Authors in Conversation: Adrianna Cuevas & Cynthia Leitich Smith on Eerie Books

Two award-winning Austin authors have ghostly books publishing this month: Adrianna Cuevas and Cynthia Leitich Smith. We couldn’t resist the opportunity for insight on eerie stories from these authors, so we arranged for them to ask each other questions. First up, Cynthia asks Adrianna questions about The Ghosts of Rancho Espanto (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 4, 2023). From the promotional copy:

Rafa would rather live in the world of The Forgotten Age, his favorite role-playing game, than face his father’s increasing restrictions and his mother’s fading presence. But when Rafa and his friends decide to take the game out into the real world and steal their school cafeteria’s slushie machine, his dad concocts a punishment Rafa never could’ve imagined—a month working on a ranch in New Mexico, far away from his friends, their game, and his mom’s quesitos in Miami.

Life at Rancho Espanto isn’t as bad as Rafa initially expected, mostly due to Jennie, a new friend with similarly strong snack opinions, and Marcus, the veteran barn manager who’s not as gruff as he appears. But when Rafa’s work at the ranch is inexplicably sabotaged by a man who may not be what he seems, Rafa and Jennie explore what’s behind the strange events at Rancho Espanto—and discover that the greatest mystery may have been with Rafa all along.

Adrianna at Black Pearl Books in Austin.

Adrianna Cuevas

Setting—atmosphere—is so important to both mysteries and ghost stories. Why did you choose the ranch and what opportunities/limits did it present?

The setting for The Ghosts of Rancho Espanto is based on a real location in northern New Mexico. In 2019, I volunteered as a librarian at Ghost Ranch, outside of Santa Fe, and learned about the lore surrounding the area. It was full of rumors, eerie stories, and fantastical creatures- the perfect setting for a story. For the main character Rafa, with his overactive imagination and inclination to always assume the worst, Rancho Espanto was the perfect place to drop him for an adventure.

Did you have a sense from the start of your story’s ending and reverse-engineer it from there or did you write into the solution? Could you describe your creative process with regard to structuring the novel?

Typically, I’m surprised by the endings of my stories when I’m writing. While I have a vague idea of how I want the plot to wrap up when I begin writing, I don’t know the specifics until I’m about 3/4 of the way through my first draft. I’m neither a true plotter or pantser since I usually outline and write my stories in thirds. This allows me to make any changes I want that come up as I’m drafting. When I’m crafting my story, the external and internal conflict are of primary importance. I tend to write the same kind of stories that I like to read- plot-driven and fast-paced. So the character arc and emotional nuance of the story doesn’t typically develop until I’m revising.

How have you grown as a literary artist since your debut novel? Looking ahead, what are your goals for your creative journey?

I always describe my debut novel, The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), as the book I wrote to prove to myself I could actually write a book. And yet, I’ve found that each time I sit down to begin a new story, I still have to show myself that I can take on the task.

So in a way, I’m not certain that I’ve grown much as a literary artist. I’m still trying to find exciting stories that entertain me and make me laugh. Yet the more I do school visits and engage with my young readers, I’m motivated by the desire to give kids stories where they can get lost in an adventure and see themselves as the hero. That will always be my primary goal when I write.

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Harvest House (Candlewick, April 11, 2023) cover art by Britt Newton; cover design by Pam Consolazio, from the promotional copy:

Halloween is near, and Hughie Wolfe is volunteering at a new rural attraction: Harvest House. He’s excited to take part in the fun, ghostly show—until he learns that an actor playing the vengeful spirit of an “Indian maiden,” a ghost inspired by local legend, will headline.

Folklore aside, unusual things have been happening at night at the crossroads near Harvest House. A creepy man is stalking teenage girls and young women, particularly Indigenous women; dogs are fretful and on edge; and wild animals are behaving strangely. While Hughie weighs how and when to speak up about the bigoted legend, he and his friends begin to investigate the crossroads and whether it might be haunted after all.

As Moon rises on All Hallow’s Eve, will they be able to protect themselves and their community?

Your literary catalog covers a wide variety of genres and age ranges. What drew you to telling a ghost story?

My favorite memories include a night of fun at Halloween haunted house with my mom, a cousin (to whom the novel is dedicated), and an auntie. The idea of a “safe” scare is delightful and cathartic. We know it’s make-believe, but we find ourselves playing “pretend,” sort of like we did as little kids. I wondered: What if the make-believe haunted house was really haunted? What would that mean? How did could that happen?

Beyond that, my passions include the conversations of writers and stories over time. For example, my Tantalize series (Candlewick, 2007 – 2013) was an extension of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that unpacked gender and power as well as what it meant to be the “dark other.” Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018, 2020) took on the anti-Indigenous editorial writing of L. Frank Baum, and Sisters Of The Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021) revisited JM Barrie’s Neverland, centering the Native kid and girl characters.

This time, I decided to engage with mainstream folklore. A reoccurring example of that is the “tragic Indian maiden,” who’s usually in a doomed romance and “haunts” a local scenic location or roadway. I wanted to rip away the stereotypes, ground it in a three-dimensional hero, and give her a voice. That, in turn, brought me to addressing the crisis of missing Indigenous women across the continent. That said, in writing for readers as young as 12, I didn’t want to retraumatize them. So, I adopted a cozy-suspense mystery approach that gave my young characters agency as amateur/journalistic detectives.

Plus, I made an effort to craft a YA with literary and popular appeal that would work for the full spectrum of YA readers from 12+ classic YA to 14+ crossover YA. I fret that our younger teens may be getting lost between middle grade and upper YA, but I also understanding the shelving and marketing challenges that have plagued tween titles. It took some thought and strategic framing, but I’m hopeful to have pulled off a YA novel that resonates with all levels of YA readers.

The haunted house setup is a well-explored trope in ghost stories. What do you think you brought to this plot that is new and fresh?

Harvest House isn’t—and has never been—a residence. It’s a long-empty commercial (chicken restaurant) space being repurposed as a community fundraiser. The creative repurposing of that space by the fundraiser team and, in part, by the protagonist (as a “haunted” fun house) goes to plot, themes, and reflects current conversations about Native people and about loss more broadly. That said, publishing for young readers is only just beginning to put forth even the most popular tropes from BIPOC and queer perspectives. Speaking of which, I recommend the film “We Have a Ghost,” available on Netflix.

Do you have a bucket-list eerie story that you are eager to tell? Or a horror story trope that you are excited to put your spin on?

I’ve joked that I’ve written every well-known creature except zombies. I’ve even written a were-armadillo ghost before!

Really, though, what interests me most is the magic in the metaphors. It’s less about the fantastical creatures and more about the topics they represent. That said, Harvest House is much more than a creature feature. It also reflects daily life, moments of humor and even a light romance, including an adorable first-ever kiss! Big picture, it’s about Native teens raising their voices to tell their own stories.

Cynsations Notes

Adrianna Cuevas is the author of the Pura Belpre honor book The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), Cuba in My Pocket (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) The Ghosts of Rancho Espanto (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) and Mari and the Curse of El Cocodrilo (HarperCollins, 2023). She is a first-generation Cuban-American originally from Miami, Florida. A former Spanish and ESOL teacher, Adrianna currently resides in Austin, Texas with her husband and son. When not working with TOEFL students, wrangling multiple pets including an axolotl, and practicing fencing with her son, she is writing her next middle grade novel.

She is represented by Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate, is a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including Hearts Unbroken, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. Her recent releases include the middle grade anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, winner of the Reading of the West Book Award for Young Readers and an ALA Notable Book, and the novel Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews. Both books were named to numerous “best of the year” lists. Her debut tween novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name was named one of the 30 Most Influential Children’s Books of All Time by Book Riot, which also listed her among 10 Must-Read Native American Authors. Her 2023 release is the YA novel Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery.

Cynthia is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books and was the inaugural Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.