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Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith
Interview by RoseEtta Stone

Cynthia Leitich Smith is an author for children and young adults. Her award-winning books include: Jingle Dancer (Morrow/Harper, 2000) (ages 4-7); Rain Is Not My Indian Name (Harper, 2001) (ages 10-14); and Indian Shoes (Harper, 2002) (ages 7-9).

Cynthia’s been featured as a speaker by such groups as the Texas Library Association, the Texas Book Festival, the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Second National Book Festival.

She is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, children’s author Greg Leitich Smith, and their four pampered cats.

"One danger for beginners is to spend a lot of time 'playing writer.'  They go to conferences, they read books about writing, and they talk about writing.  What they don't do is write."

You were a journalist, then a lawyer, before becoming a children’s book writer.  Did you find making this last transition difficult?

Switching gears was more a matter of courage than substance. I already was familiar with children’s literature as a reader and had been writing on law office lunch hours, after work, whenever a moment allowed. Journalism had taught me how to write every day. But actually committing myself to pursuing publication-quality manuscripts and self-educating about the publishing business… That required more than an every-day leap of faith.

It’s just so easy to do what’s expected. Growing up, I don’t think that anyone thought of me as someone who’d go onto college and law school (my parents dreamed of a first degree from a local school, and that was a step farther than they had taken).

To push through all that, rejoice in it even, and then say, I want something else, something I feel is a better use of my skills in the world…I jumped first and dealt with the repercussions later. File that one under: “don’t try this at home.”

What made the difference in my case was the support, especially emotional, of my husband, being willing to take on part-time teaching positions, being willing to relocate to a less-expensive city, and working on children’s writing with a drive that made the first year of law school look like a spa vacation.

In the three multiple honor and award-winning books you’ve written the main characters all are of Native American descent.  Is there a pretty equal balance between the cultural and heritage-specific details your novels contain that are familiar because they’re also your own, and those, if any, that you have to research?

Though I’ve published only one novel (my other two books are a picture book and early chapter book, respectively), all of them take place in contemporary intertribal Native America.

This is important to clarify. A misconception exists that Native cultures are somehow fungible. It’s not unusual to see toys, movies, books, etc. where a number of cultural elements from different tribes are tossed in together to create some sort of hodge-podge “Indian.” That’s not what I do.

What I do is write stories that reflect today’s reality. Although each tribe is distinct in language, culture, arts, sciences, economic development, etc., citizens of various Native Nations do interact at powwows, in intertribal urban communities, at intertribal schools, at universities, in business, and so forth.  Intermarriage is not uncommon, and it’s not unusual to meet children who have ancestors from more than one tribe. The key is to write with specificity and an understanding of the sophistication involved.

I research everything, no matter how well I do or don’t know it already. That applies to Native culture or PEZ collecting or rice farming or working in a small-town newspaper. When I was in journalism school, the rule was two sources for every fact. I still go beyond that, regardless of the topic.

That said, I tend to stick close to home.

In relation to your work you’ve said, and I quote:  “Once I create my characters, they begin to fashion the setting and plot around themselves.  I assume very little at the beginning, and am always surprised by what I find.”  Could you elaborate on this a bit, and also give us an example of some of the surprises you encountered?

I usually begin writing with a general idea of the beginning, middle, and end of a story. But I remain open. Prewriting is very important to me. I’ll have characters write letters to one another. I’ll interview them. I’ll search through magazines looking for their faces. I’ll walk a neighborhood where the story is to be set, taking photographs, trying to soak up a feeling or theme.

Once you have your protagonist and some sense of the supporting cast, once they are fully developed people, they will have their own hopes, dreams, fears, desires, challenges. The way they face these challenges, where they go, what they do, who they seek out, all of that grows naturally from those fully realized personalities.

An author doesn’t guide a character. The character guides her.

Rain from Rain Is Not My Indian Name was a difficult character to get to know. She was in mourning and withdrawn, which meant she was withdrawn not only from her family and community but also from me. Early on, I thought her father’s literal distance (he’s stationed at an Air Force Base on Guam) and emotional distance (after the death of her mother) would only be a complicating factor in Rain’s life. What I found was that they were, in a sense, mirror characters, both holding themselves apart from the world. In Rain’s lowest moment, it is Dad to whom she can turn. It’s Dad who understands.

Native Americans, if I’m not mistaken, are a very spiritual people who have great respect for their ancestors.  In deciding to write for children, did you in any sense feel compelled by a spiritual need to pass certain aspects of Indian culture on to the next generation, thereby keeping it alive?  Or any ancestral obligation or responsibility to do so?

Native people vary in their spirituality like individuals of any religious tradition. This isn’t to say that traditional belief systems are unimportant. On the contrary, they’re quite important. But everyone’s different, and there are Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Buddhist, etc. tribal members. Elders are certainly valued, as is history, but Native people have a past, a present, and a future.

My goal, really, with regard to my work with contemporary Native characters, is to tell stories that feature believable people. Daily life stories, stories of key moments, etc. Story and character, if they can be divided, are the first considerations. Beyond that, certainly, it’s a pleasure to offer stories that ring true to folks like those in the book and offer others a realistic glimpse of today’s Native life.

But I’m a children’s author, not a teacher or an advocate or a historian. I’m someone who writes stories for children and teenagers. Stories, first.

Are the responses and reactions you’ve received from children who are and aren’t American Indians, that read your books, similar or dissimilar in nature, and/or in the questions they ask and things they want to know? 

Not really. Initially, non-Indian kids will tend to ask a few questions about aspects of the culture that are unfamiliar to them. So far, that hasn’t happened as much with young Native readers, but of course, Indian children can’t be expected to be experts on all tribal traditions or even authorities on their own.

Generally, all kids focus on the characters. They want to know what aspects of the story were inspired by real life. They want to know what happens after the story ends.

Oh, and they all love the ferret from Indian Shoes (Harper, 2002) (ages 7-9).

In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, to what degree does Rain’s struggle with – should I refer to it as assimilation with America’s WASP culture and values, vs. her Indian heritage?-- parallel yours growing up and finding your own identity?  Or is it not at all autobiographical?   

I don’t know that Rain does struggle with her dual cultures. Her primary conflicts in the story are finding a way to honor her best friend’s memory and reconnecting to her family and intertribal/small town community after his sudden death.

Her challenge, to the extent this plays into the story, is with other people’s expectations about her cultures.

She articulates this on page 113: “Being a mixed-blood girl is no big deal. Really. It seems weird to have to say this, but after a lifetime of experience, I’m used to being me. Dealing with the rest of the world and its ideas, now that makes me a little crazy sometimes.”

(Of course it follows from this that Rain herself realizes that she has been laboring under some false misconceptions about her friend the Flash and his heritage. She’s definitely not looking out at the world as a perfect person.)

Though this is slowly improving, generally speaking, Native culture is not taught well—if at all—in schools, or if it is, the focus is only on local tribes and/or history. On those rare occasions a Native person is presented by the mainstream media, it’s almost always in powwow regalia or protesting an Indian mascot or working in a casino. In other words, Native people are shown only when they fit into a preconception. Toys, TV, and movies speak for themselves.

Consequently, regardless of what else is happening, a Native person may be frequently confronted (sometimes in more friendly ways than others) with these outside misconceptions. That’s just part of the fabric of contemporary life.

Though I have some things in common with Rain—having lived in NE Kansas, worked in a small-town newspaper, tribal affiliation, a fondness for science fiction—the story is not strictly autobiographical by any means. I do take that sage old advice, “write what you know.” But it’s just a place to start.

Since all books are not created equal, based on your three book experience, could you compare and contrast the challenges you faced in writing a children’s picture book, a chapter book, and young adult novel?

With the picture book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow/Harper, 2000), the biggest challenge was giving myself permission to let my voice be heard. I kept thinking a particular line or phrase sounded “too Indian.” I worried about integrating Native culture naturally, without explanation. But I believe that the best way to go about writing cross-culturally is to write first with insider readers in mind. I trust that all children can open themselves and absorb whatever is offered. I’d rather give them something authentic and natural than something contrived for easy translation.

With the early chapter book, Indian Shoes, the format was the challenge. The manuscript began as a picture book manuscript of the last story, "Night Fishing." Though that first story was initially rejected in favor of Jingle Dancer, I loved the characters, Ray and Grampa Halfmoon. I wrote another story, Indian Shoes, with those same characters, which again got a pass until my smart editor suggested that what I really was doing was writing for the chapter book age group. That was the key.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name was difficult in that the character was initially uncommunicative and withdrawn, though she had a full life. Offering her a partial journal format proved helpful because she would scribble thoughts that she wasn’t inclined to share aloud.

Although the specific genre you write in can’t actually be defined as a “niche” market, was it, in your opinion, easier to get published quickly due to the subject matter you write about?

It’s funny that you ask that. In the late 1990s, when I first started writing for kids, I was told in various ways by more than one person: “Multiculturalism is dead.” “The boom is over.” “We tried it, and it didn’t work.” I can remember lamenting that my nearest superstore had only one shelf labeled “multicultural,” which apparently translated to anything not about white folks or animals, with every book spine out. A few months later, that shelf was gone. Related to this is a misconception that children should only read about people like themselves and that “black and brown people don’t read.” Ouch.

Though many historical books are published about Indians, the number of contemporary titles is statistically insignificant. They generally aren’t thought of as “big bookstore books,” the school-library market is shrinking, and the idea of classroom use of stories about Native people today is still a new one. We also don’t have a sales-generating award, like the King award, to motivate publishers to take a chance on new voices. In addition, though they include some top-notch professionals, our teacher/librarian numbers are still small.

Hopefully, all this will change. I’m an optimist. I think it is changing. Though much work is still to be done, I believe that more and more educators are trying, that more and more readers are growing to appreciate diverse voices, and that more and more enthusiasts emerge every day. To survive, publishers and booksellers need to offer books that generate money. If we have the readership, the books will follow. It’s really that simple and that difficult.

But for now, most of the quality books about contemporary Native themes are coming out of the small presses in the U.S. and Canada.

What I think helped me was doing my homework. One of the ways in which authors market their work is to try to identify editors with a particular interest in the types of stories they write.

For example, if you’re a fantasy writer, you’ll probably try to identify those editors who have a taste for fantasy and have published such books in the past.

Some years ago, on a listserv, I saw a post that my (future) editor had spoken at an SCBWI conference in California, and she was interested in multicultural stories but not folk tales. Woman after my own heart, I thought. I sent her a manuscript she didn’t buy, but it opened a dialogue. I remained open to revision and found in her someone I wanted to work with. We’ve been working together ever since.

The fact is, no matter what your subject matter, children’s publishing is incredibly competitive. Quality counts, but I know excellent writers who’ve taken several years to get published. Many times it honestly is a matter of the right story on the desk of the right person on the right day. It’s entirely possible that if I hadn’t identified that one editor, I might still not be published. But I would be focusing on improving my writing.

You are, or were, very active in the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).  Despite the consensus of professional opinion regarding the benefits and value derived from belonging to writers’ organizations, haven’t numerous  authors ‘made it’ on their own, without organizational or group affiliation? 

I belong to a few different writers’ groups: SCBWI, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, the Western Writers Association, the Writers’ League of Texas. Each has been helpful in different ways. I’m a big believer in community—defined broadly and specifically.

Writing is incredibly solitary and filled with rejection. The fact is, most writers don’t get the support they need from their family members and their non-writing friends. It helps to have people in your life who’re going through the same things, facing the same professional issues.

I’ve met many of my best friends through writing organizations, and I’ve learned so much from others in the field.

What impresses me the most is how much the pros are willing to give back and share. People often tend to think of a writer at a particular level of talent and performance, but ideally, we’re all growing, improving, stretching. It’s great to have other writers rooting for you along the way. It’s better to celebrate a friend’s success. More globally, we’re working together to offer wonderful books to young readers.

In the actual writing, the actual putting down of words on paper, you’re still back on your own to an extent. Good feedback is helpful, but it doesn’t do the work for you. You have to write.

I think, for some people, it’s possible to succeed without seeking others. But it would have to be harder and significantly less fun.

In joining such groups, would you’d concur that writers should, to paraphrase JFK, ask not what writers’ organizations can do for you, but what you can do for writers’ organizations? 

Yes and no. As I’ve addressed above, it’s important to do what you can for your fellow writers, and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy to that end. But balance also matters. One danger for beginners is to spend a lot of time “playing writer.” They go to conferences, they read books about writing, and they talk about writing. What they don’t do is write.

You also are, or were, a mentor to novice,  unpublished writers.  Did you become a mentor through SCBWI?  And, if you can speak from both perspectives, how does a mentoring relationship work?  And what does each party expect of the other? 

When I first began writing for children, I was incredibly blessed that distinguished authors Kathi Appelt and Jane Kurtz offered me a great deal of advice, expertise, and some assistance with those first manuscripts. What they mostly did, though, was let me know that someone believed in me, that my dream was an attainable one. I’m incredibly grateful to both of them and consider them both dear friends.

Now that I’ve been writing for a while, I’ve worked with beginning writers to varying degrees. I have a couple of ongoing mentor-mentee relationships. Essentially, this means I’m available to answer a question or provide direction or encouragement. It’s mostly being there for someone if and when they need you. I also read and critique for mentees. Not often, not so much that my voice or vision becomes too much of an influence. Just enough to nudge in this direction or that, developmentally speaking. I wouldn’t take on a beginner that I didn’t think had the potential to make a go of it. It’s exciting to see them grow. 

In every instance, the relationship has evolved organically. I simply hit it off with someone, had an interest in their work, and off we went.

In cases where joining writers’ groups and having mentors doesn’t work – doesn’t result in having one’s work published, would you advise writers to join yet another writers’ organization, find another mentor, take writing classes, enter more writing contests, etc., and never give up?  Or would you tell them to consider whether they may have chosen the wrong career and should try another professional endeavor?

I would advise spending more time writing and reading. Writing and reading, writing and reading, writing and reading, writing and reading. Oh, and reading and writing. That also helps. Focus on the basics. Work on craft.

People are always chasing for that golden key, but this is it: you have to write a sellable manuscript and then sell it.

If that sounds unfair or like too much work, then that person will give up and not succeed. But if it sounds like a challenge, if it’s an exciting revelation that they have the power to make their work better, then it’s usually just a matter of time.

Your husband’s also had a few children’s books published.  Were you both writers when you met?

My husband’s first novel is coming out this year. Ninjas, Pirahnas, and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003) (middle grade) is a romantic-science-comedy about three kids who enter their school science fair and end up in student court because of it.

We met as first-year law students and married a few months after graduation. We’ve been married eight years now. I really like him.

Most of us who write for children come from my sort of strong reader background. We were library kids, good in English. That’s probably true for most of the teachers and librarians active in the field as well.

Greg was that kid, but he was also the kid who read a lot of science nonfiction and took advanced science and math classes, going on to graduate from a science magnet high school in Chicago and get two degrees in electrical engineering before continuing on to law school. His “day job” is as a patent attorney.

He brings that technical and scientific background to his children’s fiction, which is something very rarely seen and much needed. And he does it with humor, which is pure genius (don’t tell him I said that; I’ll never get the dishes done).

Those kids, the science kids and anyone—including girls—who we hope will become inspired to study those subjects, they need books that address those themes.

In addition, as a biracial author (German-Japanese American), he brings another diverse insider voice to the fold. It’s interesting because when people learn of Greg’s dual background, they tend to assume that the Japanese side is new to the States. In fact, it was the German side that arrived with his parents’ generation while his Japanese side had been in Hawaii for four generations before he was born.

Consequently, he tends to be more interested in European immigrants and long-standing Asian American families.

One oddity of the children’s book industry is that, though many Asian American families have been in the U.S. for multiple generations, virtually all of the stories are about new immigrants. And, though Europeans are still “coming to America,” we seldom see tales of, say, young Polish American girls whose parents don’t speak English. I think this may have something to do with that tired old stereotype that “all American” equals blue-eyed blond.

Regardless, it’s time to get past all that.  Rather than taking a hyper-reverential approach, Greg does so in a funny way, which I find refreshing.

Have you ever noticed how many multicultural books are serious and important? Don’t get me wrong. I write about serious topics sometimes. And serious and important is, well, serious and important. But balance matters, too. We stuffy grownups tend to underestimate the value of humor, but kids love it. Other than the noteworthy exception of Newbery Medal Winner Christopher Paul Curtis, we don’t see a lot of multicultural humor. Or at least as much as I’d like. Humor doesn’t have to mean superficial. The best humor resonates on several levels.

Your web site is such an informative and comprehensive resource.  Did you have it before or after you had your first book published?  Since manning it must be so demanding as well as time and energy consuming, do you feel as though you’re a writer with a web site, or a web site owner who also writes? 

Thank you. I created it after Jingle Dancer sold but before it was published. Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources is 200+ pages of author/illustrator interviews, reading recommendations, original articles, lesson plans, and thousands of annotated links.

The Web site doesn’t take as much time as people tend to assume. I did design it myself and create most of the content, but I did all that while I was learning my way around the industry. I researched other authors and linked to their sites. I read numerous books—still do—and then took a few minutes to think about them enough to write a recommendation blurb. Every author has to self-educate about the children’s literature industry and community. I simply uploaded what I learned as I went along. Consequently, it took more time in the beginning, but far less now.

Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I spend maybe five or ten minutes a day on the site, more days than not, to keep it current and fresh. Maybe once a week, I’ll spend a couple of hours. It’s mostly a matter of keeping the links fresh, adding the best of the new ones, and featuring a new book or author now and then. Since I’m already reading the books and talking to the authors anyway, the burden isn’t really that high.

Really, public speaking, though I enjoy it, takes far more time away from the writing than the Web site does. That, and my cats.

In addition to promoting your books and children’s literature in lectures and programs at museums, schools, libraries, and  teacher conferences, etc; according to ads you’ve placed, you also offer cyber visits, lesson plans, teacher resources, and a virtual tour of the fictional town in “Rain Is Not My Indian Name.”  Last year, if I remember correctly, you had pictures of a number of children’s book authors, yourself included, who participated in an annual school visit type of project. 

Tell us a bit about your involvement with kids, and schools, and teachers, and education, your books, and the book-related resources you’ve developed?

Fact is, I’m not a librarian or a teacher. I don’t have that background, education or skills. I’m someone who reads, writes, and just tries to do whatever she can to support those very important professionals. I also make an effort to encourage the general public to join our children’s literature community.

Big picture, what I’m trying to get across is that good books—including but not exclusively multicultural books—matter.

About the writing contest you judged:  How is it possible to pick only one first place winning submission from hundreds or thousands of entries?  What characteristic(s) make that one  particular piece of writing more extraordinary than all the others?       

I've actually judged a few writing contests, and the overall quality of manuscripts has varied from program to program. In almost every case, the winner was clear--no real competition--and then there was a small second-tier layer of manuscripts that had tremendous potential (could, possibly would, be publishable with minor revision). Honestly, that's the standard I've applied: Is this manuscript good enough to meet the first-sale standard?

One mistake that a lot of beginning writers make is that they read only the classics or popular sales books. I'm someone who makes a point of reading first-time authors, and I honestly believe that's higher than the publication standard. A new voice must have a certain ka-boom force, charm, lyricism, whatever-it-is to make it worthy of a start-from-zero financial investment. If the contest is to have any real clout, that has to be the goal.

So, in a contest, what I look for is fearless writing, a fresh and confident style, a story that demands attention. I want to put it down, and think, wow, I'm really looking forward to that edited book. I want to be tempted to recommend that author send it to my own publisher.

Questions for writers to ask themselves:

(1) Is my concept a fresh one? Or, if not, have I added a spin that's all mine?
(2) Am I compromising the telling of a story for some outside goal (teaching, preaching, etc.)?
(3) Is my character memorable? Will readers care about him/her?
(4) Does each scene move the story forward?
(5) Does the story have emotional resonance?
(6) Is the style confident (without being overly writerly)?
(7) Are events shown or told?
(8) Is the pacing too fast or too slow?
(9) Am I holding back?
(10) Is this the best this manuscript can possibly be?

And what has your experience as a writing contest judge taught you?

Despite all the writers out there, really only a small percentage are producing work that can be called excellent, and that's good news. It means that if you're willing to work hard enough, to learn, to stretch and grow, you can be successful.

Having succeeded in your chosen career, do you expect to continue writing in the same genre, or are there other types of writing you’d like to try your hand at? 

Fiction-wise, I’m not really interested in writing for adults. I don’t read as many of their books, and they just don’t fascinate me in the same way children (and to an extent elders) do. To me, kids are such an important audience. I feel honored to write for them.

Within children’s fiction, I’ve published a picture book, early chapter book, and ’tweener (ages 10-14) novel. At the moment, my annoying muse has me interested in classic middle grade (ages 8-12) and upper level YA (12-up). So, though I’ll continue to write for children and teenagers, my stories can be found anywhere along that path. I’d like to think that some readers grow from one story to the next. That would be wonderful.

This spring, two of my short stories will appear in anthologies: "The Gentleman Cowboy," Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins, 2003) (ages 8-12); and "The Naked Truth," In My Grandmother’s House: Award-Winning Authors Tell Stories About Their Grandmothers (HarperCollins, 2003) (ages 8-12).

A MESSAGE FROM CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH:  I am honored to supply bookplates and bookmarks to young readers.  To request, please visit www.cynthialeitichsmith.com and write c-smith@texas.net.  

* Note:  Her web site, Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources, has been named one of the top 10 writer sites on the Internet by Writers’ Digest Magazine.

Visit MyFavoriteBookShop (http://www.MyFavoriteBookShop.com), RoseEtta Stone's new bookshop, featuring children’s books; books of yesteryear, today, and tomorrow; books for reluctant readers; and banned, censored, challenged, and burned books.

Specializing in:  Locating old, rare, hard to find, sought after, and/or out of print books.

 

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