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 has sold more than a million copies worldwide. It has been on the New York Times, Booksense, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. Her most recent picture book, A Giant Crush (illustrated by Melissa Sweet), was published in 2011. 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 first fantasy novel, No Passengers Beyond This Point was called “a fast-paced mind bender” and a “Wonderfully imagined adventure story.” Her newest novel, Al Capone Does My Homework, the last book in the Al Capone trilogy, will be available in August 2013. Gennifer’s books have been translated into thirteen languages. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
What was the most interesting fact or anecdote that you learned while researching for Al Capone Does My Homework?
Here’s one of my favorite weird Alcatraz stories. This one came from James Albright, who was a guard on Alcatraz. Since there was no commissary or money system on Alcatraz, convicts used cigarettes as money. At night, there was just one convict per cell and lockdown after dinner was at five thirty, which meant that the convicts didn’t come out of their cells again until seven in the morning. One of the ways they transported cigarettes to each other was via cockroach. A convict would tie a cigarette around a cockroach’s back with thread, and the convict who was receiving the cigarette would put out a crust of bread, he’d taken from dinner. The cockroach would then scuttle down to get the bread and deliver the cigarette.
If you lived on Alcatraz in 1935, what is one thing you’d miss about modern conveniences?
I would miss having a telephone in my house. In 1935, there was one telephone on Alcatraz outside of 64 building. If you wanted to talk on the phone, you had to wait your turn. And it wasn’t like there was a telephone booth either. Your conversation could be heard by anyone, who was in line, or hanging around or just walking by.
Out of all your Alcatraz characters, who are you most like?
Moose and Theresa.
I’m like Theresa because I have a lot of experience being the little sister. I’m like Moose because I was the youngest of all my cousins and when we did something we weren’t supposed to do, I was always the one who got in trouble. And there’s an element of that in Moose. He’s the one who doesn’t want to go along with the scheme, yet he’s always the one who gets blamed.
Out of all your Alcatraz characters, who are you the least like?
I put myself inside of all of my characters, otherwise I can’t make them come to life. Do I like some of the things they do? No. I really hated the way Bea and Darby Trixle behaved in Al Capone Does My Homework. But I tried hard to make them right some of the time. Even though from Moose’s point of view they were never right.
When you first got the idea to write about Alcatraz, did you foresee the books being a trilogy?
When I first got the idea for AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS, I’d had one picture book published and my agent was trying to sell my novel, NOTES FROM A LIAR AND HER DOG. A week after I read about kids who grew up on Alcatraz when there was a working penitentiary on the island, I signed up to be an Alcatraz docent to research the book. The more I found out, the more certain I became that there was more than one book in the material, but I didn’t want to commit to writing a trilogy of unpublished books. I wanted to see if one would sell first.
You were working on Al Capone Does My Homework when you got the idea for No Passengers Beyond This Point. What was it like to transition from writing a historical novel to a fantasy?
Writing a fantasy was challenging, but so fun. I believe, when you try something outside of your comfort zone, it makes you a better writer. With every book I write, I try to up my game. I don’t think I can control how much creativity I have but I do think I can control skill acquisition.
If you were to write another historical trilogy, what historical event or time period would you want to tackle?
I’m in the process of revising a historical novel right now. In fact, the editorial letter is due on Monday. I don’t like to talk about my works-in-progress too much because you can talk away the excitement of a project. Is there more than one book in this idea? Possibly.
You mentioned that Natalie’s autism reminded you of Alcatraz Island, the way it’s isolated. Do you remember when that metaphor came to you?
As I said, I worked as a docent on the island. Every time I rode the boat across the Bay to Alcatraz, I found myself thinking about my sister, Gina, who had autism. That seemed odd. I always knew I would write a book with a character who had autism, but I didn’t think it would be that book. I thought the Alcatraz book would be a boy’s adventure book. I didn’t understand why Gina kept popping into my head. But as a writer, I follow my instincts and I began to develop the character of Natalie.
I’m amused by the tension between Moose and Piper. Was that planned or did you discover their tiffs while writing?
The relationship between Moose and Piper was not planned. My editor, who likes to psychoanalyze, wanted to know why Moose picked Piper. We decided it was because Moose didn’t have a good relationship with his mom. Piper is demanding the way Moose’s Mom can be.
Did you try to get out of homework when you were a kid?
I was a good kid, I didn’t actively try to get out of homework. But then, I didn’t have as much homework as my children do. Even so, I loved school. School was orderly, and I always knew what I needed to do to excel; whereas, my home was chaotic and I could never figure out how to please my mother.
Did you have a specific teacher who brought life to a subject?
Oh yes. Many of them. One in fifth grade really encouraged my writing. Her name was Mrs. Rosenthal and I just loved her. She really made me believe I could write.
What do you think are the top three qualities a writer must possess in order to enjoy a fulfilling writing life?
Do not give up. You have to really want it. Very few people have a writing life handed to them. Perseverance is absolutely number one.
Enjoy the process. I know there are wonderful writers who hate to write, but I’m not one of them. I think if you hate writing, you should become a car mechanic. Life is short. Why would you want to spend your entire life doing something you hate? Writing feeds me in a way nothing else does.
Look at the big picture. Read a lot of books, be curious about the world of children’s literature, not just your own little place in it.