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Author Talk: August 28, 2009


August 28, 2009

In this interview, Heather Gudenkauf explains how her years teaching elementary school inspired her to write her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE, and shares what she hoped to convey in this profound story about two children who mysteriously disappear from their small Iowa town. She also describes her unique writing process, lists some of her favorite writers, and shares details about her current project, tentatively called THE FOUNDLING WHEEL.

Question: Please describe where you grew up and what your family was like.
Heather Gudenkauf: I was born in Wagner, South Dakota, the youngest of six children and also lived on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where my father was a high school guidance counselor and my mom was a school nurse. We moved to Mason City, Iowa when I was three years old and lived there until I was eighteen. Mason City, most famous for being the hometown of composer Meredith Wilson and the inspiration for the setting of his musical The Music Man, was a wonderful place to grow up. I lived in a neighborhood where children would gather to play impromptu games of kick the can and hide and seek on summer nights.
I am so fortunate to come from a loving and supportive family. Everything positive I have learned in my life about marriage and being a parent I have learned from my mother and father. As the youngest of six, my brothers and sisters willingly towed me along with them and always looked out for me --– and they still do!
Q: When did you first become interested in being a writer? What other professions, if any, have you had?
HG: I’ve enjoyed writing since I was a child. But as is typical with most writers, I was and am, first and foremost an avid reader. As a child my favorite place in the world was our public library and I spent as much time as possible with my nose in a book. I admired the way writers could take me away to different places and times through the written word. I always knew I wanted to try my hand at writing but didn’t sit down and seriously begin until after I was married and had my children. I have spent the last 17 years working in the field of education.
Q: What is your educational background?
HG: I graduated from the University of Iowa (Go Hawks!) with a degree in elementary education and a reading endorsement.
Q: Are there any writers, teachers, or other individuals that have had a major influence on your writing or helped you further your career?
HG: My parents have been a huge influence in my life. They have always taught me to work hard at whatever I choose to do and to never give up. My favorite author is Willa Cather, I think her writing is just beautiful and I reread MY ANTONIA and O PIONEERS every year. I’ve found that writers are very generous beings and several authors including Tess Gerritsen, Ann Hood, Donald Harstad, Diane Chamberlain, J. T. Ellison, and Susan Wiggs, have commented positively on THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE. The fact that these writers whom I admire so much would take the time to read and comment upon the work of a fledgling writer means so much to me. I am also very grateful to my agent, Marianne Merola, and the folks at Mira Books for their support of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE and of me --- they have treated me like family.
Q: How would you describe your novel THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE? What do you think readers will enjoy most about it?
HG: THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE is a family drama told through the point of view of each of the main characters about the disappearance of two young girls and how their families struggle to bring them home. The shifting perspectives allow the reader glimpses into the personal anguish and hopes of each character throughout. I think that readers will fall in love with siblings Calli and Ben. Their relationship and their reliance on one another are at the heart of this story.
Q: Your novel deals with some difficult issues, such as kidnapping, childhood trauma, and dysfunctional families. What are the challenges of exploring these topics in fiction? Did the novel require a great deal of research? Were the characters inspired by people you know?
HG: THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE does address many difficult subjects, and as the mother of three children it was important to me to write about these issues with sensitivity and honesty. THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE, the story of the disappearance of two seven-year-old girls, came about, in part, because of my years as an elementary school teacher. I have spent day after day with young children who have readily shared with me their experiences, worries, and dreams. Despite their candid honesty, I have come to realize over time that no one can truly know what happens in the privacy of the home. While the story and characters are completely fictional, the domestic drama found in many wealthy, middle-class, or poverty-stricken homes, is not. My primary objective was to give a voice to the voiceless…children in difficult family circumstances. But I also wanted to highlight the life-affirming determination and resiliency of families. I’ve been inspired by so many children who weather tough times with bravery and ingenuity. Kids like Calli and her best friend Petra are my heroes!
The novel did require some research on the topics of selective mutism and police procedures. A wonderful writer and former sheriff’s deputy, Donald Harstad, was kind enough to sit down with me and make sure that the police procedures found in the novel were accurate.
Q: How would you describe your writing process?
HG: I came up with the idea for THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE one day as I was hiking through a nature preserve near my home. As I trudged up the paths I began to ask questions: I wonder if someone has ever gotten lost in these woods? What if it was a child who got lost? What if two children got lost? What if maybe they didn't actually get lost, but were taken? What if the father of one of the girls was an alcoholic and might have had something to do with the disappearances? What if he didn't? What if one of the little girls couldn't speak? What would their families do? How would they react?
This is how I begin a writing project --- by asking questions. Then I buy myself a beautiful journal and spend the first month or so writing the story in long-hand. 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. When I’ve finished writing the first draft I will print off a copy and begin making revisions. I also give out a copy of the manuscript to some family members and a few friends for their input.
Q: What other writers/books do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?
HG: I enjoy so many authors and genres it’s difficult to choose just a few. I particularly enjoy authors who write in such a way that the setting becomes an integral character of the book. Two of my favorite authors who do this so well are Louise Erdrich and Sandra Dallas. I will also pick up anything by Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, and Anita Shreve. I could go on and on.
Currently I’m reading THE WOMEN by T. C. Boyle. It’s a fictional account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life told through the accounts of the women in his life. I love when authors are able to combine historical figures and fiction, and T.C. Boyle does this perfectly.
Q: What other books or projects are you working on?
HG: I am currently working on revisions to my second novel, tentatively titled THE FOUNDLING WHEEL. It is the story of three women’s undeniable love for one little boy who was abandoned at a hospital. The individual manner and at times questionable means the women display this love will cause the reader to reflect upon their own loved ones and on the lengths they would go to ensure their safety and happiness.
Q: Do you have a family? Any kids? Where do you currently reside?
HG: I have an amazing family. I’m married and have three children, a 13-year-old son and two daughters who are 12 and 10. My son is currently battling osteosarcoma --- bone cancer. Though his diagnosis has been devastating, it has brought our family even closer together and has given us strength we didn’t know we possessed. We live in Dubuque, Iowa, a beautiful town on the Mississippi River.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers today?
HG: Never give up! Write the best story that you can write and look for an agent who represents authors that you enjoy. While you are waiting for responses from agents and publishers it’s important to keep honing your craft. Write every single day.
Q: Is there anything you would like your readers to know that hasn’t already been covered? Do you have a Web site fans can visit?
HG: I hope readers will enjoy THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it! Readers can visit my Web site,

© Copyright 2009, Heather Gudenkauf. All rights reserved.

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