gender and power, and I wanted to write about that theme. And as I dug farther into Gothic literary history, I realized that its other core themes—including the “dark” other (which back in the day meant “Eastern European”), invasion, and plague—were still as pertinent today as they’d been in the 1800s.

HWM: You’ve written from both the female and male POV. What are the challenges for each one?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I focus more on writing the individual than the gender, but I was intimidated at first of trying a male POV protagonist, especially because my husband, Greg Leitich Smith, is a fellow author and has been known to remark on “boy” voices that don’t ring true to him.

Writing a male voice is something that I tried first in a YA short stories—“A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate,” which appeared in MOCCASIN THUNDER: AMERICAN INDIAN STORIES FOR TODAY, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005) and “Riding with Rosa,” which appeared in “Cicada” magazine (Vol. 7, No. 4, March/April 2005).

HWM: When you wrote TANTALIZE, did you know there would be companion books, ETERNAL and BLESSED?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I hoped. I hoped enough that I wrote the book with that in mind. But I also knew it was a long shot. From a publishing perspective, a book series doesn’t come easily, and at that time, my previous sales figures were quite respectable for a literary trade multicultural author, but they didn’t exactly signal a likelihood of a “big” bookstore, multi-book sale.

Fortunately, the success of TANTALIZE opened up the possibility for more books in the series—both prose and graphic—including quite arguably the rest of Quincie’s story.

Sometimes you just have to go for it.

HWM: You have a wonderful way of adding humor in your books. Are you a naturally funny person?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I’m hysterical. No, really, I do often use humor when I speak, both at the podium and informally. When people laugh together, it’s the greatest meeting of the minds.

HWM: What types of research do you do for your books?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: With the Gothics, which are the most recent, I studied the original folklore from around the world and early literature up to present day, including books for adults and young adults and film and pop culture.

For TANTALIZE, I spent hours pouring through Eastern European cookbooks, including historical cookbooks. For both TANTALIZE and ETERNAL, I walked the paths of my heroes through their settings, cameras in hand. I’ve also spent quality time researching the Ice Age animals—from bears to armadillos—that inspired my shape-shifters and spent a lot of time talking to the Big Boss about guardian and arch angels.

HWM: It must be wonderful exploring first love as a theme in your books. Do you believe in love at first sight? Or are you more a fan of get to know the person?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I absolutely believe it’s critical to get to know the person before giving away part of your heart or building them into someone they might not be.

On the other hand, I first met Greg at a law school party in Ann Arbor, and I distinctly remember looking across the crowded yard, my gaze resting on him, and thinking, I am going marry that guy. And I did.

So, I guess it’s important to love yourself first, to take care of yourself, but be open to magic when it appears.

HWM: What can you tell us about BLESSED? Or any other writing projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: BLESSED picks up where we left off with Quincie at the end of TANTALIZE and crosses over the casts of TANTALIZE and ETERNAL. A graphic novel adaptation of TANTALIZE, from Kieren’s point of view and including lots of new scenes, is also in the works.

On the children’s fiction front, I look forward to next year’s release of HOLLER LOUDLY (Dutton), a humorous original southwestern tall tale, illustrated by Barry Gott.

HWM: You’re very involved with encouraging and helping other writers, through your blog and website. How do you find the time and what have you found to be the most rewarding about these projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I work on my blog far in advance. Though there’s always some timely information, at least in the weekly round-up of news and links, most of the features are pre-formatted months in advance. Right now, Cynsations posts are pre-formatted through Jan. 14, 2010.

When I quit my day job to become a writer, it was a commitment not only to my own work but to the body of literature and the community that creates and connects it.

I’m so pleased that Cynsations and www.cynthialeitichsmith.com (hopefully) make some contribution to the conversation of books, and I’m honored to shine a light on my colleagues. I sometimes talk to authors who’ve pinned their definition of success on this or that award or income point, and, well, awards are great and I need to eat…but I just feel amazed that I get to be a part of this inspiring, faerie-dusted world.

HWM: You're also a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts - Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA Program. Is it hard to separate the teacher from the writer when you work on your projects?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Not really, but it’s an interesting question. Mostly, I try to unlock what my students’ vision for their writing might be—perhaps even before they’ve fully realized it—and then try to figure out strategies to best facilitate their improvement and eventual success.

HWM: What do you like writing the most: the beginning, middle or end of the story? How long does it take for you to figure out the end?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: I often know the end before I begin writing. Middles can be deadly. I have an MTV generation attention span, and much of my readership has a Wii attention span.

Reversals are key.

HWM: What is your writing routine?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: It’s totally dependent on the other demands on my time. I often feel like author Cynthia Leitich Smith—with all of her travel, speaking, promotion, teaching--is the biggest obstacle to writer Cyn.

But I typically post to my blogs and catch up on social networks and email correspondence in the morning. Then I write in the afternoons and evenings and on weekends and holidays. People always feel sorry for me when I say that. But I love to write at Christmastime. I love it.

HWM: What was the best writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: It’s advice I gave to myself actually. When I was in my early apprenticeship, I read all of Paula Danziger’s books in order of publication. From the beginning, her writing was solid and kid-friendly and funny and engaging, but I could see her craft develop over time. I decided that my only goal would be to keep improving—even if that meant taking some scary risks and maybe even stumbling all the way.

HWM: What advice would you give to all those NaNoWriMo writers out there?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: When you’re done with the draft, print it, read it, then throw away the draft and delete the file. First drafts are all about discovery. Take the lessons learned from that exercise, and then get to work on draft number two.

HWM: What is your most memorable fan moment?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: A girl reader had written me after reading TANTALIZE to say that she was infuriated by Quincie’s independence—“true love means giving up EVERYTHING!!!! so the boy will love you!!!!”

She wrote back a couple of months later to apologize for “yelling” at me. She said that she’d been in an abusive relationship, that her girlfriends had all urged her to stay in it because the boy was cute and “at least you have somebody.”

TANTALIZE, and especially Quincie’s value system, shook her up. The girl wanted me to know that she’d broken up with the boy with “the temper when he drank.”

My books have a feminist undercurrent, though I’m not writing Slayers (“Buffy” fan that I am). My female heroes are much more “everyday” girls than that. And I err on the side of the theme, pushing aside the message per se.

But you know, I’m glad that girl isn’t with that abuser anymore. And if my hero Quincie had even the tiniest thing to do with that, I say bully for both of them!

HWM: If you found a way to go back to your tween years as one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Miranda from ETERNAL, so we would both have the courage to step on stage sooner.

HWM: What makes you laugh?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: My rambunctious kitties, my awesome writer buds, the goddess that is Libba Bray, the combinations of bumper stickers on Austin bumpers, and hummingbirds. I just adore hummingbirds.

HWM: If you were a superhero, what powers would you want and why?
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Most of all, I would want to be able to speak dolphin because dolphins are in the know, and I bet they could make me laugh too.

Thank you so much, Cynthia!

Other Places to Find Cynthia Leitich Smith:

Remember, Cynthia is hosting a Cynsational WBBT Giveaway in celebration of the Winter Blog Blast Tour. "I'm offering a signed copy of any of my books (winner's choice) to one of the folks who thoughtfully comments at my WBBT interview and then emails me (cynthia@cynthialeitichsmith.com) to let me know (so I have your contact information). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 22."

For more WBBT interviews, check out Chasing Ray's Master List.


Beth Kephart said...

An utterly captivating interview. Thank you for this.

tanita davis said...

Always so much to think about in these interviews!

I was tickled one year to have Cynthia sit down next to me in a conference, introduce herself, and start to chat. I was - predictably - sitting there, talking to no one, and she seemed like this Amazing Person.

And MAN, she is.

Excellent interview.

Jim Danielson said...

I had the pleasure to hear Cynthia speak this past Saturday and she is amazing! (I also talked to Greg who made the trip to Chicago with her.) Great interview Cynthia and HWM.

liz-scanlon said...

THIS is a totally awesome, touching, funny and expansive interview. I KNOW Cyn and I just found out a bunch of stuff I didn't know. Thank you guys, both...

jama said...

Wow. Fabulous interview. Loved the in-depth look at this truly inspiring, amazing, gifted writer and writer advocate. Thanks so much to both of you.

beth said...

I was first hooked by CLS through TANTALIZE. The writing style is just so clean and neat--I really loved it, and I believe it's influenced my own style, word-wise.

I love the info on the multiculturalism here. Thanks for the interview!

Jessica Lee Anderson said...

This is an amazing interview from a really amazing person! Thank you so much for sharing.

PJ Hoover said...

Such a great interview, Vivian and Cynthia! I loved every bit of it!

Susan Quinn said...

I was lucky to meet and hear Cynthia talk at Prairie Day writer's conference this last weekend - and blogged about it.

Thanks for the fantastic interview!

Vivian said...

Thank you, Everyone, for stopping by! I've just updated Cynthia's interview-- This just in! Cynthia is hosting a Cynsational WBBT Giveaway in celebration of the Winter Blog Blast Tour. "I'm offering a signed copy of any of my books (winner's choice) to one of the folks who thoughtfully comments at my WBBT interview and then emails me (cynthia@cynthialeitichsmith.com) to let me know (so I have your contact information). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 22."

Thank you, Cynthia!

Doret said...

Great review. Its nice to learn about the author who takes the time to spotlight other writers.

Little Willow said...

Hi to Vivian and Cynthia (and Greg, and their kitties!)

Debbie said...

Great interview!!!! There are throngs of Austin writerly-types that adore, revere, and just-flat-out love this incredible woman.

Cyn, I will take your NaNoWriMo suggestion and delete my musings. Gulp!!!

All my wishes go to your continued great success. You deserve it all!

Write on!

Debbie Gonzales

Janet Fox said...

Wonderful interview. I thought I knew Cyn...this is very revealing!

Thanks for opening the doors!!

Gayleen said...

Cynthia is always so inspiring and also says things that really make you stop and think about writing.
(personally, I love the encouragement to write across cultures and genres)
We're all lucky she's made such an ongoing commitment to the community of children's literature.

Matt_Johnston said...

Thank you so much for all the great insight and advice! With all that history and know-how that you had in your background, it's no surprise that the stories are so engaging and well-thought-out!

I'm also an aspiring writer, involved in the NaNoWriMo (only 15K so far--sheesh!). I've heard from other authors before that rewriting the story is key, after getting initial ideas down. Of course, that is one of the most scary things to do after completing a story that's immensely long; then again the first draft gives you the the beginnings of wonderful concepts and give you an even better outline that can be made into something even more planned and structured. When i get done with an idea, i'll be sure to try the "edit & trash plan."

Myself being a male, I find it EXTREMELY intimidating to try to write from a female's POV. I do try, though, and if a woman peer I let read my stuff tells me it's off it's a good gauge to tell you if something "Rings true" or not (if only all of us writers were married =]).

I found it extremely refreshing and interesting to hear how Natives have been percieved and taught in the past (and even in ways how they're taught today), in the classrooms as well as in books. To be honest, I'd only come into contact with Native Americans and their thoughts/beliefs story-wise(other than in Cynthia's work, of course)when i read a few Tony Hillerman books over the summer (which is an interesting read if any of you get the chance).

Another example of a character who is Native American is main character Zoey Redbird, from the House of Night series (authors P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast). The problem with their work and slightly their concepts Native-wise (at least in my opinion) is that at times the stories/backgrounds of her heritage are as Cynthia put it; "supernatural, super-ecological largely inhuman creatures." At the same time, though, they attempt to tie it in with the Gothic Fantasy Genre, which may or may not give a clear description or understanding of how Native Americans in those areas (I want to say Tulsa?)lived and believed. I can only hope (or imagine) that they did their homework on the subject matter.(They even tie in their own interpretation of the novel Dracula, in a way i found just mildly interesting.)

Another great "write across race" example that i would recommend to anyone would be Nancy Werlin's "Black Mirror." (please note that even though i mention different books by different authors, it is only in reference to the comments made in the interview. no commercial tie-in here). The main character, Frances, is both half Jewish and half japanese. Combine that with her somewhat lack of self-esteem, and it's no surprise she becomes lost in thoughts of who she should be and what voice and direction she should take.

Thank you again for the interview; can't wait for the new books!! :)

Joan Holub said...

What a fascinating interview. So much good stuff. I enjoyed reading about your research in cookbooks and Ice Age animal books for Tantalize. And your observations about gothic fantasy themes dealing with gender and power are intriguing. I've seen Tantalize numerous times and have meant to grab it up. It's now a definite to-be-grabbed and read. I love spooky, too, but sometimes I can't write what I love, which is disappointing. But at least I get to read it from authors like Cyn who CAN write it. :o)

Congratulations on your many well-deserved awards, Cynthia. And thanks again for a truly wonderful interview, Cynthia and Vivian.

~ Joan Holub

brian yansky said...

Great interview. Smart and funny. Great superpower choice. After all, who wouldn't want to hear what dophins have to say?

dead beat daddy-o said...

What I took away from this the most was that other people quit their jobs and follow their passion in a way that's like walking a high wire. I love those stories because I've done the same. A blank page used to scare the hell out of me and probably prevented me from cutting my path a lot sooner. But I found that if I just wrote something (anything) that sentences and ideas would fall into place. After all, it's like you said: you're just going to throw away that first draft anyway. So why fret it? Thanks for the insight. It's further helped me along.

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Great interview! I loved getting to know Cyn better. Thanks so much.

BrigidsBlest said...

I really liked this interview. Not only was it interesting to learn more about the author, but it gave me a bunch of new book titles to chase down.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Fabulous interview, Vivian! I've visited Cynsations (of course, hasn't everyone?!) but I never felt like I knew much about Cynthia. Now I know a little bit more. Thanks for this.

Jay Wise said...

As a (male) teen librarian, I was absolutely overjoyed to listen to _Tantalize_ as an audiobook download during the height of the "Twilight Phenomena" (first movie, first book). I enjoyed Cynthia's explorations of Quincie's relationships in a more "real world" way than were, perhaps, presented in _Twilight_ and I also enjoyed getting to recommend _Tantalize_ to our teens,male and female. Thanks for a wonderful interview. It is refreshing to read the life stories and interests of an author who gives as much of herself and her craft to other bibliophiles as Cynthia does.

Kim said...

Great interview Vivian!

I LOVED what Cynthia said about Natives. As a member of a tribe myself, it is my passion to tell children the truth about history and the destruction of my own tribe and to help eliminate stereotypes.

Thank you Cynthia for speaking truth and for all you do in the writing community.

I have read your most of your books about Natives. I would love to read Eternal!

Margay said...

Cynthia, this is an absolutely fantastic interview. I was especially drawn to the section on your though,ts about writing Native American characters, especially given that I have Native blood in me, too (on both parents sides). But because of where I grew up (my mother is a New Englander and my father was from Virginia), my ancestors were forced to assimilate or be forced out West. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about my Native heritage (though I'm trying to change that through genealogy). But I have always been fascinated with Native culture and the real stories of the Native peoples.

So I'm wondering, since I'm interested in writing about the culture, how do I make the characters seem real? The las thing I would want to do is a caricature of any ethnic group.


throuthehaze said...

Great interview! I love that Cynthia would want her superpower to be the ability to speak to dolphins :) that would be pretty cool

Debby Dahl Edwardson said...

I agree with your assessment, Cyn, of why it’s so hard to find and publish books about Native American peoples that deal with them 1) in a realistic contemporary context; and 2) accurately and without stereotyping.

It's a mess. A total mess.

So, we say. Who’s responsibility is it to fix it? The kid readers who are only able to formulate their understanding based on the books they are given, books written in part from the majority mythology and partly from material compiled by the oppressor? No, certainly not. The publishers and book people, then, the ones who formed their understandings when they were the aforementioned kid readers? Arguably yes, but how? Who’s going to teach them or how are they to teach themselves? So then. Is it the responsibility of the Native American writers and book lovers, already oppressed by the system, to reach out and educate everyone on what should already be obvious? Certainly not…er, well, yes, a bit, but how? Because every time they try there is some former child reader, in love with the image they were once given, hollering sour grapes. Last call, then. Is it the responsibility of non-native writers seeking to write cross culturally? Partly, sure, but what are they to use to correct the misconceptions? The original source material compiled by the oppressor? No, no, no. Yikes, what a dog-chasing-tail scenario.

I was thinking of what I once heard Gary Snyder say. He was quoting some Zen master, I think (though I may be wrong): Sweep the yard, whatever size.

So we all start with our own yards and work outward.

And think about writing across cultures across genders, across genres, because, heck, it’s where we live. Just follow the one rule: make no assumptions. Write everything the way you have to write fantasy—questioning every detail, one piece at a time and refusing to accept the easy answer.

Hey, look at Gary Snyder—he was writing across cultures. I love his wonderful Cold Mountain poems—what do we call them, something beyond translation…

And look at Cyn, following what beckoned her in Blood and Chocholate, and writing from a Chinese perspective, a Mexican perspective, and a boy perspective, to boot.

We have reach out and try. We just have to.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Margay & Debby both touch on the question of how to write about Native people and address the "mess" I mention above.

It's a big topic, and I'm on a fierce deadline, but I'd like to point you to a recent related discussion on Through The Tollbooth, led by the above-mentioned Debby Edwardson and Nancy Bo Flood who both write across race and culture about Native characters. See:
Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard
Indians in the Cupboard: What Were You Thinking? Let Them Out!
Warriors Caught in the Crossfire
Now What: Writing Across Race
American Indian and Alaskan Native: Who's Story?
Native American Spirituality in Children's Books
Don't miss the comments, which include insights from Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature, who's done a lot of work in this area.
In addition, I offer Teacher and Librarian Resources for Children's and YA Books with Native American Themes (many of these are useful to writers as well).
And although she's not talking about Native characters specifically, there's much to be gleaned from Uma's Krishnaswami's recent post How to Write About...(Pick and Place or People).

There's a lot to digest, I know. But it's best to take your time and engage thoughtfully with the global conversation. I hope this helps!

Margay said...

This is a great set of resources - I can't wait to dive right in! Thank you for providing them for us. And I think, even if you're not a writer, it would probably be a good exercise for everyone to go and read them - maybe then, we can change the perceptions people have not only of Native people, but of anyone who is not like them. Thanks again, Cynthia!

shelburns said...

Thanks for such an insightful interview! I loved learning more about Cynthis.

lionmother said...

Thank you so much Vivian for an interview with Cynthia that touches on aspects I never knew about her.

Cynthia,I love that you want to be a dolphin super hero! What super powers would a dolphin have?

It's interesting that Cynthia, you started learning to write for children by reading Paula Danziger's books. She is the reason that I started writing for children. I attended a workshop she gave at my graduate school for a week and I was in love with her. She was the most thorough and compassionate teacher I had ever had. Yet as we all know she was quirky and funny.

You mentioned that you noticed that she honed her craft and that her later books showed that. I was very lucky to be there with her as she showed us how to sketch our characters and reminded us that less is more. I will never forget her words for me written all over my first draft manuscript: Cut, cut, cut.

I like that you throw away your own first draft and start from scratch. This is something I should try, but it's like walking blindfolded. I'm not sure I could create it again.:)

Your writing has always inspired me and the other day I was in Borders I decided to peek at your new book. By the time I needed to leave I was almost through the first chapter. I think what you were talking about reminds me that your characters are all authentic. This authenticity comes from the research I now see that you incorporate into your writing process. I could also feel the pain you feel when you speak about the lack of Native American writers and teachers. As life for Native Americans begins to get better more opportunities should appear for them. Our country did not treat them well and now we must suffer to see the results of all that neglect and abuse.

As an author you are in the unique position of being able to rectify this and your books will inspire Native American children to write. There might be a Native American child right now who wants to write. But your continued advocacy for the dignity and respect of Native Americans is wonderful. I am in awe of your ability and hope that this will come to pass in the future.

Angela said...

I follow Cynsations but this was a great chance to get to know more about Cynthia!

I’m working on two non-fiction projects right now and I really appreciate what you said about primary sources. Sometimes so much effort is put on the primary sources that the writer MUST take time to verify them. Primary does not always equal accurate!

Thank you for sharing the story with us about the fan. I will never forget that.

Books change lives!

Tarie said...

Wow, I learned so much from this interview. Thank you, Cynthia and Vivian!

Paul Greci said...

Great interview! Thanks Vivian and Cynthia. Very inspiring!

Debra McArthur said...

Lots of great food for thought in this interview, and thanks for the references to articles for more about creating characters outside one's culture group. I wrote my MFA critical thesis on that topic, and found it fascinating and challenging.

Unless our characters live in some odd sort of cultural vacuum, we must all write outside our cultural background at some point. Omitting characters outside our own culture group because we are afraid to try is a cop-out. In historical fiction, it is dishonest.

As you pointed out, we struggle with primary resources with first-person accounts of Native Americans spouting lines such as "Squaw Heap 'Fraid!" and other depictions that reek of the stereotypes Reese describes as "TV Indians." It takes hard work to portray characters outside our own culture groups.