Interview with Gennifer Choldenko

It is my pleasure to welcome Gennifer Choldenko, author of many fantastic books, including Al Capone Does My Shirts and her latest, No Passengers Beyond This Point, to Shelf Elf. She’s here for an interview today, to chat about No Passengers and writing and inspiration. Welcome Gennifer!

No Passengers Beyond This Point seems like it had to have been a lot of fun to write, but perhaps fairly tricky to write as well. What was the most enjoyable part about writing this book, and what was the most challenging aspect?

Actually, writing No Passengers was an absolute blast. I loved every minute of it. The challenging part came after the Advanced Reading Copies were printed. I bit my nails to the quick, worried the hair off the dog wondering what people would make of this story.

How did you go about imagining all of the aspects of Falling Bird? What inspired you as you created this unusual world?

This will probably seem obvious, but travel inspired the book. At the time I conceived of the novel, I was getting on a lot of airplanes to promote the Al Capone books. I wrote whole chunks of No Passengers while waiting to touch down in Iowa or Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan or New York. I had my pick of jet ways and airport décor, TSA agents and flight gates.

I know it’s a predictable question, but this book really makes a reader wonder where the initial idea came from. So, where did the idea come from? Did it come to you all at once, or take you in directions you hadn’t expected?

For many of my novels, I know exactly what that first idea was and how that seedling of an idea grew into a finished product. Not so with No Passengers. I had written a chapter book about the three siblings: Mouse, Finn and India, but my editor didn’t like it, so I put the chapter book draft away for a few months. When I brought it out again, I loved those characters even more than I had before and I was not about to let them rot in my file cabinet. But I wasn’t sure where to go with the story. The plot wasn’t nearly as interesting as the characters were. Then the thought occurred to me: I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy, why not give it a shot. I decided to try just one chapter to see where it went. And when I looked up two months had passed and I had finished the first draft of No Passengers Beyond This Point.

That ending! Readers aren’t likely to forget that ending. I’m curious to know how readers have responded to the ending. What have you been hearing?

The response I’ve heard about the ending has blown me away. The kids absolutely love it! It is such a thrill to talk to students individually or whole classes full of kids, who have read this book, because they are wired for sound about this story. It has made them think, it has made them question, and it has made them wonder. The ending reminds me of the Madeleine L’Engle quote: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Not every adult can handle this novel, but the kids are having no problem whatsoever.

The way that you get the kids’ voices to be so true, and so differentiated is very impressive. How did you manage it?

With some other novels I’ve written, getting the voice just right has taken years of hard work. With No Passengers, the voices were there inside of me. All I had to do was open a door and let the sound out.

Now I know you’re not supposed to admit who is your favorite, but please tell us, who is your favorite of the siblings, and why?

Probably Mouse. I’m not Mouse, but I was quite an annoying little sister and I did have an invisible friend named Bing. Bing is the only completely “real” part of this book. One of the issues I had had with my editor when she saw that early chapter book I’d written was around the voice. I had told the whole story in Mouse’s voice and she wanted me to write in India’s voice. “India’s boring,” I told her, “Why would I want to write in her voice?” But when I started writing No Passengers it became apparent almost immediately that I could not tell the story if I didn’t write from India’s POV and from Finn’s POV. The moral of this story: Get a good editor and listen to what she says.

What’s the best writing advice you can give?

I find this a difficult question to answer because I think we all need different advice at different points in our writing lives. So here’s my disclaimer: Disregard my advice or anyone else’s if it doesn’t fit. You know more about what you need than anybody else. But if you want advice, here it is: Write for yourself and not for anyone else. Burrow down deep inside until you locate the story only you can tell.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?

“Feel your way through a novel, don’t think your way.” – Norma Fox Mazer

Your story explores the power of home. What do you hope readers will think about this theme as they read your novel?

I work hard to have layers in my story. I personally do not like to read what I call junkfood stories. Stories that suck me in, but give me absolutely nothing for my time. When I’m finished with a novel like that, I get positively peevish. But if I read a book with real depth, the experience of reading it is so rich and fulfilling. While the theme might be summed up in a sentence, the experience of reading that book never can be. That is the kind of book I love and that is the kind of book I try to write. Is No Passengers Beyond This Point about the power of home and family? Absolutely. Do I hope each reader defines this a little differently for himself? You bet. I tried to leave space between the lines for the reader to bring his or her own experience to the story.

What new things did you learn about writing through writing this novel?
I surprised myself with this novel. I didn’t know I could write a story like this one. That made me realize I can set the bar a little higher next time.

Thank you so much for stopping by Shelf Elf to share a bit behind the scenes of your latest novel Gennifer. I’m sure readers will agree with me when I say, “Don’t stop at just one! Keep writing fantasies for us!”

No Passengers Beyond This Point is published by Dial.

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