Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In the Coop with Cyn and Greg Leitich Smith

We think Cyn and Greg are the cutest Christmas couple around! Cyn's fab books include Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name. Greg has written the wonderfully funny middle grade novels Ninjas, Piranhas and Gallileo and Tofu and T-Rex. Santa Knows is their first collaboration. We hope it's the first of many!

You are husband and wife and you've written a book together. We think this is a little insane. Can you explain the process?

Cyn: Greg and I had been talking about how there just can't be enough uproariously funny picture books, including those with boy protagonists—or at least there should be more, and I was speculating about how hard it was to hold to the “magic” of childhood in today’s high tech, super rational world.

So I wrote a rough draft, explaining that Santa’s “magic” was really the product of “elf science and technology.” We mere humans just aren’t brilliant enough to fully understand…yet.

In my house, Greg is the one with the two electrical engineer degrees, so I went to him first to help me explain the more nuts, bolts, and interdimensional portal aspects.

Greg: After we generated the first draft, we sent it off to our agent, who sent it to a couple of publishers, who—sadly—were clearly not ready to face the truth about Santa Claus. Finally, our agent sent it to Mark McVeigh at Dutton, who replied with a four-to-five page revision letter, single spaced (which needless to say was longer than the manuscript). We talked about it and generated a new draft over cocoa and Christmas carols.

How do you know when what you write is funny?

Greg: We’re holding Ed McMahon prisoner in our basement. We read something to him, and if he laughs, you know it’s got to be funny.

Cyn: Shhh.

Do you have any tips for writing funny books?

Greg: You have to write what you think is funny. You can’t rely on some notion of what you think “kids” think is funny. Also, the humor has to work thematically. No matter how funny a scene is, if it’s ultimately irrelevant to the story, then it doesn’t belong.

Cyn: For me, the humor springs from the characters. If they’re funny, the story is funny. It’s more about them than me.

What are some of your favorite funny books?

Greg: Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (Dutton, 2005); The Wizard, The Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey by Lisa Papademetriou (Razorbill, 2005); Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, 2002).

Cyn: Exempting books by my honey and those gorgeous silly chicks, on the picture book front, I'll add: Altoona Baboona by Janie Bynum (Harcourt, 1999); Chance by Dian Curtis Regan, illustrated by Dee Huxley (Philomel, 2003); Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Simon & Schuster, 2000); Hop Toad by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Karen Lee Schmidt (Harcourt, 2003); What a Truly Cool World by Julius Lester, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Scholastic, 1999).

I also echo Greg's novel choices and add: Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur Levine, 2003); The Amazon Papers by Beverly Keller (Harcourt, 1996); Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 1999); Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler (Dutton, 2006); Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005); and Terry and the Pirates by Julian F. Thompson (Atheneum, 2000).

I could go on, but let me just add that I also admire Joan Bauer's ability to interweave humor and sensitive themes.

Who do you like more, The Marx Bros or Three Stooges?

Greg: The Marx Brothers. Largely because WGN in Chicago used to play Duck Soup every New Year’s Eve.

Cyn: Neither. Jeepers. I’m a girl.

What was your best Halloween costume?

Cyn and Greg: Our critique group traditionally holds a Halloween meeting in which we come dressed as characters. Last year, we came dressed as Santa (Greg) and an elf (Cyn).

Greg: The coat was really hot (I think it was about 80 degrees over Halloween here in Austin).

Cyn: I only wish I could wear bells every day.

What is your Dream Job For a Day?

Cyn: I would like to be one of those creepy people painted silver who strike thoughtful poses on the streets of Paris.

Greg: Pretty much what I’m doing now, only I’m independently wealthy, have staff, and have much more time to write. J

Clown V. Mime Deathmatch. Pick your winner.

Greg: Ideally, they would self-destruct, but if I were forced to choose, I’d pick clown, but only because I have fond memories of Bozo’s Circus from when I was a kid in Chicago.

Cyn: Mime (see above Paris dream job).

Funniest dead person you'd like to meet?

Greg: William Shakespeare.

Cyn: Gilda Radner. Hint to the universe: picture book biography?!