By Leslie Lindsay
Gripping small town thriller about three young girls, a horrific accident, social media and social aggression in Heather Gudenkauf’s newest, BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND.
I’ve been a fan of Heather Gudenkauf’s work since THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE (2008), and always, always look forward to her new releases. I love that she continually writes about Iowa, a gentle reminder that the Midwest has so much to offer–and so much can happen in these small, seemingly ‘boring’ towns–the communities are close-knit and geographically gorgeous with craggy cliffs overlooking river bends, winter wheat fields, and steel-gray sky. Maybe because I’m a Midwesterner at heart, too.
BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND (Park Row/HarperCollins, April 16 2019) features three girls, all aged 12.
Violet: She’s new to town, having recently relocated to Pitch, Iowa from Arizona with her single mother and other brother, Max. She’s eager to fit in and make friends.
Jordyn: The ‘bad egg.’ Jordyn lives with her grandparents, Thomas and Tess because her parents abandoned her when she was young. Thomas and Tess own a local bar and are doing the best they can to raise Jordyn, the daughter they never had. But she’s troubled and often runs hot and cold.
Cora: The ‘good’ local girl. Plays by the book. Sensitive and emotional. Has difficulty fitting in, but generally does the right thing. Lives with mother, father, and older sister, Kendall.
Read an excerpt from WHERE SHE WAS FOUND.
When the girls are placed in the same social studies group at school, the dynamics shift. They have been assigned a project looking at urban legends. Jordyn suggests the group researches the legend of Joseph Wither, a young man who purportedly abducted girls in the 1940s. The legend comes to life, especially for Cora. She is convinced he’s real–but how could that be?
I love this little infographic of Heather’s books. I wasn’t sure if Pitch, Iowa was a real town. Now I know!
BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND starts off with a grisly scene at the train tracks. We then work backward to find out just what happened that night at the train yard via various types of social media: texts between the girls, Cora’s journal entries, police interviews, chat room discussions, and multiple character POVs.
The urban legend of Joseph Wither takes center stage, creating a sense of community claustrophobia, where anyone and everyone could be a suspect. I found the writing eerily compelling and themes of social aggression among girls frighteningly authentic.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Heather Gudenkauf back to the author interview series.
Heather, this book is so eerily creepy. I’m struck by the authenticity of the turbulent relationship between the three girls—Violet, Jordyn, and Cora—and also the draw of this urban legend of Joseph Wither. What was the seed for BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND?
Just like many of my novels, the idea for BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND was inspired by the headlines. Not far from where I live the story of two young girls who were obsessed with an online character called Slender Man that originated as an online meme, hit the news. Over the years, Slender Man, a frightening figure with a blank face, has been the subject of short stories, videos, art work and video games. The girls, believing the entity would hurt them and their families, lured a classmate into a wooded area and attacked her. The attack not only had a devastating impact on the victim and her family, but on the perpetrators, their families and the entire community.
As I began writing the novel, I became more and more aware of many accounts of those who have misused social media by trolling and harassing others from behind a keyboard – sometimes anonymously, sometimes openly. Through my writing I wanted to explore how social media, the lack of mental health services and family dynamics can impact actions and decisions that have life-altering costs to all involved.
I think as long as there are preteen girls, there will be social aggression. But I think the forms of aggression can vary. We’re now living in a digital age where social media can wreak havoc on young lives (and not just girls). In fact, I overheard a news story indicating that teens ages 12-17 are more depressed and anxious than any other age group. That mostly is because this age group hasn’t developed the abstract thought processes to accurately disentangle social media ‘slights.’ What more can you add?
You are right. A new generation has grown up with social media and it has become so ingrained into day to day life. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says one in five children ages 13-18 have, or will have, a serious mental illness and this isn’t news to the educators who work with kids. In fact, when asked, teachers often say that the mental health of their students is their number one concern. Many educators and advocates believe that the increase in the number of students with anxiety and depression comes from social media and its 24-7, looming presence and influence.
This makes sense when we look at social platforms and their ultimate goal – the number of likes and views garnered. This need for approval, especially from peers, can become a source of self-worth in tweens and teens (adults too). This is why it is so important for parents to monitor their child’s online activity and to have conversations about the reality – or lack thereof – behind social media.
“Eerily page-turning and wonderfully twisty, Before She Was Found is the riveting story of one troubled group of young girls struggling to belong, and the frighteningly blurred boundary between where urban legend ends and real danger begins.”
—Kimberly McCreight, New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia and Where They Found Her
You’re a mom and a former teacher, which helps, because much of the writing in BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND is told from a 12-year old’s POV. And also texts and chat rooms. This makes for a unique reading experience—what did you do to get the voices ‘just right?’ Did you feel challenged by this structure or invigorated?
I did find it challenging to get Cora’s voice right. It was so important to me that I portrayed the inner thoughts of a young girl struggling with finding her place in the world. I kept journals as a child and as I wrote the novel, I tried to channel my inner sixth grader but those days are long gone so I reached out to my now adult daughters as well as younger family members for their insights. I’d ask if a twelve-year-old would say this word or that word and often I’d be met with a bit of laughter. They reminded me of how conflicted tweens can be. They want to be accepted by their peers and the important adults in their lives. It’s easy to forget the angst of trying to fit in with classmates while trying to rise to the expectations of parents and teachers – what a difficult tightrope for young people to walk.
I know you’re an avid reader—so I have to know what books—classics and forthcoming—are you most excited to read (or reread) this spring/summer?
There are so many books I’m looking forward to reading! I’m anxiously awaiting SHAMED by Linda Castillo – the next installment in the Kate Burkholder mystery series. I’ve been a fan of Castillo’s books from the beginning. Sitting on my bedside table right now is National Book Award winner, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez. The book seller at my local indie recommended this one so I know it’s a must-read – plus it’s about the special bond between a woman and her dog. A book I’m determined to reread this summer is THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers. When I read it years ago, I remember turning the last page and thinking that I had just experienced a work of beauty. I recently learned that McCullers was only twenty-three years old when she wrote this novel. Twenty-three!
What’s obsessing you now? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Podcasts! I binge-listening while I’m hiking or in the car. Some of my favorites are:
In the Dark ~ an investigative journalist examines the case of a man who has been tried six times for the same crime.
True Crime Obsessed ~ the hosts of this true crime/comedy podcast recap true crime documentaries with their own unique brand of humor.
Happier with Gretchen Rubin ~ Gretchen Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft discuss and share life hacks that are inspiring, smart and manageable enough for even the busiest people.
Heather, it’s been a joy—as always. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you, Leslie! I always enjoy talking books and writing with you! Readers can sign up for my newsletter to get exclusive access to news, giveaways and other bookish fun!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Gudenkauf is the Edgar Award nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden and Not A Sound. Heather lives in Iowa with her family and a very spoiled German Shorthaired Pointer named Lolo. In her free time Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading and hiking. She is currently working on her next novel.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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#socialaggression #tweens #smalltowns #Iowa #fiction #authorinterview #urbanlegend
[Cover and author image courtesy of Park Row and used with permission. Iowa infographic retrieved from author’s website on 4.9.19. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram.]