Maggie Kennedy-O’Keefe was a teenager when she found her friend Eve Knox dead in a cave near their small-town Iowa home. Now, 25 years later, she’s a detective on the local police force and the Knox case has been reopened. In Heather Gudenkauf’s new novel, “This is How I Lied,” a variety of long held secrets are suddenly threatened with new evidence in a cold case comes to light. Gudenkauf, who was raised in Iowa and still lives in the state, offers a cast of well-developed characters and a tense multi-perspective narrative as Maggie tries to resolve old questions that haunt her town.
Gudenkauf answered questions via email, offering insight into her writing process and revealing what she’s been reading during this pause caused by the need for social distancing. “This is How I Lied” was released on Tuesday.
Q: Tell me about the book’s origin. Did you start with the characters (or a specific character) or did you have the setting in mind first?
A: For this novel, I think the characters and setting were a package deal. I knew I wanted to have the town of Grotto and of the caves to be based on the real-life Maquoketa Caves in Jackson County. The cave system and the trails surrounding them are gorgeous and eerie — perfect for a thriller novel. As for the characters, Nola and Eve were the first to come to me. Nola is such a damaged, troubled soul and I wanted to explore the complicated sister relationship she had with Eve who is more nurturing and sensitive.
Q: Did the news about developments in the Michelle Martinko case come to your attention while you were still working on the novel? Did that case or other long unsolved cases in the state figure into your ideas about “This is How I Lied?”
A: Before I started writing “This is How I Lied,” I read “I’ll be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara about the author’s extensive investigation of the Golden State Killer who, for decades, terrorized northern California. This book both terrified and fascinated me. I became intrigued by how modern technology was being used to close old cold cases. For my project, I thought it would be interesting to explore how this might play out in a small town where the inhabitants (and the guilty party) believed the truth behind the crime would never be discovered.
As I was writing the novel, I heard about the developments in the Michelle Martinko case and how familial DNA was used to ultimately convict the perpetrator. A tragic case. I’m so happy to know that there has been some closure for the family.
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Q: Your characters are so rich, in part, I think due to the real life everyday challenges they face — an ailing parent, pregnancy, mental illness, disparities in economic opportunity and privilege and more. I’m interested in how you go about developing these characters. Obviously, these characteristics have an impact on the plot, but they feel more organically developed than mere plot contrivances would be.
A: I spend a lot of time thinking about and developing my characters and trying to make them as authentic as possible. I’m a very visual person, so I search online for pictures that best fit what I have in mind for my character and keep the images nearby as I write. For each, I create an extensive back story: I chronicle their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I make lists of favorite books, movies, songs and foods. I create childhood memories, cherished and traumatic for each. All these details might not make it into the final version of the novel, but having these fine points available help to make characters like Eve, Nola and Maggie become fully formed to me and hopefully to the reader.
Q: Do you think of yourself as an Iowa writer — and if so, what does being an Iowa writer mean to you?
A: I do and proudly! One of my favorite authors, Willa Cather, said, “Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet,” and I really take this to heart with my writing. I was fortunate to grow up in Iowa and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Iowa has such a lovely, varied landscape — from farmland and rivers and lakes, to woodlands, caves and bluffs. Ultimately, I want to share with readers a thrilling mystery, set among the beauty of Iowa.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I just finished the first draft of my next novel, a locked-room mystery about a reclusive writer working on a true crime book when a snowstorm leaves her trapped inside her remote home — set in Iowa of course — setting off a series of events that lead to a stunning revelation. It should hit the shelves sometime in 2021.
Q: What are you reading during this time of social distancing?
A: I’ve been taking full advantage of my extra reading time. I have three books going right now. “Code Name Helene” by Ariel Lawhon, a fictionalized account of real-life socialite turned World War II spy Nancy Wake. It’s a fascinating account of a woman who became one of the most decorated women of World War II. I’m also reading “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” by Dani Shapiro. This moving memoir follows the author, who on a whim, submitted her DNA for analysis through a genealogy website and discovered that her father was not her biological father. And finally, I’ve been rereading a really fun series by Lisa Lutz called “The Spellman Files.” It follows the antics of Izzy Spellman and her family. Think Nancy Drew meets Dirty Harry.