Friday, May 22, 2009

Author Kathi Appelt Takes Over Cynsations, Interviews Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

Dear Cynsations Fans—

Our host, Cynthia Leitich Smith has interviewed literally hundreds of folks in the children’s-YA literature community here on Cynsations.

She’s interviewed authors, illustrators, editors, agents, book packagers, publicists, bookstore folks. You name it, she’s interviewed us.

She’s done this for over ten years now, so I thought I’d give Cyn a day off and take on the role of guest editor.

But then I thought, hey, the person I want to interview is Cyn!

So here you go, sports fans, an interview with our very own Cynthia Leitich Smith about her new book, Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

(I know, not much of a day off, but at least she didn’t have to think up the questions).

Here's an introduction...

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the successful author of Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), Santa Knows (Scholastic Book Club, 2007), and numerous short stories.

Her newest book Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) comes on the very successful heels of Cyn’s first Gothic fantasy, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), but while it features some of the same elements, it’s definitely its own novel.

KA: Welcome to Cynsations, Cyn! And congratulations on the release of Eternal!

Thank you, Kathi! Welcome to Cynsations yourself!

KA: In a conversation we had on the phone, you explained to me that both Eternal and Tantalize fall into a category of horror literature known as “Gothic fantasy.” For me, horror has always been just that, horror. And yet, it seems to those of us who are unfamiliar with the genre, there are different categories. Can you describe what Gothic fantasy is and how it differs from other sorts of horror?

In Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004), anthologist Deborah Noyes says, “…think of Gothic as a room in the house of horror. Its décor is distinctive. It insists on the burden of the past. It also gleefully turns our ideas of good and evil on end.”

I tend to think of myself as a sense-of-place author, and I’m fairly obsessed with the “burden of the past,” the “conversation of books” over the ages. So Deb’s vision and definition are definitely in sync with mine.

My Gothics are interwoven with nods, tributes, and counterarguments to various pieces within the body of classic and, to a lesser extent, current literature. Tantalize is largely inspired by the Pygmalion tradition and offers a parallel construct to Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Eternal touches on DickensA Tale of Two Cities and Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.”

However, both novels (and Blessed, which I’m working on now) are foremost a conversation with Abraham “Bram” Stoker, the author of Dracula.

Dracula is the quintessential horror novel, perhaps—as often said—more for its elements than execution, but nevertheless a fascinating place to begin. To varying degrees of subtlety, I take on many of Stoker’s themes, such as invasion, the “dark” foreigner, the role of religion, corruption, sensuality/sexuality, and especially gender.

Does a reader have to have studied Stoker (or Hawthorne or Dickens or Shakespeare) to understand my books? Nope, but I have heard from teens that my novels have inspired them to pick up the referenced classics and I’m delighted by that.

I would add that my YA Gothics reflect a multi-faith, multicultural world and include both some humor and strong elements of romance. The latter isn’t new to the tradition. Dracula itself includes some heavy romantic content.

What else? Horror should challenge the readers' comfort zones. Beyond that, in my universe, magic must have a proportional price. I’m not guaranteeing any happy endings (you have read the book to find out what happens). It's not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad, and I like a set of teeth on my monsters or--in other words--a little horror in my horror novel.

KA: One of the trademarks of Eternal and Tantalize is the parallel world that you show in Austin, Dallas, and Chicago, making readers feel as though we could easily step across the portal from one to the other and not even realize that we’ve crossed such a dangerous border. How did you manage to go from a real setting, one that is easily recognizable to anyone who has tramped around in those cities, to one that could be there and yet remains unseen to most of us?

I’m tempted to ask why you’re so sure that magical “parallel world” isn’t the real one. Then again, I’ve been writing Sabine—the eternal queen—so I’m feeling rather saucy.

The short answer is that I’m fond of field trips.

Tantalize is set in Austin. Eternal is partly set in Austin, partly in Dallas, and mostly in Chicago. I make my home in Austin, lived in Dallas one summer, and lived in Chicago for three years. So, I’m already starting on familiar turf, but I don’t take anything for granted.

For example, while writing Eternal, I visited to Chicago and walked every street my characters did. In February (brr). I shopped on North Michigan Avenue with Miranda. I went out for egg rolls with Zachary in Chinatown. I’d ridden the El thousands of times, but it was different trying to imagine it from the perspective of a guardian angel.

What else? I’ve shot rolls and rolls of film in Austin neighborhoods (I’ve since gone digital), visited open houses to find homes for my characters, picked out clothes for them in local boutiques… My theory is that if the universe isn’t real to me, it won’t be to anyone else, and so I try to step into it to the extent possible.

KA: So sometimes you refer to the books as “in a universe” and sometimes as a series. Could you explain that?

It’s a series of books set in the same universe.

It’s not necessary to read Tantalize before Eternal or vise-versa. But the casts of those two novels will crossover in Blessed, which picks up with Quincie right where Tantalize leaves off.

There’s also a Tantalize graphic novel in the works, told from Kieren’s point of view and offering many new scenes.

In addition, I’ve written a couple of short stories set in the universe: “Haunted Love,” which appears in Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, 2008) and “Cat Calls, which will appear in Sideshow: Ten Original Dark Tales of Freaks Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, July 2009).

KA: Tantalize introduced all kinds of new werebeasts, including werepossums, werearmadillos and werepossums, and yet it was very much a vampire story (okay, there was that cute werewolf, but still, we’re talking mostly vampires). Eternal, on the other hand, brought in a different kind of supernatural being, a guardian angel. What inspired you to tap into the angels?

I’m working with a multi-creature-verse. While the vampires often take center stage—partly because of Stoker’s influence and partly because they’re grabby that way—I see the world as very diverse in its fantastic entities. Anyone who begins with the Tantalize graphic, for example, will likely think of it as a “werewolf” story.

The idea of guardian angels in Eternal came from the editing team.

My original thought had been to do an elf in the role instead, but he kept coming off too young and naïve to go toe-to-toe with my fearsome vampire princess.

Editorial was right--I needed a new concept for that character. I loved the idea of GAs so I took the story to the studs and began rebuilding.

Notes: Eternal also features werebears; my critique group is still mourning the elf.

KA: While we’re on the subject of heavenly bodies, I want to bring up the question of religion. How in fact did you deal with competing religions, heaven, the “Big Boss,” etc.?

In Dracula and many horror movies, there’s the idea that Catholicism, or at least Christianity, alone can fight the big baddies, and I decided to take a more inclusive tact both in terms of my heroes and “the forces of good.” It’s clearly specified in Eternal, for example, that everyone gets a guardian angel.

“Forget what you might have heard,” Zachary says. “There are no separate corps of angels for agnostics, atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Unitarians, Hindus, Druids, Shintoists, Wiccans and so on.”

I’ve received notes from several young readers specifically saying that they appreciated my including whichever group they identify with.

That said, my angels are fictional fantasy beings, not pulled from any real-life tradition of faith.

K.A: Throughout the story, we get small glimmers of light, including some humor perhaps especially in Zachary’s story. But we never forget that this is a horror story. Can you talk about the horror for a moment? What compelled you to write in this genre?

I’m writing the kind of story that I love to read. In junior high, I was a huge Stephen King fan, and by high school, I was a fan of spooky movies. (Less “Freddy,” more “Poltergeist,” less “Jason,” more “Lost Boys.”). I didn't start writing Gothics until I finished Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) in late 2oo1, but I was already taking part in the related conversation.

In a 2001 Cynsations interview, author Annette Curtis Klause said:

"Reading about violence and horror is a way for a person to not only clarify their stance on moral issues by exploring the alternatives (and in doing so give license to the antisocial creature within in a safe venue) but to exercise their responses to the terrible and be prepared for it in real life.

"It is foolish to try and sanitize literature and the arts under some mistaken idea that one is protecting youth. Children and teens need to explore the dark side as a healthy part of growing.

"If a child is protected from everything dreadful, he will have no coping mechanisms in place when finally confronted with disaster."

In my twenties, when I began looking at young adult fiction with a writer’s eye, Annette’s Blood & Chocolate (Delacorte) wowed me. It was her female protagonist that impressed me most.

And before long, I was a dedicated “Buffy” fan!

When it comes to gender, horror has had its shining moments (Dracula (1897) arguably cuts both ways), but I still craved female heroes--like Buffy and Annette's werewolf Vivian--and other fully-rounded female characters who were more than the fawning dependent, bait, or gender-clichéd victim or villain.

So, I guess it was that, a combination of an affection for horror and a predisposition, as a YA author, to give the girls their due. I’m not offering super-heroic slayers or shying away from the romantic tradition. But I am featuring, in the mix, active female characters willing to stand and, if necessary, fight on their own.

All of which isn’t to say that it’s an all-girl-powered series. Protagonists Kieren and Zachary are male heroes in the series.

This spring I had the honor of visiting with YA librarians from the Austin Public Library, and I was dismayed when one of them mentioned that a boy patron had dismissed books about vampires as "girl books." He wanted to read one that spoke to him.

I don't mean to gender stereotype. Obviously, I'm a woman who enjoys a scary read. But we want to encourage boys to read, horror appeals to some boy readers, and I'm always happy to recommend books like Thirsty by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 1997) or Heather Brewer's tween series, The Chronicles of Vladamir Tod (Dutton).

Note: I mentioned above that Stoker's novel Dracula (1897) "cuts both ways." Quickly... On one hand, Mina is a "modern woman" who can use a typewriter and organize all the available information about the monster and help track him. When the men are grief stricken over Lucy's death, Mina is the one they turn to for support. On the other hand, at times her delicate sensibilities are protected (she's sent to her room like a child, and she goes).

KA: Eternal has two strong voices. What was it like writing from alternating viewpoints?

Finding Miranda and Zachary’s voices for Eternal came naturally. I could hardly shut them up.

Finding Quincie’s solo voice for Tantalize was more of a challenge. But I think that’s in part because, back then, I was still haunted by the voice of Cassidy Rain from my debut tweener, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). It sometimes takes an extra effort to get past that debut novel. The release of my “sophomore” novel took five years.

In between, though, I’d done several first-person short stories, which helped. Don’t get me wrong, short stories are a wonderful form unto themselves. But they’re also great labs for experimentation and learning.

KA: You have a whole community of teen readers who are Tantalize/Eternal fans. Can you describe how this closeness to your fans impacts you and your work?

I’m tremendously appreciative of their support and enthusiasm. That said, it’s not only teenagers. I’d say half of my reader mail comes from grown-ups age 25 and up. If there was ever a doubt about the YA crossover market, at least with regard to fantasy, good news! The market lives.

I spend a lot of time writing back to YA readers on the ’net.

(Not all authors can do this—I don’t have, say, three-year-old twins at home).

But especially with teen readers, if at all possible, I want to thank them for reading, cheer their excitement, and point them to other books they might enjoy, no matter whether they’re mine or someone else’s.

Altruism aside, it's not a bad strategy to tell that reader begging for your sequel to, in the meantime, go read Carrie Jones's Need (Bloomsbury, 2008)!

K.A.: It could be said the Tantalize and Eternal are “genre” books, and yet when we think of genre literature, we don’t always equate it with “literary.” But both Tantalize and Eternal are exquisite in their literariness—your use of language, detail, symbolism, etc. all combine to make stories that are linguistically beautiful as well as wondrous in the ways in which they fulfill the requirements of their genre. How did you do that?

Thank you! (Working on learning to take a compliment...).

Much of the credit goes to my wonderful editor, Deborah Wayshak and her team, as well as my early readers, especially my husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith.

I should also point out that there's certainly amazing and literary genre fiction out there. A recent example would be Night Road by A.M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2008).

As for me, the most significant thing I do—beyond my homework and reading widely—is to take my time. I’m serious about meeting deadlines, but I try to set realistic ones, and I’m going for quality over quantity.

(I know there are novelists who can achieve both higher output and solid craft, but since I also teach and write shorter fiction, I’m not sure I’ll ever be one of them).

Also, my books are for the crossover (age 14+) market, which means I'm under no pressure to make them more accessible than I would otherwise.

Note: outside of the "book world," it can be challenging to explain (mostly to parents) that reading level is more than vocabulary or length or profanity/sexual content. Not every tween/young teen is ready for an upper-level YA with an unreliable narrator or quasi-epistolary elements or alternating point of view or that disrupts his/her comfort zone (which horror tends to do). That's okay. They'll get there. And at the same time, we still need books that challenge strong readers as well as those in transition.

K.A.: You are one of the pioneers of the children’s literary Internet community. How do you balance the demands of your on-line presence with your own writing?

I pre-format most of my non-time-sensitive posts a couple of months in advance. Many mornings, I do a fair amount of just copying and pasting the code to reach my audience via various outlets.

With regard to the main website, I’m blessed (there’s that word again) to be working with the wonder woman that is Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

In addition, Greg contributes a fair number of the book recommendations.

KA: You have a picture book coming out next year. Can you give us a sneak peek?

Holler Loudly will be a humorous, original southwestern tall tale, illustrated by Barry Gott and published by Dutton. It’s a love letter to small-town folks, public librarians, and everyone who likes to be heard.

I should also mention that Greg and I have a short story, "The Wrath of Dawn," coming out in Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown, Aug. 2009).

Note: the Geektastic cover shown is not final.

KA: Thanks for letting me to be the guest editor! If I ever set up my own blog, will you do another interview?

But of course! Thank you!

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Kathi Appelt.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win one of TWENTY copies of The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martin's Press, 2009)! Read a Cynsations interview with Carol. To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Chosen One" in the subject line. Deadline: May 25!

Enter to win one of FIVE signed copies of Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2009) from Free Book Friday Teens! Giveaway will be May 22!

Enter to win a paperback copy of Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac (Harcourt, 2008)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Sacajawea" in the subject line. Deadline: May 30! Read a Cynsational interview with Joe.

Enter to win an ARC of Pure by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon Pulse, 2009)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Pure" in the subject line. Deadline: May 30.

More News

"For over 100 years, Booklist magazine has been reading everything--so you don't have to. But how do we read that many books? For the first time ever, the intrepid editors of Booklist provide a glimpse into the their top-secret methods. Prepare to be shocked and amazed." From the American Library Association.



Enter to Win Suddenly Supernatural (ages 8-up) from Laura's Review Bookshelf. Peek: "There will be one winner and a second winner for Book 3 (Books 1 & 2 are allocated)." Deadline: May 23.

Getting Crazy With Fonts from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "I honestly don't know what's behind the wacky formatting craze, but it seems to be sweeping query nation."

Dead Girl Walking Interview with Linda Joy Singleton from J. Aday Kennedy : A Writing Playground. Peek: "For instance, some people think I’m outgoing but that’s only when I’m around other writers and in my element. In different situations, around different people I can be shy, polite, crude, silly, stubborn, easy-going, hard-working, lazy, dark and light. But if you show all of these traits in one character in a book, they’ll come off as unstable."

Why we write for kids by Deborah Heiligman from INK: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. Peek: "It might be easier for the outside world to understand why people write fiction for kids, but non-fiction? Why do we go through all the research, learn about our topic front and back, inside and out, and then write it as a picture book for preschool through second-graders, or as a middle grade book, or as a YA?"

Criticism, Commentary, and Calmness from Editorial Anonymous. Peek: "It's important to remember that this is one of the magics of creating art, and one of the heaving frustrations." See also EA's answers to submission questions.

Meet author-illustrator Jerry Craft from Don Tate at The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "I've been fortunate to be able to work on some really cool projects over the years. For me, the biggest would have to be my Mama's Boyz comic strip that has been syndicated weekly by King Features for more than 15 years. But it's not so much as doing the comic strip each week as it is publishing my own Mama's Boyz books."

The Best Way to Improve Your Writing from E.M. Rowan at Postscripts of a Writer. Peek: "If you read enough books, you can learn how to write a novel without ever taking a writing class. Many published authors do not have a degree in English, Creative Writing, or a related major. Study your favorite books to learn about plotting, good characters, and even little things like grammar and mechanics."

SBBT: Kekla Magoon Interview by Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: "I'd recently read something about The Black Panthers online that surprised me--the fact that they ran a free breakfast program for school children. As I learned more about them, I graduated from surprise to shock to outrage that I hadn't known about the depth of the Panthers' community engagement before. I’d only ever heard about their militancy."

Nonfiction: Because Children Ask: a week-long series from Tami Lewis Brown at Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "This week we will look at nonfiction books that are the 'best' and explore why."

Craft Issues from author Janet S. Fox at Through the Wardrobe. A series of posts about such topics as research methods, creating the plot summary, and "the sticky-note method of plotting."

"Baby in the Basket" a short story by Cecil Castellucci from Strange Horizons.

PBS KIDS Gets Cat in the Hat TV Series by Thomas J. Mclean from Animation Magazine. Peek: "Production has begun on 40 animated half-hour episodes of 'The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!,' with actor Martin Short voicing the lead character." Source: KidsLit at Caestecker Public Library.

SBBT: Amber Benson from lectitans: reading eagerly on. Peek: "You can deal with very topical subject matter, but throw it into an alternate world and no one gets offended. It's really freeing." See the whole schedule, featuring Kekla Magoon, Carrie Jones, Jo Knowles, Barbara O'Conner, Maggie Stiefvater, Cindy Pon, Lauren Myracle, and many more authors. Source: Chasing Ray.

Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth: 2009. by Gillian Engberg from Booklist Online. Peek: "Debut novels make a strong showing on this year's roundup of the top 10 science fiction and fantasy titles for youth, all published in the past 12 months." Source: Mitali Perkins.

Donate Spanish-language Preschool & Kindergarten Books: Austin-based children's writer Lindsey Scheibe seeks donations for Makarios, a small, non-profit missionary school in the Dominican Republic, which educates Dominican and Haitian children. The school also provides students with two meals a day. Please send Spanish-language preschool and kindergarten books only to 3267 Bee Caves Rd, Suite 107-71, Austin, TX 78746. Note: donations also are welcome at the website.

Coleen Salley Endowment Fund: established at The University of Southern Mississippi to promote storytelling during the annual Book Festival. "Ms. Salley was a regular at this festival for over 40 years and helped bring some 'big names' in the children's book world to the Book Festival. In November, 2008, the" Coleen Salley - Bill Morris Literacy Foundation "gave $10,000 to the Endowment Fund." Note: "The Foundation Board has decided to terminate the Coleen Salley/Bill Morris Literacy Foundation in order to further the development and enrichment of the Endowment Fund." See also the USM Foundation.

Pardada Pardadi from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: "What a thought. What if we all spent an hour a day to think about others, to think about the planet, to think of doing good in small, practical ways? I sent a box of books and here they are two months later, in the girls' hands."

"At a time when we are regularly discussing the importance of teen readers 'seeing themselves' represented in their literature, you have to wonder what the shop kids and retail workers think of being left out of the conversation." An excellent interview with YA author Melissa Wyatt about her new novel Funny How Things Change at Chasing Ray.

I Don't Do Morals by Jeannine Garsee from Bookluver-Carol's Reviews. Peek: "Teens, like adults, make some very bad choices, yet they learn from their experiences and somehow manage to grow up into responsible adults."

Sorting Out the Voices from Kristi Holl at Writers First Aid. Peek: "How many voices try to tell you what to write, when to write, and how to write? What voices do you listen to?"

And You Thought a Royalty Involved a Crown from Editorial Ass. Peek: "I realized that royalty accounting must be so mysterious to anyone unpublished. Or published. Or anyone. I realized even I didn't really know what I was talking about. So here is my imperfect attempt to describe to you an author's possibilities for making money with her/his books."

Reminder

Bridget Zinn Auction is taking place between now and 12 a.m. PST May 31. Bid to win critiques from award-winning and other "big name" authors, agents, and editors, signed books, audio books & other CDs, promotional services, and much more. Latest additions include a custom kitchen knife, a thirty-page read from Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency, a basket of MG books by the Class of 2k9, a basket of YA books from the Class of 2k9, and more!

Austin Author Christine Rose

Highlights of the week included a Wednesday brunch with local author Christine Rose at Waterloo Ice House.

Christine's debut novel, co-authored by her husband Ethan, is Rowan of the Wood, which was published last fall by a small local press.

What Would You Do to Win a Kindle 2 Contest! sponsored by authors Christine and Ethan Rose at Bitten by Books. Deadline: May 30.

More Personally

Cynthia Leitich Smith: an Interview with the Author of Eternal (and many other books). from Shutta Crum: author and teller of stories. Peek [on character names]: "I often look for variety in terms of syllables, vowel and consonant sounds, first letters, etc. or meanings. The name 'Miranda' from Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) means 'miracle.'"

Once Upon A Romance's Review Of...Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Amy. Peek: "His name is Zachary and let's just say that he is a character that girls everywhere would want to live out eternity with... There's danger, romance, and a high dosage of really good writing."

Signed copies of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) and Eternal are available at BookPeople in Austin! You can order online or call: (800) 853-9757.

The Royal Bat logo (above), among other designs, is available on T-shirts, caps, and other items celebrating Eternal and Tantalize at the Sanguini's CafePress store.

Check out Carmen Oliver's report on the May Austin SCBWI meeting, featuring author Shana Burg. Peek: "When Shana begins a new novel, she starts with the setting. She says some writers choose character or plot but whatever element you begin with, you need to infuse them with rich details. Oprah Winfrey says, 'Love is in the details,' and Shana said the more love the better."

And finally, here's a little beauty from my world to yours. My Easter lilies are blooming again.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Author Interview: Terra Elan McVoy on Pure

Learn more about Terra Elan McVoy.

Could you describe yourself as a teen? Who were your favorite authors?

I was a very serious teenager--serious about writing and literature, serious about my job, serious about my church involvement, serious about boys and serious about my friends. My favorite authors were serious authors: J.D. Salinger, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

Well, I've been writing pretty much since I learned how to, and I developed my poetic voice at St. Andrews Presbyterian College while I was there for undergrad, but my studies at Florida State in their MA program for Creative Writing really helped me get rid of my writing baby fat for real. The teachers there are all top-notch but so are the students, so you're getting good professorial help but also good help from your peers, too.

What was the single best thing you did to improve your craft?

The single best thing I've done to improve my craft is to read every book, short story, and poem I can get my hands on.

How did you find out that you'd sold your first novel? Did you celebrate, and if so, how?

I found out about the sale of my book through a phone call from my editor, who is also a friend of mine. At the time, I celebrated with some champagne at home and then dinner with friends a couple of nights later, but the best celebration was on April 17 when we threw a really giant book release party at the bookstore I manage, Little Shop of Stories. We had about 200 people there with champagne and cupcakes and Ring Pops and even live music. It was great!

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Pure (Simon Pulse, 2009)! Could you tell us about it?

Pure is a book about five close friends, all of whom wear purity rings. When one of the girls breaks her promise, the rest must decide what it is they really believe.

But this book is about a lot more than purity rings. It's about friendship, faith, and first love. Even more, to me, it's about that deliciously horrible time in life when, for the first time, you find yourself making choices that separate you from your friends, your parents, your teachers and mentors: when you begin defining yourself as an individual.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I wanted to write a book that addressed the challenges of being a teenager, on top of being a teenager who was trying to sort out his or her own faith. To write about that time when you're really forging your own morality.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I think the biggest challenge was just sitting down and having the discipline to get the writing done.

How goes the transition from writer to writer-author?


So far it is going okay, though it is a lot more work than being just a writer! Writing is one thing, but working on promoting your book, doing appearances and interviews--that's another ball of wax altogether.

Also writing is pretty much a solitary activity, while being an author out there in the world is definitely more community involved.

How have you set out promoting your novel to YA readers?

Well, managing a bookstore really helps with promotion. But I've also done some out-of-town signings, and gone to talk to local schools and a couple of churches, too.

The release party at Little Shop of Stories was great. I've also got my own website. I'm doing a lot of interviews like this one on other folks' blogs, and am interviewing authors on my own website, too!

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Keep it up. You don't suck as much as you think you do.

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

I'm never not in the book world--it's both my job and my pleasure. But sometimes I do cook. And do decoupage. And I really like movies.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Well, my second book is still sort of forming as we speak, but I can tell you that there won't be a sequel to Pure, that's for sure!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Author Interview: Diana López on Confetti Girl

Diana López on Diana López: "Diana López is the author of Sofia's Saints (Bilingual Review Press, 2002) and the middle grade novel, Confetti Girl (Little, Brown, 2009).

"Her work is also featured in Hecho en Tejas, an anthology of Texas Mexican writers, and in journals such as Chicago Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, and New Texas.

"She lives in San Antonio where she teaches English at St. Philip's College."

What kind of teenager were you? Who were your favorite authors?

Very skinny, very shy, tomboyish, and clumsy. By the time I was in eighth grade, I had fractured seven bones for things like playing Tarzan and trying to be a Harlem Globetrotter.

But I felt graceful when I ran. How I loved to run. I grew up in a small house--three bedrooms, one bathroom, six people. So I was desperate for solitude, and running was a great way to be alone.

Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton wrote about kids that felt like the kids in my neighborhood and school. But the stories I couldn't stop reading were the Greek myths. I still have my Edith Hamilton book from the seventh grade. The Diary of Anne Frank taught me that a journal could be a best friend, and I've had my own version of Kitty since 1985.

The first Chicano novel I encountered was Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolpho Anaya (1972). What a great book. The way the protagonist, Tony, felt torn between two worlds and the questions he asked about religion, vocation, miracles, myths... I had the same questions. I wasn't alone after all, and as long as there are good books, I'll never be alone.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

My writing began with a journal. After a while, I started to dramatize my experiences with description and dialogue. So I thought I could write stories, but I didn’t know how. In the early nineties, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center offered writing classes with people like Nan Cuba, Jesus Cardona, and Pat Mora. I signed up, and they were wonderful workshops. But, I could never work my way into a critique group. That’s when I realized I’d have to pay someone to read my stuff.

So I took the MFA path by going to Texas State. I was so intimidated at first. My professor, Tom Grimes, advised me to spend time away from workshops because I "was writing for the class."

Since I didn't have deadlines, I decided to try a novel, Sofia's Saints. When I returned to workshops, I met Dagoberto Gilb, who became a wonderful mentor and friend. I finished my novel and eventually, Bilingual Review Press published it.

What was the single best thing you did to improve your craft? What, if anything, do you wish you'd done differently?

I wish I'd made friends at Texas State, but I was teaching middle school full time and commuting from San Antonio. I simply had no time to socialize.

I didn't realize how important the networking aspect of an MFA program was until I graduated and found myself floundering with my second book. Some people can work in isolation, but I need feedback and the motivation that a critique group provides.

So to answer the second question, I discovered and joined the Daedalus critique group in San Antonio and have been participating for the past five years. We meet once a month and the members have become my cherished friends.

How did you find out that you'd sold your first novel? Did you celebrate, and if so, how?

When I sold Sofia's Saints, I got nervous. I imagined my mother reading it, and my hand shook for about twenty-four hours after I got the call from Bilingual Review. (You never outgrow the fear of a mother's reproof.)

When I sold Confetti Girl, I treated my friends to margaritas at La Fogata. It's okay if Mom reads this one.

Congratulations on the release of your debut children's novel, Confetti Girl (Little, Brown, June 2009)! Could you tell us about it?

Confetti Girl is my second book but my debut for the middle grade reader. It's about a girl named Apolonia Flores, Lina for short. She's a sockiophile (one who loves socks) whose mother died a year ago. She's ready to move on, but her father isn't.

Meanwhile, she falls in love, verbally combats a bully, gets kicked out of sports, and endures many break-up and make-up scenes with her best friend.

The book's called Confetti Girl because Lina's best friend's mom makes cascarones (confetti eggs) as a coping mechanism after her divorce. Cascarones are a Tex-Mex tradition. You fill eggshells with confetti and glue tissue over the hole. Then on Easter morning (or all during Fiesta if you live in San Antonio), you sneak up to people and crack the eggs on their heads.

I had just finished visualizing Lina's home, how her father has so many walls of books. But I was really struggling to find a memorable visual for her best friend's (Vanessa's) house.

Then I noticed a lady in my neighborhood selling cascarones. That's when it hit me: Vanessa's mom has a cascarones-making obsession! It's amazing how one detail can give birth to a whole character. But even so, I was halfway through the book before I realized how symbolically rich cascarones could be.

I also didn't realize how little-known the practice was until I tried to get the book published. I had to take photographs and send instructions to the people in New York.

At a dinner last year, a librarian from the Midwest asked, "So this is a family tradition?"

Her eyes got so big when I told her it's something the whole South Texas region does.

Maybe cascarones will go mainstream like piñatas and salsa.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This book was inspired by Don Quixote. I was going to write a contemporary Don Quixote story about a father who loses touch with reality by reading books. In fact, my first title was "Dad's Windmill," and he's the first character I imagined though I sensed this would be from a daughter's point of view.

Then Lina was born. I loved her. I had to chisel into stone to discover the other characters but Lina came to me fully developed like Athena busting out of Zeus's head.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started the novel in 2005. The year before, I'd won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award sponsored by author Sandra Cisneros. I used the money to go to the Latino Writers Conference in Albuquerque. This practice of going to an agent's conference and pitching an idea in five-minutes-or-less is impossible for me. But I love to give readings.

Luckily, the conference sponsored an open-mike. Each reader had five minutes. I must have done a good job because later that day, I had a lengthy conversation with Stefanie von Borstel of Full Circle Literary. She represents children's and YA literature, something many agents don't do. Plus, she had a lot of enthusiasm for my work.

She said, "I know just the editor at Little Brown for this book." She sent it to many places, but in the end, it was Alvina Ling from Little Brown who championed my book.

I don't mean to make the process sound easy because it wasn't. I had a lot to learn about writing for this age group. The book went through many, many revisions.

But through it all, I could hear Lina’s voice, and her voice is what made this writing experience worth all the effort.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I'm writing another middle grade novel about a girl who's named Windy (there were gusts up to 25 mph on the day she was born).

Monday, May 18, 2009

New Voice: Deva Fagan on Fortune's Folly

Deva Fagan is the first-time author of Fortune's Folly (Henry Holt, April 14, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Ever since her mother died and her father lost his shoemaking skills, Fortunata has survived by telling fake fortunes. But when she's tricked into telling a grand fortune for a prince, she is faced with the impossible task of fulfilling her wild prophecy--or her father will be put to death.

Now Fortunata has to help Prince Leonato secure a magic sword, vanquish a wicked witch, discover a long-lost golden shoe, and rescue the princess who fits it.

If only she hadn’t fallen in love with the prince herself...


What inspired you to choose the particular point of view—first, second, third (or some alternating combination) featured in your novel?

For a long time I was committed to only writing in a tight third person point of view. I had an inexplicable prejudice against first person all the way back in elementary school, when I distinctly recall turning my nose up at books written in first person for being "weird" (and I wouldn't even consider first person present tense!). It was like a literary version of refusing to eat vegetables!

Fortunately I grew out of that phase, helped by the realization that first-person books could be really, really good. Suddenly I was reading books like Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (Puffin, 1998) and Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (HarperCollins, 1994). I also discovered Brussels sprouts can be absolutely delicious; it all comes down to finding the right recipe.

I was still dubious about writing in first person, however. So when I originally got the idea for a book about someone telling a fake fortune and then needing to make it come true, I turned to good old third person. That novel failed, miserably. I couldn't find the main character, and the story died after a chapter or two, and I went on to other things.

Then about a year later I decided to give it another try. I had signed up for NaNoWriMo, so I was ready for a challenge! I had started to recognize that my writing process generally involves coming up with a plot element first, and that my greatest weakness is in jumping ahead and trying to write a story before I have the character truly vivid and alive in my mind. I hoped that maybe giving my character her own "voice" right from the start would help with that.

I plunged into the story on Nov. 1, and within about five weeks, I had my completed first draft. It was a thrilling experience to write so quickly; the novel felt "alive" in a way nothing I'd written before ever had. There are certainly plenty of vivid, intense, lively stories written in third person, but for me, giving first person a chance was the key to finding the heart of the character, and thus the book.

It just goes to show that we shouldn’t be afraid to break out of our established and comfortable patterns to try new things, because we just might be rewarded by a whole new world of inspiration.

As a fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

I've loved fantasy ever since my mother read me The Hobbit [by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)] and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy [also Tolkien, 1945-1955)] aloud during our long summer car-trips to visit relatives.

There's something about the fantastical that plugs into my deep-dwelling archetypal sense of story. As such, it is almost always the place I turn to first for both my own entertainment and as the vehicle to communicate my own ideas.

But I don't think early exposure to hobbits and dragons and elves is the only reason I love fantasy. Fantasy is, paradoxically, the easiest way I can find to explore and try to understand human nature.

I see fantasy as being an extension of the earliest myths and legends told by humanity and passed down through the generations. I respond to it on a more intense, soul-kindling level.

Scholar Joseph Campbell puts it well when he says "Myths are the world's dreams. They are archetypal dreams and deal with great human problems. Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from realizations of some kind that then have to find expression in symbolic form."

My theory is that human beings like patterns. We like to find elements or symbols that are repeated and reinterpreted, because they help us make sense out of a mysterious and frightening world. Myths and fairy tales serve as a set of building blocks, almost like a language itself, to communicate about those deep truths of human nature.

Sometimes in order to try to understand the big questions, we need to do so in a language of metaphor or parable. If the stories we tell are too close to our real world, we may not have the perspective and freedom to ask why there is evil or what is true heroism.

I think we can use the trappings of fantasy to move a story into that more mythic dream-realm, a fabulous reality that isn't exactly like our own world, but which we can learn from and be inspired by.

In his essay "The Flat-Heeled Muse," Lloyd Alexander puts it wonderfully when he says "Sometimes heartbreaking, but never hopeless, the fantasy world as it 'should be' is one in which good is ultimately stronger than evil, where courage, justice, love, and mercy actually function. Thus, it may often appear quite different from our own. In the long run, perhaps not. Fantasy does not promise Utopia. But if we listen carefully, it may tell us what we someday may be capable of achieving."

And lest I dwell too much on serious stuff, I must admit that I find fantasy to be just plain fun! There’s just something about magical realms, fantastical creatures, and perilous quests that stir my heart. To be a little (okay, a lot!) corny, it's like magic...

Other readers will find their strongest "magic" in realistic modern settings, or historical mysteries, or spy thrillers. But for me, it's the dragons and the wizards.



Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Enter to Win a Signed Copy of Eternal

Enter to win one of FIVE signed copies of Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2009) from Free Book Friday Teens! Giveaway will be May 22!

Peek: "I was interested in writing a story that would pair two characters on as far opposite sides of good and evil as possible. From that, I came up with Miranda, a vampire princess, and Zachary, her one-time guardian angel."

See also Eternal blog buzz, reviews, reading guide, and more interviews!

Thanks to Free Book Friday Teens! and Candlewick Press.

Eternal Trailer
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