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August 21, 2009

Heather Gudenkauf: Nature and Novels

Posted by webmaster
The latest Bets On... pick is a debut novel: Heather Gudenkauf's The Weight of Silence. After the disappearance of two young girls, one of whom is selectively mute, family secrets surface. I read this book in one day, drawn in by the Prologue and riveted until the last page. Other readers have been captivated by The Weight of Silence, too. It's a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Today, Heather shares the back story behind the novel, including how hiking played a role.

The idea for The Weight of Silence, the story of two young girls who disappear and the desperate hunt to find them, came about one day as I was hiking in a nature preserve near my home. It was an exceptionally warm day early in spring and as I was trudging up a craggy path, the only sounds were my labored breathing and the rustling of wet leaves and grass beneath my feet. I was by myself and wondered what I would do if I fell and got hurt or if I somehow managed to get myself lost. Then I thought about how terrifying it would be for a young child to be lost in those woods.

Soon after that trek through the forest I went out and bought a beautiful journal and began to write the story in longhand. Interestingly, I began the story in what became the middle of the novel, the point when Antonia first described Calli emerging from the woods. I then rewrote that scene three more times --- in the perspectives of Martin Gregory, Deputy Sheriff Louis and Calli. I knew that the story was going to chronicle the disappearance of the two children and would take place over an approximately twenty four hour period, so it was important to keep the plot moving forward. To do this, I had each of the main characters, through their thoughts, words, and actions, carry a piece of the story to the next character in a sort of feverish relay race.

As I wrote The Weight of Silence, I found myself visiting the nature preserve more and more often. I paid more attention to the plants, flowers and wildlife I encountered along the way, listened more closely to the sounds around me, attempted to see the landscape around me as a child might and tried to incorporate these into the story. A place that once was simply a beautiful, relaxing spot to go hiking became quite eerie to me. I became much more diligent and aware of my surroundings, I rarely went hiking by myself anymore, took my dog along. Just as the woods changed for Calli --- they had changed for me.

As a mother of young children and an elementary teacher, I knew I would need to make the best use of my time and gave myself a year to write the book. I began writing the day after school was out for the summer and finished the first draft just before school started that fall. I set the manuscript aside for a few months and dusted it off over winter break and sent off the first fifty pages to a literary agency that represented authors that I admired. A few weeks into the new year came a request for the remainder of the manuscript and after much collaboration and revision the novel was ready to send off to publishers. Eventually my story found its way to Mira Books and, thankfully, found its home there.

The Weight of Silence, though a story of a parent's worst nightmare, is also a story of hope, forgiveness and second chances. I hope that readers will enjoy reading The Weight of Silence as much as I enjoyed writing it.

---Heather Gudenkauf