Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Gennifer Choldenko. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
- Favorite books
- Great teachers
- An inner 12-year-old
- The "idea" question
- Making time for writing
- Fan mail
- Family ties
- Middle school confidential
- Current events
- Small struggles
- Bad day for Mother Goose
- Researching Alcatraz
- Sometimes a fantasy
- The dog does the whispering
- Second time wasn't the charm
- Another Al Capone book?
My name is Gennifer Choldenko and I wrote books for kids and young adults. Some of the titles you may recognize are Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, and No Passengers Beyond This Point.
So some of the books that really made a big impression in my life were Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, all of the Oz books I loved. I loved A Wrinkle in Time and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I loved — what else — anything by Roald Dahl. I think that Roald Dahl influenced me in many ways. I loved the Narnia books and my older sister used to read to me every night and I'm in debt to her for that because, I think she helped make the books come alive for me.
Not surprisingly, I love to read kids books and I'm very excited every year when Newbery is announced because I get to read a new crop of books. I always try and read the ones that I think might win the Newbery ahead of time, because even as a kid I loved that seal and I look for books like Across Five Aprils that had that seal and so I love quality books. I like reading adult books too, but I usually read the kids books first.
I always had great teachers. Some writers tell these stories about how they were discouraged by their teachers. That isn't my case at all. I remember Mrs. Rosenthal in 5th grade was so encouraging of my writing; she really made me believe that I had talent and ability, and I loved hearing the recommendations. I always loved English. I loved every — I know you call it Language Arts now, but we used to call them English teachers and I loved every English teacher I had. Remember Mrs. Gangsei, Sharon Brockie. They were really helpful to me and I looked forward to English class. And even in college I remember one of my friends was always ditching college classes. But, I was like why would you ever do that?
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Rosenthal, had meant really a lot to me. When I got to college I decided I needed to go and find her and tell her how much she had meant to me. And when I went back, she didn't remember me at all. I could tell. She tried, but I was just a complete blank. And at first of course that hurt my feeling because everybody wants to be that special student that a teacher remembers their whole life. But after a while, I began to see that there had been a lot of kids that Mrs. Rosenthal had helped — many, many of them. The fact that she didn't remember me just said how powerful she was in so many kids' lives. I think sometimes teachers don't realize the impact that they have. You know, I know my daughter's teacher, whatever he says, she does. I mean he has such power in her life And I think that the role of a teacher is so undervalued in our society. I really do. I think we are all here because we had good teachers.
An inner 12-year-old
I write for kids because I naturally write as a 12-year old. That's just the way it comes out. I don't try and write for kids. Some part of me never really turned 13 and so I just so easily relate to the world as a 12-year old. There's a downside to that that my husband will explain to you, at some point — that he's married to a 12-year old. But I love writing for kids and people ask are you ever going to write an adult novel and I always say I have no interest in it. I think adult life is boring.
Well a lot of people think that I consciously make decisions to have humor in my work or to speak as if I'm 12. But both of those things are really just a part of who I am. My voice comes through humorously. It doesn't when I'm just speaking, but when I'm writing I have a distance from people and my true self really comes out, in a way that I can't in normal life. And my true self has this kind of sarcastic humorous tone. So I am just naturally who I am and luckily, that is something that kids respond to.
The "idea" question
Ideas come to me in all kinds of ways. I never can predict how they'll come, and that's what makes it kind of fun. I get lots of ideas and the one that I end up pursuing is the one that drives me crazy — that won't let me be. Because intellectually, I'll think is this idea the right idea? Is this going to work or is that going to work? But it turns out that all that intellectualizing really just gets in my way.
The one that I end up doing is the one that I can't not do. I just find sometimes it's like, the fly that buzzes around me and buzzes around me and drives me nuts until I follow the fly to the book. But sometimes I get ideas for — the Al Capone books, I got the idea from an article in the newspaper for No Passengers. I just had the desire to write a fantasy for years actually, and I would get all these ideas and I didn't really like the idea and what happened with No Passengers is I just started writing and I didn't know where I was going. And so that's a real unusual way. I've never had a book come to me quite like that.
Making time for writing
Well, I'm a mom. I have a 16-year old and an 11-year old, so my day starts with me taking them to school and then when I get home I walk by the dirty laundry and the dirty dishes and the messy house and walk straight to my office, because I would much rather write than do housework. And I hope that I don't have too much marketing work and that I can just turn off — unplug the internet and spend the time with my work, because that's so much fun. I really — that's the best thing I can do any day, is to spend time with my work. I don't do page counts. I know a lot of authors require of themselves that they do a couple of pages every day. I don't like to do that because then I rush through it and sometimes the best writing day will be re-configuring what I have rather, than moving forward and if I force myself to move forward prematurely, then I won't — the quality of the work suffers.
I do not think about anyone, but myself, when I write. I write for myself. A good day at the keyboard, I make myself laugh and I make myself cry.
Well the best fan mail I ever got went like this: I was going to write to Roald Dahl, but he was dead so I had to write to you instead [laughter] love that. But, to me the most exciting thing is when I get a letter from a kid and they didn't like to read and then they read Al Capone Does My Shirts and it was the first book that really interested them. To me, that one letter like that is worth my whole lifetime.
My siblings were and are very important to me. I feel like in many ways my older sister and my older brother raised me more than my parents did, and I'm sure that's not really true, but that's the way that it feels and I'm really close to them. Because there were four kids in the family and we have two cousins that were kind of like siblings, it was like six siblings and we were such a pack, so I was very interested in that time and those relationships really informed my work.
I think the family dynamics in No Passengers Beyond this Point is the closest to the family dynamics in my family. I'm not exactly like Mouse and my older sister is not exactly like India and my brother is not exactly like Finn, but the exchanges between them seem really familiar. The ages that we were really reflect the age separation that we have, and I had an invisible friend whose name was Bing, so that part is really true. And in writing Mouse, I remembered how much I loved Bing. It was really interesting and I think in some ways that I segued from an imaginary friend to having characters, so there was a real connection for me.
Middle school confidential
For If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, I went to the local middle school and I got permission to hang out in their library and listen. So I spent a lot of time listening. One of the characters actually came out of me seeing this girl walking down the hall headed for a talent show competition. She was so sure of herself and singing and I thought how can anyone who is headed for a talent show be that sure of themselves, and that was the beginning of Brianna.
I think that every child has to deal with bullying in some form or another. That's unfortunately part of the growing up process and it is a fascinating part for me. I had a really vivid bullying experience in 7th grade and I never forgot it. So I think that really informed If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period.
I'm a bit of a news junkie, so I like to know what'svhappening, it's absolutely true. But I don't try to intentionally put something in because I've heard it in the news. In the case of the foreclosure for No Passengers Beyond This Point, Ivdidn't lose my house, but you know, my husband has his own business and it started to have trouble when the economy had the downturn, and we really looked seriously about selling our house, and I love my house. So I think thatvthe thought of losing a house was really in my head.
Also, I heard an NPR report about the people that went in to clean out the house after it was foreclosed, and it was really an amazing NPR report. It talked about how people would leave all their things. People would leave all their things out there in the house, because they were so upset about having to leave. And so I started to visualize that. What would it be like if you were a kid and you left half your stuff in the house because there wasn't time to clean it out? And you didn't have the money to find the trailer. If you're foreclosing on your house there's a lot of economic stresses on you. So I began to think about what would that be like? That was when I was putting together No Passengers so it all sort of came together.
Well I think being a mom has really helped in writing picture books, because it reminds me of what it was like to be 6. One of my new picture books that isn't out yet is about the trouble that my son had going to sleep at night. He still has trouble and he's 16 and he still has trouble going to sleep, and that transition is difficult for him as it is with many people and so that's where one of my forthcoming picture books came from. Louder, Lili is in part, because, I later in life became very shy and my daughter is shy and so that combination somehow popped out in Louder Lili. But I'm fascinated by these small struggles because I think everybody really relates to them.
Bad day for Mother Goose
Well, I've always loved that phrase about the cow that jumped over the moon. It was just so preposterous that a cow could jump over the moon. And when I was a kid I loved to ride horses and I used to jump horses. I was actually in school to learn about writing picture books and I was having trouble coming up with a concept that my instructor liked. I was really discouraged, so I started thinking about Mother Goose and maybe, Mother Goose had had a bad day. And so then what popped into my head was that line about the cow that jumped over the moon, and I realized that I felt like the cow and they were all these horses that could jump over the moon so easily and they were the other kids in my class. I was that cow that just tried so hard but really had a difficult time jumping over the moon. And I think that in many ways, my first picture book is my most autobiographical book.
Well, with the Al Capone books, the research so completely fed the process. The truth is so much weirder than any fiction I could possibly come up with. I mean, just the title Al Capone Does My Shirts came from research because, it turns out if you were a kid living on Alcatraz because your father was a guard there, your laundry was done by the convicts and Al Capone's first job on Alcatraz was in the laundry.
So that phrase Al Capone does my shirts was accurate for some of the kids who lived on the island, and there was also an exchange via the laundry. So the guards that were most hated by the convicts did not send their clothes through the laundry because, they knew it would come back mangled. Too much starch, cuffs sown together, not enough buttons, et cetera because the convicts were making a statement about that guard, and so that fed me all kinds of ideas.
The research for the book in every way was helpful in every chapter. There's one chapter in the first book Al Capone Does My Shirts about what happened when Al Capone's mom came to visit, and that isn't true what happened to her. I won't spoil it for you if you haven't read the book, but that's something that I literally picked up the true anecdote and then I wove the fiction around it.
Well that was a fascinating and educational process for me trying to understand what was accurate because there were so many myths about Alcatraz and so one of my rules was two sources for something. In some ways, that isn't really even good enough, you know? So you say if you could actually talk to someone who was there, who I did, I am an honorary member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association. And so I know on a first name basis, people who were guards there, who were convicts there, who were kids growing up there. And so when I had a question, I would actually ask them. So that was just an amazing thing, but people's memories are not always accurate. So I would even verify when you hear something with someone else whose memory might be a little better and some written sources. But as one man who grew up on the island said to me, it's the people that write the books that become the authorities and that may not even necessarily be true. That was eye opening for me.
Sometimes a fantasy
Well, the very first novel I ever wrote which, thank goodness, was never published, was a fantasy. So, I think I've always wanted to write fantasies. Books like The Phantom Tollbooth had been really important to me when I was a kid, and I love middle grade, especially fantasy. Once fantasy gets into adult fantasy, I'm not so interested in it. Somehow middle grade fantasy, I have such a connection for.
So I always wanted to write fantasy, but I would come up with these ideas and I didn't really like them and they didn't really go anywhere, and so year or two, I would look at this issue again and it wouldn't go anywhere. But, what happened with No Passengers is I started to write in Mouse's voice — the youngest daughter's voice. And I wrote a realistic novel completely, for like a chapter book younger than I normally do in her voice. And, I loved the characters, but the plot was kind of boring and my editor really didn't like it, and she usually likes my work.
So I put it away for about six months, and then I was in between projects and I brought it out again, and I thought I am not leaving these characters in the file drawer. I just love them. Maybe they weren't coming across on the page enough, but I knew them inside that I could bring them out more. So I thought, well, maybe this is the time to try a fantasy.
But I didn't really have an idea for the fantasy. That was the strange part. So I just thought well I'm going to close the door to my office, and I'm going to write. I'm going to take what I like from this novel that I had started and then I'm going to go from there. So I took the few chapters that I liked and I thought, "Well, I'll just write the next chapter and see what happens, as if it were a fantasy."
So I wrote the next chapter and then I wrote the next chapter. And then pretty soon I was ignoring all my emails. I ignored everything and I just kept writing because it was so exciting. I couldn't wait to seewhat happened. And at one point I started to realize what I was doing, but Ididn't initially even understand what I was writing. So when you read it, youthink that I had it all figured out before I started, but I didn't.
I think that fantasy is very challenging because there are no givens. When you — if you're in a fantasy world, then you don't know how people communicate. You don't know the words necessarily they use. If they write on a piece of paper, you have to re-think everything if you really do it well. And so it requires a huge amount of imagination. And so that, I think — once after trying the first novel that was fantasy then I did a realistic. The realistic was like oh my gosh, it was like so easy compared to fantasy. But I think I wasn't quite ready to write it and I built my skills as an author to the point where I was ready to take on a fantasy.
The dog does the whispering
I have a big connection to dogs and I think that will be clear if you read the book. I really love them. I think they are amazing in understanding you. I think that my dog always helps me through things. At our house whoever is upset, gets the dog. and the dog goes in their room and it really is helpful because dogs don't care what you did. They don't care what grade you got, what kind of review you got. They don't care. They just love you. And so that has like a real primal effect on people I think.
Second time wasn't the charm
Well, for me the process of getting published was different than I've heard other writers talk about. Because, I didn't have trouble getting my first book published. I sent it to the first publisher, they wanted me to make some changes that I didn't want, to make so I sent it to the second publisher and they bought it — really unusual. The universe got back at me when it was time to get a second book published because I had about 53 second books.
Even though the first picture book had done well, I could not get a second book published to save my soul and seven years went by, from the time that the first book was accepted for publication and the time the second book was accepted for publication. In retrospect I see that I really am a novelist, and I was learning my craft and that period was my apprenticeship, but at the time it just looked like I was never going to be able to do this.
And in fact, I had a friend at the time who said to me, "You know you love to write. Don't send your work out, because that is where the pain is coming from. You enjoy the process so just enjoy the process and let it go." But luckily for me I have a very hard head and I wasn't going to give up And I'm really happy that I didn't because I wouldn't be sitting here if I had.
Another Al Capone book?
Right now I just finished an early draft of the third book in the trilogy in Al Capone trilogy. I'm not prepared yet — it's top secret what the title is, but I will tell you this one anecdote which comes from the book and it doesn't — isn't exactly in the book, but one of the characters that I'm describing is in the book.
There was a character on Alcatraz — a convict, called the Count Lustig — nd he was an amazing con man, and one of the things that he did to get his reputation, was he sold the Eiffel Tower as scrap metal. He sold it actually twice as scrap metal. He saw that the French government was considering taking it down, and he made up fake letterhead as if he were a French government official. He sent it out to all the scrap metal companies, he rented a hotel suite and he gave a presentation to all of them, and accepted their bids for the Eiffel Tower as scrap metal. And he then took the best bid and took the money and ran. So, he is quite a character and he is going to make an appearance.
To finish that story the Count, the scrap metal company that fell for the con, the guy was so embarrassed about it that he did not report the Count. So of course the Count did the whole scam all over again with another group of scrap metal companies. He's very colorful so he'll be fun and he's in the third book.