top of page
  • Brianna Sugalski

In Conversation With NYT Bestselling Author, CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH

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