Heather Gudenkauf’s latest thriller, THIS IS HOW I LIED, is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel filled with complex characters. The fast-paced story is told from three points of view: the protagonist, Maggie, a female detective, is tenacious and risks everything to discover the truth, while the multifaceted antagonist keeps the reader guessing what will happen next. The final POV is that of the victim, and though she knows what happened to her, her chapters are told in such a way that the reader is left guessing until the very end.
It takes a talented author to juggle three ways of looking at a situation without giving away too much of the plot at one time, but Gudenkauf is a master. Given the many, varied experiences the author has encountered in her life, it’s no surprise that she weaves such an exceptional tale. From an early age, Gudenkauf escaped into books and dreamed of being an author. Her first book, The Weight of Silence, came out in 2008, and from there she has gone on to write several more novels, including 2012’s One Breath Away and last year’s Before She Was Found. She’s been nominated for the Edgar Award and is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. In this exclusive interview with The Big Thrill, Gudenkauf offers words of encouragement to aspiring authors and insight that could surprise even the most established novelist.
Are you an organic writer, an outliner, or a combination of the two?
I approach each of my novels with the goal of being a plotter. I make notes and outline thoughts, but I’ve found that when I try to corral my characters they ultimately take over and do what they want to anyway. If I try to stick to a strict outline, my writing tends to fall flat. I find that my best ideas emerge when I let them come more organically. That said, during the first draft I throw everything at the page so there’s a lot of clunkers that need to be culled. Revising is my friend.
You gave your protagonist a challenge only a woman could experience. Did you know at the outset of writing the novel that she would be in that position?
From the very beginning I envisioned Maggie as being pregnant. Here’s this character who as a teen lost her best friend and followed in her father’s footsteps in the police department that failed to find Eve’s murderer. I knew that Maggie would be a complex character and being pregnant makes her even more so. She’s strong but guarded and haunted by her friend’s death. With Maggie expecting her first child, she steps into the investigation and finds that the stakes are so much higher, and she’ll do anything to protect her unborn daughter.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you do anything in particular to follow that career path?
I knew from a very young age that I was going to be a teacher and that was the path I carved out for myself. I was always drawn to writing, though. I kept journals and took a few writing electives in college but didn’t seriously consider writing until I was in my mid-30s. I had an idea for a book knocking around in my head for a long time and when I finally took the leap, I was teaching third grade and had just packed up my classroom for the summer. I bought a journal and started writing my first novel, The Weight of Silence.
The Maquoketa caves are near your home in Iowa. Did you visit them often to do research while you were working on THIS IS HOW I LIED?
I did spend time at the Maquoketa caves. When you step or crawl into one of the caves it’s like stepping back in time thousands of years. Whether I’m hiking the bluffs and wooded areas near my home or visiting a cattle farm, it’s important for me to spend time in the settings where my novels take place. For me, the setting of the book is another character in the story—it sets the mood and the emotional landscape of the novel. By spending time at the caves I was able to better get into the minds of my characters in a real, tactile way.
Strong female characters are one thing you appreciate in Tess Gerritsen’s and Patricia Cornwell’s books. Have they inspired your writing in other ways? And how did reading Patterson and Clancy in your youth impact you as a writer?
As a young teen, I picked up my dad’s copies of The Hunt for Red October and Cradle and All, and I was immediately swept away. Thrillers were my go-to genre from then on. Even now my dad and I continue to swap books. As for Tess Gerritsen and Patricia Cornwell, I remember when I first read The Surgeon and Postmortem and thinking they were brilliant. The authors didn’t hold back—the novels were gritty, dark, and so, so smart. To this day, when Gerritsen and Cornwell have a new book coming out, I’m first in line to read them.
Being a voracious reader is important to being a good writer, as is keeping track of thoughts when they come to you and writing what you love. Do you have any other helpful hints for aspiring novelists?
I have two bits of advice for aspiring novelists. The first is to just write. Write freely without that nagging inner critic on your shoulder. There is always time to go back to edit and revise. My second tip is to write the book you want to read. We spend so much time on our projects it’s vital that we are passionate about our stories we want to tell and the characters we create. If we aren’t, it’s difficult to maintain the momentum needed to take an idea from the initial spark to the final draft. That’s not to say that there might be times when you want to throw your manuscript against a wall. There will. But if you are writing the book that you want to read, it’s more likely you’ll bend down, pick up the pages, and get back to work because you’ll want to find out how it all ends.
To be a commercially viable author takes a lot of work in addition to writing a fabulous story. What is your least favorite part of the business side of being a successful novelist?
Deadlines! I’m only half kidding. I actually need the structure of strict deadlines, but they still stress me out.
What do you enjoy the most about promoting your books?
It’s definitely the people. Whether it’s chatting with readers online, meeting with book clubs, or traveling to bookstores and libraries, I love connecting with fellow booklovers. So many amazing people have come into my life during this journey.
Heather Gudenkauf is the critically acclaimed author of eight novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Weight of Silence. She lives in Iowa with her husband and children.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.