Author Kathi Appelt Takes Over Cynsations, Interviews Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

Dear Cynsations Fans—

Our host, Cynthia Leitich Smith has interviewed literally hundreds of folks in the children’s-YA literature community here on Cynsations.

She’s interviewed authors, illustrators, editors, agents, book packagers, publicists, bookstore folks. You name it, she’s interviewed us.

She’s done this for over ten years now, so I thought I’d give Cyn a day off and take on the role of guest editor.

But then I thought, hey, the person I want to interview is Cyn!

So here you go, sports fans, an interview with our very own Cynthia Leitich Smith about her new book, Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

(I know, not much of a day off, but at least she didn’t have to think up the questions).

Here’s an introduction…

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the successful author of Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), Santa Knows (Scholastic Book Club, 2007), and numerous short stories.

Her newest book Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) comes on the very successful heels of Cyn’s first Gothic fantasy, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), but while it features some of the same elements, it’s definitely its own novel.

KA: Welcome to Cynsations, Cyn! And congratulations on the release of Eternal!

Thank you, Kathi! Welcome to Cynsations yourself!

KA: In a conversation we had on the phone, you explained to me that both Eternal and Tantalize fall into a category of horror literature known as “Gothic fantasy.” For me, horror has always been just that, horror. And yet, it seems to those of us who are unfamiliar with the genre, there are different categories. Can you describe what Gothic fantasy is and how it differs from other sorts of horror?

In Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004), anthologist Deborah Noyes says, “…think of Gothic as a room in the house of horror. Its décor is distinctive. It insists on the burden of the past. It also gleefully turns our ideas of good and evil on end.”

I tend to think of myself as a sense-of-place author, and I’m fairly obsessed with the “burden of the past,” the “conversation of books” over the ages. So Deb’s vision and definition are definitely in sync with mine.

My Gothics are interwoven with nods, tributes, and counterarguments to various pieces within the body of classic and, to a lesser extent, current literature. Tantalize is largely inspired by the Pygmalion tradition and offers a parallel construct to Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Eternal touches on DickensA Tale of Two Cities and Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.”

However, both novels (and Blessed, which I’m working on now) are foremost a conversation with Abraham “Bram” Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Dracula is the quintessential horror novel, perhaps—as often said—more for its elements than execution, but nevertheless a fascinating place to begin. To varying degrees of subtlety, I take on many of Stoker’s themes, such as invasion, the “dark” foreigner, the role of religion, corruption, sensuality/sexuality, and especially gender.

Does a reader have to have studied Stoker (or Hawthorne or Dickens or Shakespeare) to understand my books? Nope, but I have heard from teens that my novels have inspired them to pick up the referenced classics and I’m delighted by that.

I would add that my YA Gothics reflect a multi-faith, multicultural world and include both some humor and strong elements of romance. The latter isn’t new to the tradition. Dracula itself includes some heavy romantic content.

What else? Horror should challenge the readers’ comfort zones. Beyond that, in my universe, magic must have a proportional price. I’m not guaranteeing any happy endings (you have read the book to find out what happens). It’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad, and I like a set of teeth on my monsters or–in other words–a little horror in my horror novel.

KA: One of the trademarks of Eternal and Tantalize is the parallel world that you show in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago, making readers feel as though we could easily step across the portal from one to the other and not even realize that we’ve crossed such a dangerous border. How did you manage to go from a real setting, one that is easily recognizable to anyone who has tramped around in those cities, to one that could be there and yet remains unseen to most of us?

I’m tempted to ask why you’re so sure that magical “parallel world” isn’t the real one. Then again, I’ve been writing Sabine—the eternal queen—so I’m feeling rather saucy.

The short answer is that I’m fond of field trips.

Tantalize is set in Austin. Eternal is partly set in Austin, partly in Dallas, and mostly in Chicago. I make my home in Austin, lived in Dallas one summer, and lived in Chicago for three years. So, I’m already starting on familiar turf, but I don’t take anything for granted.

For example, while writing Eternal, I visited to Chicago and walked every street my characters did. In February (brr). I shopped on North Michigan Avenue with Miranda. I went out for egg rolls with Zachary in Chinatown. I’d ridden the El thousands of times, but it was different trying to imagine it from the perspective of a guardian angel.

What else? I’ve shot rolls and rolls of film in Austin neighborhoods (I’ve since gone digital), visited open houses to find homes for my characters, picked out clothes for them in local boutiques… My theory is that if the universe isn’t real to me, it won’t be to anyone else, and so I try to step into it to the extent possible.

KA: So sometimes you refer to the books as “in a universe” and sometimes as a series. Could you explain that?

It’s a series of books set in the same universe.

It’s not necessary to read Tantalize before Eternal or vise-versa. But the casts of those two novels will crossover in Blessed, which picks up with Quincie right where Tantalize leaves off.

There’s also a Tantalize graphic novel in the works, told from Kieren’s point of view and offering many new scenes.

In addition, I’ve written a couple of short stories set in the universe: “Haunted Love,” which appears in Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, 2008) and “Cat Calls, which will appear in Sideshow: Ten Original Dark Tales of Freaks Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, July 2009).

KA: Tantalize introduced all kinds of new werebeasts, including werepossums, werearmadillos and werepossums, and yet it was very much a vampire story (okay, there was that cute werewolf, but still, we’re talking mostly vampires). Eternal, on the other hand, brought in a different kind of supernatural being, a guardian angel. What inspired you to tap into the angels?

I’m working with a multi-creature-verse. While the vampires often take center stage—partly because of Stoker’s influence and partly because they’re grabby that way—I see the world as very diverse in its fantastic entities. Anyone who begins with the Tantalize graphic, for example, will likely think of it as a “werewolf” story.

The idea of guardian angels in Eternal came from the editing team.

My original thought had been to do an elf in the role instead, but he kept coming off too young and naïve to go toe-to-toe with my fearsome vampire princess.

Editorial was right–I needed a new concept for that character. I loved the idea of GAs so I took the story to the studs and began rebuilding.

Notes: Eternal also features werebears; my critique group is still mourning the elf.

KA: While we’re on the subject of heavenly bodies, I want to bring up the question of religion. How in fact did you deal with competing religions, heaven, the “Big Boss,” etc.?

In Dracula and many horror movies, there’s the idea that Catholicism, or at least Christianity, alone can fight the big baddies, and I decided to take a more inclusive tact both in terms of my heroes and “the forces of good.” It’s clearly specified in Eternal, for example, that everyone gets a guardian angel.

“Forget what you might have heard,” Zachary says. “There are no separate corps of angels for agnostics, atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Unitarians, Hindus, Druids, Shintoists, Wiccans and so on.”

I’ve received notes from several young readers specifically saying that they appreciated my including whichever group they identify with.

That said, my angels are fictional fantasy beings, not pulled from any real-life tradition of faith.

K.A: Throughout the story, we get small glimmers of light, including some humor perhaps especially in Zachary’s story. But we never forget that this is a horror story. Can you talk about the horror for a moment? What compelled you to write in this genre?

I’m writing the kind of story that I love to read. In junior high, I was a huge Stephen King fan, and by high school, I was a fan of spooky movies. (Less “Freddy,” more “Poltergeist,” less “Jason,” more “Lost Boys.”). I didn’t start writing Gothics until I finished Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) in late 2oo1, but I was already taking part in the related conversation.

In a 2001 Cynsations interview, author Annette Curtis Klause said:
“Reading about violence and horror is a way for a person to not only clarify their stance on moral issues by exploring the alternatives (and in doing so give license to the antisocial creature within in a safe venue) but to exercise their responses to the terrible and be prepared for it in real life. “It is foolish to try and sanitize literature and the arts under some mistaken idea that one is protecting youth. Children and teens need to explore the dark side as a healthy part of growing. “If a child is protected from everything dreadful, he will have no coping mechanisms in place when finally confronted with disaster.” In my twenties, when I began looking at young adult fiction with a writer’s eye, Annette’s Blood & Chocolate (Delacorte) wowed me. It was her female protagonist that impressed me most.

And before long, I was a dedicated “Buffy” fan!

When it comes to gender, horror has had its shining moments (Dracula (1897) arguably cuts both ways), but I still craved female heroes–like Buffy and Annette’s werewolf Vivian–and other fully-rounded female characters who were more than the fawning dependent, bait, or gender-clichéd victim or villain.

So, I guess it was that, a combination of an affection for horror and a predisposition, as a YA author, to give the girls their due. I’m not offering super-heroic slayers or shying away from the romantic tradition. But I am featuring, in the mix, active female characters willing to stand and, if necessary, fight on their own.

All of which isn’t to say that it’s an all-girl-powered series. Protagonists Kieren and Zachary are male heroes in the series.

This spring I had the honor of visiting with YA librarians from the Austin Public Library, and I was dismayed when one of them mentioned that a boy patron had dismissed books about vampires as “girl books.” He wanted to read one that spoke to him.

I don’t mean to gender stereotype. Obviously, I’m a woman who enjoys a scary read. But we want to encourage boys to read, horror appeals to some boy readers, and I’m always happy to recommend books like Thirsty by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 1997) or Heather Brewer‘s tween series, The Chronicles of Vladamir Tod (Dutton).

Note: I mentioned above that Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) “cuts both ways.” Quickly… On one hand, Mina is a “modern woman” who can use a typewriter and organize all the available information about the monster and help track him. When the men are grief stricken over Lucy’s death, Mina is the one they turn to for support. On the other hand, at times her delicate sensibilities are protected (she’s sent to her room like a child, and she goes).

KA: Eternal has two strong voices. What was it like writing from alternating viewpoints?

Finding Miranda and Zachary’s voices for Eternal came naturally. I could hardly shut them up.

Finding Quincie’s solo voice for Tantalize was more of a challenge. But I think that’s in part because, back then, I was still haunted by the voice of Cassidy Rain from my debut tweener, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). It sometimes takes an extra effort to get past that debut novel. The release of my “sophomore” novel took five years.

In between, though, I’d done several first-person short stories, which helped. Don’t get me wrong, short stories are a wonderful form unto themselves. But they’re also great labs for experimentation and learning.

KA: You have a whole community of teen readers who are Tantalize/Eternal fans. Can you describe how this closeness to your fans impacts you and your work?

I’m tremendously appreciative of their support and enthusiasm. That said, it’s not only teenagers. I’d say half of my reader mail comes from grown-ups age 25 and up. If there was ever a doubt about the YA crossover market, at least with regard to fantasy, good news! The market lives.

I spend a lot of time writing back to YA readers on the ’net.

(Not all authors can do this—I don’t have, say, three-year-old twins at home).

But especially with teen readers, if at all possible, I want to thank them for reading, cheer their excitement, and point them to other books they might enjoy, no matter whether they’re mine or someone else’s.

Altruism aside, it’s not a bad strategy to tell that reader begging for your sequel to, in the meantime, go read Carrie Jones‘s Need (Bloomsbury, 2008)!

K.A.: It could be said the Tantalize and Eternal are “genre” books, and yet when we think of genre literature, we don’t always equate it with “literary.” But both Tantalize and Eternal are exquisite in their literariness—your use of language, detail, symbolism, etc. all combine to make stories that are linguistically beautiful as well as wondrous in the ways in which they fulfill the requirements of their genre. How did you do that?

Thank you! (Working on learning to take a compliment…).

Much of the credit goes to my wonderful editor, Deborah Wayshak and her team, as well as my early readers, especially my husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith.

I should also point out that there’s certainly amazing and literary genre fiction out there. A recent example would be Night Road by A.M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2008).

As for me, the most significant thing I do—beyond my homework and reading widely—is to take my time. I’m serious about meeting deadlines, but I try to set realistic ones, and I’m going for quality over quantity.

(I know there are novelists who can achieve both higher output and solid craft, but since I also teach and write shorter fiction, I’m not sure I’ll ever be one of them).

Also, my books are for the crossover (age 14+) market, which means I’m under no pressure to make them more accessible than I would otherwise.

Note: outside of the “book world,” it can be challenging to explain (mostly to parents) that reading level is more than vocabulary or length or profanity/sexual content. Not every tween/young teen is ready for an upper-level YA with an unreliable narrator or quasi-epistolary elements or alternating point of view or that disrupts his/her comfort zone (which horror tends to do). That’s okay. They’ll get there. And at the same time, we still need books that challenge strong readers as well as those in transition.

K.A.: You are one of the pioneers of the children’s literary Internet community. How do you balance the demands of your on-line presence with your own writing?

I pre-format most of my non-time-sensitive posts a couple of months in advance. Many mornings, I do a fair amount of just copying and pasting the code to reach my audience via various outlets.

With regard to the main website, I’m blessed (there’s that word again) to be working with the wonder woman that is Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

In addition, Greg contributes a fair number of the book recommendations.

KA: You have a picture book coming out next year. Can you give us a sneak peek?

Holler Loudly will be a humorous, original southwestern tall tale, illustrated by Barry Gott and published by Dutton. It’s a love letter to small-town folks, public librarians, and everyone who likes to be heard.

I should also mention that Greg and I have a short story, “The Wrath of Dawn,” coming out in Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown, Aug. 2009).

Note: the Geektastic cover shown is not final.

KA: Thanks for letting me to be the guest editor! If I ever set up my own blog, will you do another interview?

But of course! Thank you!

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Kathi Appelt.