This month, Austin SCBWI is proud to begin a new tradition. Each month, Meredith Davis will interview one of our local members. For this inaugural interview, we decided to feature Cynthia Leitich Smith, not only because she’s a wonderful person, a fantastic writer, and one of the founding members of our chapter, but because the inaugural Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award will be given at the February Austin SCBWI conference.
Cynthia is an inspiration not only as an award-winning and best-selling author, but also as a champion of children's book writers. She hosts the informative and popular Cynsations blog, which is a must-read for anyone in the children's book industry.
Cynthia also is an extremely generous member of the Austin kidlit community, offering up her time and knowledge to help fellow writers whenever she can. She's embodies the kind of writer we all try to be. The award bearing her name will follow her example and give guidance to up-and-coming writers. So, without further ado, let’s get to know a little more about Cynthia Leitich Smith…
Where did you grow up, and did that place (or those places) shape your writing? If so, how?
I’m a mid-to-southwesterner and those regions permeate my published writing. I often think of myself as a sense-of-place author, starting with setting as a gateway to character and plot.
I lived in a Spanish-style ranch house in Grandview, Missouri (actual swords hung over the fireplace and velvet-backed coat of arms on the wood-paneled walls)—my family is in no way Spanish. Grandview is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born. My yard backed to a woodsy field, where I fished for tadpoles and turtles, built forts in the trees and braided dandelion crowns with the three-years-younger sister of my heart, Kathryn.
My family moved across the state line to Lenexa, Kansas, for “better schools” when I was nine or ten, and I lived in a two-story colonial-style home (we’re not colonists either) on a fourteen-house-col de sac that was struck by lightning more than once (chimneys, mostly, though our TV caught on fire one day, too). My house was walkable to a little city park with a creek and wooden bridge that led to more undeveloped land. I spent a remarkable amount of my childhood in wooded areas, often alone. It was brilliant for me (and my imagination), but by today’s societal norms, my overprotective mother probably would’ve been arrested for neglect.
I was an only child. Much of my extended family lived in smaller towns within the metro area or in tribal towns in Oklahoma, which was less than a day’s drive and which I’ll always associate with lakes, dogs and pontoon boats. I was treated to four proper seasons, in equal measure, as well as a bounty of cousins, charmingly doting grandparents (and aunties), cookie-cutter national retail chains, and the Plaza lights at Christmastime.
My upbringing is probably most traceable to my debut novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins), which is set in northeast Kansas in a fictional town largely inspired by Belton, Missouri (home to several family members and the site of many of holiday meals—thank you, Grandma Melba, Aunt Linda and especially Aunt Gail—I treasure memories of your chicken noodle soup).
However, Brad, the vampire chef from TANTALIZE and BLESSED (both Candlewick), hails from Kansas City, and the charming werecat Yoshi Kitahara, one of the heroes from the Feral trilogy (also Candlewick), grew up on a farm in Butler County, Kansas. (I didn’t spend quality time in Butler, but road-tripped out there on more than one Memorial Day weekend to decorate graves.)
Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?
I always was a writer, practically from the womb. My mother reports recording poetry that I would recite aloud before I knew how to put words on paper.
My first audio release was an essay about catching crawdads over summer vacation, read over the loudspeaker at my elementary school. I continued writing poetry in grade school, and in sixth grade had my own advice column (“Dear Gabby") in Mr. Rideout’s classroom newsletter, offering advice to the troubled and the lovelorn.
Junior high and high school brought a shift to journalistic writing and editing. Alas, an unfortunate typo in “Seamen,” the name of a rival school team, cost me a state reporting competition.
In my early twenties, I wrote for small-town and big-city newspapers (including "The Dallas Morning News") and for corporate public relations departments at Hallmark Cards and Phillips Petroleum. Meanwhile, I earned a journalism degree from the University of Kansas and completed a concentration in English that included fiction writing courses.
At the University of Michigan Law School and University of Paris, I focused on legal writing (and taught a course in it during my third year). I also worked, mostly writing for a small law firm in Ann Arbor, a 10th Circuit Appellate judge, and Legal Aid in Hawaii. I returned to fiction shortly after graduation and have focused on it steadily, though I’m also published in creative nonfiction.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
It would depend on the twenty-four hours. Let’s assume, though, that I’m Writer Cyn, not Author Cyn. No festival or school visit or writing conference, but rather the quiet hour-by-hour, day-to-day work that is the foundation for all that. You know, on a good day.
I am awakened by tabbies. I’m not so foolish to have become The Human Who Feeds Them In The Morning, but I’m nevertheless shaken from slumber by their daily Zumba routines.
I tend to dedicate my early mornings—even when I’m Writer Cyn—to (yawn!) the business of being an author. This includes correspondence with my agent, editors and marketing team, young (and sometimes not-so-young) readers, gatekeepers and event planners, media and fellow writers, sometimes including my own students.
I also post to my blog and check in with my various social networks, particularly facebook and Twitter (@CynLeitichSmith). Much of this is managed from my laptop while walking (slowly—or else I’ll fly off and kill myself) on my treadmill desk.
From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., I speed up the treadmill and increase its incline to get some real physical exercise. My accompaniment of choice is “Glee” song-and-dance numbers on YouTube. My favorite is the Ricky Martin performance. Twice a week, I supplement speed-walking/running with hand weights for another hour while watching “What Not to Wear.” (Rush right out and purchase The Truth About Style by Stacy London. The woman is a genius.)
After showering and donning loungewear, I’ll grab a light lunch or snack. I’m fond of dried peaches as well as bananas, black bean chips and green tea. Also cheese! It doesn’t have to be cheese of high quality. I’ll eat that cheese that turns to liquid if you try to microwave it.
Afternoons are for writing. Sometimes I return to the treadmill (again walking slowly) and sometimes I migrate to my big denim chair in the reading room or the table in the breakfast room or the Balinese daybed in the sunroom. I take stretch breaks to load or unload the dishwasher, toss in or put up laundry and do pilates with the cats. I also have to check my email and social networks again at about 4 p.m. in case something caught on fire in the east coast.
Greg returns home victorious from his day job between five and six o’clock and then he cooks or we go out to eat, usually downtown. (Beyond reheating, my culinary skills are petite.) My go-to dinner destination is 24 Diner. If it’s winter, urge them to put the Fontina broccoli soup on the specials menu. Trust me, it’s cheesy delicious heaven—soup that will change your life.
Early evening is a swing time—it can go to Writer Cyn or Author Cyn, depending on who needs the attention more. (Because Greg works as a lawyer during the day, he writes at night.) Once we’re written out, we usually indulge in our fave TV shows—“The Big Bang Theory,” “Grimm,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Castle,” “Bones,” “Supernatural,” and “Arrow.” No, I don’t care much about the social value of television so long as the male leads are cute.
Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud (writing and/or otherwise).
Oh, darling Meredith, what a wretched question! I will indulge you only due to your overwhelming cuteness (it’s a superpower):
I own every comic in the original “Star Wars” trilogy series, published by Darkhorse. They are not in mint condition. I read them and am still discombobulated by the Prince Denid plotline.
In college, I took a transformative class taught by a husband-wife team, previously of Children’s Television Workshop AKA the people who bring us “Sesame Street.”
In law school, I was sued in a case that was covered by “Playboy” magazine and ended up on the front page of the “The New York Times.”
Of late, when I met Katherine Paterson, I went utterly mute but managed to maintain consciousness.
What surprises you about the writing life?
I am surprised by how many writers without cats manage to overcome that disadvantage and go on to publish successfully.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling young-adult author of the “Tantalize” series, the “Feral” series, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name. Her novels have received numerous awards and honors and are often noted for their diverse protagonists, humor, lyricism, fantastical elements and compelling action. Cynthia has also published young-adult short stories, narrative nonfiction, graphic novels, and books for younger children.
Cynthia was named a Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in recognition of Rain is Not My Indian Name and has been twice featured at the National Book Festival. Most recently, she was named the first Spirit of Texas Young Adult author by the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Library Association and the first young adult author to be honored with the Illumine Award by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation.
Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ was listed as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.
She is a member of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and is a lifetime member of the Writers' League of Texas. Cynthia makes her home in Central Austin with her husband, award-winning children's young-adult author Greg Leitich Smith.