Monday, April 19, 2010
Inquiry I: Cynthia Leitich Smith
This week, we hear from Cynthia Leitich Smith, the New York Times best-selling author of ETERNAL and TANTALIZE (both Candlewick), numerous short stories, and award-winning books for younger readers. She looks forward to the release of HOLLER LOUDLY (Dutton, Nov. 2010), BLESSED (Candlewick, Feb. 2011), and TANTALIZE: KIEREN'S STORY (Candelwick, Feb. 2011). Cynthia is also a member of faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. 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 as among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.
EEM: Let's get started, shall we?
Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?
CLS: I can only barely remember a time when I was not a writer. I recall sitting in my mother's car in my Aunt Gail's driveway and memorizing rhyming words for kindergarten--brown, clown, frown, town.... But by second grade, my short story about crawdad fishing was being read over the school intercom system, and by fourth grade, I was collecting white participation ribbons in my district competition, and by sixth grade, I had a "Dear Gabby" column for Mr. Rideout's class newspaper.
From there, I went on to become editor of my junior high and high school newspapers. I majored in journalism with a concentration in English at The University of Kansas and helped pay college expenses with PR and reporting internships. I continued onto the University of Michigan Law School, where I co-founded a feminist law journal and taught legal writing and worked summers at places like The Detroit Legal News and The Dallas Morning News.
It was writing fiction that was the leap. Being from a low-middle-class family and first-generation college, I was very aware of the need to have a job that came with some kind of a paycheck. Journalism seemed like the obvious choice. But when I graduated from Michigan Law in '94, journalism jobs in Chicago (where my husband had accepted a firm job) were scarce. I believe that both the Trib and Sun Times had hiring freezes at the time, though I did a stringer story or two for the Trib.
Also, my generation--at least in suburban Kansas City--didn't have the benefit of the kind of author programming in schools that kids do now. To me, literary authors were people who were either very wealthy or very dead and from Europe or New England.
But when I was working in the law office of the Department of Health and Human Services in Chicago, I began reading children's-YA books again. I remember being especially drawn to BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause, for its Gothic themes and strong girl hero, and DANCING WITH THE INDIANS by Angela Shelf Medearis, because, for a change, the Indians weren't the bad guys.
With love to the literature and logic of the law, it's perhaps not the most poetic or action-packet reading, and it was a treat to come home again to those books. I began writing on my lunch hour, after work, and after the Oklahoma City Bombing, decided to quit and write full-time. That tragedy was a wake-up call that life was precious, too often short, and that the time to make my dream come true was now.
EEM: When you began, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?
CLS: I had fairly quick success. Within two and a half years, I'd signed with Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, and she'd sold what would become my first book, JINGLE DANCER, which is celebrating ten years in print at HarperCollins. I attribute this speedy path to publication to the fact that I'd been writing for publication, albeit in other forms for some time, and that I was never a hobbyist.
Don't get me wrong, I mean nothing minimizing by the word "hobbyist." I rather envy hobbyists actually--how wonderful to write purely for the love of it when inspiration strikes. But by contrast, I was writing very seriously with the idea that I was trying to make a living at it from day one.
That said, making a living at it took time. I don't remember the year I cracked even $20,000, though it's been some time ago, but I do know it happened initially through a combination of money from books and speaker fees. I was blessed by the financial support of my husband, though in good conscience, I could only lean on him for so long. I was quite aware of my responsibility to make a solid return on his investment for both of us.
EEM: What jobs have you held to help sustain your writing career?
CLS: My husband and I relocated from Chicago to Austin, which back then had a lower cost of living, and , and I took at part-time tutoring job at St. Edward's. I did some magazine work, but nothing that really panned out, and worked part-time for a while doing PR for the Austin Fire Department. All of that was short term, largely because we moved back to Chicago for a time before returning again to Austin.
My most significant job, working for other folks, has been teaching at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It's a low-residency program, so I'm on campus for something like 12 days in July and January and then work with five graduate students over the course of the semester.
EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?
CLS: Honestly, the job that's most challenging to me is being Author Cyn (as opposed to Writer Cyn). By that, I mean, speaking at book events, professional correspondence, marketing and promotion, managing my career, etc.--basically the business side.
EEM: How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?
CLS: It comes with the territory.
EEM: What was/is your favorite thing about this job?
CLS: Interacting with industry professionals, fellow creative types, young readers, and the folks who champion and connect books to them (teachers, librarians, booksellers, etc.). This past weekend I was at the Texas Library Association conference, and a few hundred Texas YA readers were brought to the event. I talked to kids who were literally bouncing, they love the books so much. Talk about inspiring!
EEM: Least Favorite?
CLS: Time. It takes time away from my creative work and from my personal life.
EEM: Does/did your day job allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?
CLS: Yes and yes.
EEM: What other effects did it have on your writing?
CLS: Teaching at Vermont College has been a wonderful opportunity to learn lessons I could apply to my own craft, and it also introduced me to fellow writers who're now a treasured part of my community. Being a professional author gives me insights into my audience and shows me opportunities for reaching them in new ways. For example, I'm writing graphic novels now in part because publishers and YA readers are increasingly enthusiastic about them.
EEM: Thank you, Cynthia, for being the first interview at The Day Job: A Writer's Inquiry. I really enjoyed hearing about your path to becoming an author.
Keep an eye out for a new interview next Monday. We have several great authors and writers coming down the pipeline.