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Interview: February 11, 2014

The second book in the Feral series, FERAL CURSE has been a long time in the making. Secondary characters from Cynthia Leitich Smith's earlier series, Tantalize, are thrust into the spotlight, Yoshi the werecat from FERAL NIGHTS plays a central (and steamy) role and a new werecat, Kayla finds herself in the middle of a disaster when a cursed carousel sends werepeople of all sorts to her small town of Pine Ridge, Texas. So what's it like to write a book when some characters have been lurking in Cynthia's head for 14 years, and others are brand new? What's the difference between writing a series and writing a stand-alone book? Cynthia answers these questions and more --- including how she decides which animal each shape-shifter turns into, the real-life inspiration for Pine Ridge and what readers can expect from the next Feral book --- in the exclusive interview, below. Read on! 

Teenreads: What was your inspiration for the Feral series?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: YA reader mail inspired the Feral books. My last series, the Tantalize series, featured a couple of quirky characters --- a self-described geek girl/Goth girl/New Age hippie girl named Aimee Barnard and a sarcastic, dorky but loyal wereopposum named Clyde Gilbert. The two were friends of the leads, and, frankly, in many ways reflected the core readership.

Readers kept asking about them. More than one described himself as "a Clyde" or herself as "an Aimee." That those characters were a little younger than the Tantalize protagonists ---sophomores to their seniors --- left room for growth under the YA umbrella. So I promoted them to heroes in the Feral series. I introduced a third new protagonist --- a cougar-like werecat named Yoshi Kitahara --- in FERAL NIGHTS and now a fourth --- a cheetah-like werecat named Kayla Morgan --- in FERAL CURSE.


TR:  What inspired you to choose Texas as the focal point for this book? Were you inspired by any locations/landmarks that you live near now?

CLS: I make my home in Austin, which is the springboard for both the Tantalize and Feral series. The city is eclectic --- bursting with techies and Bubbas, hippies and hipsters, musicians and politicos, college kids and self-described freaks. That mix offers an intriguing backdrop to my fantastical universe. The South Congress strip, the view from Mount Bonnell, the caves of the Texas Hill Country and so many more locales all provide bountiful inspiration.

I've also kept the books fresh in part by pushing my characters out into their larger world. In FERAL NIGHTS, our heroes find themselves kidnapped to a tropical island in the South Pacific, and now, in FERAL CURSE, the action moves an hour outside Austin to small-town Pine Ridge, Texas.

Some of that was about bringing together distinctive heroes, each with their own sensibility. Yoshi is a country Cat, until of late raised on his gram’s Kansas farm. Aimee and Clyde are city kids, and in the previous novel, I heavily featured Tasmanian weredevil (and fan favorite) Teghan from the northern suburbs. It was time to give small-town smarts their due via Kayla.

Pine Ridge is loosely inspired by nearby Bastrop, which was hit by the worst wildfires in Texas history back in fall of 2011. It's close enough to Austin for plot purposes, and the river walk in the shadow of the historic downtown makes for a perfectly secluded yet central location for much of the novel's mystery and action.


TR:In FERAL CURSE, Ben initially doesn't accept Kayla because of religious beliefs. Why did you decide to make this the central conflict?

CLS: It's not the central conflict of the novel per se, but yes, definitely between those two characters. The plot of FERAL CURSE is logistically fueled by what's at first believed to be a demonic spell.

What's more, it's well established that, although shape-shifters are naturally born --- they evolved from distant Ice Age ancestors and are related closely enough to humans to produce children ---there are bigots out there who consider them monsters.

Historically, faith and the pulpit have fostered healing between conflicting peoples. But both have also been used to justify hatred, prejudice and discrimination. The super-arc over the series looks at both sides of that equation and how it plays out in this mythological construct.


TR:How did the title for the Feral series come about? Were there any other ideas for series names?

CLS: The original series title was Smolder, a tribute to the undercurrent of conflict and emotions as well as the more literal, reoccurring role of fire in the plots.

However, it carried too strong of a genre romance connotation to fit the stories. Though there are romantic relationships between Aimee and Clyde, Kayla and Ben, and later, Yoshi and Kayla, it would be a stretch to call the novels genre romances per se.


TR: How do you decide which specific animal each person would be?

CLS: Partly, it was a matter of personality. Early in the Tantalize series, Clyde was a wereopposum, which fit with his tendency to run (or play dead) when threatened. But as the books progressed, he grew and, by FERAL NIGHTS, discovered he also was of werelion heritage. Exploring what his juxtaposition of species means to his identity has been fascinating.

Regarding secondary characters, Darby is fearful, fragile --- a Deer (who, with antlers, still has the potential to be dangerous). Tanya can be booming, big with a temper --- a Bear. My werecoyote Peter skirts the edges of the story, waiting for just the right moment to make his move.

That said, the Cats take center stage in the Feral series. Some of that was about choosing a predator species, known for its intelligence, which included both social types and loners.

I'd also already written werewolves, including a graphic novel (TANTALIZE: Kieren's Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle) from my most popular Wolf's point of view.

It was time to give the kitties their due.


TR:FERAL CURSE focuses quite a bit on society's reaction to shifters and shifters' rights. Was this influenced by any real world problems you see in America?

CLS: Yes, real world problems around the globe, both past and present.

It's all too easy to think of actual examples and tweak them to reflect the parallel struggle. My characters are confronted with hate groups, a sometimes unfair judicial system, employment discrimination, pressure to keep their identities secret and so on. But it's not a dystopian world, in the same way that, for all our problems, ours isn't either.

The shifters have their own communities and heroes. There are shifters within the system --- like Detective Zaleski in Austin --- and humans within the system --- like Sheriff Bigheart in Pine Ridge --- who're looking out for them. They have powerful allies like the interfaith coalition and loyal friends like Aimee, who'll fight beside them when the need arises.


TR: How is it different writing a series versus writing standalone books? Is one more difficult than the other? Is one more fun?

CLS: It's not so much more-or-less difficult, more-or-less fun. Sure, there's more time and effort in multiple books than one, but beyond that…

The main literary difference is that, with a series, you can go deeper over time. I began working on Tantalize in early 2000 and only this week handed in FERAL PRIDE (Book 3) to my editor.

The character of Clyde has been there from the beginning and has appeared in six novels. He's still Clyde, right to the end, but he's also a better, stronger more heroic version of himself. I know more about him. I understand him in a way I never expected. Up until the last page, he kept surprising me.

Logistically, continuity is crazy hard. The universe is reflected in six prose novels (it'll be seven in 2015), two graphic novels and two (soon to be three) short stories. That's a ton of backstory.

There are also several creature mythologies in play, a huge cast (not all of whom appear in every book), several settings (some of which are revisited and/or change over time), and the universe itself has its own history --- its own evolutionary pathways and socio-political pivots.


TR:You've written many books throughout your career, from picture books to YA. Why do you write for such a wide variety of ages? Do you like writing for one particular age group more than others?

CLS:I treasure all of my readers, from pre-K to college and beyond. For me, the form and market for the story are determined by its protagonist.

JINGLE DANCER, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, is the story of Jenna, a young girl bringing together her powwow regalia with the help of women of each generation of her family and intertribal community. That's got to be a picture book.

“Mooning Over Broken Stars” which appears in GIRL MEETS BOY, edited by Kelly Milner Halls, is the story of Nancy Whitepath, a high school basketball star with an eye for scrawny, bullied Bobby Wildcat. That's YA. It has to be, though I suppose it could've gone novel or short story.


TR:Can you share something memorable that you learned from a reader?

CLS: After BLESSED (Book 3 in the Tantalize series) was published, I received notes from a half dozen girls who recognized themselves in the Quincie-Brad relationship.

They recognized the older guy, pushing them toward substance abuse and/or taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. The story made them think, and in some cases, extract themselves from an unhealthy situation.

I didn't write the novel with that specific goal in mind. I followed character to plot to theme and didn't flinch when it led me to tough places, but I'm grateful for that real-world result.

And it showed me how much YA literature means to its audience, what an incredible responsibility it is to write and share stories.

I don't write preachy or message-y books, but I do occasionally explore sensitive topics, and I know that makes a real difference in the real lives of real kids and YAs.


TR:I read that you're a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Has your heritage influenced your writing, if at all?

CLS:I've written my share of Native heroes in short stories, a tween novel (RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME), and books for younger children. That work is important to me, and I'll continue doing it. At the same time, I don't let it confine me creatively. I've published a variety of works from a wide variety of points of view. I routinely write across race/gender/ethnicity/orientation.

However, it would feel counter-intuitive to me to imagine a world without Native people in it. In fact, FERAL CURSE introduces two Osage secondary characters, Jess Bigheart and her sheriff father.


TR:  What can readers look forward to in the next installment of the Feral series? 

CLS: Look for our heroes to be hit where they're most vulnerable. The stakes will be higher, circling around friendships and families. The sacrifices will hurt more. They'll face off against bolder public opposition, challenges within their ranks and within themselves as well.