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An Interview with novelist L.J. Smith

L.J. Smith is the author of nine bestselling novels for children and teenagers, including the two series The Vampire Diaries and The Secret Circle. The first volume of her latest series The Forbidden Game, is in bookstores now.

Q: Why did you decide to write novels for young adults?
A: I decided to write for kids when I was a kid. I knew the kind of books I liked to read and there just weren't enough of them. Nothing to do but write them myself. I'd been telling myself stories ever since I was four or five, and writing them down was just the next step. I suppose the real question is: Why am I still writing YA books, since I haven't been a young adult for...ahem!...well, quite a few years.
Could be arrested development. I must admit that I still read classic children's books, and get a lot of pleasure out of it. Books about fantasy, magic, and the supernatural just excite me, and I love to read them and write them. I'd like to write books for adults someday, but I hope I never grow up completely!

Q: How did you get your first book published?
A: I finished The Night of the Solstice the year I got out of college. I'd been working on the book since I got the idea for it in high school, but the writing went slowly because I was busy studying psychology. Besides, everybody told me that I could never make a living being a writer, so there was no hurry!

I took my book to a professional typist (I didn't even have a typewriter in those days, much less a computer) and she got very excited about it. She said it was the best manuscript she'd seen, and she had a friend who was a literary agent, and asked if I was I interested in being agented.

I was. Very. Of course, it still took some time to get the book sold -- for one thing, I had to cut it by a hundred pages! But eventually Macmillan bought it, and my fate was decided. I loved writing and I knew I had to keep doing it.

Q: What is your educational and professional background?
A: I got my BA in Experimental Psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara (great school! great beaches!) I have two teaching credentials from San Francisco State University, one in elementary education and one in Special Ed. I've taught kindergarten and special education, and enjoyed both -- but now I'm writing full time. Every fall I get very nostalgic about teaching, but writing is more fun -- and it pays better.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: This is a tough one. There are so many, but I really tend to like the classics. I adore Dickens' characters and his playful, whimsical prose. I love Jane Austen's gentle satire, and Mark Twain's dry wit. I read Steinbeck, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison when I want to cry. For sheer escapism I like fantasy or science fiction -- Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and H.G. Wells. Or detective stories, like Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey series. And -- please don't laugh -- when I'm sad, I cuddle up in front of the fire with L. Frank Baum's Oz books or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. They always make me feel better.

Q: What advice would you give a teenager who wants to be an author?
A: WRITE! Write, write, write. And read, read, read. Those are the two most important things you can do.

Write all the time -- write in a journal, scribble down ideas on napkins at McDonald's, spend a boring class scrawling poetry in your notebook (Okay, maybe that last isn't the best advice, but I admit it worked for me.) Write anything and everything you like, and don't be critical of yourself. Just let it come out and worry about whether it's good later.

Write when you're feeling something; when you're mad, or in love, or in pain. The passion will come through. And write about what you know, write about your own school, your friends, your take on the world. Teens often think their own lives are boring -- they want to write about exotic places, weird people, things out of their experience. But it's best, especially at first, to write what you know. It may be hard to expose your most private self to other people, but that's what writing is about. And the ring of truth is unmistakable.
Reading is the other important thing. Read all you can and read a variety of books. You'll absorb all sorts of good things, grammar, vocabulary, plot structure -- even if you don't realize it. Try the classics, and keep trying them as you get older. Some things that you think are really boring and stupid right now will suddenly become interesting as you mature. A little light goes on in your head and you say, "Oh, so that's why everybody likes Chaucer, wow."

Q: Is there anything else you think will interest teenage writers?
A: I've babbled on long enough. But I think it's great that Writes of Passage is giving kids a forum for their work. This kind of encouragement is just what teenagers need. Good luck!

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