Author Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith on writing a series

Cynthia Leitich Smith
Cynthia Leitich Smith

Today I’ve got a treat, an interview with an author who’s as warm and generous as a person as she is skilled and talented with words: Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton).

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 among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas, with four writer cats and her husband, children’s-YA author Greg Leitich Smith.

With Diabolical, the fourth book in her Tantalize series, just launched, I picked Cynthia’s brain about the challenges of writing a series. Here’s her great insight:

Me: When you came up with the story of Tantalize (I so want to eat at Sanguini’s, by the way), did you envision it as a full series of books or did that idea come after the publication of that novel?

Jingle DancerCynthia: I had hopes, prayers, Snoopy dances of anticipation with regard to publishing related stories, but at the time, I was thought of as an author of contemporary, realistic Native American books for younger children [including Jingle Dancer]. So, it was something of a risk to try me as a YA Gothic writer, especially before the paranormal boom. It’s what you might call an “earned” series. The first three books were published as stand-alones before Candlewick Press and Walker Books began using the “s” word in marketing them.

Tantalize sold before Twilight was published, and some of the early feedback I received was to the effect that there wasn’t a market among YA girls for books with monsters in them. I know that sounds jarring in retrospect, but keep in mind that, back then, horror was associated with popular series by Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine, which were viewed more as “boy books.”

Also, my work tends to skew literary, employing sophisticated techniques like epistolary elements, alternating point of view and unreliable narrators that can challenge less experienced readers. They’re sometimes called “thinking readers” novels, which is quite flattering, but also means they’re less inherently commercial than they could be. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

Me: I’d say a blessing! How did you plan each book’s story as an individual novel as well as in context of the series?

Cynthia: My idea was to assume that Stoker’s classic, Dracula (1897) was loosely based on truth and then inch backward in time toward that source material.

So, book 1, Tantalize, offers up Quincie P. Morris, a many-times great niece of one of Van Helsing’s original vampire hunters. Book 2, Eternal, assumes that the vampire royalty of today has taken on “Dracul” as an honorific and introduces the divine warriors that battle them. In book 3, Blessed, the Count himself is summoned from the ether to merge briefly with the antagonist, and in book 4, Diabolical, we go to the Scholomance, the famed school where the Count was said to have learned his evil ways.

Though there will be more stories set in the universe, this quartet forms a super arc. Or in other words, each can stand alone, but they do build on one another toward the fiery, heaven vs. hell showdown in Diabolical.

That said, these aren’t “vampire” novels per se. Rather, they’re set in a multi-creature-verse, featuring not only vampires, but also angels, a variety of shape-shifters (werewolves, werecats, werebears, werearmadillos), ghosts, demons, pesky humans and others.

Also, these are “books set in a world” rather than a straightforward, linear series. You can turn a corner (or page) and run into a character from any of the previous novels. In addition, the cast is diverse (defined broadly) and both girl- and guy-powered. This is one of few successful YA series with both male and female protagonists as well as protagonists of color.

They’re basically genre benders: Gothic fantasies with elements of suspense, mystery, romance and some humor. Not slapstick — I play it straight — but not angst fests either.

Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed

Me: About the different points of view you use in the books, how did you choose which characters to show the story through, and when you were writing more than one in the same novel, how did you keep their voices different?

Cynthia: Tantalize was originally written from Kieren’s point of view, but I switched to Quincie’s because she was in greater danger and what she was going through spoke more to the adolescent experience. That said, over the next few years, I gained a deeper appreciation of what Kieren was doing during that period and revisited his perspective for the graphic novel adaptation.

Big picture, I look at whose story it really is — who grows and changes and whether additional points of view can be justified in terms of the internal and external story arcs.

I also consider whether any co-narrators work as mirror characters. Does the journey of one illuminate that of another?

DiabolicalMe: Makes sense. Diabolical is the fourth book in this series. Did you have any challenges writing this fourth installment that you didn’t have in the other three?

Cynthia: My deadline was tighter than it has been in the past, in part because of writing the Eternal graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by Ming Doyle, in the interim.

That said, I had more fun writing Diabolical than any of the other novels. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of humor, horror, romance and adventure in the previous three titles. They can be read on many levels. But Diabolical’s core theme of second chances is inherently optimistic, and it offered me a chance to stretch the heroes while also celebrating how far they’ve come.

In addition, Diabolical introduced several new characters who captured my imagination. I think my favorite may be Evie, the wereotter. It was also a fascinating experience to write scenes literally set in heaven and hell. It forced me to question my own beliefs, what best served the story/characters, and whether there actually might be the equivalent of an atrium hotel outside the Pearly Gates.

Me: Oooh, sounds like fun. I can’t wait to read it! Your next YA novel, Smolder, is due out from Candlewick Press in 2013 as part of a three-book deal. Will this one be in the Tantalize series as well, or will it start a new series?

Cynthia: Smolder is set in the Tantalize universe and features characters previously introduced in the series, but it is not part of the conversation themes that grew out of Stoker’s Dracula. It’s its own beast, so to speak, influenced most of all by questions and letters from YA readers. This one, more than any book I’ve written before, is for the YA fans (and the GenXers out there who thought Andie would’ve been better off with Duckie, at least in the short term). It’s about secrets and the surprises within ourselves.

Me: Wow! Fans will love that, getting their questions answered in a book inspired by them. 2013 can’t come soon enough.

Thanks, Cynthia.

What do you like best about books in a series?

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