Gennifer Choldenko

Gennifer Choldenko

Gen­nifer Choldenko

I’m so pleased to have Gen­nifer Chold­enko grant Bookol­o­gy an inter­view about all the ques­tions I’ve bot­tled up since read­ing Orphan Eleven, her newest nov­el. Each one of her nov­els is a page-turn­er from first to last, often intro­duc­ing his­to­ry we didn’t know but can’t wait to learn more about. Those are my favorite sorts of books.

How do you rec­og­nize when a plau­si­ble idea for a book first comes to you?

 “Plau­si­ble” you say? Oh my gosh that is fun­ny. The longer I am in this busi­ness the more I see how dif­fi­cult it is to rec­og­nize a real­ly good idea or even a plau­si­ble one. In oth­er words … I have no clue which ideas have legs and which don’t. I some­times spend months research­ing, before I know if an idea is worth pur­su­ing. Cer­tain­ly not an effi­cient process. On the good news side: because I have spent so many years cul­ti­vat­ing my writ­ing skills, I can write a book about almost any­thing. The ques­tion is … should I? Is the idea worth that time and effort? I am work­ing on a nov­el right now that I thought was a decent idea … no great shakes. But when I start­ed work­ing on it, it burst to life in a total­ly unex­pect­ed way. Now I see it was a real­ly great idea, but how was I to know that when it first jumped into my brain? So yes, fig­ur­ing out which ideas to ded­i­cate my time to is a tricky business.

How do you record the idea so you won’t forget?

Well tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, I have mul­ti­ple jour­nals. One on my bed­side table, one in my hand­bag, one in my ten­nis bag, one on my desk. And yes, I wake up in the mid­dle of the night with ideas. I pull the car off the free­way to scrib­ble down an idea. I put my hands over my ears and say: wait, wait, wait hold that thought, I have to write this down.

Orphan ElevenOften a book idea comes from a fas­ci­nat­ing piece of his­to­ry … like the fact that kids grew up on Alca­traz when it was a work­ing pen­i­ten­tiary. With Orphan Eleven, I was research­ing anoth­er nov­el. I had devel­oped two char­ac­ters for that nov­el. One of the char­ac­ters refused to speak and I could not fig­ure out why. I tried dozens of back­sto­ries on her. Noth­ing worked. It was as if she were say­ing: “No, that’s not why. No, no, no.” But I loved the char­ac­ter. I had this gut instinct that her sto­ry had to be told. But what was it? I didn’t know. So I back­burnered the entire nov­el. A year or two lat­er, I hap­pened upon a non­fic­tion book which described a study on stut­ter­ing con­duct­ed on orphans in 1939. As soon as I read that page, I knew why Lucy, my pro­tag­o­nist, would not speak. So I changed the date of the nov­el and almost every­thing else about it, and out popped Orphan Eleven.

Do char­ac­ters spring to mind at this point or does that hap­pen lat­er in the writ­ing process?

It real­ly depends. Some­times char­ac­ters arrive ear­ly in the research. Some­times quite late. In my view, char­ac­ters are every­thing. You can have a ter­rif­ic sub­ject and a thrilling plot, but if your char­ac­ters fall flat, who cares? So I spend real­ly a long time devel­op­ing my char­ac­ters. I love writ­ers who spend the time to make every sin­gle char­ac­ter pop off the page. Even walk-ons. That is my aspi­ra­tion for every book.

Do you have a rit­u­al for begin­ning a new book?

Every nov­el takes a dif­fer­ent road. Some­times char­ac­ters come first and the goal is to fig­ure out that character’s sto­ry. Some­times the set­ting comes first (Alca­traz Island for exam­ple) and then I must fig­ure out the char­ac­ter and sto­ry for that set­ting. So, no rit­u­als at the start of a new book. With every book, I am a “first-time” nov­el­ist — because that book has not been writ­ten before.

What did you know about orphan­ages before you began writ­ing Orphan Eleven? How did you con­duct your research about orphanages?

Orphan­ages fas­ci­nate me. I think they fas­ci­nate a lot of peo­ple. There were a lot of top­ics to research for Orphan Eleven: 1939, Cir­cus­es in 1939, Sewing shops in Chica­go, Chica­go in 1939, the his­to­ry of ele­phants in the cir­cus, Win­ter Quar­ters for cir­cus­es, ele­phants, ele­phant train­ing, stut­ter­ing, the 1939 study which became known as “the Mon­ster Study,” etc. Some­how research­ing orphan­ages was way down the list, so I had already begun writ­ing the nov­el when I began research­ing orphan­ages. You can imag­ine my excite­ment when I dis­cov­ered a trea­sure trove of mate­r­i­al about the Sol­diers’ Orphans’ Home — the actu­al orphan­age that pro­vid­ed orphans for the stut­ter­ing study. And then I vis­it­ed the site of the Sol­diers’ Orphans’ Home in Dav­en­port, Iowa. That was pret­ty ter­rif­ic, too. The truth is way bet­ter than what I make up.

Winter Home of Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sarasota, Florida

Win­ter Home of Rin­gling Bros Bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus, Sara­so­ta, Flori­da (Sara­so­ta His­tor­i­cal Society)

Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home

Iowa Sol­diers’ Orphans Home, Dav­en­port, Iowa (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

When you’re writ­ing a nov­el, do you pur­pose­ful­ly include dif­fer­ent plots with­in the book? How do you decide how many sub­plots you need? Do you look for a bal­ance among the plots?

Great ques­tion. I often won­der how oth­er authors devel­op sub­plots. For me, I don’t start out with sub­plots. But as the sto­ry unfolds sub­plots evolve organ­i­cal­ly. I gen­er­al­ly ax sub­plots that don’t weave back into the main plot. But I like to devel­op sev­er­al cli­max­es. A subplot’s cli­max can help cre­ate ten­sion and excite­ment lead­ing up to the main plot cli­max. In the case of Orphan Eleven, I had 4 orphans (Lucy, Nico, Eugene, and Bald Doris) who ran away from the Home for Friend­less Chil­dren. And I real­ly want­ed the read­er to feel as if they live inside of each of the four orphans. In fact, I got so into these char­ac­ters that I began to imag­ine a sec­ond book. One about Bald Doris from the point of view of Eugene. Maybe I’ll get to write that book someday.

Chasing SecretsFinal­ly, I’ve been think­ing about all the par­al­lels between Covid-19 and the bubon­ic plague in your nov­el Chas­ing Secrets. Did you sus­pect how rel­e­vant this book would be when you were writ­ing it?

I was total­ly blind­sided by how sim­i­lar the Covid cri­sis is to what hap­pened in San Fran­cis­co in 1900. In 1900: denial about the very exis­tence of the dis­ease was wide­spread. The Chi­nese were blamed for the virus. Racial­ly charged vio­lence occurred. Quar­an­tines were announced. Peo­ple lied about whether or not they had the dis­ease. Doc­tors lied about it too. There was huge doubt about the effec­tive­ness of the vac­cines. The rich got bet­ter treat­ment. The rich got bet­ter vac­cines. Any of this sound­ing familiar?

2 Responses to Gennifer Choldenko

  1. Cynthia October 30, 2020 at 8:03 am #

    A fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view with one of my favorite authors. Thank you, Vic­ki and Gennifer!

  2. Karen Cushman October 30, 2020 at 4:30 pm #

    I could­n’t get writ­ing advice from a bet­ter writer. Thank you, Gen­nifer and Vicki..

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