About fifteen years ago we set out on a quest to find the perfect pet to join our family. In choosing the pet, the three kids and I had only one criterion: we wanted a dog. My husband was a little more specific ~ a hunting dog. After much research we decided that a German shorthaired pointer was the breed best suited for our family. According to the American Kennel Club, “The German shorthaired pointer thrives as part of an active family. He is an even-tempered, intelligent and loyal family watchdog that has enthusiasm for its work. An athlete, he can adapt to his living situation, but requires consistent exercise.” Later, I learned that “consistent exercise” actually meant “constant” exercise, but I’ll get into that later. Through word of mouth we learned about a man who bred German shorthairs and he had a new litter for sale.
Finally, on a cold April afternoon, the five of us made the two hour drive to meet the puppies. We were instantly enamored with the tiny brown, black and white be-speckled pups, just six weeks old. We all had our favorite and took turns debating the merits of each. We had the decision narrowed down to two puppies when my husband drew our attention to a kennel outside the barn. Inside the shelter was a shivering, small, liver-spotted female about four months old with a dark brown head and sweet amber-colored eyes. We instantly fell in love and Maxine became part of the Gudenkauf household.
Maxine lived up to the definition of a typical German shorthaired pointer, and as I mentioned earlier needed constant exercise. She was a great hunting companion for my husband and loved heading out into the field to point pheasant. If Maxine wasn’t walked or didn’t have the chance to run every day mischievous destruction was sure to follow. Shoes would disappear only to be found later gnawed to bits, food would mysteriously vanish from countertops, especially sticks of butter, and once we discovered a large hole eaten out of the center of our mattress. But Maxine was also patient and smart, loyal and loving. When one of our five was diagnosed with cancer, Maxine, once the bossy center of our household suddenly found herself on the sidelines. We had little time to walk her and between the trips to the hospital, work and school, Maxine was often left home alone for long stretches, but she was always there for whoever needed comfort.
We could cry into her soft fur when we became overwhelmed with the reality of the illness that changed our family forever, was ready and willing when we had a few minutes to take her for her much loved walks, and she would lie patiently at our side, her head on our laps, when we had no energy to do anything else.
Just after Christmas, several years ago, I was in the midst of writing my novel, LITTLE MERCIES, and the dog in the story, Dolly, was modeled after Maxine. It was the least I could do. Through the years, Maxine had been with me during the writing of all my novels, often sitting with me in the desk chair as I wrote. On a sunny, bitter cold winter evening, Maxine died suddenly. She had spent the bulk of the day playing outside with the kids and their cousins, sledding and tromping through the woods. Looking back she had been acting a bit strangely that day. She kept licking at the air, tried to dig through the snow to eat at the dead grass, and she seemed exceptionally tired when she came inside for the day. We figured she ate something that didn’t quite agree with her and it wasn’t until she began whimpering in pain that I called the veterinarian. Since it was a Sunday evening, the after-hours call service promised that the doctor would call me right back. By then it was too late, with the five of us surrounding her, Maxine died. Her passing must have been excruciatingly painful, but mercifully, it was quick, just a matter of a few minutes. The vet surmised that it was most likely gastric volvulus, in simple terms a twisting of the stomach, a condition most common in dog breeds like German shorthaired pointers who have deep chests.
We were devastated. Our home seemed so empty without Maxine. Our perfect for us pet was gone.
Months passed and while we continued to feel the deep loss of Maxine, we were ever mindful of the joy and happiness that having a dog in the home brought our family. The kids and I started casually scanning the newspaper for dogs for sale. I was leaning toward getting a bulldog or a basset hound, the kids were thinking along the lines of a Goldendoodle. My husband, still so sad from losing his hunting buddy, had little interest in a new dog. I, on the other hand, felt that this was just what our family needed. I ramped up the search and when my husband realized we were on the edge of adding a bulldog or a Goldendoodle, decidedly not hunting dogs, to our household, he started including his own two-cents. A Viszla or a Weimaraner, maybe. Both great hunting dog breeds. And possibly, just maybe, another German shorthair.
This was all the encouragement that I needed. I started looking on-line for German shorthair breeders and litters. I stumbled upon a great organization called Great Plains Pointer Rescue, Inc. and filled out the adoption paperwork. We were so close to adopting a needy dog from Great Plains organization when I received an unexpected phone call. It was the breeder, Barry, from whom we received Maxine all those years ago. I had left a message for him a few months before, when we first started looking for a puppy, but I never heard back from him. I assumed that he had stopped raising dogs and continued my search elsewhere. The phone call was a welcomed surprise. I explained who I was and Barry remembered our family and Maxine. I told him how much we loved her, how she was the perfect dog for our family and how she recently passed away. He said he had an eight month old female German shorthaired pointer available if we wanted to come see her. We did.
My husband and I made the trip we had made ten years before through the rolling Iowa countryside. The kids had their various sport and work schedules to contend with so it was just the two of us this time, but they anxiously awaited our phone call telling them what we learned about the dog. We pulled down the long driveway and parked. Just like years before, it was chilly spring day. Four shorthairs, of various ages, were watching us curiously from their kennels. “I hope that’s her,” my husband whispered to me, indicating a young dog that looked nearly identical to Maxine – same dark head and white and brown livered coat. For a moment I could see the boy that I imagined my husband used to be, before I ever knew him. “I really hope that’s her,” he repeated. It was. Barry explained to us that the eight month old pup was recently returned to him by the hunter he sold her to because she was soft, scared of loud noises and shy around others. We didn’t care. She intermittently approached us and then skittered away, but she was sweet and we knew she was the dog for our family. Barry pulled out the puppy’s papers and then went back to his office and pulled out Maxine’s genealogy history. After consulting the documents Barry smiled broadly at us. Our new puppy’s mother was a littermate to Maxine. Maxine was this puppy’s aunt!
We named the puppy Lolo after the Olympic hurdler and Iowa native, Lolo Jones. Our Lolo has seamlessly joined our clan and certainly has made herself at home. I imagine her Aunt Maxine, from the great beyond murmuring in her ear, That spot there, next to the windows, is the best place to soak up the morning sun. And right there, in front of the fireplace is the perfect location to lie down and chew on your bone on cold winter days. You can play in the woods, but don’t go too far (Lolo doesn’t). Don’t chew on shoes, they hate that (Lolo does). And I imagine that Maxine whispers to Lolo about us, her human family ~ all good, I hope.
Everywhere I look this holiday season I see book Christmas trees. On Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram. The pictures make it look so easy. I’m a book lover. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books. I can do this!
9:56 AM: I send off the first 40 pages of my next novel to my editor so she can take a peek. Yay me!
10:15 ~ Head to Menards to pick up some greenery for decorating the house for the holidays. Listen to some Christmas music on the way.
11:30 AM ~ Aw look, some of the kids’ favorite books from when they were little. These are definitely going to be part of the book tree. Except the one with the barcode on the front. Sorry GWMS – it’s only about four years overdue! I’ll return it on Monday.
12:36 AM ~ Lolo wants to help. She’s so cute. I just have to take a pic and post it to FB.
1:39 PM ~ Looking good. I didn’t think the tree would end up this wide though.
2:04 PM ~ It’s getting a little wobbly. I’ll just add a few items to help shore it up. Yes, that’s a bulletin board.
2:20 PM ~ Progress!
2:32 PM ~ The end is in sight.
3:37 PM ~ Done! I think. It looks kind of… I don’t know…
3:39 PM ~ I’m still not sure. It looks kind of widish on the bottom. I text a picture of it to an Unnamed Family Member. No response. I’ll just call her.
Me: I just sent you a picture of my book tree. Will you take a look?
UNFM (Unnamed Family Member): Laughter
Me: What? Doesn’t it look like a tree?
UNFM: More laughter
Me: I’m starting over!
UNFM: I think I might have peed my pants a little (more laughter)
3:59 PM ~ Now this could be a little more manageable. I can do this!
4:15 PM ~ Diet Coke break.
5:06 PM ~ This still doesn’t look right. I text a picture to UNFM.
Me: Why can’t I do this?
UNFM: I could help you on Sunday. Go have some wine. And guac!
Me: I really want to do this!
UNFM: I think it’s looking good…maybe lights would help
Me: Or an architect
UNFM: Hahaha! Oh my goodness, I have laughed waaay to much over this!
6:34 PM ~ Lights help. Right?
6:36 PM ~ Never mind. Drink anyone?
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!
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/