Monday, June 29, 2020

Gennifer Choldenko

With more than 2 and a half million books sold, Gennifer Choldenko’s best known Tales from Alcatraz series, has been called “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Al Capone Does My Shirts—the first book in the series—was a Newbery Honor Book and the recipient of twenty other awards. All four books in the series were Junior Library Guild selections and garnered many starred reviews. Choldenko’s newest novel is Orphan Eleven. Publishers Weekly has said this about Orphan Eleven: “This uplifting tale of hope, survival and belonging has all the ingredients to become a beloved middle grade book.” Choldenko lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her loyal husband and naughty dog.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Orphan Eleven is designed to work on two levels. The first level is to make a reader interested in opening the novel. Once you begin reading the book, the title operates like a puzzle. Orphan Eleven is not paid off until chapter 25 (of 36). But some readers may figure out why the book is named Orphan Eleven before this reveal. I like to think that both readers who guess and readers who don’t will feel an ah-hah moment once they understand the origin of the title.

My first draft of this novel was written in the voice of a secondary character named Nico. Then the book title was: The Con Man’s Apprentice. I love that title which made it into the final book as a chapter title. But when I changed viewpoint characters, it was no longer the right title for the book.

What's in a name?

Names are very important to me. I spent a really long time trying to figure out the name of the protagonist’s sister. But once I figured out her name was Dilly Sauvé, POW! she came into view with such clarity. A good name is like a good midwife bringing a character into the world for the author.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Of all of my books (16 published so far) I think my eleven-year-old self would be the least surprised by Orphan Eleven. That’s because so much of my eleven-year-old heart is in the main character: Lucy Sauvé. I just wish I could have read this book when I was a kid.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

That’s like asking which foot do you wash more the right or the left? I change everything over and over and over again until that cosmic click tells me I’ve got it right. My license plate is REWRITZ, which gives you some indication of my process. That said though, I think endings are more challenging. It is very difficult to get an ending that really really works. But so very gratifying when you do. My best endings are for Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve and Orphan Eleven.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Every character I write -- antagonists, protagonists and walk-ons -- all share my DNA. They are created by my mind. My belief systems, imagination, experience, reading colors who they are. I’ve been married for many years, but my husband still can’t predict what I will say or do. That’s because there are so many different characters inside of me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Because I’ve written one series: the Tales from Alcatraz, I do look closely at good series TV. The Sopranos, The Crown, Ozark, Breaking Bad all are terrific. And the growth and change of the characters is what makes them so good. For me, writing a series means managing the character arcs across all of the books. For Orphan Eleven which at this point is a stand alone, I made good use of cinematic cuts to make the ending more suspenseful.
Visit Gennifer Choldenko's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Gennifer Choldenko & Sasha.

--Marshal Zeringue