New York Times Bestselling author

Heather Gudenkauf and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

Kung Fu, Home Renovation, and Nice Places with Dark Secrets

Praised as masterful, intelligent, and terrifyingly real, Heather Gudenkauf’s novels have won awards, raced to the top of bestseller lists, and kept plenty of readers up past their bedtimes – me included.  After reading her upcoming novel NOT A SOUND, I sensed that we were tackling similar themes in our work – trauma, victimhood, redemption – and that we’d have LOTS to talk about.  We did!  Eavesdrop on our chat about everything from complicated, flawed characters, “idyllic towns” with dark underbellies, to how horrible events from childhood worked their way into our stories.

Heather Gudenkauf and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

Lisa Unger:  I think we first met in person at the Tucson Book Festival last spring.  But it seemed as if we were always running past each other, on our separate ways to different panels or talks.  I kept thinking, “Hey, she looks cool.  I wish we could find a minute to grab a coffee!”  Then a couple months later you reached out and sent me a copy of your upcoming novel NOT A SOUND.  Which I loved!  Thank you!  And then you sent me chocolate!  Thank you again!  When I read that you are a homebody, and a dog lover (love your pictures of Lolo), and that you would rather be with your family than anywhere else, I realized that, obviously, we’re soul mates.  We HAD to have a chat.  So, thanks for agreeing to be my pen pal!

In NOT A SOUND, your protagonist Amelia Winn is deaf.  You handle that so well, do such a good job of communicating the silence of her world.  What made you want to explore that in your fiction?  What challenges did it pose in writing?

Heather Gudenkauf:  We did meet at the Tucson Book Festival!  I remember seeing you in the hotel lobby and wishing we had more time to visit.  I’m a big fan of your books and was thrilled when you had such kind words to say about NOT A SOUND.  The character of Amelia is one of my most complicated, endearing characters to-date.  Though I have a profound unilateral hearing loss I can hear and when I decided to write from the perspective of a deaf character I knew I was in for a challenge.  I found myself inadvertently including sounds in the early drafts.  Writing a novel with the absence of sound made me focus more deeply on other aspects of the novel -the relationship between characters, the inner struggles of Amelia.

As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of your writing and am so excited about your upcoming release THE RED HUNTER.  The novel centers around two women who have a chilling connection.  An important element of the novel is the restoration of an old house and martial arts.  I’ve always wanted to restore an old house and am obsessed with HGTV.  Have you ever taken on any restoration projects?  How about martial arts training?

Lisa Unger:  Ah!  I wondered about that, if you had to edit later drafts.  I KNOW that would happen to me. I’m always drawing from all the senses to flesh out scenes and ground the story in the moment.  I’d be editing out birds, and rippling creeks, and the wind!  But I see your point, how eliminating one sense would sharpen the other elements of the novel.

I studied Kung Fu for eight years and gave it up when I became pregnant with my daughter.  Motherhood drained my will to spar, not to mention the fact that I no longer had the time.  But I recently took up kick boxing, and some of that energy returned.  I loved so much about the martial arts when I first started, and some of that fighting spirit came back to me in training.  Reconnecting to that part of myself, remembering that phase in my life, was at least part of the inspiration for THE RED HUNTER.

I have always wanted to restore an old house, too!  We did a big renovation project on our 1968 home a few years ago, but I wasn’t brave enough to take it on myself.  It’s one of those things that channels like HDTV make look so easy, as if anyone can do it!  But the act of tearing a house down to the studs, taking a sledge hammer to what’s there, ripping out old walls, rebuilding, is challenging and unpredictable even for professionals.  Still, my husband and I have done many things ourselves over the years.  And what I know about home repair is, like life, things rarely go as expected and sometimes you must call in the professionals to clean up the mess you’ve made.  Still I was interested in that idea of renovation as reinvention, how Claudia uses the project as a way of starting over and rebuilding her life.  Naturally, things don’t go that way.  At all.

I’m kind of sucker for the flawed, struggling main character.  That’s why I loved Amelia.  She’s had a horrible thing happen to her, and she lets it send her the downward spiral into addiction.  My characters are never based on any one person or idea, so I know it’s a complicated question.  But what was the germ or the inspiration for Amelia?  What were you most interested in about her journey?

Heather Gudenkauf:  I love that you trained in Kung Fu and continue to take part in kick boxing and that you were able to weave those experiences into your novel!  I think I need to take up pilates or fencing or maybe even triathlon training for my next book – great research and I could get in shape too!

Amelia is one of my most complicated characters to date.  As someone who has a profound unilateral hearing loss (a fancy way of saying I’m deaf in one ear) I have wondered what it might be like to lose my hearing completely and I attempted to explore this through writing.  I also wanted to explore a character who must find a way to rebuild her life from the ground up.  Amelia lost her hearing, her job, and her husband and step-daughter.  The breakdown of her life wasn’t due to her deafness but because of the choices she made – turning to alcohol and isolating herself from her husband and others.  I wanted to take Amelia through the journey of rebuilding life and in the process, she finds that she has a big impact on the lives of others.  It sounds like Amelia from NOT A SOUND and Claudia and Zoey from THE RED HUNTER have something in common – reclaiming their lives.

My novels are primarily set in Iowa, the state where I grew up and continue to live – and a reader can often find references to real towns and spots in my fictionalized settings.  It’s always a treat when I hear from readers that they recognize a specific location from my descriptions.  I’m fascinated to learn why other authors choose particular settings for their novels.  I’d love to hear about the setting of THE RED HUNTER.  Did you base it on a real or fictional locale?  What was your inspiration?

Lisa Unger:  Though I have lived in Florida for the last 16 years, I was born and lived much of my childhood, when not living overseas, in the Northeast.  So, I tend to return to the Tri-State Area in my fiction.  Most often lately, I’m dwelling in my fictional town called The Hollows.  But THE RED HUNTER is set in yet another fictional town in New Jersey called Lost Valley.  I grew up in a place called Long Valley, and as a joke my friends and I often referred to it as Lost Valley because as teenagers we found it so stultifying dull.  Like all fictional places, it is its own thing, and wasn’t truly inspired by that place.  But then in ways it is.  That’s the trick of fictional towns — they’re part imagination, part memory.  I like fictional places because I make all the rules.

That said, I’m not sure why I keep winding up back in these isolated, part rural, part suburban areas — especially when I so despised it growing up.  From an early age, I was chomping at the bit to get to New York City, where I went to college and lived for 13 years.

Some dark things happened in the town where I grew up, and those events have stayed with me and even inspired some of my work.  I keep going back to this idea that there are these idyllic every towns, where people think nothing bad can ever happen.  But then bad things happen anyway, because bad things happen everywhere.  It’s part of my obsession with what’s going on beneath the surface of things.

There’s definitely a common theme between THE RED HUNTER and NOT A SOUND.  Amelia, Claudia, and Zoey are all victims of violent crime.  They all chose very different paths forward.  Amelia chooses to let her life spiral into addiction.  Zoey chooses to fight violence with violence.  And Claudia is kind of white-knuckling her way into the light, though her behavior might be self-destructive in some ways, too.  It’s another obsession I have. What happens after the worst day?  What kind of person gets up and finds her way to a new normal?  What kind of person stays down?  Who lets the darkness overtake them?  I think you have a background in social work.  Is that right?  Do you have any insight into what personality traits are most likely to contribute to recovery after violence?  Did you draw on that experience when exploring Amelia?

Heather Gudenkauf:  I can completely relate to the idea that it is often the most idyllic of towns that have this nefarious underbelly – everything looks wonderful on the surface but once you look more closely – not so much.  Like you, I tend to explore what happens when regular, everyday people must face difficult, sometimes unspeakable situations.  I grew up in a mid-size Iowa city called Mason City.  It was a great place to grow up – we were the “big town” surrounded by smaller, rural town.  But I also grew up in the era of the milk carton kids ~ when the faces of missing children were printed on milk cartons and stranger danger was taught in schools.  When I was twelve, Johnny Gosch, also twelve years old, went missing while delivering newspapers early one morning.  He only lived a few hours from where I lived and I think that’s when the carefree childhood I was lucky enough to have was marred.  My first novel, THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE, tackles the topic of missing children and though a very different scenario than the Johnny Gosch case, it certainly brought to mind the emotions I felt decades earlier.

My background is in elementary education.  Over the last twenty-five years I’ve been a classroom teacher, was an instructional coach and am currently my district’s Title I Reading Coordinator and Middle School Language Arts Coordinator.  Just about every novel I’ve written has a child that is somehow integral to the story.  I have always been amazed at the resiliency of children.  Though my novels are not based on real life events, I am definitely inspired by the optimistic and irrepressible nature of children.  Many of my novels deal with a mother’s love – in its many, complicated forms, for their children.  In NOT A SOUND, Amelia is exceptionally close to her step-daughter, Nora, but due to her spiral into alcoholism she jeopardizes this relationship and has to fight harder than she ever imagined in order to re-establish this connection.  As to the question of what personality traits are most likely to contribute to recovery after violence, I’ve found in my work with children and their families, that it’s the feeling of self-worth that can be the driving force to reclaiming their lives.  I’ve also found that children and adults who have some kind of support system in place that are the most successful. That support system can be another family member, a close friend, a teacher, a mentor or a social services organization that can make all the difference.  Amelia, the victim of a hit and run, turns to alcohol to cope with her pain but manages to remember and recognize that she has so much to live for: her step-daughter, her family, her friendships and her desire to work as a nurse again.

As a writer, coming up with the titles for my novels can be so challenging.  Most of the time the working title I choose for a book doesn’t end up as the final title.  I find the titles of your novels so intriguing: INK AND BONE, THE WHISPERING HOLLOWS, and of course THE RED HUNTER.  They make me want to immediately pick them up and start reading.  How do you come up with your titles?  What’s the story behind the THE RED HUNTER?

Lisa Unger:  Ah, elementary school education, that’s right.  What better place to learn about the human condition?

I had a similar experience growing up.  When I was fifteen, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered.  This event, in a town where people moved their families from the city to be safe, changed the way I saw the world.  And it was my novel FRAGILE in which I tackled the emotions, fears, and questions that I had carried since them.  It’s not a retelling of that event, but certainly I brought forth what I had experienced during that sad, dark time.

I have such a hard time with titles!  Titles that I come up with and think are fantastic, my publisher will inevitably hate.  Titles I hate and I’m certain my publisher will change, they usually love!  THE RED HUNTER is one of those rare titles that I knew was perfect, and my publisher liked, too.  It comes from Zoey’s inner life.  She is a student of Kung Fu, and her mentor teaches her the power of meditation, of connecting to the breath.  When she meditates, she enters the watcher mind, the place inside that’s a separate observer of the chaos of our thoughts.  As opposed to the thinker, who chatters and worries.  But inside Zoey, there’s yet another layer which she thinks of The Red Hunter.  But folks will have to read the book to understand who The Red Hunter is, and what she wants.  Buckle up!

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

THE RED HUNTER by Lisa Unger releases April 25. Visit LisaUnger.com to learn more.

NOT A SOUND by Heather Gudenkauf releases May 30. Visit HeatherGudenkauf.com for more about Heather and her fantastic books!