Interview: Gennifer Choldenko

Here's another interview with one of the SCBWI LA conference keynote speakers, the amazingly talented Gennifer Choldenko.

I first heard of Gennifer when after the publication of her Newbery Honor-winning novel, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS. At the time, it seemed like she was an overnight success: a New York Times bestselling author, winner of the Sid Fleischman award, a BBYA pick...the list of accolades is longer than a gangster's rap sheet. I read AL CAPONE and  was hugely jealous, wondering how she'd managed to get so good so quickly. Shows what I knew.

As with most seeming overnight successes, Gennifer put in many years of hard work before the rest of the world noticed how good she is. (So now I am hugely jealous of her boots. Look at them! Swoon!

Gennifer came to her first SCBWI national conference sixteen years ago and made some endearing rookie mistakes (which you can read about below). It took several more years for her picture book MOONSTRUCK to be published in 1997 by Hyperion.

Then she started writing middle grade novels and found her storyteller's sweet spot--the age she best identifies with. In 2001, her novel called NOTES FROM A LIAR AND HER DOG, picked up several awards. In 2005, she published the first of two Al Capone novels (a third is in the works, and despite Betsy Bird's excellent suggestion, will not be called AL CAPONE DOES MY NAILS).

Next year, you can read what she considers her best work: NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT—due out in January 2011 from Dial. To further whet your appetite for her keynote, here are answers to a few questions I asked her:

You’ve done middle grade and picture books. How do you manage to write both well?

I’m a sucker for flattery, but alas I have to say I’m not sure how well I do write both.  My natural age is eleven, maybe twelve, I can sometimes be thirteen, but four is a stretch.  Still, I really enjoy writing both middle grade novels and picture books because the energy is so different.  Novels are like a long distance run across three states.  Picture books are sprints across the neighborhood requiring short bursts of energy.   After I finish a novel, I love to work on a picture book. 

What do you mean by “slow down, let the mess be all around you”? Is this about the process of writing? Of thinking about the story? Of understanding the characters?

 It is my theory that creative people are all about order.  Not order in the sense of a neat desk or a neat closet or a finely wrought to do list – but order in the sense of making meaning out of the chaos of experience, of ideas, of the wild whoosh of life all around us.  I think good creative people have a yearning to make sense out of inchoate elements.  But for me it feels great to get order and it is really uncomfortable to be steeped in the unfinished mess of a novel, the assault of ideas, the confusion of possibilities.  The temptation, then, is to impose an order on ideas prematurely instead of letting the work find the order it needs.  This is, by the way, the opposite end of the spectrum from procrastination.  If you are a procrastinator, turn off your internet connection, get your butt in the chair and write two pages a day, no matter what.   


You wrote, “My head specializes in telling me I have stupid ideas. It stays up until all hours of the night planning strategies for my demise. What are some of those strategies, and can I borrow them for a plot? I’ll change your name and stuff.”

Very funny.  But I’m not sure my nemesises (nemesi?) would make for good reading.

Oh, I disagree and plan to ask you again at the conference. I'll be as persuasive as Al Capone. Trust me. (Insert villainous laughter.) And tell us about your next book, NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT.

Some 16 years ago I came to this very conference.  I wasn’t a member.  I had never attended an SCBWI meeting or conference before.  I don’t even thing there was an SCBWI website.  Anyway, here I was at SCBWI in LA the big time and my concern was whether or not my idea would be stolen if I submitted it for critiquing.  I actually spent the money to get the manuscript copyrighted with the library of congress before showing up.  Then I submitted the entire manuscript bound and illustrated.  It was 250 pages.  In short I did everything wrong short of printing out on purple perfumed paper. (Interviewer's note: Not true. She didn't put glitter or confetti in the mix.)

Though I didn’t walk away from my first conference with a contract . . . I got a great critique from a wise, kind and patient author.  She said a lot of smart things I think about to this day, but one of them was I hope you continue to write fantasy, but I think you have a lot of realistic novels inside too.


Since writing a fantasy novel was so incredibly challenging, I liked her advice.  I liked it a lot.  And I went on to write five more novels – four of which were published.  Then one day last year NO PASSENGERS BEYOND THIS POINT hit me like a rabid dream, a bizarre feverish delusion.  I don’t know where it came from or why these characters chose me to tell their story, but I believe it’s the best novel I’ve written yet.


Can you provide a sneak preview of what you’ll be talking about at the L.A. Conference? Just a wee taste, for those of us who have trouble waiting for our favorite authors?

This probably won’t be a surprise to you, but to be a successful writer you need three things: skill, talent and perseverance.  The talent part you can foster, the skill part you can learn and the perseverance you can be inspired to maintain.  That’s why I came to SCBWI sixteen years ago and that’s what I hope to give back.


Thank you, Gennifer!

Learn more about her books on her website and an additional site for the Al Capone novels. Read how she felt when she got the call from the Newbery committee.

Read a great interview on BookBrowse.

Sign up for the conference here.

Here's a cute video one of her readers made for Al Capone.