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A Voice for the Voiceless: Heather Gudenkauf, April 16 at the Bettendorf Public Library PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 06 April 2011 21:55

Heather GudenkaufLike many people, Heather Gudenkauf thought she had a novel in her. But that’s where her story breaks from the usual.

She wrote that novel and got a literary agent. And then she found a publisher (Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises) willing to give her an advance-against-royalties deal. And then The Weight of Slience sold more than 300,000 copies.

It’s rare enough for an aspiring author to actually finish that dreamed-of novel, but in the book world today, it’s virtually unheard of for a previously unpublished writer to have the success that Gudenkauf has found. “That’s what I’ve been told,” she said in a phone interview last week, promoting her April 16 appearance at the Bettendorf Public Library.

The Dubuque, Iowa-based Gudenkauf published her second novel, These Things Hidden, earlier this year, and it debuted at number 18 on the New York Times trade-paperback bestseller list. (In its ninth week on the list, it was 27th.)

In just two novels, Gudenkauf has already established some literary signatures. Both her books are topical – The Weight of Silence deals with missing children, alcoholism, and domestic abuse, while These Things Hidden is concerned with abandoned children and adoption – and both employ multiple narrators. A first draft of her third novel, she said, is almost finished, and it shares those calling cards.

To be clear, while Gudenkauf is clearly interested in issues – the author’s note on her new book talks about safe-haven laws – her novels aren’t didactic. They read like thrillers of the home, employing topics of social importance but primarily interested in character and family dynamics. “We don’t always put our kids first ... or even listen to our kids like we should,” Gudenkauf said. The 40-year-old author still works as a literacy coach, and that educational background is apparent in her books. “My primary objective was to give a voice to the voiceless,” she has been quoted as saying. And in The Weight of Silence, published in 2009, that was literal.

Gudenkauf thrusts the reader immediately into the tale of two missing girls, one of whom hasn’t spoken for years. The author said she liked the idea of “a character who disappears into the woods and her best friend is gone, too, and she’s the only one who comes out but can’t tell anybody exactly what’s going on. I thought that would add another layer of mystery to the story ... .”

The prologue – which chronologically comes about two-thirds the way through the story – sets a tone of urgency: “Louis and I see you nearly at the same time. In the woods, through the bee trees whose heavy, sweet smell will forever remind me of this day, I see flashes of your pink summer nightgown that you wore to bed last night.”

That opening reflects how Gudenkauf writes her books. “Typically, I start right in the middle of the story ... ,” she said. “And then I work forward and then I work backwards and really try to pull the pieces together. ... I just start where I’m really interested and where I have that spark. ... Don’t worry about the logistics of beginning, middle, and end. It will get there. That really seems to work for me.”

Gudenkauf is particularly skillful with point of view. In The Weight of Silence, the story of Calli – the mute girl – is delivered in the third person, while the remaining characters tell their tales in the first person. “She didn’t speak for herself through the bulk of the book, and it makes sense for her to have her story told for her,” Gudenkauf explained. Ben, Calli’s older brother, directs his narration to Calli, and his juvenile concerns and memories are detailed and pitch-perfect. The author gives her narrators the freedom to roam through their pasts, and the digressions – while undeniably expository – feel like products of the characters’ minds rather than authorial intrusions. (While her descriptions, narrative drive, and anecdotes are strong, her dialogue to this point is neither natural nor artful; it’s merely stiff.)

Gudenkauf wrote the first draft of The Weight of Silence over her summer break in 2005. “It’s always been in the back of mind to write a story,” she said. “That summer, I just thought, ‘Now or never.’” That winter she sent the finished draft to a literary agent, and after a year and a half revising the book, they began shopping it to publishers – a process that took another year and a half.

There’s little in Gudenkauf’s background that hinted that she would become a successful author. (She pointed to a lifelong love of reading.). But she said that being born with a severe hearing impairment in her left ear might have have helped sharpen her skills: “It caused me to sit back and watch and be more observant than maybe I would have been otherwise.”

Heather Gudenkauf will lecture, read from her work, and answer questions on Saturday, April 16, at 2 p.m. at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive).

For more information on Gudenkauf, visit HeatherGudenkauf.com.


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