Monday, June 23, 2008

Cynthia Leitich Smith: An Interview with an Internet Icon & Legend

Robin and I are nearly apoplectic to have had the opportunity to interview the extraordinary Cynthia Leitch Smith, who is on the top of our personal Childen's Lit Rock Star List. Cynthia is a living, breathing embodiment of the concept of karmic networking. Called a "rising star" by the Multicultural Review, Cynthia seems determined to populate the night skies with the stars of all the other authors for children and young adults. She is tireless promoter and advocate for children's literature, a constant and reliable conduit of industry info, and has become the essential, trusted resource for authors/illustrators, educators, librarians, booksellers.

Cynthia is the author of three titles with Harper Collins--Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain is Not My Indian Name (2001), Indian Shoes (2002), Santa Knows (Dutton 2006)) and her latest title, Tantalize (Candlewick 2007) is her first dark fantasy. Horn Book calls it an "intoxicating romantic thriller" and Booklist notes, "...If Joan Bauer took a crack at dark fantasy, the result would probably be something like this gothic-horror comedy..."
Tantalize will be followed by a companion novel entitled Eternal in 2009. She is also the author of numerous articles, and her short stories have been featured in a number of anthologies.

In her 'free time' (sound of Mary and Robin choking on their lattes), Cynthia is a faculty member with Vermont College in the MFA Writing for Children program

* * * * *

Robin and I have pegged you for an introvert? Are we right?
Hm. It depends on the situation. If I'm with friends or familiar colleagues or have a specific purpose, I'm generally relaxed. However, tossed into a roomful of strangers, I'm more likely to become shy. I'm also not a hit-and-run kind of networker or, really, a "networker" of any kind. I'd much prefer to have a friendly, even thoughtful chat witha few interesting folks than "work" the room. The exception to this would be if I'm the host, in which case I certainly would want to personally welcome everyone and thank them for coming.

At a big conference, would you rather:

1. Be the keynote
2. Introduce the keynote
3. Be in the front row of the audience with a group of friends
4. Be in the back of the audience sitting alone
5. Be in the Witness Protection Program

Today I'm somewhat stunned to realize that I'd rather do the keynote, but this was a long evolution. I have a clear memory of being assigned an oral report in Mr. Pennington's senior AP European History class, doing my preparation, practicing in front of a mirror, and the moment I was supposed to launch in, losing all ability to speak. It was utterly beyond me. I'll also never forget that the same teacher allowed me to turn in a written version of my report the same day with no penalty. What a great guy. Later, a university-level Speech class was required for my journalism degree. Though I graduated from a big state school, I took that class one summer at my local junior college so I could be in a smaller setting. There, I overcame much of my anxiety and learned to focus onwhat I was saying rather than my own self-consciousness. For me, that has been the key since. It's so easy to do with children's-YA literature because I have such a passion for reading and the body of literature. It's not about me--it's about the process, the books, the readers, and the people who connect them. I'm just one of the many folks supporting that greater effort andthe community behind it.

What is your favorite book promotion/marketing activity?

I recently had great fun putting together a book trailer for TANTALIZE (Candlewick, 2007). I worked with a seventeen-year-old genius (Shayne Leighton) on it, and I appreciated her expertise and enthusiasm.

Your least favorite?

I'm uncomfortable doing any kind of event that has evolved, without my knowing, since I agreed to participate. I certainly can be flexible, but shifting gears at the last minute from, say, an informal library chat to a keynote on a specific topic is a challenge.

I think most authors/illustrators would now agree that having a website is nearly an imperative. But, what about a blog? Your thoughts on that?

I enjoy the blogs as a way of "pajama outreach"--you don't have to put on dry-clean-only clothes and get in the car/plane to do it. But it's a personal choice. If you feel burdened by the idea of blogging, then you don't have to (and probably shouldn't). Put the energy into something that feeds you instead. On the other hand, if it sounds attractive, I recommend:

(a) choosing aparticular theme/focus and sticking to it;

(b) posting on a regular schedule (I keep hearing that regularity is more important than frequency);

(c) keeping in mind that, even though the exercise feels private (you're at home alone on your laptop/PC), what you're sending out is public. Building on the latter, I have chatted with a few editors and agents who're uncomfortable with their authors' blogs (and may have even been asked to "talk" to them by higher-ups). What you elect to write is up to you, but remember that your author blog is still a view of your professional face to the world. 

I fret that some talented writers maybe losing opportunities to work with certain agents/editors/schools/publishers because of what they're posting. My rule is to never say anything at Cynsations that I wouldn't on the podium or anything at Spookycyn that I wouldn't during lunch after I sat down from the podium. Along the way, I draw heavily on my journalism background. It's a more formal approach than most, and I'm not at all suggesting it should be adopted by anyone else. But do put some thought into process and its reach, both positive and negative.

What is something that you now are comfortable doing that you would have never imagined yourself being able to do?

Everything? Okay, not quite. I always had some sense that I had an aptitude for language and enjoyed playing with it. I wrote a lot of poetry as a child, and later went into school journalism, eventually majoring in it at college. All the surrounding "author" stuff would've been completely beyond me. But writing fiction is a such privilege. If I'd known at age ten that I'd get to do this someday--to be part of this magical, inspirational, sometimes neurotic world of youth literature, that realization would've far exceeded my wildest, most optimistic dreams. It's led the one-time girl who couldn't do a ten-minute oral report to dress like a vampire and throw a launch party for 100.

You have an extraordinary gift of making connections. Where in your past does that come from?

Thank you. I consider myself a community author. When I quit my full-time law job with over a hundred thousand dollars in student debt, it was a decision of the heart, not the head. My commitment wasn't only to my own work, which I take quite seriously, but to the children's-YA literature as a whole. I'm not sure where it comes from. My family background is very working class, though... a world where you don't "make connections," you just have people stop by for coffee and donuts. But maybe that's it. There was somehow always room for one more guest in my grandparents shoe-box-sized 1940s cottage. Part of me tries to honor that.

Complete this sentence: Writing conferences are to extraverts, what ___________ are to introverts.

Tsunamis. But I'd suggest reconsidering it. After all, a conference is a manufactured professional setting designed to deliver to you information and opportunity. Much of the groundwork is done for you. Just keep chanting--this isn't about me, it's about my manuscripts.

If you knew you had just 24 hours left to live, blog or not blog?

I'd definitely blog--briefly. I'd thank everyone who'd read Cynsations over the years. I'd thank everyone who shared their thoughts via interviews or news bulletins. I'd wish them all well in the future and say how much they meant to me that day and in the past. Speaking of which, thank you!

* * * * *
Cynthia, thank YOU so much for taking the time with us here today, and all you do to blaze the trail for us. The Shrinking Violet community is on their feet today, giving you a most deserved standing ovation.

Mary and Robin


jama said...

Enjoyed this wonderful interview. Thank you, ladies!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

What Jama said.
The Cynsations blog is an invaluable asset!

Jenn Hubbard

tanita✿davis said...

I've always been a little in awe of Cynsations and thought, "Geez, this woman does EVERYTHING." And then I met her -- sitting quietly on the edges of a major conference, and realized we have a lot more in common than I thought. She's a gem, thanks for interviewing her, Violets.

Mary Hershey said...

Hi, Jama, Jenn and Tadmack!

Yeah, truly amazing, isn't she?? AWE is the word.

Mary Hershey

Anonymous said...

Great questions, great answers! Thanks for this wonderful interview. But you forgot to ask Cynthia how many hours of sleep she manages, given her prolific output. I'm guessing . . . say, four and a half, supplemented by a healthy dose of caffeine?

Thanks for this.

Katherine Applegate

C. K. Kelly Martin said...

I've been a big fan of Cynsations for years. Great to see this interview here!

Erin Edwards said...

That's great advice with regards to blogging! I, too, have been surprised by what people will write on blogs. I wonder, are the introverts or extroverts more prone to reveal stuff on blogs? :)

Mary Hershey said...

Hi, Erin,

Very interesting speculation-- ;-) I wonder! I know I've had to check myself a number of times with material I've written, reminding myself that I'm not just talking with a few close friends. I was struck, too, by her comment about editors' concerns. We may need to do some more about this topic.

Thanks for coming by--
Mary Hershey