Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cynthia Smith on Fantasy, YA and Vampires

Our very first interview is with Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of Tantalize. Her website is and her deliciously dark YA novel is on store shelves now. Check it out!

Hey, thanks for being a part of this, Cynthia. It’s very exciting to have you involved!

1. Not all heroes are created equal of course, and some of the heroes in my novels seem to last with me longer than others. Have you had any heroes that wouldn’t leave your mind?

Of my own characters, Cassidy Rain of Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) has lingered longest as a dominant voice so far. It was six years between that debut novel and my latest, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)(Walker UK 2008)(Listening Library, 2008). I suspect it's because the first book is sort of the one you have to write before you can move on to anything else. Rain is poetic and quietly hopeful. She has a gentle humor. In some ways, staying in her mindset was a safe, reassuring place to be. I finally had to start by trying to write a voice opposite to Rain's, whatever that might be, and then fight to launch Quincie's (of Tantalize) voice from that exercise.It's interesting because I was able to write several short stories and a couple of picture books (Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006)(Holler Loudy (Dutton, 2009) between the two novels, but there's something about really settling in with a first-person protagonist. It's a much bigger commitment. You have to really fall in love for it to work.

2. I love seeing strong female characters in fiction, but I especially love seeing strong ‘every day’ women sprinkled in too. Not every lady can be tall, thin and gorgeous with a perfect complexion… some of us just have to be the lady in the grocery store or the funny one at Blockbuster. What is your take on females in YA fiction right now? Are we seeing a lot of the ‘perfect’ females, a lot of the ‘every day’ females or more of a mix?

Strong protagonists are the norm in YA literary trade fiction—if they're going to be the character that drives the story, they need some momentum behind them. As for looks, my feeling is that, manuscript-wise, the girls tend to look like girls you'd see in real life. But of course the market pressures on cover-art designers are immense, beauty sells, and it's typical to see a girl on a cover who looks entirely different (and far more conventionally attractive) than the author ever imagined her.In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the protagonist talks about how her brother was the good-looking one, that the local cheerleaders would cruise their small-town street for a chance to whistle at him. Granted, adolescent girls often tend to underestimate their own appeal, but still… When I got the cover art, Rain looked like Queen Amidala. I remember saying to my husband, "Wow. What do you think her brother looks like?"

3. Do you feel that researching fantasy and supernatural elements is harder than researching the things we might call ‘facts’? Somewhere in your journey to write Tantalize, did you find yourself ‘researching’?

I spent an extraordinary amount of time researching; see my bibliographies: I don't know that it's harder because you have more power to make a judgment call (your "take" on, say, a werecat can't really be disproved), though researching real-life cats will make your guess more educated and therefore plausible. In terms of the body of literature, I do think it's illuminating to know what's come before—not for sales—but to make a thoughtful contribution to the conversation of books. Because Tantalize is a genre bender—a suspense Gothic fantasy with strong elements of romance, mystery, and humor—I have a wide diversity of readers. Those who are long-time horror fans are the ones who get the nods and subtext about the literary tradition as a whole. Don't get me wrong, the rest can follow the story, but "insiders" appreciate it on an additional level.

4. When I picked up Interview with the Vampire for the first time, I was shocked to realize that the vampires felt more human than most humans in fiction. Their struggles, moral decisions, pasts, family relationships, dealings with money… all of it felt very, very real. And very important. (I remember when I saw pictures of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, thinking for a moment that Louis would be devastated with what had happened to his city. Now that’s a case of a character that sticks with you!)You’ve said that you felt monsters and vampires could be very symbolic of adolescence, something that shapes most of the rest of our lives. Do you think that’s what drew so many people to books like Interview with the Vampire? Was it the freedom to express things through another point of view, specifically a fantastical point of view?

Excellent question (and I'm a Rice fan, too). The depiction of a fantasy creature or world can really free one up to go more directly to the heart of humanity. You can write with less subtlety because that fantasy layer already gives the reader enough distance to see more clearly. Say you're talking about a hero feeling as if she's on verge of damnation. In a fantasy novel, you can go ahead and show the literal gates of hell.

5. Writing involves a degree of method acting… thinking as the characters would think and writing what they would say. How was it to get into the mind of an immortal? Did you learn anything new there?

As with Rice's work, there's a modern tendency to show the vampire as sympathetic, which lends itself to richer fiction. In my own fiction, I'm likewise inclined to create layered characters. The neophytes in particular are soul sick, haunted by the sensibility and morality (or lack thereof) of their human lives. But even my fiends can be honorable at times.That said, I don't show vampires as simply misunderstood. That can be done well, and I've read some really fun, kicky chick lit that uses the approach. But what fascinates me most about magic is not its power but its costs. What would we give up for this ability, and what price would be too high? For that price to matter, it must be more than superficial. It must somehow fundamentally affect who the character is.

6. I know you’ve mentioned a love for movie soundtracks (I look at my collection and wince because I have about thirty and counting!). Movie soundtracks have a natural cinematic rise and fall and every emotion in between. Some of my favorites are “Finding Neverland”, “Edward Scissorhands”, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”, and “Moulin Rouge.” And it looks like we have something in common- “Xanadu”! What are some of your very favorite movie soundtracks? (And was it as hard for you as it was for me, to find “Xanadu”?)

I'm a fan of "My Fair Lady," "Grease," "The Blues Brothers," and "Rocky IV"—all great albums for the treadmill. I also find "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" hysterical. (I've been a huge Dolly Parton fan ever since I saw her on an elementary field trip to the American Royal Rodeo in Kansas City.) There's this amazing Barbra Streisand movie, "On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever," in which a rather mousy modern young woman returns to her glorious aristocratic past (and love) via hypnosis/memory retrieval. The transformation is completely over the top, and the songs are the kind that you can only sing in the shower (unless you have Streisand's voice, range, and aplomb), but the internal arc and juxtaposition are highly entertaining.And oddly, I've always had "Xanadu," like a blankie or something. I bought the record and then CD when it was first released. I've also found that dancing in the dark to that soundtrack is the ultimate writer's-block buster.

7. The 80’s seemed to give us a lot of movies with fantasy or Gothic themes, like “The Labyrinth”, “Willow”, “Legend”, “The Princess Bride”, “The Neverending Story”, “The Bride”… were any of these movies inspiration for you while working on your novel? And come on, how did you REALLY feel about Sting as Dr. Frankenstein?

The main influences on Tantalize (a full list is in the author's note) were the classic Bram Stoker novel Dracula and the play/film "My Fair Lady." With Stoker's work, I was intrigued by his choice to cast a Texan as one of Van Helsing's original vampire hunters and consequently inspired to bring the mythology "home" to Texas. With "My Fair Lady," it was that scene at the Embassy Ball when Eliza dances with the Prince of Transylvania. I saw it on stage at the Paramount Theater here in Austin while I was working on the manuscript and knew at that moment that my vampire novel should be a Pygmalion, or makeover, story. As for Sting, I'm a fan, but I generally prefer the old Universal Studios monster movies to most of the remakes (not that I'd miss one).

8. Have you branched out into other ‘writing’ forms, besides novels? Have you tried your hand at poetry or songwriting, for instance?

I write for most of the age categories in youth literature. In addition to YA novels, I'm published in the picture book, chapter book, and 'tween novel as well as middle grade and YA short stories. I've also done a number of critical articles and journalistic pieces.

9. I seem to collect names everywhere… the names of people I’ve met, places I’ve been, street names, food names… Do you have a similar habit? How important do you feel a character’s name is to a story?

I'm fond of stealing waiters' names. I've had the name of a girl who attended one of my signings for years—I just need a character worthy of it. A name's meaning and the way it sounds are quite important, as are the juxtaposition of the names of the full cast. One piece of advice for beginners is to vary your names my number of syllables, vowels, etc. to help your reader better track your key characters. Or if you really want a couple of characters to blur, give them very similar names.

10. How much fun did you have with menus in Tantalize? It seems like it should be a lot of fun to not only make up the vampire themed restaurant in the novel, but to get to build a menu too! And having a history working in restaurants, was this a little like your wish list of fun?

It was hysterical. My sometimes co-author and husband (who's the family cook) and I poured through cookbooks and historic references—old-school Romanian, Italian, and Texan. Call it fusion! We had stacks and stacks of materials and spent several days working on it and tweaking the final list. Working in restaurants, I was always intrigued by their theatrical aspect. Think about it: you walk into a themed otherworld with costumes and music and menus. Essentially, you step on stage. Plus the opportunities for sensory detail are extensive, and the vampire is very much about sensuality.

10. I read your fascinating advice, to write at least one scene from the point of view of your antagonist. If there was one real life antagonist (living or dead) that you could get into the mind of and figure out, who would it be?

Vlad Tepes Dracul of course.

Question from Derek Windle, songwriter: What's the future of the Vampire in literature...doomed or saved?

The vampire is (to work in the title of my next book) Eternal (Candlewick, 2009). The fashions of his/her depiction will vary over time, but the traditionally suggested themes of sensuality, selfishness, endless youth, being both in-and outside the world, redemption (or lack thereof), the mysterious/dangerous/foreign "other," and an existence outside the rules… These are themes that—for better and worse—endure.


Chrissy said...

Another great book I've been reading with vampires is:
Archy the Flying Dolphin & the Vampire's Curse.
It's a fantasy as well and I really enjoy reading this book. I try and spend 1 hour a day reading this book.
It's so good, i sometimes read it to my little brother at bed time. When I'm done, I'm going to read it all over again to be sure i didn't miss any parts.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the suggestion, Chrissy, and thanks for visiting the blog!! I'll have to look that book up :D

have a great day!