116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
New York Times bestselling author and proud Iowan Heather Gudenkauf is back with another page-turning thriller sure to keep readers up late on these long winter nights.
“The Overnight Guest” is set in the fictional town of Burden, Iowa, in an isolated farmhouse where a gruesome murder took place 20 years ago. Crime writer Wylie is snowed in, working on her latest book, when her solace is interrupted by an unexpected guest.
Prairie Lights in Iowa City will host a virtual event with Gudenkauf on at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 Zoom. She will read from her latest work and participate in a conversation with author Hannah Mary McKinnon. The event is free, but you must visit prairielights.com to register.
Cedar Rapids Public Library
What: An evening with Heather Gudenkauf
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26
Where: Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Prairie Lights virtual event
What: A reading and conversation with Heather Gudenkauf
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1
Where: online with Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City
Barnes & Noble virtual event
What: A conversation with Heather Gudenkauf
When: 2 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15
Where: online with Barnes & Noble
In a recent e-interview, Gudenkauf discussed the power of keeping — and revealing — secrets, the inspiration behind “The Overnight Guest,” and why we are so obsessed with crime stories.
Q: The main character, Wylie, is a crime writer who is curled up in an isolated farmhouse, looking for some time to write. Isolation, as we've found out through the pandemic, can provide solace and can also be overwhelming. Did your relationship to solitude change during the pandemic? Why is it often something we fear?
A: I was just talking about this exact topic with two other thriller writers. The pandemic has provided so many different challenges — that feeling of isolation being a big one. While we were chatting, we realized that all three of our new books are set in homes that were supposed to be the safest places on earth for our characters. That turned out not to be the case.
I've always been a homebody, so staying close to home wasn't a big adjustment. The only places I really went were to the grocery store and to see my folks. What was hard for me was how it impacted those around me. While solitude can be a positive thing, isolation and loneliness are not. I think, because of the pandemic and because connections have been scarcer, I work harder to be present in my interactions with others. At least, I hope so.
Regarding “The Overnight Guest,” home and solitude became frightening for the inhabitants when they had nowhere to go and no one to call for help. The characters must rely on their own resources and wits to survive.
Q: Of course, there are lots of secrets and twists in this novel: the farmhouse was the site of a double murder, an abused child appears during a snowstorm, and Wylie has a past of her own. How did the character of Wylie come to you? Is she similar to you in any way — other than your profession?
A: Besides being writers, Wylie and I have very little in common. Wylie is a true crime author, and I write fiction. Wylie and I both have dogs, but again there are differences. I fell in love with my dog, Lolo, the moment I saw her while it took some time for Wylie to warm up to Tas, the stray dog that adopted her. Wylie is estranged from her son and has a contentious relationship with her ex-husband, and fortunately, I'm very close with my family. While we both welcome solitude, Wylie comes to hers from a place of pain and loneliness.
Q: At various points a secret is revealed and that changes our perception of a character — we see them in a new light. I found these moments disarming, and it reminded me of just how often we make assumptions or take things for granted. Any thoughts on this?
A: I agree. It's so easy to take the people we meet at face value — to judge on appearance and initial encounters. Like in real life, I want readers to know my characters beyond first impressions. To do this, I slowly reveal their back stories and secrets, and as readers learn more, they hopefully will become more invested in and eager to know what happens to each character.
Q: Are parts of the narrative inspired by any true crime events?
A: I typically get my ideas from something I read or see in the news, which was also true of “The Overnight Guest.” In this case, it wasn't necessarily a crime that was the inspiration; it was a remarkable true story about a blizzard, a young woman, and a hypodermic needle. I was online looking for inspiration and came across an article from the early 1980s that described a young woman's harrowing ordeal. In icy weather, the 19-year-old ended up stuck in a snowy ditch. She left the safety of her car and began walking the two miles in 20 below zero temps to get help. The young woman made it to the doorstep when she collapsed. Hours later — she was found with eyes frozen open and near death. She was so cold that the hypodermic needles doctors used to try and treat her kept breaking! Remarkably, the young woman survived.
When I read this account, I knew I had to include it in my next book somehow. Thus, in “The Overnight Guest,” the main character finds a young child in the snow, which is the catalyst for all that happens next.
Q: There are so many wonderful layers in this novel and you manage to bring three storylines together into a suspenseful conclusion. When you start writing a novel, do you begin with just one narrative? Or how do the various stories emerge for you as a writer?
A: Thank you! I really love writing stories from multiple points of view and shifting timelines. As I started thinking about this book, I knew it needed to be written in this way. I decided to start with the chapters set decades earlier and chronicled the awful crime that took place in the farmhouse. This allowed me to get to know the characters, the crime, and how it impacted the community. Once I had a good start on these sections, I was ready to jump into the blizzard scenes with Wylie. As I wrote, I discovered that I needed a third perspective to make the story complete. Those discoveries along the way — about plot, characters, even the ending — are my favorite part of writing. It's those unexpected moments that pop up along the way that make what I do so much fun.
Q: Crime novels, podcasts, and television shows are very popular. What do you think fuels our desire for these sorts of stories?
A: Our society is obsessed with crime — especially true crime stories. I count myself as one of those who is always searching for the next great podcast, documentary, and true crime book. I recently read some articles on this topic, and there was a consensus that our obsession is since crime has been a part of our society since our hunter and gatherer days. We readily consume these types of stories because we want to know what motivates criminals to better protect ourselves and those for whom we care. While I'm listening, watching, and reading true crime accounts, I try to remember that behind these stories are real people — real victims and their families who have suffered the worst the world has to offer.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I'm just finishing up my 10th novel! I can't say too much about it, but I can say that one of my main characters steps out of her home state of Iowa and encounters some of the most devious, diabolical characters you can imagine. It's a different kind of story than I've written in the past but still filled with plenty of twists and turns. I can’t wait to share it with readers.