Chatting With Cynthia Leitich Smith
Thank you so much for talking to us about your amazing, YA horror/gothic debut, Tantalize.
One of the most unique aspects of Tantalize is Sanguini’s, the only gourmet, vampire-themed restaurant in Austin, Texas. What was the inspiration?
As a teenager, I'd been a big reader of gothic fantasy and had worked in a Mexican chain restaurant. Consequently, now and again, I would say either "I want to write a restaurant book" or "I want to write a vampire novel."
At some point the two seemingly opposite ideas—given the liquid diet generally associated with the undead—clicked together in my mind. A vampire restaurant, I thought. It was a start.
Tell us a little about Quincie Morris. She’s such a strong-willed character, thrown into horrible situations.
My protagonist, Qunicie, is named after Quincey P. Morris, a character from the literary classic Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). His Quincey was a Texan, and it had intrigued me that Stoker, who was Irish, had chosen to include that background among his original vampire hunters. So, I was inspired to bring the mythology "home" to Texas.
That said, I wasn't inclined to adopt the politics of the Victorian era, especially its attitudes toward women. Stoker's female characters were either virginal victims or monstrous in their sensuality. That just didn't jive with my modern sensibilities. So, instead I crafted a strong girl with healthy, normal teenage desires—one who loves a boy but isn't defined (or "tainted") by that love. She's more than that.
Quincie's most pressing goal is to save her family's Italian restaurant, which was left to her by her mother. New competition is the neighborhood is threatening to put it out of business, so it's decided to renovate and re-launch the place with a vampire theme in hopes of attracting new clientele. In many ways, the restaurant represents where Quincie comes from, the mother she lost, who she is. She's determined to fight for its/her own success.
More personally, Quincie is smart, independent, and has a quick wit. Her voice adds much of the humor to this genre bender (gothic fantasy-mystery-suspense-romance-comedy)
Consequently, Quincie's story is crafted for strong, sophisticated YA and adult readers—those comfortable with a more complex literary style, which also includes epistolary elements.
There are a lot of literary references in the book here and there. For instance, I loved when Kieren, the hybrid-wolfboy, is reading Maurice Sendak. You just couldn’t resist, could you?
It's so funny, the associations a writer's mind makes. Kieren does in fact read Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963) to his little sister, Megan. It seemed like a story that two Wolf siblings could really connect with.
But it also signifies a larger dynamic, the conversation between books. I've already mentioned the role Stoker's writing played in inspiring my novel. Ovid and Hawthorne also served as major launching points.
Like any literary body of literature, gothic fantasy has its quintessential themes and, for that matter, monsters. Conventional wisdom is that the key is not so much to come up with something wholly original, but rather to take the dialogue between the titles a step farther, to say something new, offer a twist. Make a contribution to the big-picture conversation. For most of us, that's tough to do unless you really know the books, which requires careful reading and study.
I've taught writing off and on for years, and I've had students make the point that—especially when considering a young audience—not all readers will be sufficiently versed to know or care when someone is being derivative versus breaking new ground. This is no doubt true, but it's also sort of like saying it's okay to put on a half-hearted play because not all of the audience has been to the theater before. We always owe our readers our best work.
In horror/fantasy there have been some amazing leading men. I’m referring to Roiben in Holly Black’s Tithe, and Edward Cullen in Twilight. Do you think Kieren the wolfboy might get his own following? How about Brad the Impaler? Which do you like better?
First, I'm honored by the question. Holly Black and Stephenie Meyer are two of the giants of gothic fantasy today. As for the leading men, I feel compelled to add that fans of such characters in the genre may also especially appreciate Gabriel, the alpha male wolfman from Annette Curtis Klause's wonderful Blood and Chocolate (1997).
As for my guys, though the book is a very new release, Kieren seems to already be attracting quite the fan base. Letters in his favor are outnumbering those who prefer Brad by about five-to-one. I'm afraid picking myself might qualify as a plot spoiler to those who've yet to read the novel, so I leave that to readers to decide for themselves.
I know that you’re a big fan of horror. How did it feel to write your first horror novel? Can you tell us what some of your favorite YA fantasy/horror novels are, and why.
I was excited and a little nervous about writing my first horror novel. Beginning writers are often told to write what they know and/or write what they love to read. I'd begun my publishing career with plan A, drawing on my Native American mixed blood and Midwestern background to craft stories for much younger readers. Trying something new is always scary. On the upside, scary can be a plus when writing horror. You just have to tap into that energy, that urgency, and use it all for your story.
As for my favorite books by other authors, let's see… We've already mentioned Holly Black, Stephenie Meyer, and Annette Curtis Klause—all of whom are glorious.
Hitting all my faves would take forever, but I would like to highlight just a handful of recent titles: The Afterlife by Gary Soto (2003), which is a ghost story; Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales edited by Deborah Noyes (2004) is a short story collection featuring a variety of fabulous voices (a companion book, The Restless Dead, is forthcoming this fall); A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003) and Rebel Angels (2005) take on Victorian England (the third book in the trilogy, A Far Sweet Thing will come out this fall); Werewolf Rising by R.L. LaFevers (2006) is more for tweens… I could go on.
One volunteer aspect of my work is promoting books by other authors. Those fans of the genre should see my main site (www.cynthialeitichsmith.com) for a bounty of reading recommendations and interviews. I also feature these on my blogs at Blogger (http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/i
I can’t wait for Eternal. Are you in the progress of writing the sequel? Do you have the plot planned out?
Thank you! Eternal is a book set in the same universe as Tantalize, though it features other characters. I'm currently mulling the possibility of crossing over characters from these two in a third book, but one manuscript at a time. At the moment, Eternal is newly turned into my editor, who's already given it a read and says she's wowed. I'm awaiting her revision comments on that story.
In terms of process, though, I don't plot first. I start with character and build from there. It takes longer, but that's what works best for me in creating fully-rounded fictional folks. (Everyone works differently).
How do you feel about the idea of your book being turned into a movie?
It sounds exciting. If that comes to pass, I'll certainly let my readers know.
People keep commenting on being drawn to your book’s beautiful cover art. I think you really hit the mark with both the cover and the title. How did you come up with Tantalize? Did you consider any other titles?
Credit for the cover goes to the fabulous design team at Candlewick Press. I'm so pleased to be publishing with them.
As for the title, it was the only one I considered and came from one of the first lasting lines I wrote. Quincie says, "Call me werecurious, but if my mission was to arouse the boy with the beast within, I'd have to tantalize his monster."