Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes

Now available!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Are you struggling with a novel?

Is there a manuscript in a drawer that’s still haunting you?

Consider my latest story-behind-the-story:

Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) is a novel that rose from the ashes in more ways than one.

In February 2000, I began writing a story inspired by my favorite Halloween decoration. A spooky carousel, complete with lights, motion and music. The story was sometimes called “The Arrivals” and sometimes called simply “Carousel.”

By December 2003, I had a draft of a novel that transported its teen heroes from the real world to an alternative Austin, controlled by a haunted carousel. Within the fantasy construct, anyone who touched one of the detached carousel figures was transported from one dimension to the next.

It was submitted once to an editor, received a lovely rejection, and I shelved it.

I didn’t shelve it because of the rejection but because the story was more an exercise in intellect than passion and because, having established myself as a realism author, I wanted to more drastically diversify my body of work. A bigger, bolder, scarier, even more fantastical story.

With rare exceptions, neither art nor commerce rewards baby steps. But sometimes you have to reposition yourself before moving forward again.

How did I do that?

Book 1 Tantalize series
Book 1 Feral trilogy

In January 2000, I jotted down notes on a YA novel tentatively titled “Brad, The Impaler.”

The story morphed into Tantalize, which sold in 2005 and was released by Candlewick/Walker in 2007. I continued in that vein with Eternal (2009), Blessed (2011), Diabolical (2012) as well as two graphic novels, illustrated by Ming Doyle, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (2011) and Eternal: Zachary’s Story (2013). The series is suspenseful Gothic fantasy with mystery and romantic elements as well as some humor.

Then I spun off  the Feral trilogy, which began with Feral Nights (2013) and continues with Feral Curse (2014). The new books are set in the same world but pivot from Gothic to fantasy-adventure. Each can stand alone, but faithful readers are amply rewarded.

At the center of Feral Curse is a haunted carousel.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the bigger question: Should I have given up on “The Arrivals”?

As a writing teacher, I’ve seen students take the ten-plus years they genuinely needed to make a manuscript work, and I’ve seen students spin endlessly on stories because they’re clinging to the security of a draft and they fear that, if they give it up, the time spent will have been wasted.

Did I give up on “The Arrivals”?

Yes and no. I gave up words–30,305 of them (the fashion in YA was shorter back then). I gave up characters I’d built, three of whom were precious to me, and favorite scenes set in the Texas Governor’s Mansion, the Austin History Center and at a fictional 24-hour deli inspired by Katz’s, which, alas, is no longer on 6th Street.

I gave up a fully imagined and executed draft–a marketable draft.

But I grabbed onto the element that captivated me in the first place: the spooky carousel.

One way I’ve kept the Tantalize-Feral books fresh is to change settings. Readers have gone from a cosplay restaurant in South Austin to a modern-day castle in North Chicago to a (Texas-to-Michigan) road-trip to a Vermont boarding school to a South Pacific Island and, now in Feral Curse, to fictional Pine Ridge, Texas.

Why there? I began writing Feral Curse in the wake of the Bastrop County Complex Fire of September-October 2011. It was “the most destructive wildfire in Texas history.” It was horrible. Two people died, and 1,673 homes were destroyed.

I didn’t want to write about that real-life experience. For me, it’s far too soon. Instead, I wanted to write a fantastical story for YA readers, an escape and a salute to those who’d been touched by that kind of life-changing devastation. I also wanted to diversify out my cast to include a small-town hero.

Bastrop State Park; photo by Greg Leitich Smith

I’m a sense-of-place writer. To the extent possible, I try to fully experience my characters’ world.

Strolling the Bastrop River Walk, my mind’s eye could see it: the haunted carousel…along the banks of the Colorado River in the shadow of the historic downtown.

Bastrop became my loose inspiration for fictional Pine Ridge, and a new novel took shape.

Downtown Bastrop; photo by Billy Hathorn.

So, about your story? The shelved manuscript that’s haunting you?

Ask yourself: Where is the magic? What element first captivated me?

Pick it up again, let everything else fall away, and give yourself permission to re-imagine.

I’m rooting for you!

Colorado River at Bastrop; photo by Billy Hathorn.

Cynsational Notes

Find Cyn on facebook & twitter.

Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights is now available in paperback from Candlewick Press in North America. Both books are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. Future releases are pending from Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand.

To learn more, check out this interview about the Feral series at teenreads. Peek: “My characters are confronted with hate groups, a sometimes unfair judicial system, employment discrimination, pressure to keep their identities secret and so on. But it’s not a dystopian world, in the same way that, for all our problems, ours isn’t either.” Read more. See also an excerpt of Feral Curse.

See also this interview from WIFYR: “My current writing focus is Feral Pride (Book 3). It’s off to my editor and sure to generate a hearty revision letter. I so need her help. I’ve struggled with it more than my past few novels, I think because it’s the last in the Tantalize-Feral universe, which spans six previous prose novels, two graphic novels and three short stories. …with the last installment comes hefty expectations.” Read more.

Kirkus Reviews says of Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014): “Campy humor is paired with themes of social justice in this fast-paced, clever second volume in the Feral series….A neat, smart middle novel that clearly sets the stage for an epic showdown between those who champion the rights of shifters and those blind to their humanity.”

The Horn Book praises the “light tone,” “witty banter,” and chimes in: “…as kooky a cast of supernatural characters as ever…but they’re all relatable in various ways and easy to root for. Debut character Kayla—level-headed, religious, but also quietly proud of her shifter nature—holds her own, nicely complementing Yoshi’s swagger, Wild Card shifter Clyde’s newfound confidence, and human Aimee’s resourcefulness.”

Over at readergirlz, Lori Ann Grover cheers, “Kayla is a strong female protagonist, perfect for readergirlz, while many will swoon for Yoshi. The pacing is fast, the mystery layered, and the adventure full.”

Check out my favorite quote from Feral Curse at YA Series Insiders.

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20 thoughts on “Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes

  1. Wow. A great story of perseverance and also the power of a story to grab hold of you and not let go. Thanks for your encouragement. I have a manuscript that's been rejected. I need to revise it.

  2. I just noticed the suggested question. I would be a werecat or a wereunicorn. Unicorns sometimes get a bad rap, but they've got a built-in weapon.

  3. That is one creepy carousel! I love this: "give yourself permission to re-imagine." You know what story I'm talking about, right? My big-headed boy is getting a re-imagining, and you are one of my longtime cheerleaders who is giving me fuel for the rewriting, redrafting fire. So blessed to know you're there. Thank you.

  4. Before I answer the question, I have to say first, thank you for the pep talk. I have a novel I started during NaNoWriMo a few years ago. I've worked on it a bit from time to time. In fact when I got it out this past November to work on again, I really got into it. So I need to make that a priority to finish.
    Second, hmm, can I be a were-dachshund (wiener dog)? Then I could be loved and spoiled by my owners whenever I was feeling bad.

  5. I love this idea! Who doesn't have a manuscript that they love but know it is doomed to the drawer? Taking the aspect that initially inspired you and starting anew is great advice! I'm thinking I would be a weremaid (you know, a were-mermaid). Initially because I liked the name, but I also think there's a lot of possibilities. And it would be cool to have a fishtail.

  6. Thanks so much, LW! You know, I recently rediscovered a unicorn ring I'd bought on vacation as a girl in Colorado, and I've been wearing it ever since. Definitely puts me in touch with my inner child.

    Meredith! You and that big-headed boy! I'm so thrilled to hear you're taking another crack (so to speak) at the character. Always know I'm rooting for you!

  7. Very motivating story. I too have a chapter book (part of a series0 I wrote when I first began writing that is hiding, I hope, somewhere in my dropbox!

    Id' be were-worm!

  8. My most colossal congratulations on the new book–and my sincerest thanks for an uplifting post! I'm presently battling the new-writer-blues (I'm a failure, I'll never sell anything, I'll never get an agent, yada yada) and your message lit a little candle in me. So, thank you!

  9. What I love best about your novels in this world is the humor! Your characters do and say some hilarious things, which is a nice temper to the serious, life threatening danger they battle. Congrats, Cyn!

  10. I wish you much success with this new title. You are an inspiration! Thanks for giving us hope to hang onto with our older manuscripts.

  11. Buffywnabe, good luck finishing that Nano novel! I'm rooting for you!

    Thanks, Malcolm!

    Joanna, open that Dropbox–the hunt is on!

    Thank you, Jennifer! Hang in there! I remember the new-writer-blues. I recommend dancing to the soundtrack from "Xanadu." It always makes me feel better and amuses the cats.

    Deena, that's so sweet of you to say. Humor helps me keep the drama from sliding to melodrama (I hope), and I'm drawn to characters who can embrace the funny. Whedon's influence, no doubt.

    Go, Rachel, go! Some stories just have to simmer for a good long time.

    Thank you, Carol! Hope is what it's all about.

  12. If I could be any were- it's a hard decision because they all have their benefits! But I think I'd be a were-tiger (tigress?)I love there strength and stealth as well as their playful nature 🙂

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