A Chat With Acclaimed Author Sandra Block…

Sandra A. Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan, and lives at home with her husband, two children, and impetuous yellow lab Delilah. She has been published in both medical and poetry journals. Sandra is the author of three highly acclaimed Zoe Goldman novels – Little Black Lies is her debut, The Girl Without a Name and The Secret Room. Lisa Scottoline says, “Sandra Block’s heroine is smart, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and laugh-out-loud funny.  I am a forever-fan of the Zoe Goldman series and will read anything Block writes. You should too.” The New York Times Book Review also has high praise for Sandra ~ “A psychological suspense story smartly narrated…Zoe has a quick wit that emerges in wickedly unexpected ways.”

Heather Gudenkauf: As you know, I’m a huge fan of your Dr. Zoe Goldman series, suspense novels featuring a caring but quirky psychiatrist. I think I read LITTLE BLACK LIES in one sitting. Your newest Zoe novel was released this spring and you were kind enough to let me get a sneak peek of THE SECRET ROOM. Thank you!

I read that you are a practicing neurologist, that you are married, a mom of two and that gave me more reasons to be thoroughly impressed with you!  Your character of Zoe Goldman, a brilliant, passionate and complicated young doctor, immediately leapt off the page for me. Where did Zoe come from?

Sandra Block: Hello! First of all, thank you for your kind words about me and Zoe! I’m honestly not sure where she comes from, probably my subconscious somewhere. We’re alike in some ways, and very different in others. She’s above six feet (I’m vertically challenged) and she has ADHD, which I don’t. But, we are both doctors in the brain field (though I’m a neurologist, as you said). When I was thinking of the character, she spoke to me loudly…very loudly. She would not be ignored. I figured out her diagnosis by her voice, and the rest was history. Plotting the books was sometimes a challenge, but the voice was always easy.

So, Heather, question for you! Let me first say that I am a great admirer of you and your writing. Little Mercies was a fave, though I really enjoyed Missing Pieces too and anxious await Not a Sound on May 30th. (Starred Publisher’s Weekly Review?? You go girl!) Anyway, here’s my question, and I hope it doesn’t sound silly. Your books often feature a beloved dog (which you cleverly allow your readers to help name 🙂 Why do you think pets are woven into many of your books? Do you have a favorite pet or pet memory that stands out for you? (Pics are kindly encouraged)

Heather Gudenkauf: Not a silly question at all! I’ve always been an animal lover and growing up we always have had pets of all sorts. And when I say all sorts I mean ALL sorts. Over the years we had (but not all at the same time) dogs, guinea pics, hamsters, hermit crabs, cats, birds and even a tarantula. But to be fair, for awhile my mom didn’t know about the tarantula.

When I was ten we got a black miniature poodle named Raven. My mom wasn’t a fan of that name so she changed it to Foo Foo. Foo was a sweet, silly dog who was afraid of her own shadow and of birds. She would duck whenever a bird flew overhead. True story: after we had Foo Foo for several years my mom decided to change her name to Emma – she thought that sounded more dignified. Needless to say, Emma – Foo Foo – Raven was confused for a while.

Currently, we have a very spoiled German Shorthaired pointer named Lolo and who is my constant companion and I know you have a yellow lab named Delilah that you describe as impetuous.

Anyhoo, I’ve always included dogs in my novels I think because they can provide such comfort and companionship, something that I think many of my readers can relate to. In my newest novel, NOT A SOUND, I feature a service dog named Stitch who plays a major role in this story and also provides some comic relief.

Heather Gudenkauf: THE SECRET ROOM is your third novel in the Zoe Goldman series and with all the twists and turns you had me guessing to the very end. So what’s next? Do you have more in store for Zoe or will your next novel take a different direction?

Sandra Block: Ah yes, dogs can certainly provide comic relief! As for Zoe, she’s going on a hiatus for a while. I can’t say if or when she’ll be back, but I’ll never say never. I think her arc has come to a good close, and I wouldn’t be too sad if this were her last hurrah. She got her chance to speak…I have a new book coming out with a new publisher for the summer of 2018 however! It’s psychological suspense but a departure from the Zoe novels. It’s about a young woman named Dahlia who was attacked at a college party and has no memory of the event. But when a tape resurfaces of the attack five years later, she and her computer-savvy (and handsome 🙂 coworker decide to take cold, vigilante-style revenge. I like to call it a “revenge love story”!

Now, here’s a writer-to-writer question for you. I’ve noticed from some of your Facebook posts that you seem to be a full-on plotter (as am I). I saw you even provided an actual map of the book’s area, complete with post-office and local creek. Can you tell me some of your “tricks of the trade” for plotting and outlining? The tried-and-true ones as well as the “Heather specials”?

Heather Gudenkauf: Though I’ll miss Zoe, I CANNOT wait to for your newest – it sounds right up my alley! I am intrigued by the technology twist to the novel – it seems that cameras are everywhere and everything we do is archived whether we want it to be or not.

My writing process has definitely evolved over the years and varies from project to project. I found that in my current work in progress I really needed to have a plot plan. The novel is told in multiple points of view with a pretty compressed time frame so I had to make sure that the timeline was accurate – thus the massive timeline I have affixed to my wall! I also created a map of the town where the story is set for my reference and referred to it often as I wrote.

However, there are times when the story just takes on a life of its own and the characters have zero respect for my careful plotting and do their own thing. I’ve learned to that when this happens to just go with it – my characters can be pretty insistent when they need to be.

I also have a writer-to-writer question for you. When do you let others see what you working on? Do you have beta readers take a peek at your novel or do you get the entire novel down on paper first?

Sandra Block: Haha! I love it when characters have zero respect for their author!

As for letting others read my work-in-progress, I don’t actually do it. I don’t have beta readers or a writing group or critique partners. I’ve just never worked that way. However, I do show my final draft to my agent. She has an excellent editorial sense, and will give me both broad and specific feedback that I find extremely helpful. I trust her judgement absolutely. But, having said that…If you are ever looking for a reader-friend, I’m available! (I’ll show you mine if you show me yours 🙂

Anyhoo…moving on…another question for you. At this point, you have an oeuvre. (For those who don’t know, that’s a fancy name for a body of work. I like that word because it makes me sound smart). Anyhoo again… out of this oeuvre, do you have a favorite book? If so, why? Is it a specific character or scene? A memory of a joyful time while writing it? Do tell!

Heather Gudenkauf: I love learning something new! Now I’m going to use the word oeuvre as often as I can. It is so hard to pick a favorite book ~ there are some things that I love about each and some aspects that were beyond challenging. I guess if I had to choose, I do have a soft spot for Amelia and Stitch ~ the dynamic duo in my newest novel, NOT A SOUND. I love their relationship and how they lean on one another.

One last question for you, Sandra. What reading material is on your bedside table right now?

Sandra Block: Funny you should ask! I’m currently reading Charles Todd’s Racing the Devil. (Shout out to Murder On the Beach Books for getting me a signed copy!) I love this historical mystery series. The WWI England setting is soft and moody with a fascinating main character, who has shell-shock from the war. I just finished the latest Alexander McCall Smith’s, Precious and Grace, from Africa – another series that I adore.  Before that, I inhaled I Let You Go, which was addictive and so twisty that I almost got dizzy. I tore through What She Knew by Gilly MacMillan before that, and couldn’t stop until I found out what happened to Ben. Then, yesterday, I was shopping at Wegmans and the weirdest thing happened. Something jumped into my shopping cart!

Heather Gudenkauf: Books do that to me too ~ a strange phenomenon! Thank you, Sandra Block, for taking the time to be my pen pal and I’m hoping that one day we’ll be able to meet in person!

Readers – you can connect with Sandra too!

Website: http://www.sandraablock.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sandraablockauthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/block_sandra

Writing, Reading, Dogs and More ~ A Chat With NYT Bestselling Author Chevy Stevens

New York Times Bestselling author Chevy Stevens’ highly acclaimed novels have been described as fierce, pulse pounding, haunting and harrowing and her newest, NEVER LET YOU GO (a Publishers Weekly, Starred Review by the way) is one of my favorites of the year. I’ve been a fan of Chevy’s since STILL MISSING and she was kind enough to join me in conversation about writing, reading and our mutual love for dogs.

Heather Gudenkauf: Though we’ve never met in person, I knew you had to be someone pretty special not only for your fabulous novels but for the fact that when I reached out to fellow authors to donate signed novels that I was gathering for a young woman battling cancer and you arranged to have a huge box of books to be sent my way. That was so thoughtful ~ thank you! I, like many others, fell in love with your writing when I read your debut novel, STILL MISSING.

Your sixth novel, NEVER LET YOU GO, was recently released to rave reviews. It’s the story of a woman and her child who escape an abusive relationship and eleven years later the threat returns. I was immediately drawn into the story of Lindsey and Sophie Nash – you have such a gift for developing real, relatable characters. It’s the age old chicken and the egg story – do the characters come to you first or does the plot?

Chevy Stevens: It’s been different for each book. With STILL MISSING, the premise came to me when I was a real estate agent, working all alone at an open house. I imagined all the terrible thingsthat could happen, and somehow it began to evolve into a book idea. For months I thought about it in the back of my mind. One day I “heard” the character talking in a sarcastic, tough voice. She was telling the story to someone and quickly I realized she was talking to a therapist. Annie wasn’t a big stretch of the imagination because she was a lot like me at that time in my life–dark, unhappy, and trying to find her way through her pain. My third book ALWAYS WATCHING was inspired by Nadine, the therapist from my first two books. I thought she deserved her own story and I wanted to know more about her. NEVER LET YOU GO was an unusual situation for me. I had been working on a different book for nine months and it wasn’t coming together. After talking it over with my editor, I decided to set it to the side and start something new, but I was nervous about finding something fresh, something I could connect to. My editor and I discussed my strengths and the kind of characters I write the best, which so far seem to be blue-collar, hard-working women, who end up in terrible situations and have to use their inner strength, courage, and intelligence to survive. We discussed some jobs that are difficult and not always appreciated, like cleaning houses, and what would be really creepy to find if you were working alone. Then I started thinking about who would want to scare Lindsey and why. The story grew from there.

In your new book, NOT A SOUND, which I can’t wait to read, your character loses her hearing after an accident. I wondered how you researched something like that and what challenges it brought up for you. I noticed you also have a service dog. Being a crazy-dog lover, I want to know if you were able to meet some real-life service dogs. Whenever I see a working dog, it kills me not to pet them!

Heather Gudenkauf: I love how your characters talk to you  – I’m glad I’m not the only one that happens to!

I did do a lot of research for NOT A SOUND which features Amelia who after a hit and run accident is left profoundly deaf. I read books and articles, visited with a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students and interviewed my brother who is a doctor of audiology. I also reached out to readers who are deaf and they gave me priceless feedback for which I am eternally grateful. I happen to have a significant hearing loss and while I can hear, I have an understanding of some of the challenges in communicating with others.

I’m a dog lover too and have a very spoiled German shorthaired pointer who is constantly at my side. As for Stitch, the service dog in NOT A SOUND, he could be my favorite character to date. He’s this big loyal lug of a dog who comes to Amelia with plenty of his own baggage and manages to steal the show.  My experience with service dogs is limited, I relied on listening to podcasts and books about training service dogs. I do have a friend who recently had a service dog paired with her diabetic daughter in order to help monitor blood sugar levels. I know that the protocol is to not pet a service dog as it may distract from their work so I’m careful about that too. Today, incidentally, while I was at the doctor’s office a man came in with his service dog and he was happy to have people interact with his dog.

I just finished NEVER LET YOU GO  – which, by the way  is my favorite novel of yours to date (and I really love your novels)– and was immediately drawn to the character of Lindsey and her journey to escape an abusive marriage.  In the very first chapter you managed to capture such intense fear and helplessness in Lindsey as well as a sense of determination-I knew that Lindsey was going to be a force to be reckoned with. How do you gear yourself up for writing such intense, emotional scenes? Do you have any special writing rituals that you rely on?

Chevy Stevens: Your research sounds fascinating—and also profound. You must have had to explore many emotions in writing her experience. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your life change overnight like that. I love your description of Stitch. I’ve always had such a close connection with my dogs and I love when I feel that from a character in a book as well. I truly believe dogs are angels on Earth.

Thanks for your kinds words about NEVER LET YOU GO! I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote that first chapter. I’m thrilled it connected with you. I usually work on a scene for days, weeks, and then back again on various drafts, so the emotion becomes watered down for me over time. But when I first start to flesh out an intense scene, I usually wait until I’m well rested. Morning is best for me. Sometimes I will play music to get myself into the right emotional space. I close my eyes, thinking about my character, the setting, and work hard to put myself into their situation, imagining how I’d react, what actions I might take, then I write in a very fast and raw way, without any censoring. I can fix things later.

Speaking of writing rituals, I am always fascinated by about other writers’ quirks. I like to use ear plugs, and I can only use one kind of keyboard. Do you have any specific routines or superstitions?

Heather Gudenkauf: I love hearing about how you set the stage for your writing and it really shines through in your characters. I was really struck by the mother-daughter relationship between Lindsey and Sophie in NEVER LET YOU GO. I thought you really captured the close, complicated relationship of two people who have gone through traumatic life experiences together.

I absolutely have my writing quirks. I begin each novel in longhand and eventually transfer what I’ve written to the computer. I know it’s no necessarily an efficient way to write, but putting pen to paper really seems to bring a story to life for me. I also listen to music as I write, choosing what I think one of my characters might listen to. I’ve also been known to have a large Diet Coke next to me on my desk while I’m writing and of course, Lolo is always nearby. I always tend to have my most productive writing sessions after I go for a long hike with Lolo. There’s something about being outdoors and being able to mull things over that helps me with the creative process.

I’m always looking for new books to read. What’s on your bedside table these days?

Chevy Stevens: Wow, I am seriously impressed. I can’t imagine the patience it takes to write in longhand and then transfer everything. For one, I have terrible handwriting so I probably wouldn’t even be able to read my own notes. I agree that walking with a dog is a wonderful way to think through problems.

I always have a few books on the go. I recently finished Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Hourglass, and A Streetcat Named Bob, by James Bowen. I’m varied in my taste! There’s something about memoirs that I love. I’m reading a book called HOW NOT TO DIE, which is fascinating. It’s all about a plant-based diet. The other one I have is THE LAST UNICORN. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. The movie sticks out in my memories as a child and I’d like to try my hand at writing fantasy one day. When I’m not reading one of those I have an ARC of Wendy Walker’s new book, EMMA IN THE NIGHT and it’s gripping.

Heather Gudenkauf: These all sound like great reads, thank you! Chevy, it’s been great to get to know you a little better through our conversations and I can’t wait until we get to meet in person!

Chevy Stevens: Thank you so much for all these great questions! I look forward to being able to meet you one day in real life at a conference so we can compare doggie photos and procrastinate about writing. Two of my favorite things. If you throw some snacks in there, I might never go home.

Readers ~ NEVER LET YOU GO is a thriller that will not soon forget! Be prepared to start reading and not be able to stop – so clear your calendar! Want to learn more about Chevy and her fabulous novels? Visit https://cheystevens.com

Heather Gudenkauf and Lisa Unger, in Conversation ~ Kung Fu, Home Renovation, and Nice Places with Dark Secrets

I have a new pen pal! The amazing Lisa Unger and I corresponded back and forth about life, writing and all kinds of other stuff. Check it out here. http://lisaunger.com/2017/02/heather-gudenkauf-conversation/The-Red-Hunter-Thumb NotASound

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MISSING PIECES has been named a Indie Next Great Read for February!

Ramona & Her Father ~ Christmas 1979

Join me as I go back to December 2009 when I penned this blog for Bookreporter.com  ~ a fabulous site for  readers and writers.

Heather Gudenkauf — author of THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE — thinks back to one holiday from her childhood, when she learned a valuable lesson from a hasty decision and the help of a favorite book.

The holiday season was always a wonderfully chaotic time in my childhood home. With six children, two adults, a dog, a finch, two gerbils, and several hermit crabs all living under one roof, we had our share of adventures and misadventures. But unmistakably, we always had each other.

One of the most wonderful gifts I received the Christmas I was nine wasn’t from Santa Claus, but from my mom and dad. I could tell by its shape and heft that inside was a box of books. Books were highly valued in our home, but being the youngest of six, I rarely had a brand new, unmarred book of my own. I always received the chocolate-smeared, doodled-on books they didn’t want anymore. On Christmas Eve, with anticipation, I tore into the package and found a box set of Beverly Cleary books including one of my all-time favorites, RAMONA AND HER FATHER. Growing up, I wanted to be Ramona Quimby. I loved her sassiness, I loved her wonderful imagination, and I loved all the predicaments she got herself into and out of. Unfortunately, my personality was more akin to Ramona’s mild-mannered, best friend Howie than to Ramona’s free-spiritedness. While the snow swirled and the wind blew, I spent the remainder of my holiday break ensconced in my toy box, wrapped in a sleeping bag, holding a flashlight and reading my Beverly Cleary books. In RAMONA AND HER FATHER, Ramona managed to get a crown of burs stuck on her head, accused her teacher of having wrinkly elephant ankles, and called the elderly neighbor lady pie face. But in that same book Ramona also managed to convince her father to quit smoking, taught the reader how to make tin can stilts, was the best lamb in the Christmas play even though her costume was made up of old pajamas with faded bunnies on them, and taught me the lesson that family is what is most important.

Yes ~ this is the very book from 1979!

Yes ~ this is the very book from 1979!

 

In a matter of days, I had finished reading my books. Even at the age of nine, I was always on the search for something new to read, so I braved the cold and walked to a local used book store where I could trade my books in for credit toward more books. As I handed over my box of Beverly Cleary novels that my parents had just given me for Christmas, I knew I was doing the wrong thing, but that didn’t stop me. As I went to bed that night, my new books piled by my bedside, I found no joy in the adventures within their pages. I knew how hard my parents worked, I knew how carefully they picked out those books for me, but still I had given them away with little thought. And for what? A few used books, which on closer inspection, had stained pages that smelled liked mildew. I couldn’t sleep that night knowing that my actions hurt my parents’ feelings. The next morning, still feeling guilty, I asked my sister what I should do. “Go back and get them,” she told me simply. And not for the first time, and certainly not the last, I understood the wisdom in my sister’s advice.

I attempted to make coffee can stilts  ~ not as easy as it looks.

I attempted to make coffee can stilts ~ not as easy as it looks.

I dug into my earnings from shoveling snow and tromped back to the bookstore. After a few frantic moments scanning the shelves in hopes of finding my box of books, I saw them, still within their case, still shiny and new looking. I paid for my books and brought them home with me, where they belonged. Now that was just the thing Ramona Quimby would have done.

I still have that copy of RAMONA AND HER FATHER. The pages are stained and smell a little like mildew, but no matter, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have shared my love for Ramona and the other characters that live on Beverly Cleary’s Klickitat Street with my own children. We have laughed over Ramona’s feistiness, groaned over the dilemmas she gets herself into, and pondered over the lesson that Ramona always manages to teach us… that family is the gift to be valued most.

— Heather Gudenkauf