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Interview: September 2009

Gennifer Choldenko is the author of seven books for young readers, including MOONSTRUCK, IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS and its newly released sequel, AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES.

In this interview with's Norah Piehl, Choldenko explains why she chose to write Moose's story on Alcatraz as a trilogy and discusses the difficulties she experienced in finding the voice of her main character --- a 12-year-old boy in 1935. She also sheds light on how mental illness was viewed in that era, shares surprising facts about the real Al Capone, and gives advice to aspiring writers. Your first book about Moose and his friends on Alcatraz, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS, came out in 2004. Why did you decide to revisit these characters now in AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES?

Gennifer Choldenko: When I first got the idea for AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS, I had had only one picture book published (MOONSTRUCK: The True Story of the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz.) I’d been writing novels, but none of them had sold. I had a feeling once I began to research Alcatraz that there was more than one book in the material, but the idea of writing a trilogy of unpublished novels was more than I could get my mind around. After a year of research on Alcatraz, my first novel NOTES FROM A LIAR AND HER DOG sold and my career began with earnest. Even so, writing AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS turned out to be a more ambitious enterprise than I had imagined. I had never written historical fiction, never written in the voice of a boy, never written a novel that required much in the way of research. It took me five years from the time I got the idea to the day the book came out. When the book finally got published, I was worn out and I didn’t feel like writing another Alcatraz book, but the sense that the story wasn’t over never really left me. And after I finished IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD, I was ready to tackle a second Al Capone book.

KRC: Did you find anything difficult about writing in the voice of a boy when you decided to narrate these novels from Moose's perspective? What was the most surprising or difficult thing about writing from the male point of view?

GC: Yes, writing from the point of view of a boy was quite difficult, but what made it even more challenging was to write as a boy who lived in 1935. Language is a reflection of the times and it’s a reflection of the specific personality of the speaker. My first attempts at voice for AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS were dreadful. I had this generic historic voice in my mind and I thought that in order to write historic fiction I had to use that voice, but the voice was stereotypical and corny and I hated every word I wrote.

Then one day it occurred to me that there were millions of boys who were 12 in 1935 and they all had different voices. Of course, I needed to be aware of the expressions, word usage and style of speech of the ’30s, but I needed to also capture the unique personality of the protagonist just as I did when crafting a contemporary novel. From there I began to think about my father --- who would have been about 12 in 1935. What was the cadence of his speech? Though of course his language had evolved as he aged, the core of his voice was formed when he was a kid. Once I understood that, I got Moose’s voice.

But that’s not really what you asked, is it? The most surprising thing about writing from a boy’s point of view was I became acutely sensitive to boy bashing. My husband, my son, my brother are all very thoughtful people. Why do so many girls and women feel men and boys are all lugs? Somehow writing from Moose’s perspective made me much more aware of these prejudices.

KRC: In AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES, Moose often gets in trouble because he tries too hard to be everything to everybody, sometimes forgetting who he really is and what he wants and needs. Do you think it's possible to be kind to a fault?

GC: I think it’s possible to try so hard to be kind that you compromise your own integrity in the process. Of course, there are circumstances where you need to be kind at the expense of being honest. But I think if you do this in every circumstance, it begins to eat away at you. And ironically, you will lose the trust of the very people who matter the most to you. Moose really cared about Jimmy. And in the end, he lost Jimmy’s trust because he could never figure out how to be honest with Jimmy. The trick is to find a kind way to say the truth. No easy feat for certain.

KRC: Moose often feels a mixture of genuine love, embarrassment and guilt about his autistic sister Natalie, especially when he sees how much easier his family's life is when Natalie is away at school. In your author's note, you mention that Natalie was inspired by your own sister with autism. What kinds of conflicting emotions do you remember having about life with your sister?

GC: It won’t come as a surprise to you that I had a lot of conflicting feelings toward my sister Gina, who had autism. One of the things I wanted to do with the Al Capone books was to be honest about those conflicting emotions. When I was a kid, I felt terribly guilty when I had less-than-charitable thoughts about my sister --- and I had many less-than-charitable thoughts about her. My mother had high expectations for how we were supposed to interact with Gina and I couldn’t meet them. I wish now that I’d had help in figuring out how to connect with my sister, because the desire to make a connection was very intense, but the skill set was totally lacking.

My brother, Grey, was much more consistently loving in his interactions with my sister Gina than I was. And I felt really unhappy with myself for not being able to sustain the kind of relationship with her that he did. If I had an ulterior motive in writing these books, it was to communicate to the siblings of kids with issues that it’s really normal to have mixed feelings about your sister or brother. It goes with the territory and if you can accept the negative feelings, then you will clear the channel so you can also feel the joy and love that is likely there too.

KRC: This book is set in 1935. What options were open to autistic children at that time? What did doctors and educators understand about autism at the time when the novel is set? Were there really schools like the one Natalie attends?

GC: Autism had not been identified in 1935. People who exhibited symptoms of what we would now call autism received a whole host of other diagnoses. The two most common diagnoses seemed to be mental retardation and schizophrenia. Since autism didn’t exist, there could be no understanding of it. But there was a school in San Francisco called the Sunshine School attended by kids with special needs and learning differences (although both the terms “special needs” and “learning differences” were not in use in 1935). I did not model the Esther P. Marinoff School after the Sunshine School because there just wasn’t that much information available about it, but I did research into the attitudes of people toward mental illness in the '30s. And I tried to imagine a school based on common sense and the knowledge about mental illness of the day.

KRC: You volunteered as a docent at Alcatraz, which is now part of the National Park Service, as part of the research for your book. How did the time you spent on the island help you write the novels?

GC: The best thing about being a docent on Alcatraz is it got me to the island during different seasons, and varying weather, wind and water conditions. My actual job was to speak to the public about Alcatraz and to walk the island providing answers to tourist questions. Walking the island was indispensable because it gave me the opportunity to experience the setting as I was writing about it. This helped me get a sense of what details were relevant to the scene. Sometimes I’d come up with a chapter idea, and when I walked the chapter, I would discover there was no way it could happen just like that.

Plus, there was a hole-in-the-wall library on Alcatraz that you could only access if you worked on the island. There was a treasure trove of information on those shelves --- much of which is not available anywhere else.

KRC: What other kinds of research did you do to get historical background for the novels?

GC: I read a lot of newspapers and magazines from the '30s. I especially enjoyed reading the columns in the newspapers because they gave me a clear feeling for the sensibility and word usage of the time. I saw movies made in the '30s, checked out the Sears Roebuck catalogue, went to the National Archives to read the files on famous prisoners. Plus, I think I read just about every book ever written about Alcatraz. I interviewed dozens of people who were guards on the island or who grew up on the island. I even spoke with two gentlemen who were incarcerated on Alcatraz during the '50s. Every year I attend “Alumni Day” in August. On this day people who lived on the island return to tell their stories. I have attended Alumni Day 6 or 7 times. I am actually an honorary member of the Alcatraz Alumni Association.

KRC: What were some surprising real-life facts you learned about Al Capone or the other convicts?

GC: Since I’m now at work on the third Al Capone book, I’m back to researching Capone. I recently went down to the National Archives to read the Al Capone file --- which consists of letters written to Capone in prison, letters written about Capone in prison and letters Capone wrote during his time on Alcatraz.

There were lots of letters written to Capone asking him for money. I had known about this, but what surprised me were the reasons given for the requests. This was the Depression, mind you, so I was thinking he’d get all kinds of hardship letters. You know, my kids are starving, my sister is ill…but no. He got letters requesting money from him as if he were Santa Claus. One man wrote about how he’d really like to take a correspondence class and he wondered if Capone would send him the money for this.

The letters Capone wrote were also surprising. They were so saccharine it was difficult to read them. One letter used the word “dear” 17 times. His letters sounded as if they were written by a Sunday School teacher who had consumed way too many donuts.

KRC: Do you have any advice for kids who want to write stories or novels? What other children's authors are among your favorites?

GC: Read everything you can get your hands on and trust that if you are meant to be a writer, you will find a way to make it happen.

KRC: The close-knit, sometimes tense relationships between Moose and his friends --- especially now that romance has entered the picture --- are really intriguing. Can readers expect to read more about these characters in the future?

GC: I am, in fact, writing a third and final Alcatraz novel. But once again, there will be another novel published in between AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES and the final book in the trilogy. I know that I haven’t finished Moose’s story, but having a break between Alcatraz novels helps me return to the material with new excitement and new energy.

KRC: What projects are you working on now?

GC: I am at work on the final revision on a novel due out in 2010 called THE MISSING HOUR. While I was writing this book, I thought it was a fantasy, but my agent and my editor have assured me it’s not. Maybe it’s magic realism…although it isn’t magical. I’m not really sure how to describe this story as you can see. All I can say is I absolutely love working on it. People are not supposed to have so much fun in their jobs, are they?