Iowa inspiration: Dubuque author doesn't have far to turn for ideas for her books, including latest thriller
The sixth novel by Dubuque resident and best-selling author Heather Gundenkauf centers around a decidedly personal topic for the writer. The main character in “Not a Sound” has a profound hearing loss.
“I too have a hearing loss,” Gundenkauf explained in a recent interview. “I am completely deaf in my left ear.” In noisy situations Gundenkauf can only hear every third or fourth word, and she has a hard time telling which way sound is coming from.
“But I can hear.”
“I really thought it would be interesting and challenging to write a novel from the perspective of a profoundly deaf character. I thought about it for a long time. Finally, a story came to me that I thought the character would fit nicely with, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Gundenkauf will read from her novel and sign copies at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids. An American Sign Language interpreter will be present for the event and discussion.
It was very important for Gundenkauf “to be accurate and respectful of a person who truly does have profound deafness in both ears,” so she relied on experts to help her keep the character’s experience authentic.
“I talked with an audiologist, who happens to be my brother, and I talked to educators of the deaf and hard of hearing.”
But perhaps the most fruitful connections she made were with readers from the deaf community.
“Some readers who are profoundly deaf reached out to me when they heard the book was featuring a deaf character, and I was thrilled they wanted to give it a read and offer me some feedback.”
“I found that just priceless, to be able to have that input.”
Pet in every novel
In “Not a Sound” the main character, Amelia, has a hearing dog named Stich, who just might be Gundenkauf’s favorite character of all time.
“He is so loyal and such a personality. He is a character like Amelia — they both come to each other very damaged, and they find a lot of comfort in one another.”
“I include a pet in every single one of my novels — it was about time that one took center stage and stole the show.”
Even though Gundenkauf’s previous novels have been New York Times and USA Today best-sellers, she didn’t grow up thinking she would be a writer.
‘Right place at right time’
“I’ve always loved to write, but I never thought it would become a vocation. I’m a teacher by trade. I graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education, and I taught for years. I still work in the Dubuque school system, currently as our Title 1 reading coordinator.”
But one day when she was out hiking, a story came to mind.
“The day after we closed down my third-grade classroom for the summer I bought a journal and I started writing “The Weight of Silence,” (her first novel, which became a New York Times best-seller.)
She wrote by hand, then transferred the manuscript onto a computer. By the time the next school year rolled around, she had a first draft.
“When winter break rolled around I dusted it off, and looked at it and thought maybe I should do something with it. I researched how to have an agent or a publisher read your novel, and I came across a book called “The Writer’s Market,” which listed literary agents and publishers throughout the United States. I found one that I thought might rep books like mine. I sent a letter, and I was really fortunate to get a response back, and I’ve been with my agent ever since.”
“I can’t explain it, but I think I was at the right place at the right time.”
Writing quirks persist
Gundenkauf has a few writing quirks. She still starts her novels in longhand, “though I’ve learned it’s not the most efficient way to write a novel,” she said. “But it does really help me get things started. If I get to a particularly sticky plot point I’ll often go back to longhand. That just seems to help me work it out.”
She’s also comfortable writing in a variety of environments.
“I like to have noise when I’m writing, which some people find completely odd. I’ll either have music or streaming Netflix in the background just because I don’t like it completely quiet when I write. I have a little space dedicated in my basement where I do most of my writing now, but I’ll go outside and write. I can write just about anywhere.”
Importance of place
And while Gundenkauf could be writing anywhere in the world thanks to her success, Iowa still is the place she is happy to call home.
“If anybody has read any of my novels, they know I love Iowa. All my books are set here. I do love reading books where the setting is almost a character in itself, and I try really hard to give that sense of place in my novels. Especially in “Not a Sound,” the river and the woods and the bluffs play such a huge role in the book.”
“I think Iowa is a beautiful landscape, and I’m so happy that in a small way I can share the beauty of Iowa through my writing.”
What: Heather Gudenkauf will read from “Not a Sound”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 31
Where: Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids