It’s every parent’s nightmare: leaving a child in a hot car, and becoming the focus of an investigation and a community’s scrutiny. Heather Gudenkauf explores this horrifying and all-too-real scenario in her new novel Little Mercies, in which a social worker experiences the system she knows so well turning on her. Bookish caught up with Heather at BookExpo America, and chatted about her experience as an educator, running to clear her head, and why she empathizes with young mothers in particular.
Bookish: What are you reading right now that you’re really excited about?
Heather Gudenkauf: I just finished Adi Alsaid’s Let’s Get Lost. It’s a journey book, and I just thought he really nailed the voice of young people. As an educator, you pick up on that pretty quickly, and it sounds very authentic and honest and poignant. And I think it crosses over well; I don’t think it’s just for young adults. I enjoyed it a ton.
Bookish: Are there any authors you’re particularly excited about potentially bumping into at BEA this year?
HG: There are. I just had the opportunity to meet Jane Smiley, and I’m a huge Jane Smiley fan. I grew up in Iowa and my favorite novel by her is A Thousand Acres, which is actually is set in the town I grew up in. So, I got to chat with her and that was a highlight.
I haven’t been able to meet him yet, but there’s a young gentleman, Josh Sundquist, whose book Just Don’t Fall came out a couple years ago. It’s a memoir about having childhood cancer. I’d love to meet him. And so many more!
Bookish: I read that you’re a runner. Does being a runner impact your process as a writer?
HG: It does. I love to run. I’m very slow, but I still call myself somewhat of a runner. I just find it very relaxing, and it’s a good way to clear my head. Especially when I get a story and I’m kind of in knots about it, it’s a good way to really start thinking through and come up with different ideas. I find it very therapeutic.
Bookish: Your newest book, Little Mercies, hinges on a single incident that challenges your protagonist’s whole identity as a mother. What inspired you to take on these issues?
HG: Initially, it came from a news story that I had heard about: A social worker was charged criminally because of a really big case load, and a child was hurt when there should’ve been someone watching a little more closely. That really got me thinking. I’m in education as well, and we’re there to serve families and kids—what would happen if we found ourselves in a situation where we’re on the other side of the system? So as a writer and a mom of three, I was really interested in exploring that. I think about all the close calls that we have as mothers. What if I answered my cell phone on that busy street? What if I took my eyes off of my kids while they were at the playground? It was a lot to explore.
Bookish: How did your background in elementary education inform your approach to this book?
HG: I’ve been in education for over 20 years and worked with families from all different walks of life, and one thing I’ve learned over time is that everyone’s doing the best they can. Everyone’s lives are really busy and chaotic, and it’s really hard to find balance. I’m sure it’s always been the case, but it just seems like there are so many demands on people’s time and energy these days. As an educator, a working mom, and a writer, I’ve really had a chance to see that. Trying to find that balance has really been a challenge.
Bookish: It seems like you have a lot of empathy for your protagonist.
HG: I do. I very much empathize—especially with young mothers today. There’s a lot of high expectations and pressures and just a lot to deal with.
Bookish: How did you go about researching social work as a profession for this book?
HG: I was able to meet a wonderful social worker in our town. She met with me several times and was able to share with me, anonymously of course, the ins and outs of some of the cases she’s worked on. We talked about how hard it is to let go of your job at the end of the day and take care of your own family, and what a challenge that can be. I think that’s often the case in a lot of service professions. Police work, teaching… It’s hard to let that go. She was a great person to have as a contact.
I also met with a family law attorney, who was able to help me navigate the legal system in the book. And our local police chief gave me a tour of the jail and the booking process. Thankfully, that was new to me.
Bookish: It seems like your book is very much about justice, and how it’s often complicated, not always black and white. Did you set out to write a book that painted a more nuanced picture of the idea of justice?
HG: I think so. The protagonist is a middle class, working mom who found herself in difficult position, and people are faced with that every day. I think what this situation did for the character in the novel is that it allowed her to see her clients in a different light. The story causes us, as readers, to pause for a moment, and take note that everybody’s going through something, everybody has difficult times. Not that that excuses anything, but maybe we should look at people with a more gentle lens.
Bookish: A lot of the online reactions to this book have been from mothers who are seized with the fear that they could make the same mistake your protagonist does. What do you hope your readers take away from this book other than empathy and understanding?
HG: To be kinder with themselves. Trying to strike that balance is so difficult. But also to be a little bit more aware—it’s always good to be more aware. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own little worlds that we don’t think about the consequences of a moment of distraction.
Heather Gudenkauf is an Edgar Award nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. Heather lives in Iowa with her husband and children. In her free time Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and running.