I just reviewed Heather Gudenkauf’s debut novel The Weight of Silence, a story that opens when two 7-year-old girls disappear from their Iowa homes in the middle of the night. She talks about the book and writing.
WordLily: I spent some of my formative years in Iowa, and I have vivid memories of a couple wooded state parks, which your depiction of the woods behind Calli’s house reminded me of. What woods did you model the one in the book on?
Heather Gudenkauf: Iowa is such a beautiful state from the fields of corn, to the Mississippi River, to the bluffs and the wooded areas. It’s a wonderful place to live. I do quite a bit of hiking at a nature preserve near my home, so the Willow Creek Woods is loosely based on that spot. In order to accommodate the story, the forest in The Weight of Silence is much larger and more expansive than the one near my home.
WordLily: Where did you get the idea for this book?
Gudenkauf: One day as I was hiking through the woods I started thinking how scary it would be if I got lost, and then I imagined how terrible it would be if a child got lost in the woods. The story just developed from there. I love reading books told in multiple points of view and decided that The Weight of Silence could only be told through the voices of each of the main characters.
WordLily: Tell me about the process of writing a book, as a mother, that centers on the disappearance of two young children.
Gudenkauf: I knew that in tackling such a difficult subject as the disappearance of children I would have to approach it with sensitivity. While the story is centralized around the missing girls — it is not the entire story. The novel also addresses the relationships between the main characters and their histories together. The disappearance of the girls is the catalyst that brings many secrets to the forefront.
WordLily: I don’t have children, but I can imagine that mothers of young children would be put off from reading this book because of the girls’ disappearance. How does this make you feel? How do you respond?
Gudenkauf: As mothers our sole purpose is to keep our children safe and sound. I can understand why mothers of young children might hesitate to delve into such a sensitive topic, but as I said earlier, The Weight of Silence is about so much more. My wish is that the reader closes The Weight of Silence with a feeling of hope.
WordLily: As I mentioned in my review, I definitely found the book hopeful. Some more general questions now. Why do you write?
Gudenkauf: I enjoy everything about the writing process. From coming up with the initial idea for a story, to the actual composition of the novel and the path that the characters decide to lead me, to the collaboration I get to do with my agent and editor. It’s a wonderful process.
WordLily: How did you start writing?
Gudenkauf: I’ve always been a reader first and foremost. The more I’ve read over the years, the more times I found myself thinking, I want to do this. I want to write a book. I thought about writing for a long time, but didn’t actually sit down and begin writing until a few years ago.
WordLily: As a debut author, what was the road to publication like for you?
Gudenkauf: As a mother of young children and an elementary teacher, I knew I would need to make the best use of my time and gave myself a year to write the book. I bought myself a beautiful journal and began writing the day after school was out for the summer. I jumped into the car with my husband and kids and wrote while we were on our family vacation. After that I wrote early in the morning and late into the night while my children slept and finished the first draft just before school started that fall. I set the manuscript aside for a few months and returned to my work as a third grade teacher.
A few months later, during my winter break from school, I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer, reread what I had written, took a deep breath, and sent off the first 50 pages to a literary agency that represented authors I respected. I tried not to think about my story out there in the world, being read by others to critique — or even worse — out there not being read at all. A few weeks into the new year came the request from the literary agent for the remainder of the manuscript. I sent off the rest of the story and waited with anticipation. Would she decide to take me on? Would she give my book, give me a chance? She did. After much collaboration and revision the novel was ready to send off to publishers. Eventually my story found its way to Mira Books and, thankfully, found its home there.
WordLily: Wow, you make it sound so straightforward! Thanks so much for your time, I’m looking forward to seeing that second book.