Author Interview: Part 1–The “Cynsation” of Cynthia Leitich Smith

Teen Reading Week is finally here! We don’t know about you, but we’re buried to our knees in young adult novels. Poor features editor Katie Bayerl has to wade through them to reach her desk each morning. Okay, so maybe we’re exaggerating just a little. But, we’re not exaggerating how much we love than hearing teens talk about their favorite books and authors.

To start the conversations this week, Teen Voices interviewed New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith. The author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick), Smith was nominated for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten. While we’re waiting for the winners to be announced this week, we wanted to get inside the mind of this popular young adult author. Where do all her ideas come from? Keep reading as Smith shares her writing expertise and inspirations with Teen Voices.


Teen Voices (TV): What first inspired you to become a writer?

Cynthia Leitich Smith (CS): I’ve always written—poetry and short stories in elementary school, journalistic articles in junior high through law school. But I decided to write fiction full-time after the Oklahoma City bombing. I have strong ties to Oklahoma. Much of my family lives there now or has in the past. My tribe is based in Okmulgee. Not many years before I’d been working in Bartlesville myself.

For me, the tragedy was a reminder that life could be fleeting. Being in my twenties was no excuse to put off my dreams. And in the face of such destruction and despair, I wanted to create, to lift up and share something positive.

TV: You’ve delved into several different genres (realistic fiction, paranormal, graphic novels) and age groups (picture books through young adult). Out of all of your books, is there one that makes you most proud?

CS: Like many authors, I’m most fond of my most recent work. Diabolical—due out from Candlewick in January 2012—puts a cap on the stories of my core Tantalize series protagonists, Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda. It’s the most fun of the quartet—the biggest, boldest, funniest, most heartfelt, romantic and horrific. There will be at least one more story set in the universe, but featuring different protagonists.

TV: What motivates you to write for books for teens in particular?

CS: You can write every bit as sophisticated a book for teens as you can for adults, but there’s no room for self-indulgence. Teens won’t tolerate being preached at, and their attention will wander if you go off on some idiosyncratic tangent.

Beyond that, teens are so vibrant. So alive. There’s a heightened intensity to adolescence. Incidentally, it’s also a new invention. Not many generations ago, we considered even young teens ready to pursue careers, marriage and family. Now, we’re in this odd place where they’re considered an adult (or very close to one) for some purposes but not others. They’re rapidly gaining responsibilities and life experiences, but their power, resources and accountability are still very much a work in progress. It all happens unevenly, which is highly conducive to story.

TV: Where do you get your inspiration for your stories? How much does your own experience come into play?

CS: I’d say every story, every character, has a piece of me in them.

It may be something tangential. In Blessed, for example, the Wolf training pack is in Michigan because I went to law school in Ann Arbor. It’s based in a German-American town because I attended the wedding of a law school classmate in Frankenmuth and occasionally make day trips to visit German-American towns here in Central Texas.

Or it may be a more significant tie. When I was a teen, I worked as a waitress—first at a Mexican chain restaurant and then the restaurant of a high-end athletic club. Restaurants are terrific stages for drama. They offer thematic décor, menus, costuming. Sometimes people burst in song. I transferred much of that experience to Sanguini’s, the vampire-themed restaurant that’s a major setting in Tantalize and Blessed.

TV: Have any of your writing projects been outside your comfort zone? How did you face that challenge?

Artistically, I seem to thrive on variety. However, I feel the most vulnerable about projects that spring from my own personal life. Most recently, I wrote an essay “Isolation,” which appears in Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones (HarperTeen, 2011). It reflects on my own experiences with bullying.

TV: How does your experience as a Native American woman influence the stories you choose to tell or the way you approach them?

CS: It’s influenced my predisposition toward Native characters, especially in my realistic fiction. Beyond that, I don’t know how self-aware I am about the affect of my cultural backgrounds on my writing. No doubt they play a role, as does my husband’s Asian heritage, my professional history (journalism and law), and my experiences living in the mid-to-southwestern U.S. But pinpointing it? That’s hard.

TV: You’ve been a strong voice in promoting diversity in literature for kids and teens. Why is this issue so important to you?

CS: To me, diversity means that anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers. It’s important because it’s true and because it’s wonderful news. Both in the real world and in the worlds of our imaginations, we need all the heroes we can get.

There’s much to be said for seeing people like you (in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, region, income, fandoms, whatever) in books. It reinforces the idea that you belong in the community of books. On the flip side, we can all better appreciate each other through heightened understanding. Looking through the fictional eyes of someone different from ourselves is one way to gain a better awareness of his or her experiences and perspective.

TV: In an ideal world, what would true “diversity” in YA literature look like? Is there anything readers can do to help make this a reality?

CS: Essentially, the world of books would mirror our real one, both in realistic fiction/nonfiction and fantasy. You can do a great deal with fantastical metaphor that illuminates our lives from a slant.

The best thing that readers can do is to read. Read broadly. Read out of their comfort zones. Read about people who’re alike and different from them in a myriad of ways. Talk about the books they’ve read. Recommend them to friends. Purchase them if possible, but checking them out of the library is really helpful, too.

Who are Smith’s favorite literacy characters? Check in tomorrow to Part 2: The “Cynstation” of Cynthia Leitich Smith, to find out!

Nadia Farjood On Life as a Young Leader

Harvard sophomore Nadia Farjood found her passion for social justice and women’s empowerment at an early age. At 17, she established an organization for women’s issues, and developed a fundraising walk for a global community of underprivileged young women and girls. In 2009, she won the Women’s eNews leadership award for her work fundraising for girls in Iran and Afghanistan. Teen Voices’ Ashley Morris caught up with Nadia to find out more about her inspiring work with girls.

Teen Voices: You wrote the piece “I Am Female” for the 2010 Women’s Conference; in it, you write about entering college as a young woman. What have you learned about yourself as a college freshwoman?

Farjood: Since coming to college, I have become a lot more aware and critical of the environment I’m in. I think being a freshwoman, being very involved in a feminist community on campus, I’m a lot more aware of injustices perpetuated against women, but also a lot more hopeful in terms of ways this oppression can be amended. Since being [at Harvard], I’ve been a lot more acutely aware of my gender, and the opportunities I’m either given or deprived.

Teen Voices: What thoughts ran through your mind when you won the Women’s eNews 21 Leaders of the 21st Century Award?

Farjood: I could not have been more shocked! I was incredibly fortunate. I was greatly honored and I still am today to be a part of the Women’s eNews community, and to have been recognized by them. Seeing people there who had really made powerful impacts for women was astounding, and really was a great motivational booster for me.

Teen Voices: Thoughts on post-college steps?

Farjood: I’ve thought about law, particularly human rights law, but I think my leadership skills mostly pertain to organizing and advocacy work. I do a lot of service, and the way I conceive it is using your leadership skills to inspire and insight others to make change in their communities. A lot of times we conceive of leadership as one person exerting authority or influence over other people, but [I define it as] lifting people up and forming a powerful movement where people are united. My vision for leadership is one in which people are all on the same plane working toward a common goal. I think in my life, I can inspire and support women in achieving their goals.

Teen Voices: When you were in high school, you were involved in a lot of projects that impacted young women and girls. What prompted you to become so engaged in social change at an early age?

Farjood: I think part of it was the way I was raised, [with] almost an obligation to contribute to service in my community. It was kind of a mindset. I was also very frustrated with what I was seeing as a high school girl. I saw a lot of my friends go through eating disorders, a few were engaged in abusive relationships. I saw oppressive male behavior, and I saw several of my friends really affected by injustices toward their gender, and I was acutely aware of that. I think sometimes being a part of being a leader or being a public servant is having some anger, having a little bit of frustration with the way things are so you can act to dismantle structures that act as barriers to women achieving what they want .

Teen Voices: In high school, you supported the organization Omid-e-Mehr. Can you give our readers some background on the organization?

Farjood: The Omid-e-Mehr is a foundation in Tehran, Iran, that supports and shelters Iranian and Afghan women aged 15 to 25. It’s just a remarkable organization that tries to support women in variety of disciplines, so a lot of the women that end up going there were either sold into prostitution at a young age, lived in abject poverty, were abandoned by their families, or had been victim to drug abuse. The shelter has a social justice mission to provide these women with the social-emotional support, and also vocational skills, such as art, or a lot of job avenues that have skill groups there to support them on it, and it’s kind of a process of therapy and also of intellectual growth and support.

Teen Voices: Tell us about the process of organizing the 5K walk for Omid-e-Mehr.

Farjood: I started out thinking it wasn’t going to be difficult, but being the coordinator of anything is pretty difficult. In this role, I was kind of the leader. I worked really hard to get a media campaign going. I talked on a radio show in Los Angeles to generate some enthusiasm and awareness about the walk, and also the issues we were trying to address in supporting the girls in the Omid Foundation. I also went to a lot of cultural and women’s groups in San Diego and informed them about the walk, and we held some discussions about gender equity and also the struggles women face in underprivileged communities abroad in terms of resources and support. So I think the coordination of it was very different. It was incredibly rewarding, I had a fantastic team of friends and family members working with me to organize it.

Teen Voices: Can you tell us about a woman who inspired you when you were growing up?

Farjood: My mom is someone I consider a trailblazer in terms of how she raised me. [She] was always pushing me to be the very best person I could be. My mom always thought about who am I going to be, what kind of a person am I going to be, how am I going to contribute to this world. The way she raised me was to think of myself not as just an individual going through my life, but also as someone integrated into the global community.

Teen Voices: What advice would you give to teen girls who are budding leaders?

Farjood: Apply your education, use your privilege. Create a blog to discuss issues that you are interested in in your daily life. Go out and service a community you think needs to be served and develop strong community partnerships with them, create an organization at your school to act as a forum for your peers to discuss issues that are prevalent in your daily life. Action is incredibly important for young women ““ now more than ever. Recruit people and create a walk in your own community for a cause that you’re passionate about. I think young girls often think because of their age or other extenuating circumstances that their contributions are not worthy or that they’re too young to do X, Y, or Z. But I don’t think that’s the case; they should really throw themselves into their passions and their pursuits. At the end of the day, all you have is your passion, and no one can take that away from you.

Chasing a Little Flame: Diane Birch Finds Her Voice

Singer/songwriter Diane Birch is on a roll. She released her first studio album, Bible Belt, to strong reviews in May 2009, and spent January on tour with Nick Jonas. ” She’s also involved with Music Unites, a nonprofit that brings music education to children in underfunded inner city schools. The group recently launched an initiative that promotes female artists who are also role models ““ and who are passionate about giving back to their community. Teen Voices’ Michelle Golden caught up with Birch after she performed at the Empowering Women Through Music Initiative event in New York on October 4.

Teen Voices (TV): How did you get started?

Birch: I started playing piano when I was seven years old. I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I thought maybe I wanted to score movies. I wanted to be a fashion designer. I had all these random little bits of things that were exciting to me but nothing really made senseI was going forward in the dark a lot of the time, ” chasing this little flame that I knew was there somewhere. I started singing and writing songs. People started saying they liked them, so I started recording them and putting them up on MySpace. Social media is now huge. There’s this platform now for people to really do what they do. You can sit in your bedroom and you can put up a video on YouTube, and the next thing you know, you can be — what’s his name — Justin Bieber. It’s really exciting to be able to use all those things right now. MySpace really broke me out. It really helped me get discovered by people who could make a little difference in my life.

TV: What do you enjoy most about creating music?

Birch: Just being able to have something in my hand. I can hold an album in my hand and say, “These are things that I created!” That’s a very rewarding experience and to be able to create something from nothing is really a gift. It took me a long time to realize that it was a gift and to take it seriously.

TV: How can music empower women?

Birch: Music is that language, that force that breaks down all barriers. By being in this bigger community of musicians and having all these women in the community, it serves as this tremendous inspiration and support, and I feel that in itself is so empowering” ”  because you can elevate people in underserved communities, people just starting out. It bridges the gaps between all sorts of people, whether you are an established artist or an up and coming artist.

TV: What can you tell young girls about achieving their goals and dreams?

Birch: You really just have to listen to your own voice, and find your own voice and not try to do what everybody else is doing. You also have to realize that no matter what your experiences are like, you are going to be faced with self-doubt and negativity and fear. You just have to push through that. You really have to believe in yourself.

TV: What advice do you have for girls interested in the music industry?

Birch: It’s not an easy kind of ride. It’s really important to focus on what it is that you do not what it is you’re going to get. Focus on your art. Focus on your craft. Is it your voice? Is it your songwriting? Is it all of that? Focus on now; the fame will come as a result of what you make. I feel like a lot of people just want that glitz and glow, and they don’t actually think about what they are doing and contributing.

TV: Why should all girls have a prominent female role model?

Birch: For inspiration. When you are an artist, everyone wants inspiration. You can’t really create unless you are inspired. I think it’s really important that you have people to look up to. I didn’t really have a lot of role models when I was younger. I didn’t really know people who were doing the kinds of things that I wanted to do. Just knowing that you’re not alone can be such a powerful force, and I think that is really important for people to have people to look up to. The right role models can really make or break your development.

TV: How have you been a role model?

Birch: I hope I am an example of somebody who pursues her dreams and works hard. I write my own songs and play my own instrument. I sing my songs live. I really believe in the integrity of being a musician. There’s not a whole bunch of studio magic on my album. I really believe in myself as a real artist. I think it’s good for young kids to have that to look up to so they know that this person isn’t just somebody who someone else had formed and made them into an artist. This is somebody who actually writing songs about her life, her experiences, her challenges, her fears, her doubts and giving that out to the world.