Interview: June 26, 2014
Heather Gudenkauf is the author of the bestselling novels THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE, THESE THINGS HIDDEN and ONE BREATH AWAY. Her latest book, LITTLE MERCIES, revolves around social worker Ellen Moore and the mistake she makes that carries with it tragic consequences. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Alexis Burling, Gudenkauf talks about the what-if scenario that inspired her to write this story, as well as finding harmony between her “mother mind” and her “educator mind.” She also discusses reversing the roles of certain characters in her novels to challenge readers’ preconceived expectations, and shares a lesson she learned from her mother: that “little mercies” are what truly carry us through difficult times.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write LITTLE MERCIES?
Heather Gudenkauf: I got the idea for LITTLE MERCIES after hearing about a social worker who found herself on the other side of the legal system due to an overextended caseload. From there I began to ask, What if? What if the social worker was a mother? What if the social worker, mistakenly, places her own child in harm’s way? As an author, I am intrigued by questions like these and try to search for the answers through my writing.
BRC: The first sentence of LITTLE MERCIES quickly informs the reader about Ellen’s career with this very direct line: “When people find out what I do for a living their first question is always about the most horrendous case of child abuse I’ve encountered.” Was that always the opening line, or is it something that evolved along the way?
HG: It’s very rare that the first line I write continues to hold its place as I work through my novels. But in this case, this line remained. I wanted readers to immediately understand what Ellen did for a living and how she felt about the children she helped. She is a passionate, meticulous advocate for children, whose world gets tossed upside down.
BRC: For the first third of the novel, before their stories intertwine, Ellen’s and Jenny’s paths remain separate. Fairly soon after Jenny is introduced to readers, she faces a difficult decision. Her choice immediately says something about her. Did you ever consider her making another decision?
HG: Right away, as I started writing, Jenny’s personality came shining through. The choices that Jenny made throughout the novel didn’t surprise me in the least --- her main goals remained steadfast: to survive and to find a true sense of home.
BRC: In the midst of a frantic morning, Ellen, a social worker, makes what can be called an honest mistake. People do make mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences. Ellen is living every parent’s nightmare. When Ellen realizes what has happened, she says, “I am not one of those parents.” What drew you to this storyline?
HG: Ellen, in her role as a social worker, sees parents who are neglectful, abusive and indifferent. But the truth is we live in a society where demands on our time can be relentless. None of us want to admit it, but unintentionally, inadvertently, we could be one of those parents. It could happen the second we take our eyes off our child at the park, the instant we reach for the cell phone while we’re driving; it can be in that moment of distraction when horrific and life-changing consequences occur.
BRC: After a brief moment of shock, Adam decides to be supportive of his wife, despite not knowing what actually happened to his daughter. Did you ever consider writing the story differently --- having Adam blame Ellen for leaving Avery in the car?
HG: I initially wrote the character of Adam as much more angry and bitter toward Ellen --- completely understandable given the circumstances. However, as the history between Ellen and Adam’s relationship developed and I got to know Adam better, I realized that anger and resentment was just not in Adam’s character. Most importantly, Adam knew Ellen; he knew what was in her heart and understood that she would never intentionally hurt their daughter.
BRC: Jenny is a complicated but very normal character. Like any typical tween, she’s feisty and bold, but also quite vulnerable. Did you talk to runaways or teens in foster care when shaping Jenny’s character?
HG: I’ve been in education for 22 years and have met a lot of Jennies. While Jenny from LITTLE MERCIES is a fictional character along with her circumstances, I’ve worked with many children with the same determination, bravery and grit.
BRC: Along the same lines, the foster care system in America is certainly a thorny one. Yet LITTLE MERCIES includes tons of details about what could happen, legally, to a negligent parent. What research did you do in preparation for writing the book? Did any of it surprise you or change the way you see cases reported on the news? How about your judgment of the parents involved?
HG: During the course of writing LITTLE MERCIES, I met a committed social worker who shared the joys and challenges of her work in serving families facing hardships. Her involvement was instrumental in the creation of Ellen as an authentic, believable character. In order to learn more about the medical profession and legal system, I visited with doctors, a paramedic, an attorney and a chief of police. I even got the chance to tour a police station and walk through the steps of the booking process during the course of writing the novel. One of my greatest pleasures while writing LITTLE MERCIES was the people I met along the way and the wonderful conversations I was able to have with these experts that helped inform my writing.
BRC: Ellen’s former client, Jade, saves Avery’s life despite the fact that Ellen was responsible for having Jade’s kids taken away temporarily. Ellen also enlists the help of a defense lawyer who once secured an acquittal for a man Ellen was trying to convict --- one who most likely killed his own daughter and made it look like an accident. Why did you add these “role reversals” into the story?
HG: At times we are so quick to judge people based on their background, appearance and socioeconomic status. By including characters who behave contrary to what we might expect of them reminds us that people are complex and multidimensional. People who have made terrible mistakes can be kind, can save lives, can be champions for those in need.
BRC: The ongoing rivalry between Jenny and Leah is not surprising. Little girls can be so cruel to one another sometimes --- and stubborn. Why add this element to the story?
HG: Leah is a bit taken aback when this stranger comes into her life vying for her mother’s and grandmother’s attention. The fact that Leah’s little sister is in such a precarious situation also adds to Leah’s extreme reaction to Jenny. Jenny and Leah are two little girls from two completely different worlds, but both are dealing with uncertain futures. It was important to me to show the push and pull between these two apparent foes who, ultimately, find common ground.
BRC: Ellen’s mother tells her to “look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that come from the terrible.” This sounds like something my own mother would say! She seems to be saying that maybe everything happens for a reason and to try to always search for the positive even in the worst situations. Talk to us about where the idea of “little mercies” came from.
HG: This is definitely something my mother would say, as well. It’s human nature to hope for the big miracles --- the cure for a terrible illness, the big windfall --- but I believe (and my mom taught me) it’s the small kindnesses --- the phone calls, the hugs, the thoughtful notes and the shoulders to cry on --- that get us through the most difficult of times.
BRC: If you had to pick one character you related to or empathized with the most, who would it be and why?
HG: I found that I could really relate to the character of Ellen the most. Like many women, I find that it can be a challenge to balance family and career. And like Ellen, I want so much to be effective in my chosen professions as well as be the best mom I can possibly be.
BRC: Though Ellen's and Jenny’s stories are intertwined, they could also very well stand on their own. Did either of the stories come first or exist without the other?
HG: LITTLE MERCIES is my fourth novel, and, like the previous three, I chose to tell this story in multiple perspectives. I think that by offering alternate points of view, I give readers the chance to experience one very difficult situation through the eyes of an overwhelmed mother and a determined but already world-weary 10-year-old. While Ellen’s story came first, interestingly I found her the most difficult character to develop. In my first draft, Ellen only shared her professional persona with those she met. Though it was a very emotional process, for readers to truly connect and care about Ellen and her family, I needed to show them Ellen’s more vulnerable, sensitive side.
On the other hand, Jenny seemed to leap right onto the page, and developing her character came much more easily. I’m not sure as to why one character evolves more freely than others, but when they decide to, I gladly take what they have to offer!
BRC: I get the sense that you want your readers to empathize with Deidra Olmstead, especially as we see her story unfold. What was important to you when shaping Deidra’s character? Are there lots of Deidras out there?
HG: At first glance, there is little to like about Deidra. She has led a sad, misguided life at the expense of those around her. However, as you get to know Deidra, learn where she has come from and what she has experienced, the reader comes to understand that a lot of what motivates Deidra is fear. I think there are a lot of people like Deidra out there in the world trying to find their way. Ultimately, Deidra makes an astonishing sacrifice, but even that act has far-reaching consequences.
BRC: Part of Ellen’s guilt stems from the fact that she realizes she is partially to blame. Her work, on more than one occasion, got in the way of raising her own kids. In today’s world, this type of thing isn’t that uncommon; often, family life is sacrificed for what has to get done at the office. As a mother and author, what are your thoughts on balancing work and home?
HG: Just as it does for so many working moms, my professional and personal lives often collide. Finding balance can be a challenge, but for me family comes first. I’m so fortunate to have a great husband who reminds me it’s okay to say no and that it’s important to take care of myself. Again, just like many mothers, I need that gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) reminder that in order to do anything well, one needs to be healthy in mind, body and spirit. I find I’m at my best when I take time to exercise, eat well and, of course, read before I go to bed.
Overall, the most important thing to do is be present in the moment. When I am with my family, I try to be fully there for them.
BRC: As the mother of three children with a background in elementary education, what inspired you to write the story of a mother who not only tries to help other children, but who almost kills her own in a moment of scattered neglect? What was the trickiest part about writing the book? Did your “mother mind” and your “educator mind” ever disagree as far as where to take a scene?
HG: Delving into the emotional devastation that Ellen experienced in the novel was the most challenging for me. I think as mothers we make it our life’s work to protect our children from all kinds of harm --- emotional and physical. It’s crushing to see your child suffer. While I attempt to authentically and accurately portray the emotional landscape in each of my novels, Ellen’s guilt, despair and worry left a lasting impact upon me. My “mother mind” and my “educator mind” more often than not agree with each other. As a mom and teacher, my hope has always been to nurture, teach and support all the children in my life --- my own and my students.
BRC: All of your books seem to have a “ripped from the headlines” quality to them. Is that where you get your ideas for your books? Has your writing process changed since your first book was published?
HG: Oftentimes, a headline from the newspaper or a news story from the radio really connects with me, and, a few days later, a novel begins to take shape. In regard to my writing process, I always buy myself a beautiful journal and spend the first month or so writing the story in longhand. I’ve found that in writing this way, I’m able to write nearly anywhere and minimize distractions. Later I transfer what I’ve written to a computer and continue to add to the story.
I cannot write if the house is completely quiet --- I have to have music or the television going in the background. I really love developing the characters in my novels. I get out my trusty notebook and begin to jot down these thoughts, and gradually the character appears upon the pages --- physical descriptions, histories, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. I live with the characters for so long while I’m writing, and sometimes my hands hover over the keyboard and I have to decide which direction to take them. It’s not necessarily the outcome I envisioned, but it’s always an adventure.
BRC: What’s next for you?
HG: I think it’s safe to say that I will continue to write about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations but still manage to find hope and comfort in even the most challenging of circumstances. I’m currently writing about two childhood friends who grow up, go their separate ways, and then reunite due to a decades-old mysterious death.