Gennifer Choldenko’s first novel, Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, was a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and a California Book Award winner. Her second novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts, was a Newbery Honor Book and a School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Al Capone Does My Shirts was short-listed for the Carnegie in the United Kingdom and has been on the New York Times, Booksense, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. Her most recent picture book, Louder, Lili (illustrated by SD Schindler), was published in 2007.
If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, an ALA notable recording, just came out in paperback and her newest novel Al Capone Shines My Shoes—a sequel to the beloved Al Capone Does My Shirts—is a Kirkus, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Chicago Public Library Best of the Best for 2009. Her newest novel No Passengers Beyond This Point is due out in February 2011. Gennifer is hard at work on the last book in the Al Capone trilogy right now. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Was it easier to write before or after you were published?
When I first started writing novels, my skills were limited. I had to make choices based on what I could pull off rather than what was the best approach for that novel. The first novel I wrote (which thankfully was not published!) was so, so, so hard because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and I hadn’t yet built my writing muscles. I am now beginning my seventh novel, so my world has opened up. I get to decide the best approach for the novel, rather than the only method I can master. To answer your question more directly, I don’t think whether or not I am published comes into play. Once I close the door on my office it’s just me in there—the same me I’ve always been. The only difference is now I have a stronger skill set.
Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I am both. I outline and then I write a bit then I toss that outline out as it isn’t what my characters want to do. Then I outline again and write some more then I toss that one out too. I go through maybe ten or twenty outlines until I get to the point in the novel where I don’t need an outline anymore. And then when I’m finished with a draft, I sometimes outline after the fact, because that helps me get a grip on what I’ve written. That is generally the way it works, but not always. With No Passengers Beyond This Point there never was an outline. I didn’t know where I was going until I wrote my way there.
How many words do you write each day?
I don’t do word counts, as I’ve discovered numbers get me hyped up. If I do 1000 today maybe I can do 1,100 tomorrow! And what about the next day! Then pretty soon I’ve finished an entire crappy novel because in an effort to write more and MORE! AND MORE! I took every easy, half-baked idea that came to me. What works for me is feeling my way along—as if I’m in a dark room, on a dark day, in an unknown space, in an unknown world. That isn’t to say I don’t believe in discipline. But for me, what is important is making sure I devote enough time to my writing. Five butt-in-chair hours working on a novel without Internet works really well for me.
Even so, working on a novel is often a combination of lots of endeavors. Working on a novel might mean making lists of questions I have, or reading research material, or traveling to a location which I am investigating or doing character studies, or simply combing materials in search of the right name. Yesterday, I spent two hours working on an outline, another hour and a half playing around with names and character development and two hours reading research. In the time I spent looking for names I generated long lists of possible names but none of them felt right. I would really like to check off the box that says: name for my protagonist. But you know what? I don’t have a good fit yet. I have to resist the urge to settle on a name that isn’t right, just to be done.
Do you begin with character or plot?
It depends on the book. Sometimes I start with a setting – as I did with the Al Capone trilogy. Notes from a Liar and her Dog and No Passengers Beyond This Point began with a character. The novel I’m working on now started with a piece of random information I happened to read one day—I suppose that’s the closest I’ve ever come to starting with a plot.
What one word describes you?
Scrappy. I’m a lot tougher than I look.
What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?
A window, three dogs and a cappuccino machine.
Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?
One classic. Does anyone answer a string of mainstream books?
Do you write with music?
Not at home. If I happen to be at a coffee house working, they sometimes have music. That doesn’t bother me somehow because it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me.