Book Nerd Interview
Gennifer Choldenko was born in Santa Monica, California in 1957. She was the youngest child in a large loud family. Her nickname as a kid was “Snot-Nose”. Gennifer spent most of her time on the back of a horse, exploring the craggy hills of Southern California.
No Passengers Beyond this Point, published by Bloomsbury in May 2011, tells the story of a journey that takes a surprising twist.
After college, Gennifer got a job as a copywriter in a small ad agency. In the evenings, she took classes at Art Center Art College of Design in illustration. This eventually led to a full-time study of illustration at Art Center and Rhode Island School of Design. After RISD, she began to pursue children’s books with a vengeance. It has taken her a long time to learn her craft and find her way in the field of children’s books. After having a lot of success in advertising, it was very clear to Gennifer that she’d rather be a failure in a field she loved than a success in a field she hated. Luckily, she is blessed with a rock hard head and an amazingly supportive husband. Gennifer is married to Jacob and has two children, Ian and Kai, she lives in Tiburon, California with her family and dog Lucy. Whilst writing Notes from a Liar and her Dog she volunteered at Oakland Zoo, doing various tasks from washing the snakes windows to giving water to the tiger.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
(I’m cheating here . . . this is four.)
Tougher than she appears.
Where were you born and where do you call home?
I was born in Santa Monica, California. Home, for me, is San Francisco.
What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
In school, I discovered that the world made sense.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
9 that have been published.
4 under contract – due out in the next few years.
More than 40 unpublished which will (thankfully) never be published.
Why middle grade? What are some of the challenges of writing for this age group? How does middle grade differ from young adult? And have you always written middle grade?
I write middle grade because inside I am eleven or twelve. I can sometimes be thirteen, but fourteen is a real stretch for me. I don’t write young adult novels, because I’m not old enough.
When I first thought seriously about writing fiction, I thought I was supposed to write for adults. The problem was writing for adults bored me. Then I figured out that every protagonist in every story I’d written that I’d ever really loved was under eighteen. In my all-time favorite story, the protagonist was ten. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that what excited me was writing from the point of view of a child.
What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?
The Phantom Tollbooth, The Oz books, Harriet the Spy, Across Five Aprils, A Wrinkle in Time, the Nancy Drew books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Moffats, The Borrowers, The Secret Garden, the Little Princess.
I think different books have influenced different novels. Honestly, I have no idea what books influenced Al Capone Does My Shirts or Al Capone Shines My Shoes or Al Capone Does My Homework. Perhaps what influenced those books are the books I wish I’d had when I was a kid. I really yearned for a book about the sibling of a kid with autism. Notes from a Liar and Her Dog was influenced byHarriet the Spy. And No Passengers Beyond This Point was influenced by The Phantom Tollbooth andThe Oz books. The novel I am working on now, may be influenced by The Secret Garden. It is so early in the writing that I don’t know yet where it’s going.
The story of No Passengers Beyond This Point is not only full of adventure, it is fantastic and incredible. What gave you the idea?
The first idea is so important because it’s the one that triggers the journey. I don’t always know on the face of things what is an idea and what is the beginning of a book. Sometimes I just have to start and see where the idea leads me. But no matter what, the first idea is key. With some books it’s really easy to know where that first idea came from, and I can speak with great competence about the writing process from start to finish. But in the case of No Passengers, the journey had so many twists and turns and false starts, and U-turns it’s hard to know where it all began. I think the beginning was simply a desire. The very first novel I wrote for kids was a fantasy. It was never published – which was such a blessing, though, of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time. After I wrote it and revised it and revised it some more, I decided I wasn’t cut out to write fantasy. It was just too challenging. So, I began to write contemporary fiction and then historical fiction. But I always said: one day I’m going to write a fantasy novel. And every once in a while I would brainstorm ideas for fantasy novels. I never really liked any of them – and the few that were interesting didn’t go anywhere.
For twelve years I had this yen to write a fantasy novel. And then one day when I was supposed to be writing something else, I began to write in the voice of the youngest of the three protagonists: Mouse. And the story of No Passengers began to unfold. In retrospect, I was traveling a lot at the time and I really missed my family. But there are millions of people who travel on business and miss their homes and they don’t write No Passengers Beyond this Point. My best guess? Psychotic break.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating India?
She was the hardest character for me to create because she’s older than I am inside. I modeled her after my older sister at the age of fourteen. I have very clear memories of who she was and how she behaved, so it wasn’t challenging to capture her on paper.
What chapter was the most memorable to write and why?
The last chapter was the most memorable, because it was such a surprise. I had no idea who Mrs. Bean was and why I was writing from her point of view. It was a very odd experience.
Did you learn anything from writing Mouse and what was it?
If you’ve read the book, this probably won’t surprise you, but I did have an imaginary friend when I was a kid. And my imaginary friend was, in fact, named Bing. What I learned from writing from Mouse’s point of view was why Bing was such an intense character in my life. I had forgotten how powerful an experience it is to have an imaginary friend. A real friend – no matter how special he or she might be – can never know what you need and want at every moment. Only an imaginary friend can know this. Only an imaginary friend can meet your own needs in such an intensely intimate way. Writing Mouse made me mourn the loss of Bing.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
I am waiting for the final editorial letter for the third Al Capone book: Al Capone Does My Homework. And I am researching the novel that will be published after the third Al. I don’t like to talk about books still in process, so I’m afraid that’s all you get.
Favorite places to travel?
I have never been to Africa, India, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Ireland, Costa Rica, Germany, the Galapagos Islands, Greece or the Netherlands. I would dearly love to travel to these places.
Hot cross buns, Chocolate covered peanuts, Chocolate chocolate cookies, Ghirardelli milk chocolate with almonds, Cappuccinos, Coca cola and greasy Mexican Food.
Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite Middle Grade book and why? And what is your favorite book outside your genre?
Holes by Louis Sachar. I love Holes because it is wildly imaginative, magic realism. It’s funny and true and absolutely and completely original. I long to write a book like Holes.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The writing is so so good. Simple and elegant, precise and concise. Each word is well chosen and yet the sentences feel effortless. How can writing be that careful, without ever feeling overworked?
Where can readers stalk you?
I love Facebook friends. Tell them to friend me on Facebook. I am just working on a bulletin board for my web site, to make it more interactive: Choldenko.com
Otherwise look for me wherever frozen bananas are sold.
A reality-bending adventure from a Newbery Honor-winning author
Siblings India, Finn, and Mouse are stunned when their mom tells them they are flying that night—without her—to their Uncle Red's home in Colorado. But things take an even more dramatic turn when their plane lands in a very unusual place. A mysterious driver meets them at the airport; when he drops them off at their "destination," each kid suddenly has a clock with a different amount of time left. If the time runs out, they have to become permanent citizens in a place they don't recognize or understand. Only if they work together can they call the driver back to help get them where they really belong. Suspenseful, funny, dramatic, and thought-provoking, this is a book that will stay with you long after you read the incredible ending.
What is so great about “No Passengers Beyond This Point” is that Gennifer Choldenko tells a story about three children, along with their mother facing a situation that is far too realistic and common for many families in today’s economy. The story alters to fantasy when the plane lands and confusion blankets the page. The plot thickens and the reader is immediately in the center of the characters’ predicament. Choldenko cunningly presents the puzzles in the story so well that readers will find themselves having fun trying to solve them.
The characters are very believable and likable. They are not too way over the top that any reader can relate to them. A lot of the situations presented in this book are identifiable with how young adults and pre-teens would feel about being displaced from their home. Adults will value the development the children experience as they try to unearth their way back home. Choldenko’s brilliant style of providing details to the twists and mysteries are remarkable. They are so baffling that the reader’s sense of solving them goes beyond normal levels. This is a story for readers who enjoy a great mystery, spiced with fantasy and adventure.
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