Monday, December 12, 2011

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Diabolical: From Literary Homage to Growing the Craft

Cynthia Leitich Smith's intelligent, quirky, robust vampire series has swirled into an industry all its own. Her Dracula-inspired quartet of prose novels in the Tantalize series includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Diabolical, which will be released by Candlewick on Jan. 24, 2012. Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, is now available, and the Eternal graphic novel, also to be illustrated by Doyle, is currently in production.

In addition, two short stories, “Haunted Love,” originally published in Immortal, edited by P.C. Cast and “Cat Calls,” originally published in Sideshow, edited by Deborah Noyes, are available for free download from various e-retailers.

The books and shorts are published by Candlewick Press in North America, Walker Books in the U.K., and various other publishers around the globe.

I asked Cyn:
The world of your fiction has grown from a kind of whimsical alternative Austin with lurking dangers to encompassing nothing short of heaven and hell. How has writing the Quincie P. Morris books grown you as a writer?

Here is her reply.

I credit the dark master, Abraham Stoker, for much of the past decade of my writing life. 

The first quartet of novels in the Tantalize series are a conversation with his 1897 horror classic, Dracula, which likewise features varied settings (the Carpathian Mountains, the streets of London) and an international cast (the Dutch doctor, Texas gunslinger, English lawyer, etc.). 

My first of the books is firmly set in Austin, but from there, we travel to Dallas, Chicago, a fictional small town in Michigan, the outskirts of San Antonio, north to Montpelier, Vermont; and its surrounding countryside, climaxing in a battle that literally rages from heaven to hell.

These multi-creature-verse stories are told from four points of view. A tie-in graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story released this fall, and an Eternal graphic novel is in the works.

When I first began jotting notes in late 2000/early 2001, I had hopes of multiple books. Though many suggested there wasn’t a market for Gothic YA tales, I began writing with a super-arc in mind. Each of the books would have a beginning, middle, and end, but they would also combine to tell a larger story. My dream concept was an ambitious one—to extend Stoker’s world, starting with a pseudo-descendant (a many-times great niece) of the Texan character Quincey P. Morris and then working my way back to the root material, a demonic academy that lingers in Romanian-Hungarian folklore.

At the time, I was a long-time fantasy reader but had published only realistic, contemporary fiction.
Suddenly, I needed to learn world- and creature-building and to craft a story in which both were necessary for the protagonist’s internal and external journeys. Soon it became the protagonists’—plural—internal and external journeys, even as my world and its varied population continued to grow.
I had to consider the power of metaphor in conveying such weighty themes as alcoholism, homelessness, gender and power, sexual assault, bigotry, culture/identity, biological warfare, plague, child abuse, slavery, indentured servitude, sexual orientation, free will, the role of faith, good and evil, holy sacrifice, the nature of God, redemption, forgiveness, destiny, and grace.
You know, in a fun, occasionally funny, way that also inspired tears, while keeping the action moving, integrating compelling suspense/mystery elements, and making the occasional teenager (or YA librarian) swoon over a certain fictional guardian angel. Or two.
Meanwhile, I navigated quasi-epistolary elements, unreliable point of view, alternating point of view, juxtaposing urban/rural with high fantasy, translating from prose to graphic format, embracing the short and long form, and writing across race, region, culture, gender, orientation, nationality and species.
Worst of all, I had to learn to write love scenes—fresh, poignant, passionate love scenes that rang true and spoke to the adolescent experience. That nearly killed me.
Put mildly, the psychological and intellectual challenges have been numerous and formidable. The experience has equipped me with a toolbox of skills that I hope to carry into future projects. But my more valuable takeaway is what I learned about YA readers and my relationship to them.
I’ve learned to more seriously consider the young audience.
That’s not fashionable. You often hear writers say, “I write for myself” or “I write for people” (not merely—gasp—kids), or, though usually not so straightforwardly, “I write for acclaim.”
Don’t get me wrong. I do cater to my own inner brat (and a brat she is) and my darling readers over 18 (who generate about half my mail) and those remarkable champions/gatekeepers. I’m honored that the books have been critically well received and appreciate the importance of that in widely sharing them.
But my previous works had been for younger kids. And while I heard from a handful of grieving tweens and thoughtful Native readers in the wake of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, the vast majority of my feedback came from grown-ups.
With the Tantalize series, for the first time, I found myself presented with countless more personal interactions, such as:
a fourteen-year-old, big-city boy clinging to a tattered copy of Tantalize—the first novel he’d ever finished;
  • a pair of suburban African-American teen cousins wanting to talk to me about my choice of “black” as a color of heaven; when so often in Gothics, its only association is with evil;
  • a reader ranting (with many exclamation marks) that a girl is NOTHING!!! without a boy to love her;
  • a handful of girls writing about their physically/emotionally abusive “romantic” relationships and how Quincie’s arc inspired them to view themselves and their situations in a new light;
  • a date-rape survivor who wrote to say she’d copied an exchange at the end of Blessed and taped it to her bedroom mirror;
  • a young lesbian who wanted to know why the only gay main characters were male and adults (which is no longer the case with the upcoming release of Diabolical);
  • a reader who wrote of Miranda, “Nice to see an Asian girl pick up a battle-axe!”
  • foodies who requesting recipes from the Sanguini’s menus;
  • Ausitinites and Chicagoans thrilling to see their neighborhoods reflected in a YA book;
  • high schoolers delighted that they actually “got” the Hawthorne references (“English class was good for something!!!);
  • teens who read the novel Dracula along with Quincie, looking for clues;
  • readers literally bouncing, tearing up, or kneeling with enthusiasm;
  • and a seemingly endless array of folks (of both genders and, for that matter, all ages) swooning over the glory that is Zachary. It’s surreal to be gushed at about the sexiness of a figment of your imagination.
So now I have my audience in mind: Geeky but unpretentious young people (and those young at heart) with depth and a sense of humor. Those who’re willing to be challenged by the occasional unfamiliar literary device and/or reconsider their world view, who’re open to a hero who’s Asian or Latino or Italian-American or gay or part wereotter; and who can get behind imperfect characters who love deeply but aren’t wholly defined by their respective relationship status.
They’re avid and reluctant readers, those who love and hate genre romance, and those who adore and abhor horror novels. They reach for mystery fiction and revel in the mysterious nature of our so-called real world. A few leave unsettled, even unsatisfied, only to return months, perhaps years, later with more life experience, typically after their first real heartbreak. 
At a time when there is so much economic pressure to pander, to dumb down, to revisit without reinventing, it’s important not to underestimate the  young, not to cower in the face of the perceived market or even some teens’ ever-evolving (and occasionally appalling) priorities.

And we must be equally wary of the temptation to preen over our craft, over how we express ourselves, if it’s at the expense of saying something that truly matters to our intended audience. Art should be thrilling, satisfying, and yes, unsettling. To the reader and also to the artist. There are no safe spaces. Joyful innovation doesn't come from playing it safe. But it does spring, at least in part, from valuing its intended audience.

[Uma] Thank you Cynthia. And so to the menu. Here's the antipasto, the trailer of Diabolical. Congratulations!

Note: Cynthia is now working on Smolder, which is set in the Tantalize universe, but begins a new arc and features new protagonists, two of whom were previously introduced as secondary characters. Cynthia Leitich Smith blogs at Cynsations and is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.


  1. Cyn, I hope one day you get a chance to visit the Carpathian Mountains! Wow, what a journey these books have taken you on, indeed, much farther than central Europe! Thanks for sharing some of your readers' reactions... a broad readership at that.... maybe that's part of the appeal of writing YA, you can touch so many. (I have just started with PB's)... I loved this, "It’s surreal to be gushed at about the sexiness of a figment of your imagination." I guess we write for all these sorts of experiences that you shared above. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Joanna, a journey indeed. For me, Cyn's dedication to her vision and the sheer hard WORK behind these books are lessons in themselves.

  3. Oh, Joanna, I'd love to go. (Just as an aside, my husband's father is from that area originally.) I'm honored that you enjoyed the post.

    And thanks for much, Uma, for your support and offering me this opportunity to share my thoughts.

  4. Love these connections between real life and fiction, especially when they begin merging geographies in this way! Cyn, really, a field trip is called for one of these years, don't you think?