Attorney by day, author by night, Greg Leitich Smith is a special brand of Texan super-hero. Recently Greg took a minute to visit about what enticed him to make Texas his home, how he became an award-winning author and what new projects the Austin-based Superman is working on now.
How did you end up in Texas?
I grew up in Chicago and I came to Texas for the first time for graduate school, when I got my master’s degree in electrical engineering at UT. I really enjoyed the culture (and weather) in Austin, but I moved back north for law school and then eventually took a job at a firm in Chicago. After suffering through the second worst blizzard in Chicago history (and also having experienced most of the others in the top ten), my wife, Cynthia, and I decided we’d had enough, and made the move down to Austin.
Please describe your road to publication.
I think for every children’s author, it starts when you’re a child, and with falling in love with reading and writing. When I was very little, my parents would read to my brother and me. Throughout my childhood, we would make very regular trips to the local library, coming back home with shopping bags filled with books. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that it might, someday, be kind of cool to write one of these. While I kept that idea in my head, I also liked math and science, and eventually went on to get degrees in engineering and law.
More immediately, of course, Cynthia started writing before I did. And the first thing she did was to read children’s books. One of our author friends had told her that in order to write in a genre, you should read at least 100 books in that genre. Cynthia was taking it seriously, bringing home tons of picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels from the store and library. We would both read them, and had the pleasure of experiencing for the first time in a long time the richness of children’s literature.
By the time Cynthia had sold her first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, I had decided to try my hand at it, as well. I came up with the idea of doing the Galileo story, set in middle school and as a comedy (this eventually became NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO). I presented the first two pages of the manuscript to an editor at a conference, where they were well-received; although that editor didn’t end up buying the manuscript (she did have some excellent editorial suggestions). I received a couple more editorial rejections, and did some revisions, and eventually Cynthia told me I should send the manuscript to her agent, Ginger Knowlton. I’m almost positive Ginger viewed the prospect of reading a client’s spouse’s work with trepidation, but she read the manuscript and offered representation. The first editor at the first house (Little, Brown) she sent it to bought it.
You have published both middle grade novels and picture books. How do you approach writing to different formats and age groups?
A picture book is easier than a novel, but it does require that you puzzle out a concept and a story arc, determine if there are enough illustratable images, and then, of course, make the language sing. It has the virtue of being short, typically having only a single plot point, so it’s easier to hold all this in your head at one time. A novel, though, requires the interweaving of multiple story lines and character arcs over a much larger number of pages. Logistically, it’s harder to keep track of. Also, the fact that it is a large number of pages means it takes significantly longer to get a first draft or any kind of draft done.
With our joint picture book manuscripts, Cynthia and I have typically come up with an idea and then hammered out a draft in the course of an afternoon (Of course, revision takes considerably longer, and we go through many, many drafts before we decide it’s “right.”).
With a novel, it usually takes at least a couple months for a really bad first draft, and that doesn’t include pre-writing (i.e., research, character-building exercises, outlines if any, etc.). And then revisions take as long as necessary, sometimes to the point where almost nothing remains of the first draft.
How has your creative process changed through your career?
Early on, I would have an idea with a vague notion of the arc and how it would end, and then just sort of muddle through a draft until I had something novel-length.
For my more recent projects, I’ve tried to produce something resembling a loose outline. Basically, I use a spreadsheet and make some notes in each “cell” about what happens in each chapter or scene and then follow it in the first draft. I try not to stay completely wedded to it, though, and am willing to deviate if something more interesting/funny, etc., comes to me.
It’s still fairly organic, though: I’ll have a couple “proto-first drafts” (say, fifty to seventy-five pages) before I get to a full, novel-length first draft that I can then work on until the final draft.
What were your favorite books as a young reader?
The first ones that come to mind are SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I loved the whole idea in SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON of surviving without modern amenities (by which I mean electricity and indoor plumbing, not Wi-Fi!). THE LORD OF THE RINGS appealed to me for its sublime world-building and its themes of good vs. evil, temptation, duty, honor, and rollicking adventure.
For more recent books and authors, I recommend many on my blog: http://www.greglsblog.blogspot.com/
What project are you working on right now?
I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement on a middle grade/tween science fiction/fantasy novel soon. Beyond that, I have been working on a YA set on a ranch here in Texas for a while now, and I think it’s finally starting to come together.
You can read more about Greg and his books on his web site http://www.gregleitichsmith.com. His novels and picture books are available at your favorite local or online bookstore.
This interview also appeared in the August 2010 version of the Houston Banner.