Heather Gudenkauf’s three novels have nearly 1 million copies in print and she’s been a finalist for the Edgar Awards, but the Iowa native doesn’t have a teaching spot in a prestigious MFA program, nor does she spend her days churning out more bestselling novels. Instead, she works a full-time job as the Title I Reading Coordinator for the Dubuque school system. She has no set time or place to write; she waits for her family to go out, or when they are all asleep. She makes use of sticky notes that read “Do Not Enter.” “I write whenever I can,” said Gudenkauf. “I know when I get those free minutes that’s what I have to do.”
It’s somewhat difficult to imagine an author as successful as Gudenkauf spending the bulk of her time making phone calls and attending meetings—doing nine-to-five things for her job, to provide resources and support to schools with high poverty rates. But any difficulty vanishes the moment you start talking with her, and it becomes clear how devoted she is to her job, and that writing—the more glamorous venture—is something she fits around it, not the other way around.
“I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher one day,” said Gudenkauf, who comes from a family of teachers. Her father was a high school counselor on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and her mother was a school nurse. When the family moved to Iowa, her father became director for a home for children and teens, and later a school psychologist until his retirement. Gudenkauf has a degree in elementary education, and has taught fourth grade (in the exact same classroom when she attended grade school in Mason City, Iowa), as well as sixth and seventh grade, special needs classes, and gifted third grade classes.
When she began writing novels, it became a natural complement to her career in the school system, especially in the case of her newest book, One Breath Away, published in July 2012. The novel takes place in the small Iowa town of Broken Branch (modeled after Wellman, Iowa, whose town motto is “A Town That Cares”) on a day in which an unknown man enters an elementary school classroom with a gun, and a hostage situation ensues. Narrated by the classroom’s teacher, one of Gudenkauf’s goals with the book was to make sure the voice authentically replicated the teaching environment. “It’s so reaffirming to me when fellow educators read my books and say that I was spot on with the scenes and issues that deal with education,” said Gudenkauf. “I think my background in education was vital to the writing of the book.”
Gudenkauf’s formula of working and writing has already paid dividends, and she can’t seem to imagine one without the other. “I feel very fortunate to be able to continue to write novels and to support programs that help our most at-risk students develop into better readers who have a love for books.”
(Year: 2012 / Pub Month: July / Title: One Breath Away / Author: Heather Gudenkauf / Format: Trade w/Flaps / ISBN: 978-0-7783-1365-6 / Price: $15.95 U.S. and $18.95 CAN.)