Author Interview: Monique Gray Smith on My Heart Fills With Happiness & Advice for Beginning Writers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Today I’m honored to feature Monique Gray Smith, “a mixed heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent” and the author one of my favorite new titles–my official go-to gift book for 2016.

What put you on the path to writing for young readers?

I never set out to write for young readers and to be honest, I never saw myself as a writer.

When Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience first came out, it was marketed to adults, but then it won the Canadian Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature.

This award sends 2500 copies of the winning book to schools and programs across the country, and all of a sudden, Tilly was in the hands of young people, in schools, classrooms and friendship centres and it became a YA book.

Congratulations on the release of one of my favorite new titles, My Heart Fills with Happiness, illustrated by Julie Flett (Orca, 2016)! What was your original inspiration for this title?

Thank you for your kind words about My Heart Fills. Working with Julie was a true privilege. We spoke on many occasions about the message and illustrations; it was a beautiful collaboration.

My Heart Fills with Happiness was inspired when I was facilitating a workshop on our history and resilience at an Aboriginal Head Start program.

At lunch, the children joined us and I witnessed a Kookum (Grandma) sitting in her chair and her grandson came running over to her. He stood in front of her and she took his face in his hands and his whole body changed. His shoulders went back, his chin came up and his eyes lit up.

What I saw was the way she looked at him with such love filled his heart with happiness. This got me thinking about what fills my heart and our hearts as human beings. A couple weeks later, I was visiting with five of my dear friends and as we were talking, the book came.

Literally, in one quick write, it was done. Only one line has been changed. My next children’s book, called You Hold Me Up has also been inspired by Aboriginal Head Start. This is such a powerful program in our country and now has been running across our country for over 20 years and has 50,000 graduates. Culture and Language as well as Family Involvement are two of the six components of this program and as a result it is a significant aspect to the healing of Residential Schools in Canada.

What were the challenges between spark and publication, and what lessons were learned along the way?

This book was a gift from the Ancestors, I know that with every fibre of my being, Cynthia.

Her first book!

As I said above, there was only one line change and in the end there were three publishing companies that wanted to purchase it.

There were some miscommunications with the design between myself and Orca Publishing and as a result I think we have both learned the importance of ensuring connection throughout the project.

I know that this is a new way of relationships between author and publisher, but in these times of reconciliation, it is critical we work together instead of the publisher having all the power and decision making.

What did Julie Flett’s illustrations bring to your text? (Full disclosure: I’m a fan.)

Oh Julie! As I said above, it was a privilege to collaborate with Julie. When Orca informed me it was going to be Julie Flett illustrating My Heart Fills with Happiness I literally did a happy dance in my office. Not only do I admire Julie’s contribution to literature; both as an author and illustrator, but I also have profound respect for her as a human being.

I think Julie’s illustrations bring the words alive. The way she was able to capture the tender nuances on facial expressions and body postures is precious!

And the cover, I have had numerous girls say to me, “look, that’s me on the cover.” I think that says it all! When a child sees themselves on the pages it is incredibly affirming for them and in some ways, their right to be seen.

We all need to be seen and heard, but for generations literature has not only not seen us as Indigenous people, but especially not Indigenous women and girls.

Let me simply say, Julie’s illustrations make this book what it is!

You also are the author of Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience (Sononis, 2013). Could you tell us a little about this book?

Tilly is loosely based on my life through Tilly’s journey and the characters she meets they tell aspects of our history as Indigenous people in Canada. It weaves together some of our traditional teachings, culture and ways of being.

It also speaks to my personal journey of alcoholism and recovery and the beautiful relationship Tilly has with her alcohol & drug counsellor, Bea.

How have you grown as writer over time? 

Oh yes, I am still growing…and to be honest, hope to never stop growing. I am not a trained writer, so I need exceptional editing support.

One of the aspects where I feel I have grown the most is being willing to let the story flow through me.

I used to want to interrupt and pause the story, but now I close my eyes and type away or I share what I’m thinking into my phone. Especially dialogue between characters, that seems to come to me in the place between wakefulness and sleep.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Pay attention. Notice your surroundings, the mannerisms of individuals, the ways people speak, how the light looks on the land at different times.

I’d also say, put yourself out there: let others read your work, send it in to contests, send it to publishers. And remember, you will get on of three responses. Yes. Not yet. Or I have something even better in mind.

View of Gonzales Bay from Monique’s office

How about Native American/First Nations authors?

Our people are craving to read our stories and stories that they can see themselves and their lived experiences in. Write them, share them. And if writing them isn’t necessarily comfortable, talk them.

On most phones, there is the microphone app on email, if you record your story and then send it to yourself by email it will come as text and voila, you have your first draft.

I would also remind you of the importance of ceremony when writing. I find it helps ground me and opens me for the story to come through me. Offerings of gratitude help me every single day, not only when I am writing, but every day.

I would also say read as much as you can and raise up and talk about those you are reading.

In Memory: Lois Duncan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Lois Duncan died in June while Cynsations was on summer hiatus.

Lois Duncan Obituary: Bestselling author of fiction for young adults, including the thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer by Julia Eccleshare from The Guardian. Peek: “She was born Lois Duncan Steinmetz in Philadelphia, and grew up in Sarasota, Florida. Lois wanted to be a writer from childhood, and submitted her first typed manuscript to Ladies’ Home Journal when she was 10.”

Obituary: Lois Duncan by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “After attending Duke University for a year… She entered her YA project Debutante Hill in Dodd, Mead & Company’s Seventeenth Summer Literary Contest and earned the grand prize: $1000 and a book contract.”

Lois Duncan, 82, Dies; Author Knew What You Did Last Summer by Daniel E. Slotnik from The New York Times. Peek: “Though her books had their share of violence, Ms. Duncan said she was ‘utterly horrified’ when she saw the [1997] film adaptation of “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” which…turned her novel, about a group of teenagers desperately trying to conceal an accidental killing, into a horror tale in which the same teenagers are systematically dispatched by their hook-wielding victim.” Note: To clarify, I heard Lois speak about this at an SCBWI conference. It wasn’t the violence per se but rather the way it was trivialized for cheap thrills. Her novel had a strong moral center that was absent from its film adaptation.

I Know What I Read That Summer by Carmen Maria Machado from The New Yorker. Peek: “Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders.”

Guest Post: E.M. Kokie on Hands-On Research & Getting Out of Your Character’s Way

By E.M. Kokie
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the flap copy of Radical by E.M. Kokie (Candlewick, 2016):

Preppers. Survivalists. Bex prefers to think of herself as a realist who plans to survive, but regardless of labels, they’re all sure of the same thing: a crisis is coming. 

And when it does, Bex will be ready. She’s planned exactly what to pack, she knows how to handle a gun, and she’ll drag her family to safety by force if necessary. 

When her older brother discovers Clearview, a group that takes survival just as seriously as she does, Bex is intrigued. While outsiders might think they’re a delusional doomsday group, she knows there’s nothing crazy about being prepared. But Bex isn’t prepared for Lucy, who is soft and beautiful and hates guns. 

As her brother’s involvement with some of the members of Clearview grows increasingly alarming and all the pieces of Bex’s life become more difficult to juggle, Bex has to figure out where her loyalties really lie. In a gripping new novel, E. M. Kokie questions our assumptions about family, trust, and what it really takes to survive.


Determined to survive the crisis she’s sure is imminent, Bex is at a loss when her world collapses in the one way she hasn’t planned for.

Before writing Radical, I had never touched a gun. I had never wanted to touch a gun.

But in the early drafts I was struggling to get to the heart of my main character Bex. Then I realized I hadn’t really thought about how Bex would feel about guns. It was a blind spot caused by my own discomfort with guns. Once I had that realization I could see all the ways I didn’t yet know Bex.

Bex wouldn’t just shoot or possess guns. She would have spent most of her life shooting them. They would be part of her family tradition, part of her social life, and part of her identity. She would love her guns. She would be proficient. She would be responsible in their care and maintenance.

In order to understand Bex, and to write her with any kind of accuracy and credibility, I needed to understand guns.

I started with online and print research — reading about different kinds of guns, popular makes and models, shooting ranges and training programs, and eventually gun laws and the tradition of gun ownership within families and communities.

Then I moved on to watching online videos about everything from training techniques and amateur shooting videos, to videos about comparing models, and cleaning and maintaining firearms. I was fascinated by the many videos of girls and women shooting guns, and handling knives, bows and arrows, and other weapons.

But reading and video research could only take me so far. I needed to understand the tactile and visceral details of how a gun felt in my hand, the heft, and texture, and kickback. The tang in the air after shooting. The smell and feel of cleaning different models. I needed to have a vocabulary and understanding that gave her character depth and provided context for the plot.

But I also needed to get inside of how she would feel, physically and emotionally, about her guns and while she was shooting.

For Bex, shooting guns would be about more than fun or competition or even defense. It is part of who she is.

I was lucky to connect with some people who let me shoot their guns on their property, in an outdoor setting with a dirt berm and a pond, much as I pictured Bex and her brother shooting in their woods.

We started with a small, light gun that even felt small in my hand, and then worked up to larger and more powerful firearms. Then I got a crash course in cleaning and maintenance, sitting on the side of a porch, much as Bex does in the book.

I left with all these sensory details, insights into how shooting could be fun and cause a sense of competition or accomplishment, and bruises in several places.

Even the ride out to the shooting site on a homemade cart attached to an ATV unexpectedly informed the setting and context for my story.

During the writing process, I also reached out to some firearms experts online to answer questions and to seek input for crafting certain plot elements and scenes. And once Radical was in the last stages of the editorial phase, my publisher hired one of those experts to perform a content read to make sure we got the details right.

The research didn’t change my mind about my own potential gun ownership, or how I would feel about having a gun in my home. But it did help me better understand Bex and her world, and, hopefully, helped me craft more organic and believable characters and scenes.

Guest Post: Alan Cumyn on Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

Find Alan on Facebook and @acumyn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome, Alan Cumyn! What was your initial inspiration for Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Atheneum, 2016)?

There’s a short answer and a long one. The short: in January 2012, popular YA author Libba Bray gave a speech to over a hundred writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts in which she brought us through the ups and downs of her writing career.

Three times in the course of an hour she said, “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” She meant that we shouldn’t slavishly follow the trends. But I was struck by the phrase.

When I approached her afterwards and said that I was getting an idea, she encouraged me to follow up, and a little later the whole first chapter, in which the pterodactyl, Pyke, arrives at Vista View High in a calamitous fashion – by landing unceremoniously on the cross-country running champion, Jocelyne Legault – more or less fell out on the page for me.

The longer answer takes me back more than ten years when I was riding a train from Toronto to Ottawa. I had been at some publishing event or other, and was full of the possibility of new stories.

The train rounded a bend and Lake Ontario came into sight. On a rock by the shore a great blue heron, which looked like an ancient creature, pierced me with his gaze. It was the oddest feeling – I felt locked in direct communication with an intelligence not only from another species, but from a vastly different time.

Seconds later the landscape changed, the heron was gone, but I pulled out my pad and scribbled furiously for several pages about a heron who is able to change into a man at will, and who wanders into the big city from time to time almost as a vacation from his usual existence.

After a time I stopped writing because I realized I didn’t know enough about herons to proceed. Over the years, I worked on several versions of this story, and got sidetracked with an interest in Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” (1915) famously envisioned a man who wakes up one morning transformed into a bug. I was drawn to the idea of introducing something startlingly unreal and fantastical, but continuing the rest of the story in as realistic a fashion as possible. I was also, like so many others, attracted by the dreamlike nature of Kafka’s writing.

The story morphed and became at least two entirely different novel-length manuscripts that sputtered for various reasons and never quite worked. And then: “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” I was seized with yet another possibility to work with some of the same ideas and influences, and perhaps not take it so seriously this time.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

U.S. cover art

That first chapter poured out of me within a day or two of hearing Libba Bray speak in January 2012. I sent a full draft to my agent, Ellen Levine, in late December 2013, so it took me about two years to write much of the manuscript.

During most of that time I told nobody what I was working on. I like the freedom to go wherever I want on the page and to fail privately in ridiculous ways if need be.

After that strong opening chapter fell out, I slowly went over that material again and again for clues about how the story must proceed with these characters in the situation they find themselves in.

Before showing the draft to Ellen, of course, I got feedback from my wife Suzanne, and from friends and family, and made it as strong as I could.

Ellen contacted me enthusiastically in February 2014 and I worked on some more revisions for her. She sent it out to publishers in March and, although a lot of editors passed on it, we did get offers in April, with Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum winning out.

I was way up north in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada at the time as writer-in-residence at Berton House when the phone line to New York started to burn up. It was exciting and strange, to be so far away and yet to have such interest suddenly welling up about my unusual pterodactyl novel. (Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, it turns out, is the first novel of mine to be published simultaneously in Canada, the United States, the U.K. and elsewhere.)

U.K. cover art

I got a chance to meet Caitlyn in New York in July 2014, and U.K. editors in September. When I was in New York I also spent time at the Museum of Natural History which just happened to be showing a major exhibit on pterodactyls!

Some of the latest research changed the way I thought about the physicality of Pyke, and made it into the book. A lot of the revisions for Caitlyn involved strengthening middle parts of the story and ending it in a way that stayed true to the characters, and to the strangeness of the whole telling.

Again – I kept going back to the beginning for inspiration. The manuscript was pretty well finalized by April 2015, and I was reviewing galleys in October.

There wasn’t a major crisis or anything, no pitched battles, but Caitlyn and I did have strong discussions about all the characters and themes.

I take it for granted that my creations will feel real to me, but it’s lovely when an editor so fully immerses herself as well.

What were the challenges (literary, research, emotional, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

Nothing about this story was straightforward. On the opening page, Pyke appears as a speck in the sky, and by the end of that chapter he is the first inter-species transfer student in the history of Vista View High.

The initial challenge – how do the students accept him as anything but a monster come to eat the school? – I skirted in my first draft by summarizing the changes in a paragraph or two. It was only fairly late in revision that I realized I needed to show in scene those crucial minutes after Pyke has landed on Jocelyne and then carried her to the school nurse for attention.

Pyke is not the main character, of course – the story actually belongs to the student body chair, Shiels Krane, an A-type leader whose well-ordered plans for her graduation year have nothing to do with dealing with a pterodactyl who steals everyone’s heart, including her own.

In that way I was able to shift the question about believability – if Shiels buys into it, then it’s easier for the reader to believe, too. I did do a lot of background reading on pterodactyls, but in my mind I was treating Pyke as the ultimate bad-boy boyfriend, and that’s part of the fun of the story, watching characters adapt to a ridiculous situation that turns normal and then actually seems familiar.

We do it all the time in real life, just not with pterodactyls! So often writing fiction convincingly is a matter of taking care of the tiny details, making those seem lifelike, so that the huge lies one tells hardly stand out at all.

What made you commit to the writing life? What did you sacrifice for it?

I was very lucky to attend a graduate writing program when I was young, only 24, at the University of Windsor, where my mentor, Alistair MacLeod, happened to be a brilliant writer and terrific teacher. Without that early formation, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it, given all the difficulties I had initially in publishing anything at all.

It took me seven years of strong effort after graduation to get a single short story accepted in a literary journal (for which I was paid $50). My first three novel manuscripts were rejected before the fourth was accepted, and even that one sat in the publisher’s office for over a year before I got a yes.

Along the way I decided I was not going to be the sort of writer who lives in a tiny room in the YMCA, turning his back on life so that he might have time to write. I have worked at a number of full-time jobs that, fortunately, also fed my sense of life and society, and so nurtured my writing as well.

But if I hadn’t married and had children, I doubt I would have written for younger audiences. I faced a really tough decision at around age 40 when the excellent government job I had (as a writer and researcher on international human rights for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) seemed to be too much to handle on top of novel writing as well.

Some of my adult novels were suddenly doing well, and I had to make a choice. It was a big gulp – our children were young, Suzanne had just started a doctorate program, and there was no extra money in case things went badly. So with family support I sacrificed the security of a regular paycheck, but was fortunate enough to have waited until my art was strong enough to withstand the pressures of such a decision.

It was the right thing to do, and I haven’t really looked back, especially since part-time teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts allows me to use my skills, and helps keep the wolf from the door during the inevitable down times in a writing and publishing life.

What about the business of publishing do you wish you could change?

I would love it if editors were not so extraordinarily busy, if they could somehow always keep a sense of the leisure of reading while opening up a new manuscript.

Editors often have crushing workloads and it means “quiet” stories often don’t have a chance to get their attention, they’ve got too many submissions to wade through before going back to their email backlog etc.

I know, it’ll never happen, and the really good editors do find ways to let themselves fall into a story when they read, no matter what their to-do list looks like. But I do think a lot of fine writing is overlooked because of the craziness of today’s schedules.

Cynsational Notes

Alan is the faculty chair of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. See also Video Interview with Alan Cumyn from Indigo Teeen.

Author Interview: Martine Leavitt on Calvin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From Macmillan: “Martine Leavitt has written several award-winning novels for young adults, including My Book of Life by Angel (FSG, 2012), which garnered five starred reviews and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist; Keturah and Lord Death (Boyds Mills, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Award; and Heck Superhero (Boyds Mills, 2014), a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. She lives in Alberta, Canada.”

Congratulations on the release of Calvin (FSG, 2015)! Could you tell us about the book?

Thank you, Cynthia! It is the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who has a schizophrenic episode in school. He can hear the voice of a tiger named Hobbes.

He decides that Bill Watterson could cure him of his mental illness if he would draw one more comic strip, Calvin healthy and without Hobbes. He gets it into his head that he can make Watterson draw this comic if he goes on a pilgrimage to show his true intent and devotion.

He decides to walk across Lake Erie in winter – a deadly thing to attempt.

Why did you write Calvin?

A single neuron in the back of my brain pulsed with sadness for many years, perhaps all my conscious life, because there is such a thing as mental illness. Then one day it touched me, a form of mental unwellness, and it touched my family. Now I was sorry for myself as well as those who suffered with worse than me. Self-pity, sadly, has always been a motivating factor in my life.

Anyway, that single neuron pulsed away even more persistently, hoping for something, the way we send radio waves into space hoping to contact life on other planets.

One day as I was rereading my Calvin and Hobbes collection, it occurred to a single neuron in the front of my brain that Calvin, in the wrong hands, could be thought of as a maladaptive daydreamer, or as schizophrenic. That neuron in the front of my brain made instant contact with the lonely neuron in the back of my brain, and it was like Adam touching the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel.

Okay, it wasn’t that grand, but you get the idea. A sort of electronic storm was fired up between the two neurons, and they went on like that in their little electronic way for a while. Not enough to make a book quite yet, but something was happening.

And then I read online about a man named Dave Voelker who walked across frozen Lake Erie (to a place near Cleveland, where Watterson was once reported to live – coincidence? I think not), and I suddenly had a story wishing to be told. And that is why I wrote Calvin.

This is your tenth book. Does it get easier?

You would think, wouldn’t you. But in fact, no. Every book is a new adventure in insecurity and inadequacy. Every book asks something of you that no other book has asked.

Author Interview: Barry Lyga on The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Barry Lyga on Barry Lyga: “Born on 9/11/71–you can imagine how I spent my thirtieth birthday! Lived for most of my life just about an hour below the Mason-Dixon Line, but never felt like a Southerner except when I visited family in New England, where I was told I talked like a rebel. Then, back in Maryland, friends said I sounded like a Yankee. So I guess I’ve felt like an outsider from the beginning!

“I learned how to read and write thanks to comic books–I absorbed the damn things as a kid, internalizing lessons in plot, characterization, and pacing. Some of those lessons were good, some of them were bad, but all of them led me to figure out more and more writing issues for myself. Plus, comics invigorated my imagination (anything could happen!) and also did wonders for my vocabulary (show of hands–who knew the words ‘impervious,’ ‘invulnerable,’ and ‘continuum’ in first grade?).

“My first book is The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). It’s about what happens when a young comic book geek meets the girl of his nightmares and oh, yes, it was quite cathartic to write it.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Did you shout “yes!” or run the other way?

I definitely shouted “yes!” but I also ran the other way at the same time! My earliest memory of “the writing life” is being very young–probably seven or eight. My grandmother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her, very seriously, that I wanted to be a writer. And she did Jewish grandmothers everywhere proud by saying, “Oh, so you want to starve!”

She was kidding, of course, but I was young and I didn’t understand that she was kidding. And while I liked the idea of writing, I also liked the idea of eating! So for much of my life, I figured I would be something else and then be a writer as well–lawyer/writer, teacher/writer, etc. But that just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until I fully embraced the writing life that things started to happen for me.

What made you decide to write for young adults?

I had always resisted it because I had this lingering prejudice–from the young adult books of my childhood, which were awful–that YA literature wasn’t “real” literature. But people in my writers group, editors, my ex-wife, were all telling me I should try it. So I did, and I found it tremendously liberating and fun.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Well, I wrote the first draft of the book in a sprint–a five-week sprint! Stumbles along the way. You know, once I decided to write YA, everything pretty much fell into place. I would say the major stumbles came in the years prior to that, when I was writing stuff for adults and taking myself way too seriously and just spinning my wheels.

I think when we forget that writing should be fun, we lose our way–we become so serious and heavy that we bleed any joy out of what we’re writing. I mean, even in my second book, which is about a very serious topic, there’s room for humor. And a necessity for it.

We need humor as a way of contrasting the more downbeat moments. That’s not just in the work itself, but also in the process of writing–you need to have fun doing it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Congratulations on the publication of The Astonishing Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My own life! I’ve often said that the book is too autobiographical for my own good. When I decided to write something for teens, I went back not only to my own teen years, but also to my twenties. I think we tend to forget that those post-college years are just as nerve-wracking and transformative as the teen years in many respects.

So I looked at the whole “writer’s journey,” all of the insecurity and worry and fear and sudden joys. I realized that the writer’s life is very analogous to being a teen–the isolation, rejection, striving to find your place in the world. Between the two of them, I found a balance that worked for me and for the story.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

From spark to publication was roughly three years. That includes a year between acceptance and publication. From the time I finished the book to the time it was accepted was about a year and a half. The most significant event along the way was meeting my agent at about a year in–from the point, things happened very quickly and a few months later I had a book deal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Wow, I could go on for a looooooong time on this one! I’ll try to keep it short, lest your readers drop into comas. 🙂

The biggest challenge was the psychological barrier of “Someone who knows me could read this someday.” Since the book is autobiographical to a degree, I was concerned.

I wasn’t worried that people would be angry about the real life events that I “adapted” for the book–rather, I was worried that they would think that the made-up stuff was a way to dig at them or bash them after the fact! But I realized that I couldn’t let this concern prevent me from telling the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. Once I got over that, I was able to bull through.

Logistically, the toughest thing about the book was a function of the tense and POV I chose. The whole book is told in first-person present-tense from the point of view of Fanboy, a solipsistic, gifted fifteen-year-old. He’s smart, yes, but anyone who was once fifteen will tell you that fifteen-year-old boys aren’t the most, uh, perceptive or empathic creatures on the planet.

Since the book was present-tense, there was little room for reflection or second-guessing on Fanboy’s part. We were always in his head, in the moment. And he wasn’t inclined to cut people slack.

So I was very, very worried that the supporting cast would come across as cardboard because there was no way to get into them and we only had Fanboy’s very biased view of them to go on. I had to find ways to get across Mom and Tony and Kyra and Cal and the others without betraying Fanboy’s singularly self-absorbed point of view. Not the easiest thing in the world, but I took it as a challenge.

Also difficult (at first) was “How Geeky Do I Go?” The book has a lot of comic book geekery in it, and I was worried that I was going to overdo it and scare off the non-comics readers.

Eventually, I just had to trust my gut on that one. It was scary, but it paid off. I’ve had a lot of people e-mail me to say, “I don’t read comics and I didn’t get half the comic book references, but I loved this book.” Whew!

You’re obviously a serious comics/graphic novel guy. Could you tell us about your background?

Well, I grew up reading comics. Like I said before, the YA fiction of my youth was pretty lame, so I didn’t read it–I read comics instead. Fortunately for me, I grew up at a time when comics were growing up, too, as books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and Maus were changing perceptions of the medium. So I never went through a period of time where I forsook comics–I just kept reading them. I even used them as the basis for an independent study project at Yale (much to the horror of the English Department, might I add!).

When I got out of college, I went to work for the biggest comic book distributor in the country. I did a bunch of marketing stuff and learned a lot of behind-the-scenes details about the industry, which was both good and bad. I tried my hand at writing comics, with mixed results. By the time I figured out how to write for the medium, I was starting to see some success in prose, and I stopped writing comics to move into prose full-time. I feel like I never really put my best foot forward in comics, and I hope to rectify that someday.

What do you think about the heightened attention to youth graphic novels in the youth book market, and why?

It’s very strange to see! Strange, but gratifying. If comics had been as accepted and as tolerated when I was a kid, my life would have been very different. It’s terrific to see the medium being treated so seriously, but I do worry about the bandwagon effect, where you have people who aren’t really qualified to talk about comics blabbing about them anyway, or comics that aren’t worth reading being touted as great just because they’re comics. I mean, there’s as much crap in the comic book field as in any other–maybe more.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t wonder “Can I do that?”–just do it. Remember that no matter how good you think your early efforts are, they probably actually suck–it’s just the law of averages. Early on, put everything away for six months minimum while you work on something else. When you come back to it, you’ll see the flaws and you’ll wince and you’ll be glad you didn’t send it out right away.

Oh, and if you think something isn’t working, but “it’s just me–readers won’t notice,” you’re dead wrong. Go with your gut. Almost every single change my editor ever asked me to make was something I had known was problematic from the get-go, but figured would slide by without anyone noticing. Nope! People notice.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Not much! I’m an extremely boring person. When I’m not writing, I’m either reading or glued to my crack pipe…er, I mean my Xbox. I played piano as a kid and now that I have some free time again, I plan to get back into it.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next book, Boy Toy (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) comes out in October. It’s set in the same high school as Fanboy, the same town, with some of the same “walk-on characters,” but it’s a very different story: sex, violence, and uncontrollable urges. It’s perfect for kids!

Author Interview: Deborah Lynn Jacobs on Powers

Deborah Lynn Jacobs is the author of Powers, (Roaring Brook, 2006), and The Same Difference (Royal Fireworks Press, 2000) Her next book, Choices, will be released by Roaring Brook Press in fall, 2007. Visit her LJ and MySpace.

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I was eight when I wrote my first novel. It was a space opera type book, about two kids who stowed away on a Federation starship. However, I floundered in the middle of the novel, which is something that still happens to me, and didn’t finish it. I wish I still had the book, but it was disposed of years ago.

In high school, I was a reporter and later editor of our school newspaper. I joined the newspaper to make friends, but found I liked the writing as well.

In my professional life as a counselor, I found ways to bring writing into my job–a departmental newsletter, a back-to-school guide for adults, research projects. But it wasn’t until I left my full-time job and moved to a small town in northwestern Ontario that I got back to writing–newspaper features, magazine articles, and my first attempts at writing a novel.

What made you decide to write for young adults?

My first novel was an adult science fiction novel. Really awful writing, now that I look back on it. After two rejections, I stuffed in a drawer where it belonged.

I realized that the issues people face in their late teens were far more interesting to me. It’s such a wonderful time of life, and so incredibly exciting to be on the verge of adulthood. Suddenly, the decisions you make–who to date, what school to go to, what career to choose–become life decisions. Sure, you can go back and change your mind, but only to some extent. The decisions you make as an eighteen-year-old have a lasting effect on your life. It’s that whole “road not taken” thing, and I find it fascinating.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Sprints? Hmm…not so many. It was pretty much a slow and steady thing. Write, rewrite, submit, revise–the usual. There were times where I wrote very little because of the necessity of making a living!

Stumbles along the way? A few. I rewrote Powers a gazillion times. I wrote it as a stand alone book, then rewrote it as the first two books of a series, then collapsed the two books into one. At that point, Deborah Brodie of Roaring Brook read it. She gave me editorial advice, the most difficult of which was “cut about a hundred pages.” Gulp. So, I cut a third of the book, slashed a few subplots, changed the ending, and resubmitted the book. Thank goodness she accepted it!

Congratulations on the publication of Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It actually evolved from the first book I wrote for kids. The Green Stone. See, this kid finds a green stone, which is actually a meteorite, and it gives him special powers–the ability to fly, to talk to his dog through telepathy, etc. (Pretty hashed-over premise, if you ask me.)

That book evolved into A Power of Our Own. This guy, and his autistic sister, find this meteorite (it’s green) and that allows them to talk to alien dragon guys through telepathy. Only, the alien dragon guys are bad guys, who collect kids from many planets and put them in a zoo. The kids, from all over the universe, find their latent powers are unlocked by the dragon’s stone and each kid develops a power of their own and, naturally, they defeat the dragon alien bad guys. (Don’t laugh–this could happen!)

A kind editor told me she liked the autistic-sister angle, but the dragons really threw her. So, A Power of Our Own became two books: one about a girl with an autistic sister (The Same Difference (Royal Fireworks, 2000)) and a book about two teens with psychic powers (Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006)).

The initial inspiration, though, for all of this, was my sense of awe about things that are mysterious, things we can’t explain in the usual way. I’m not saying psychic powers are real, but I’m not saying they aren’t real either!

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Ten years? Twelve?

I started writing Powers in 1994. I had an idea that I wanted this book to be about how developing special powers would affect two people on a personal level. I didn’t want the book to be about defeating some villain, or saving the world. Powers is a much more intimate exploration than that, about the power struggle between two people, and the power struggle within each of them.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The two voices. At first, they both sounded like “me.” It took some time, some advice from my critique groups and my first readers (my kids and their unsuspecting friends!) to make the voices distinct.

The psychological (and psychic) relationship between Gwen and Adrian is fascinating. How did you manage their tug-of-war?

I managed it slowly. At first, Adrian was such a nice guy. So sweet and understanding. Gwen was the spunky, sarcastic one. But you know what? It didn’t work. My critique buddies, and my first readers, read early versions and said Adrian sounded like a girl. Sigh.

I needed more conflict, more friction. In early drafts, Adrian and Gwen worked together to solve crimes and save people. No friction. No sparks. No fireworks.

I put the book away for months, or maybe a year at a time, while I worked on other books. Then I realized that what I wanted to write wasn’t a book about two people using their powers for good. It was far more interesting to have them at each other’s throats, manipulating each other and using each other.

Plus, it was a heck of a lot more fun to write!

I worked the tug-of-war the usual way. Put your character in a scene, figure out what they want the most, and then thwart them and send them further from their goal. Except, writing in the two voices, I worked each scene in this way: put both characters in the scene, give them goals which are opposites, thwart them both, and move them both further from their goals.

I took a lot of long walks, with a little notebook. I’d ask each character, “What do you want most? What will devastate you most if you don’t get it?

I also flowcharted the scenes, using colored pens, to make sure the conflict was steady, and that no one character took over the story for too long. So, part of writing the book was technical, rather than artistic.

Still, it wasn’t sharp enough. Not until I changed Adrian’s voice to first person, present tense. Wow. All of a sudden, I could hear him. Could see him. Even dreamed about him.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Never give up. Don’t lose faith in yourself. I truly believe success in writing is 99% perseverance and learning the craft.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Gardening, especially my wild perennial garden.

Cooking. I use a lot of garlic, onion and hot spices, so beware!

Bird watching, camping, canoeing, hiking, walking-generally communing with nature.

Oh, and reading young adult literature, of course.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Choices, in the fall of 2007. I’d tell you about it, but I can’t figure out how to do that without totally giving away the plot! I’d call it speculative fiction, with a twisty plot and a few surprises!

Author Interview: Robin Merrow MacCready on Buried

Robin Merrow MacCready on Robin Merrow MacCready: “I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Kennebunk Beach, Maine. My father was a realtor and we had a hotel and later an inn. Lots of people doing lots of things: fuel for great stories! After the summer was over, Kennebunk reverted back to a quiet town, but during the July and August it exploded with families from all over. I always worked as a chamber maid or a house cleaner or baby sitter. I also taught arts and crafts at the beach club. I love the contrast between the townies and the tourists. It’s rich and it’s infuriating, but it’s ripe with stories.

“I’m the oldest in my family. My brother is a musician, and my sister is an art director. My mother is a writer, and my father is a realtor and an avid reader. I have him to thank for my love of things that are a little bit creepy. I say a little bit because it doesn’t take much to scare me. I remember reading a scary paperback at the kitchen table and Dad jolting me and I screamed. I considered my ability to zone out a gift. Compared to my friends I was quiet and shy. I watched people, and daydreamed a lot, and although my report cards were not perfect, I loved English and reading and art. I even loved diagraming sentences although I can’t remember how to do it now!”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I was the kind of kid that played school. I read and wrote all the time. I thought everybody made homemade cards with poems inside. In high school, I made up stories, mostly romances, and kept a journal. The journal was only half true. I embellished the events to my satisfaction. It wasn’t until I began teaching that I considered being a writer. I was lucky to be a student at the New Hampshire Writing Project where a new writing philosophy reigned. That is: if you want to write go ahead and try! Everybody’s a writer!

What made you decide to write for young adults?

When I first wrote I imagined being the new Arnold Lobel. His Frog and Toad and Owl at Home are my favorites. I tried, but failed and put away my dream for ten years. When I tried again I thought I was writing an adult book and almost gave it up because the voice was that of a teenage girl, but I didn’t because I heard her story as clear as I bell and I believed it.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

When I decided to become a published author I manned myself with every book and any course I thought I needed. The plan was that if I had all the information and followed the directions perfectly I’d make it. It partly worked that way. I worked my butt off! I listened to my critique partners when they had a point to make because they were usually right. I wrote down some goals to reach, tasks to do, and I didn’t let anyone get in my way. I was single minded in a way I never had been before.

I sent three chapters of Buried to Julie Strauss-Gabel after she spoke at a national conference of SCBWI, and she wanted to read the whole manuscript. She loved the first three chapters but said as the story progressed it wasn’t what she’d hoped. She wrote a kind of thanks-but-no-thanks letter. I wrote back and asked more questions about the problems she had with the manuscript and that began our nearly two year pre-contract relationship.

We passed the book back and forth. I valued Julie’s insight and light touch, but in the late summer of 2004 I felt it was time to send Buried. I sent it to Julie and two other major houses that had shown interest during SCBWI critiques. I teach and the summer was quickly winding down–I had about two weeks of summer left. I spent a week researching agents in a big way. I finally got it down to 10 and queried them. Wendy Schmalz [scroll for bio] phoned me and said she was interested in representing me and Buried, but first she scolded me about the way I went about the process. Buried was already sitting in three houses. For her it was probably not the way she’d planned to sell it. But for me it was a relief. Now I could go set up my classroom. Within the week I had a sale with Dutton, and I’m very happy I could continue with Julie.

Congratulations on the publication of Buried (Dutton, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The climactic scene came to me one day when I was writing with my sister. We were just fooling around, but I saw Claudine in her horrific situation and it was clear like a movie. That was my initial contact with Claudine, but the inspiration for her comes from a girl I knew growing up. I was her sometimes babysitter. Her mother was a guidance counselor and an alcoholic. Whenever I sat for the little girl it was like hanging out with a peer. She was older acting, a little rough around the edges, and competent. Too competent for age seven. One night she took care of me while I had the flu and later her mother came home drunk, so she cared for her too.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The challenge was to let myself go deeper and deeper and not lose the storyline. It sounds simple but it’s a fine line to walk. When Claudine’s OCD was aggravated my instinct as a friend/mother was to turn it off, not let it rip. When I let it get out of control it was sometimes scary. As far as the addiction model goes, I wanted it to be real. Buried is a story. It’s not true, but I would argue that Claudine’s pain, her shame, and all her feelings are shared by children of alcoholics.

You’re an Edgar nominee. Wow! That’s great! What does the nomination mean to you? How did you react when you found out?

Julie left a message on my machine saying that she had some great news for me. I had no idea what it could be. I’d been talking to my agent that day because I was worried about how sales were going. When Julie told me I was a nominee I said, “Oh, really?” I didn’t know what it meant. I’d seen the list of submissions and there were a lot of books, so it still didn’t register as a big thing until she said I was one of five in the Best YA category. I’m thrilled! I’m up against some big competition, but I’m bursting with pride. It’s especially exciting because there are five writers from Maine and Stephen King is one of them. It’ll be a great night.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

If you want to be published you have to be willing to take some heat. Listen to your critiques and make changes if there is validity, but don’t listen to the people who want to discourage you. Politely ignore all those that think you’re wasting your time. Also, I think SCBWI is a great organization for beginning writers. I know I wouldn’t be published without it.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I teach reading and writing to 4th-6th graders. I write on the weekends and sometimes at night.

Tantalize Launch Party

Thanks to all who celebrated with us in person or in spirit at the launch party for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) on Friday, Feb. 23!

In keeping with the Sanguini’s motif (the fictional vampire restaurant in the novel), guests were asked to sign in as predator or prey.

We decorated in low-key Gothic colors, mostly with accents–including the framed Sanguini’s fangs-style logo in the foyer, black-and-red linens for the daybed, black tapers in the candlesticks, black votives in the tray display, black-and-red pillar candles in the fireplace, red drop crystals in the parlor chandelier, black coasters, and black table cloths. Off-limits rooms were marked with crime-scene and police-line tape.

We also set three tables with the matching linens on the front terrace for those who wanted to enjoy the bright, breeze, 70-something degree night.

So far as wardrobe went, I opted for a slinky black shell and pants, black cowbody boots, my snake-wrapped earrings, my antique gold watch necklace (originally grandma’s), and a full-length black net cape.

The previous day, Barbara Marin at Bo Salon on South Congress had taken my hair to a near black featuring a subtle dark blue sheen with red stripe accent streaks in front, and Kate Pham, also of Bo, painted my nails in alternating red and black. Many guests commented that they thought I should keep the ‘do permanently.

The to-die-for menu, from Primizie Catering, featured: antipasto; smoked salmon gravlox; fresh vegetable crudite platter; imported and domestic artisan cheese board with vineyard grapes and seasonal berries; fresh seasonal fruit; oven dried tomatoes finished with local goat cheese balsamic vinaigreette and snipped chives; Italian sausage “spiedini” with peppers and pecorino romano cheese; calzone with mushrooms and Italian cheeses; miniature stuffed and baked pizza pockets filled with Italian cheeses, wild mushrooms and charred tomato; cocktail sandwiches (wild mushrooms, garlicky spinach and artichoke herb spread on Italian flatbread); and stuffed porcini mushrooms. Absolutely delicious! The calzone and porcini mushrooms were especially popular with our crowd. Guest Anne Bustard graciously provided an Italian creme cake.

Colby Neal ‘s The Flower Studio designed the gorgeously gothic buffet flowers.

Candlewick Press co-sponsored a giveaway of the final book (guests were each welcome to take one). I pre-autographed the copies. A few folks also bought (prior to the party) and brought more for me to sign.

Door prizes included ARCs of the following 2007 novels by Austin-area authors: Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds by April Lurie (Delacorte); Onaj’s Horn: the Silverskin Legacy (Book Three) by Jo Whittemore (Llewellyn); Runaround by Helen Hemphill (Front Street); and Wonders of the World by Brian Yansky (Flux).

We also gave away a basket filled with fixings for an Italian dinner from Central Market. Contents included: black squid ink pasta; pesto sauce with truffles; sun-dried tomatoes; parmesan; dark chocolate; Sanguini’s mug, sticker, mousepad, and magnet; wine biscuits; and a bottle of Travis Peak Cabernet Sauvignon.

We had a crowd of about eighty from throughout Central Texas, though with ebb and flow, there were usually only about sixty people inside the house at any given time.

Guests included such luminaries as writers Brian Anderson, Kathi Appelt, Anne Bustard, Janie Bynum, Betty Davis, Alison Dellenbaugh, Peni R. Griffin, Lila and Rick Guzman, Helen Hemphill, Frances Hill, Varian Johnson, Lindsey Lane, April Lurie, Mark Mitchell, Sean Petrie, Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Liz Garton Scanlon, Elaine Scott, Jerry Wermund, Jo Whittemore, and Brian Yansky, illustrators Gene Brenek, Joy Fisher Hein, Christy Stallop, and Don Tate, current and former Austin SCBWI RAs-authors Tim Crow, Meredith Davis, Debbie Dunn, Julie Lake, and Nancy Jean Okunami, as well as a bounty other book pros (teachers, school and public librarians, university professors of children’s/YA lit, and so on), including author-librarian Jeanette Larson, librarian-blogger Camille Powell, and a number of additional book lovers, friends, and significant others.

Kathi Appelt was kind enough to propose a toast!

I’d say about a third of the guests were writers or illustrators, about a third other book folks, and about a third significant others and additional guests, which made for a lovely mix.

My special thanks to the central Texas children’s and young adult book community for all of its enthusiasm and support. I’m so honored and thrilled to have such amazing people in my life.

Cynsational Notes

Thanks also to our servers, Anna and Eric! They looked fierce in their custom Sanguini’s T-shirts designed by Gene Brenek. Thanks to author Julie Lake for facilitating their hiring.

Thanks also to Michael Helferich for lending us his chainsaw. Because the weather cooperated, we didn’t need to have the outdoor fireplace on the terrace, but it gave us peace of mind to have it as a back-up plan.

Primizie Osteria – Italian Café and Wine Bar will open soon at 1000 E. 11th Street, Suite 200 in Austin.

See more party news and pics at GregLSBlog. Once the festivities started, we were too busy to keeping shooting photos, but I’ll be sure to highlight any other party posts that may arise. Speaking of which, check out Don’s “A tantalizing party” at Devas T. Rants and Raves, Liz’s “Community” at Liz In Ink, Camille’s “Friday Night Highlights” at Book Moot, “Tantalize Party” (with excellent party pics!) at Jo’s LJ, and Alison’s “A tantalizing weekend” at Alison Wonderland.

Illustrator Interview: Gene Brenek on the Logo for Sanguini’s from Tantalize

Gene Brenek on Gene Brenek: “Well I had to put on a little ‘ABBA Gold’ to gear up for this. Let’s see, I was born in Houston many moons ago, but not as far back as when ABBA was still in heavy rotation. I was an 80’s kid, more Prince back before he changed his name to a hieroglyph and way before he went back to being Prince. Why is my bio suddenly full of old pop artist references? Dunno, I guess that’s what happens when I’m left to my own devices.

“Let’s move this ahead a few years shall we? I’m currently a creative director for a big ad agency in Austin, Texas. In my spare time, I’m working on a master’s in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College, which is truly a great program. I also have been illustrating dummies for my own picture book ideas. Let’s just say I don’t sleep. And I’m waiting, PATIENTLY, to be discovered. Ahem.”

Thanks so much for designing logos for Sanguini’s, the fictional vampire restaurant featured in my gothic fantasy, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007). What was your initial inspiration for the designs?

Designing a logo is a lot like creating a picture book in a way. You need a very simple idea. A logo can’t contain several different concepts at once and be effective. The ones with staying power are very iconic.

Certainly what separated the dead from the undead restaurants was the vampire mythology. So I started brainstorming and writing down anything that came to mind when I thought about vampires.

Usually I spend a fair amount of time trying out various color combinations but this assignment begged for two colors. Black, the color of night and red. Yes, black is the absence of color but when you’re talking to printers it’s still an ink color. Red seemed an obvious but essential choice: blood, wine, marinara.

One logo idea, that for better or worse got nicknamed “the girly one,” came out of Quincie’s, the protagonist’s, femininity. I loved the idea of blood draining off the gothic lettering and dripping down a flowering vine, as if elements of the restaurant were changing who she was.

I also kept coming back to puncture wounds. The other logo (see above) incorporated that idea. So thank you for coming up with a restaurant that had two i’s in the name, you made my job easy. If you ever write a book about a vampire-themed Ikea, I may have some leftover ideas for all those umlauted furniture names.

What considerations came into play when developing the logos?

I treated this project as I would any other design project. Before starting any sketches I had a few questions. What the owners were like? What was their vision for the restaurant? Who was their clientele? What cues could I get from the interior spaces? And while that may seem like a tough assignment, given that it’s a fictional place, I found that the writing was crafted in such a way that it was very easy for me to get a sense of all of these things.

I approached this as not a design project for author Cynthia Leitich Smith but for Quincie [the protagonist]. I tried to understand her as much as I could and what her sensibilities were. Now it could be argued that Cyn and Quincie are one in the same, certainly there are aspects of that, but they are different people.

What were the challenges in bringing them to life?

Honestly the biggest challenge was not getting to design the menu, interior, the matchbooks, the business cards –all the elements that go into shaping one’s identity.

What was your experience working with Printfection and CafePress? Why did you select those companies?

I went with these two companies because they offer so much flexibility. They print on demand, meaning that rather than doing a run of say 100 shirts in every size that I then had to store and ship, when someone places an order then it gets printed and shipped. They take care of it all. And I like the quality of their merchandise.

What advice would you give to folks trying to design and produce book tie-in promotions?

Think outside the box. Why not create items for a fictional vampire themed restaurant? But know that your reader is smart. Just because a tie-in isn’t physically in the book, it’s a part of the book. Initially I had envisioned staying away from a gothic typeface. I was leaning toward something more modern. Then I read a passage about the gothic lettering on the menu and it guided me away from something slick and contemporary. I needed to remain faithful to the book. It wasn’t an entirely blank canvas.

Restaurant items made sense; to me Sanguini’s was a prominent character in Tantalize. Designing items based around where the protagonist had gone to school would’ve made no sense what so ever.

More personally, do you count yourself among fans of the fanged ones? If so, what do you think is the appeal?

Of course I’m a fan. Vampires seem to have all the smarts. They also have big personalities, charisma. You want to hang out with them. Imagine a book where someone opens a tax-attorney-themed restaurant. Yawn.

What do you do when you’re not working for the undead?

What do you mean? I’m an art director for an ad agency. I’m always working for the undead.

Actually, I’m writing and illustrating a couple of ideas of my own in the picture book arena. Depending on who you talk to that particular market is either dead or undead. For my sake, I’m hoping it’s undead.

Cynsational Notes

Shop Sanguini’s at Printfection and CafePress; see the other Sanguini’s logo option.