Gennifer Choldenko has written three picture books and three novels, and won a 2005 Newbery Honor for her second novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam). In the book, 12-year-old Moose Flanagan details his life on Alacatraz Island in 1935, where he lives with his family ever since his father got a job at the prison. Moose not only deals with life on the island surrounded by criminals, and life as an almost-teen boy, but he also takes on the task of getting his autistic sister Natalie into a school that could help her. Dial will publish the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. The author spoke with Bookshelf about her new novel.
When you finished writing Al Capone Does My Shirts, did you think Moose’s story wasn’t finished? How did this second book come about?
Actually, while I was working on the first book, there was so much material and I tried to shove it all in the first book. But honestly, it was so challenging to write the first book. It was a little above my skill level where I could comfortably write it. So when I finished the first one, I did not want to do a second one. I knew there was a lot more to Moose’s story, but because it was so challenging, I needed time away from it. I wrote a novel in between [If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period]. It’s actually a trilogy, so one more Al Capone book is coming.
You did a great amount of research for Al Capone Does My Shirts. Did you have to do more research to write the sequel, or were you able to refer back to your previous research?
When I was working on If A Tree Falls at Lunch Period, I became buddies with the man who is the head of the Alcatraz Alumni Association. He lived on Alcatraz for 16 years as a kid and he’s a history buff. He recognized the kind of information that was important to collect and he began to archive it. He has more information in his living room than everything I found out during my research for the first book. So many of the stories for Al Capone Shines My Shoes came through him. For instance, I told him that in my research I could only find one vehicle on the island in 1935, but thought there had to be more. He then produced photos of the paddy wagon [which is featured in the second book].
Not to give any details about the book away, but I think it’s safe to say that the kids in the book come across as very smart, aware, and able to deal with their surroundings in an impressive way—even Natalie. Was it your goal all along to make the kids seem like they can hold their own against not only adults, but against criminals and Alcatraz?
I guess I basically have a lot of faith in kids who are 12. I often have more faith in kids that are that age, because by the time their 15, their hormones kick in and they’re different. You’re in a unique place in the world at age 12. You can see the world more clearly. You’re not a part of the adult world so you can see it more accurately even though you’re still a kid. My kids [ages 10 and 15] don’t have the responsibilities of living an adult life, like having to make a living and running a household. Because they aren’t preoccupied by those responsibilities, I think they can see what’s going on in our house more clearly than I can.
Moose deals with some very scary situations in this book—like owing Al Capone a favor for getting Natalie into school. That’s some heavy stuff for a 12-year-old. Did you feel any hesitation about putting a boy in such a serious situation while writing the book?
I don’t think anyone can handle owing Al Capone a favor. But that’s how these gangsters were. I think that’s something that fascinates me—what is given for free and for clear and what is given with strings attached. I’m interested in that generally. Moose has a lot to deal with. My heart goes out to him but I see kids like that now. Not kids with Al Capone issues, but kids who have a lot to deal with. So I don’t feel bad when I give a 12-year-old a lot to deal with.
Piper obviously likes Moose, yet she seems to do all she can to get Moose, and ultimately his family, in trouble. What was your motivation in creating this character as such a troublemaker?
I always say that as a fiction writer, I’m a professional troublemaker. So there’s that element. My thought in creating her originally, for the first book, was that the warden is really the general of the island. Alcatraz really was run like an army. It wasn’t a democracy; the warden had all the power over the adults. Then I thought, wouldn’t his child have that same power in the kids’ community, and what if she abused that power? I struggle with giving her so much power and in this new book, she doesn’t redeem herself fully. But I don’t believe that people are all good or all bad.
Also, in some ways since Moose tries to be so good all the time, he’s attracted to Piper because opposites attract. On some level, Moose sees Piper as someone who has the opposite pressure he has. That’s why that attraction seems so strong to me.
Moose hides a lot of information from his parents—not only the fact that he, with Al Capone’s help, got his sister into school, but also that he owes Al Capone a favor. Do you think this sort of thing was normal at the time? What do you think this says about his relationship with his parents?
It’s partly his personality. It’s also partly his age because you tell your parents less as you get older. But he painted himself into a corner. He couldn’t figure out how to tell his father anything because the more things that happened, the more he lied, and the harder it was to tell the truth. Writing about the lies and Moose’s relationship with his father was a balancing act because Moose has a close relationship with his father. But because of that close relationship, he couldn’t tell his father anything because he was trying to protect him.
Did you feel any added pressure writing this novel after Al Capone Does My Shirts won a Newbery Honor?
I really felt that I wanted to make it the best novel it could be. I felt that way about the first book also. No one knew that I was writing a second one, so that helped. I feel like I wrote it in secret. I worked out a way to close my office door and push everyone out and let the space become just my world. While it’s mine, it’s mine, and I don’t let people read anything, except for my editor.
Do you find it hard to change from writing fiction that is set in contemporary times, like If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, to writing fiction set in the past?
Well, I now feel really comfortable writing in 1935. For a long time I struggled with getting Moose’s voice and now that I have it, I can go back to it easily. I feel like I can write contemporary stuff too because I have kids. I’d like to write another historical novel, but not set on Alcatraz in 1935. I don’t how well I’ll do with another time frame, but at least I have Moose’s 1935 voice down.
Al Capone Does My Shirts was published by Putnam with your editor Kathy Dawson. Now this sequel is being published by Dial, because your editor switched houses (and went to Harcourt in between the two books). What was that transition like? Did you only want to work with Kathy on your books?
It’s uncomfortable for everybody. She left Putnam just after the first book won the Newbery, but in the end it turned that she moved back to Dial, so the second book will be published by the same house. It was hard when she left for Harcourt. But in the end, I really felt that I needed a good editor and she’s a great editor. I went with quality rather than what’s easier.
What are you working on now? The third Al Capone book?
I’m working on another book before the third Al Capone book. It should be out in 2010. I can’t really describe it because we haven’t figured out what the genre is. It’s very much a departure for me. My editor wanted me to write the third Al Capone book first, but this one just landed in my head.
Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko. Dial, $17.99 ISBN 978-0-8037-3460-9