Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of several acclaimed books for young readers, developed an interest in writing children's literature at a young age. She was "Dear Gabby" for her sixth grade newspaper, and she edited her junior high and high school newspapers. Following graduation from journalism school at the University of Kansas and from Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, she began writing fiction. She is recipient of the 2001 Wordcraft Circle Award for children's literary prose. Her latest novel, "Tantalize "(Candlewick, 2007), marks her debut as an author of dark fantasy for young adults. A tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, she lives in Austin, Texas.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2007 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for writing your first gothic fantasy book Tantalize?
I've always been a voracious reader, and I'm known for keeping up on new releases. But I also have a love of the classics. Tantalize was inspired by Bram Stoker's Dracula. I was intrigued by Stoker's decision to cast a Texan, Quincey P. Morris, as one of Van Helsing's vampire hunters. Building on this tradition, I decided to bring the mythology “home” to Texas and update it to modern day. As part of this, I created my own protagonist, Quincie P. Morris of Austin, Texas. My Quincie is a strong, ambitious teen girl trying to save her family's Italian restaurant by re-launching it with a vampire theme. It's a great idea, too, until some real vampires show up.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
For me, the rough draft is the toughest part of the process. Though I love to revise, to reinvent and polish, the vast wasteland of initial nothingness is scary. To conquer it, I do a lot of prewriting. I flip through magazines for photo models of my characters. I write letters to myself in their voices. I find songs that seem to reflect their personalities. I also stop writing each day while I still have more ideas and jot down notes that will be waiting for me when I come back. That way, I only face the blank page once, when I'm working on my first line.
The weird part? I almost always toss that first draft, delete the file and start over anyway, armed with knowledge of my characters and world that will allow me to build on a stronger foundation for draft two.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing? Can you provide an inspiring writing topic to get them started?
Read broadly and with joy. Challenge yourself to try new genres. If you're a fan of contemporary fiction, try a historical novel. If you're a fan of prose, try a novel in poetry.
Keep in mind, too, that story is part of our everyday lives. Take time to appreciate the storytellers around you, especially your elders. Listen to your grandparents' generation.
For an exercise, write a description of your home and family from the point of view of a visitor from outer space.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
- Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
- Dona Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon
- Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders
- Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Witch from Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears
You've had a variety of jobs before becoming a celebrated writer. If you were not writing, what do you think you would be doing?
I would love to host a show on The Travel Channel.