Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Member Interview: Greg Leitich Smith


Greg Leitich Smith

This month we welcome Greg Leitich Smith to our interview series. His thoughts on writing, community, and the value of running 26.2 miles are inspiring, and his dedication is admirable. He is both a prolific writer and a regular at SCBWI meetings and events-we are so happy he's joined us here.

covers gls-1Where did you grow up, and did that place (or those places) shape your work? If so, how?

I grew up in Chicago in a north side neighborhood called Ravenswood Manor and attended a selective admissions magnet high school.

My first two novels, set around the fictional (and academically rigorous) Peshtigo School of Chicago (NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO and TOFU AND T.REX), are inspired by some of my grade school and high school experiences.

In addition, the neighborhood and the family delicatessen in the books are based on the neighborhood I grew up in, which historically was largely German and part of what is known as the “bungalow belt.” 

When I was growing up, it was a solidly middle class urban (and diverse, although no one called it that back then) neighborhood that you do not often see reflected in children’s literature. 

little greenI tend to be very much a place writer and I think with that also comes a sense of the sensibility of the inhabitants, which may be why it took me twenty years to write a novel set in central Texas (CHRONAL ENGINE and BORROWED TIME). And even then, most of those occur seventy million years ago and most of the native Texans are dinosaurs (literally).

One of my more recent novels, LITTLE GREEN MEN AT THE MERCURY INN, is the story of three friends at a motel in Cocoa Beach and what happens the day after a space shuttle launch is scrubbed due to the presence of a UFO over Cape Canaveral.  The Mercury Inn is based in part on a motel my family would stay in during childhood vacations.  And a highlight was the space shuttle launches.

We never did see UFOs, though.

Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?

I was always a tremendous reader.  Some of my earliest memories are going to the regional and neighborhood libraries close by my house and coming back home with shopping bags full of books. The only problem was that you had to return the things…

Part of me thought it would be kind of cool to be a writer, and I always enjoyed writing in school, but never really regarded it as a viable primary career choice.  Eventually, though, I decided that I would never find out if I didn’t try…

00reIMG_2894If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?

A “normal” work day is not enormously exciting. J

It usually involves me waking up at around 6:00 or so (give or take a half hour depending on whether the cats decide they want to be fed), having a couple of mugs of coffee, and writing.  I’ve been trying to do a thousand new words a day and find I am best able to accomplish that first thing in the morning.

After that, I’ll work out (some combination of weights, running, swimming, and biking). I’ve gotten back into running marathons and want to do triathlons again, after about a twenty year hiatus.

Afterwards, I’ll come home and make lunch, tend to emails, and anything else that needs to be done administratively.  Then, I will do any revising or research (for both fiction and nonfiction), as well as prepare presentations  for teaching and workshops and school visits. Sometimes this involves going to a coffee shop and writing with friends who are also writers.

If I am trapped by a cat, I may take a nap.

Then, it’s probably time to make dinner so I will probably make a dash to the grocery store because I'm missing an essential ingredient or I’ve forgotten to take something out of the freezer to thaw…

After dinner, unless I’m on deadline, I will relax by watching television or reading. Sometimes both.

00re428465_219988514_XLarge-1How does your everyday life feed your work?

In fall of 2012, I started training for my first marathon of the century (the 2013 Austin Marathon) and lost thirty-five pounds and discovered that writing a novel is a lot like working out. The hardest thing to do in both cases is to start. The second hardest thing is to keep going.  In both cases, the end result – a completed novel or a training or weight loss goal – initially seems so far off as to be invisible. But if you do a little a day, and accept that early on, you’re not going to “see results,” eventually, you’ll get somewhere…

In both cases, too, I think it’s important to get a community of like-minded friends together.  Both activities have goals that are ultimately individual and personal, but having compatriots can often help when you just don’t feel like getting out of bed to go run or open up that computer and start typing. 

Also, cats are helpful. Unless they step on your keyboard. 

Tell us about some of your accomplishments that make you proud (work and/or otherwise).

I am very happy to be a member of a supportive writing community here in Austin.  I think we’ve built something here that’s very special and that we all should be proud of.

Also, there’s still a thrill at being published by houses whose books I read and loved as a kid…:-).

tofuYour work is like a gift for your readers. When they open it, what do you hope they find? 

A few years back, Eclectica Magazine ran a review of TOFU AND T.REX that sums up what I was going for with that novel and, I hope, my other novels as well:

“[TOFU AND T.REX] is a major trip into figuring out what matters and who is important and when you should make a stand. It is also, more than any book I have read in a while, about the strength a couple of teenagers find in being themselves. It’s a book about authenticity and honesty and along the way it is one hilarious adventure. . . .There’s a lot going on in TOFU AND T.REX that a reader will respond to with a grin, a nod or a bit of personal revelation. And there’s a lot to think about after the book is finished, which may be the most surprising, and best, thing of all.”

00reIMG_0327BIO: Greg Leitich Smith is an award-winning author, born and raised in Chicago and now residing in Austin. His middle-grade books include Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn; Chronal Engine; Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo; and Tofu and T.Rex. His most recent novel for middle-grade readers is Borrowed Time, a sequel to Chronal Engine.

Greg and Cynthia Leitich Smith are the co-authors of the picture book, Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman and the short story “The Wrath of Dawn,” in the anthology Geektastic, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci.

Greg’s novels are characterized by their humor, adventure, and reflect his background in science and engineering. He is of German and Japanese descent, and many of his characters are similarly mixed-race. Greg holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin.  In addition, he holds a degree in law from The University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor.