Heather Gudenkauf’s newest novel is about the power of hidden secrets. However, eager to know how she manages to write such amazing novels (appearing on bestseller lists in the New York Times and USA Today), we asked her to reveal some secrets of her own by answering the Career Authors 11. Read on as Heather shares with us her journey to publishing success.
- What book changed your life?
My Ántonia by Willa Cather is my favorite book of all time. I remember the first time I picked it up. I was eighteen years old and in desperate need of something to read and plucked it off my mom’s bookshelf. I was blown away by Cather’s beautiful writing. I remember pausing as I read to go back over a sentence or a phrase because it had such a strong impact on me. I had always been a reader, but when I read this book, I think the idea of becoming a writer was born.
- Was your first published book the first manuscript you ever wrote?
It was. I wrote The Weight of Silence in 2005 just after I said goodbye to my third grade students for summer break. I finished the first draft before I went back to get my classroom ready for the coming fall. Fortunately, an agent saw a spark of something within the pages. It took a lot of work to get the manuscript into good shape, but three years later we found a publisher willing to take a chance on me and the book.
- Stephen King says, “The hardest part is just before you start.” What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
The hardest part of writing for me is when I’m about halfway done with a manuscript. It’s about at this point when a jolt of terror courses through me, and I begin to ask myself if I have any idea what I’m doing. After the panic eases a bit, I’m able to put things into perspective and I tell myself, writing is a process—it’s messy, unpredictable and I’m able to find my way through.
- Do you know the story’s ending before you start?
I like to think I know the ending of the novel before I begin, but it never quite works out that way for me. I make notes and outline the plot but ultimately the characters take over and do what they want to anyway—which is just how it should be.
- When you’re having a difficult writing day, what do you tell yourself to get through it?
Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, advises that while writing, to look at the world through a one-inch picture frame. So what did I do? I bought a one-inch picture frame. It sits on my desk, and when I get overwhelmed and a project seems too big and I can’t see my way forward, I use it as a reminder that I only need to see the scene I’m working on through this small lens. Doing this makes everything seem so much more manageable.
I’ve also found that taking a break and going for a long hike with my dog helps immensely.
- Do you read your reviews?
I don’t go out in search of the reviews of my work, but when I come across them or they are sent to me, I do read them. I take a moment to enjoy the good ones, try to learn from the critical ones (even if they’re painful) and then get back to work.
- Besides being persistent and correcting your spelling errors, what’s your best advice for a new author?
My best advice for new authors is to write the books that you want to read. For each project you will be living and breathing it for a year or more, so you need to be passionate and excited about it. And on the days you are not, you want to in the very least, find out what happens in the end. Write the story you want, and readers will sense this.
- What’s your definition of writer misery?
The definition of writer misery for me is waiting. After I send a manuscript to my agent or editor or an early reader, it’s excruciating to wait for their responses. I have to remind myself that I didn’t write the book in a day, I can’t expect others to read and to react to it that quickly either. It’s still hard to wait though.
- What’s your definition of writer happiness? Speaking of which—what’s your newest book, and how do you feel about it?
There are so many aspects of writing that make me happy: Coming up with a new idea, the days when the words flow, hearing from a reader who really connected to one of my books.
My new novel, This is How I Lied tells the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Eve Knox and the search for her killer. Twenty-five years ago, Eve’s odd little sister, Nola, and best friend, Maggie, discover her body in the caves near their neighborhood. Though there are many suspects, the case goes cold, and it isn’t until decades later a new clue emerges. Now a police detective and seven months pregnant, Maggie, still haunted by Eve’s death, starts digging into the case and more clues begin to emerge and danger behind every shadow.
I’m so proud of this book: it’s twisty, wild ride and I’m excited to hear what readers think about it.
- What’s your favorite book on writing?
Again, I have to go back to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s my go-to book on writing. Anne Lamott is so wise, and she shares her wisdom beautifully and with humor. Whenever I need inspiration or words of encouragement or a calm, benevolent voice in my ear, I open Bird by Bird.
- What book are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon. Based on the real-life account of Nancy Wake, a World War Two socialite turned spy, the novel takes us through the life of this amazing woman. I am completely immersed in this book.
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