New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf (92BA) finds beauty in the prairies, cornfields, and rolling hills of her home state—so much so that Iowa has become the primary setting for her mystery novels.
In Gudenkauf ’s latest thriller, The Overnight Guest, a true-crime writer travels to rural Iowa to research two murders and a disappearance that took place 20 years earlier. Stranded during a snowstorm in the farmhouse where the crimes occurred, she receives an unexpected visitor.
Author Catherine McKenzie describes The Overnight Guest as “a tightly woven braid of a novel guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and keep you turning the pages deep into the night.”
This past fall, Gudenkauf joined the University of Iowa’s virtual talk show, Chat From the Old Cap, to share her journey from K-12 educator to critically acclaimed mystery writer. In this excerpt from the interview, the Cedar Rapids-based author recalls some inspirational moments in her home state.
One day I was at a wrestling meet with friends, and I said, “Oh my goodness, that’s John Irving [67MFA] over there!” My friends said, “Which Hawkeye is he?” But of course, I was talking about the novelist. I walked down the bleachers to him, confessed I was this big fan, and said, “One day I want to be a writer.” He said, “You should do that.” He signed my ticket stub, and I still have it. That’s a prized possession of mine. That was huge, because we know Iowa is such an important place for the arts. While my path was as an educator, I always loved that about the University of Iowa.
I had been teaching for several years, and I did a lot of hiking with my dog at the time in Swiss Valley and Mines of Spain in Dubuque. They are beautiful, wooded areas. My husband always teases me because I have a horrible sense of direction, and he’s afraid when I go on these jaunts that I’m not going to come home, that I’ll get lost. I thought how scary that would be for a child, and that’s where the idea for my first book, The Weight of Silence, came from. Two little girls go into the woods, one comes out—and she doesn’t speak.
The day after school got out, I picked up a journal and started writing The Weight of Silence in longhand, and before I got my classroom ready that fall, I had a messy first draft completed. I shoved it in a drawer because I didn’t know what to do with it, but a few months later, I pulled it out, dusted it off, and asked myself, “What would you tell your students?” I’d tell them to go for it, dream big, and never give up. That’s what I tried to do, so I sent it off to a literary agent.
You want to keep people interested, so you have to have characters that readers care about. They may not necessarily like them, but they have to care about them and want to know what’s going to happen next. I also think it’s important to have a compressed timeframe that keeps the pace moving. For me, the setting is huge in a book, to where it’s almost a character in itself. And as a reader what I love is to have a chance of figuring out whodunit, so I try to leave those breadcrumbs but throw in twists and turns you don’t see coming.