A Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith

Published February 4, 2011 by Chick-Lit Cafe

If you’re a fan of gothic fantasy and paranormal romance, you should sink your teeth into Cynthia Leitich Smith’s newest book Blessed, a young adult thriller filled with brooding shapeshifters and night crawlers set in Austin.  The third installment in a gothic triology, the story revolves around Quincy Morris, an orphaned teenager who’s struggling to keep her parent’s vampire-themed restaurant afloat while saving Central Texas from a legion of rogue vampires. While fighting off blood-sucking fiends, Quincy must keep her new thirst for blood at bay, salvage her soul and clear her best bud and soul mate –a hot-blooded werewolf cross-breed – of murder charges.  Wow – and I thought my high school days were hellish!

Adding a unique spin on the ever-evolving vampire genre, she  gives readers exactly what they want: fast-paced thrill rides filled with vampire lore, preternatural bad boys and steamy romance.  If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, Tantalize or Eternal, you’re in for a treat!   

I had the pleasure of meeting Cynthia at (be still my heart!) a vampire book launch party, and she graciously agreed to chat with me about blood-suckers, her love for dark fantasy and what’s up next!

Welcome Cynthia! Tell us about yourself. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?  

Thank you! I first began reading and writing from a very young age. I recall that my first “performed” writing was a short story I wrote in second grade about catching crawdads. It was read over an intercom system at my Kansas City, Missouri area elementary school.

By sixth grade, I had a column, “Dear Gabby” in Mr. Rideout’s class newsletter.

In junior high and high school, I served as editor of my school newspapers.

I went on to major in news/editorial and public relations at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas, taking several fiction-writing classes as electives.

I continued onto The University of Michigan Law School (with the idea that I’d eventually become a media law professor in a journalism school or first amendment professor in a law school) and continued pursuing journalism through internships at small town and suburban papers as well as The Detroit Legal News and The Dallas Morning News.

The fiction bug bit me hard after graduation while I was clerking for the Department of Health and Human Services in Chicago. I became a full-time writer at age 27.

I couldn’t think of a better city for a vampire-themed restaurant than Austin! How did you come up with this concept?  

Thanks! I’d always been a fan of spooky stories and gravitated heavily toward the horror shelves in the bookstores. Though I began writing realistic fiction, I longed to explore Gothic fantasy from early on. 

It struck me that Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was perhaps the quintessential horror novel (or one of them anyway) and, being a big classics geek, drew on that for inspiration.

 More personally, I’d worked as a waitress in my teens—first at a Mexican chain restaurant and then at an athletic club (both in Overland Park, Kansas). It struck me that restaurants were such terrific stages for drama. They have thematic music, décor, menus, costuming. Sometimes people even burst into song. 

And sure, folks tend to think of vampires as more drinkers than diners, but I thought that might give my story some of the fresh blood I was looking for. 

Could you give me an example of how you incorporated Austin’s unique culture in your books? 

Tantalize and Blessed are heavily set in Austin. Eternal, only in the beginning of the story. 

That said, the series exudes Austin-ness. Sanguini’s, the vampire-themed restaurant in the book, is set on South Congress, which is an eclectic restaurant-dining-entertainment district. Heroes Quincie and Kieren live in the Bouldin Creek and Fairview neighborhoods respectively. Danger lurks along the hike-and-bike trail to either side of Lady Bird Lake.

Beyond that, there’s a strong sense of the community here. University profs and tie-dyed hippies, indie musicians and filmmakers, professional bikers and politicos and ex-dot.com millionaires. 

It’s welcoming, sunny, optimistic, diverse in every sense of the word, and proudly itself. 

Austin isn’t trying to be another city. Austin is Austin and loves it. You feel that in the characters. 

Unlike other protagonists in popular vampire fiction, Quincie is strong-willed and unwilling to sacrifice her soul for love. How does she embody the characteristics of a tough Texan?

Quincie is smart enough to realize that her soul is who she is. If she gives herself up, there’s nothing left. Not her evolving patchwork family or the business she inherited from her mama or her amazing connection to Kieren. He loves her, the real her, not some monster walking around in body. She fights for herself because she has value intrinsically and to those who truly care about her.

As to how Quincie embodies Texas characteristics, I think she’s a particularly Austin flavor of Texan. She’s very open-minded and accepting and loyal to the folks in her life. She’s independent and ambitious and has one heck of a work ethic. I associate all that with Texas, though she’s also the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, who’ve built their business from scratch, and she values that too.

If your vampire books hit the big screen, which actors would play Quincie Morris and her lifelong best friend and love interest, Kieren?

Honestly, I couldn’t begin to say. At the moment, I’m completely enchanted with how Ming Doyle has brought them to life in her early sketches for the graphic novel, coming this fall.

What is your all-time favorite vampire movie/book? 

That’s a toughie. Other than Dracula, I’m going to go with “Lost Boys.” It’s very 1980s in all of the best possible ways—spooky, funny, and romantic. I’m all about that.  

What is the most important piece of advice you could give to an aspiring YA author? 

Write! Don’t play writer. Don’t just talk about writing and go to conferences and haul around that same manuscript for a decade. Show up to the page day after day after day and mean it. 

Can you give me a sneak peak into what you’re working on now? 

Next up is Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, which is told from the point of view of one of my favorite characters, the hybrid werewolf Kieren Morales.  It’ll be released in August by Candlewick Press. 

I also have an essay called “Isolation” coming out next fall in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, an anthology edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones from HarperCollins. 

Beyond that, I’m working on a fourth novel in the Tantalize series, which will be more of a sequel to events in Eternal. At the moment, it’s told in multiple point of view by three of the most popular characters in the series and set in both Austin and rural Vermont.

Take a look at Cynthia’s website to learn more about her books.

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