New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith has graciously joined us in conversation about the #OwnVoices movement, HarperCollins' Heartdrum imprint, and what it means to break the mold as a Native American author. Although she needs no introduction, Cynthia is the voice behind several groundbreaking Young Adult novels, including (but not limited to) RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, the TANTALIZE Series, and FERAL Trilogy.
Right now, Cynthia is also hosting a summer reading giveaway to help young readers stay excited about reading! Enter HERE to win one of two paperback sets—the Tantalize prose-novel set, or the Feral Trilogy!
Hi Cynthia! Thank you for your time and joining me for this interview. Your work often features stories and characters centered around modern-day American Indians. This is incredible, and inspiring for all Indigenous writers and writers of color. How has your heritage influenced your writing style and voice as a children's-YA author?
Thank you for your enthusiasm. In terms of stylistic influence, it depends vastly on the project. My latest YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, is about two student journalists covering the controversy around the casting of their school musical. There’s a new theater teacher who’s taking more of a “Hamilton” approach, and not everyone is happy about it. It’s also a love story about those same to young characters. She’s a Native. He’s Arab American. And they’re just trying to figure out themselves, each other, and their relationship and a world that doesn’t make sense to many of us much of the time.
Okay, so breaking that down: It’s an Indigenous story, yes, because she’s Native and it’s told from her point of view. So, the sense of humor, daily-life structure and brushstroke approach to cultural detail are Indigenously influenced. Likewise, the sensibility. But it’s also a love story and a mystery, so you see elements of romance and suspense in the writing as well. It’s a hybrid approach.
But I’ve also written wholly mainstream projects. Like many writers, I have varied interests, but most of my work falls into speculative fiction (Fantasy, Gothic Fantasy) or contemporary realism.
Let's talk about Heartdrum. What inspired you and editor Rosemary Brosnan to develop this new HarperCollins imprint?
Native people have a long-standing, resonant storytelling and literary traditions, but not enough of our voices were reaching the marketplace. Much of that is because of erasure in American History classes (most kids think we died out hundreds of years ago) as well as stuck-in-the past and Hollywood imagery. Yes, I am a Native person. No, I have never hunted a buffalo.
Most of us live in cities. We are still here and citizens of our tribal nations (or close descendants) but also very much part of the modern world. There is tremendous diversity within Indian Country, rich with page-turning stories to share. It was past time to help make that happen in a big way.
The #OwnVoices movement encourages writers from every background to lean into their heritage while creating. What does being an Own Voices author mean to you?
As a writing teacher, I unpack all that to mean that there’s value in stories informed by lived experience. We’re all made up of a myriad of identity elements. I’m Native but also a woman, middle class, from the mid-to-southwest, an only child, a sci fi and fantasy geek. All that comes through and tends to ring true in my writing because I know what I’m talking about. There’s value in it.
But not all of my stories feature protagonists who align perfectly with my background. Although I value such narratives and advocate for it, that approach simply can’t apply when you’re, say, writing a multiple point of view project wherein a diversity of perspectives and experiences is part of what frames the overall structure and concept.
That said, however we come down on protagonists and focal topics, at the very least, every writer must stretch beyond ourselves in depicting secondary characters and intersecting topics. For me, figuring out how to do the latter is the more challenging, and in many ways, more interesting conversation.
As a teen, I recall seeing the Tantalize Series on shelves everywhere. In this series, you masterfully meld werewolf and vampire gothic fiction. Do you foresee a vampire and werewolf fiction comeback in the new decade?
Both mythologies have enduring appeal. Yes, we’ll certainly be reading new novels centering vampires and werewolves in the future. However, I hope that they arise naturally and are well-crafted by devoted creative enthusiasts.
Many of the Gothic fantasies published at the height of the most recent conversation were deeply felt and rendered by writers who genuinely loved and embraced their genre.
But there was also a commercial push for more, more, more titles—many of them work-for-hire (and yes, some work for hire is excellent and deeply felt but nevertheless) or penned by trend chasers—which, in turn flooded the market and temporarily diminished the value of each. As the saying goes, less is more. Quality matters. So does creative passion.
In your opinion, what is it about vampires and werewolf storytelling that has attracted so many readers?
The magic is in the metaphors. The vampire’s bite is about the most thinly veiled metaphor for sex in the history of literature. And sure, we can unpack the default biases in that. But if Abraham Stoker can be fairly credited for the popularizing the eternal appeal, it should be mentioned that by the standards of the day Mina’s depiction bordered on feminist. (Lucy’s was something else altogether.) From there, you have the slide into romance, assault, power dynamics, gendered dynamics, and so forth. There’s a lot to unpack.
Likewise, with the werewolf and the beast within, consider, say, themes like uncontrollable urges, a connection to the natural world, the transformations of adolescence. So much to reinterpret from so many angles and points of view.
Like many novels, the Tantalize series, which skews more to the vampires, and the Feral trilogy spinoff, which is more shifter centered, are a mix of horror and humor, romance and suspense, so you have that juxtaposition of light and darkness, which heightens intensity and widens appeal. The vicarious experience of mastering our inner monsters and laughing at our demons offers us an escape from what’s scary in our real world and subconsciously helps to build coping skills.
We look forward to Heartdrum's first list in Winter/Spring 2021. What can young readers look forward to? Coming up, we’ll be publishing an anthology, Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, featuring the work of 15 Native poets/authors/artist in an interconnected collection centered on a contemporary two-day powwow as well as new novels by Christine Day and Brian Young, plus a chapter book series from Dawn Quigley. Details are forthcoming.
ABOUT CYNTHIA: Cynthia Leitich Smith is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestselling YA author of the TANTALIZE series and FERAL trilogy.
She was named Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME and won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for Young Adult Books for HEARTS UNBROKEN, which also was named to YALSA’s Amelia Bloomer list and received the Foreword Reviews Silver Medal in Young Adult Fiction.
In addition, Cynthia is the author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, which will launch its first list in winter 2021.
She also serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and leads the annual We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive. Cynthia holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. She studied law abroad at Paris-Sorbonne University.