I grew up in a small town — population 600 on a good day. Rural Iowans are familiar with the one gas station, one bar kind of town, but it takes a special writer to encapsulate small-town life without turning it trite. Heather Gudenkauf, a New York Times bestselling author based out of Iowa, does so with excellence in her most recent novel The Overnight Guest (Park Row), balancing atmosphere and tension to create an exceptional Iowa crime novel.
Told across three narrators and three timelines, The Overnight Guest is channeled through the lens of our primary protagonist, Wylie Lark, a true-crime novelist grappling with her own traumatic past and the reader’s cantankerous window into a crime-riddled history. She rents a farmhouse where, two decades prior, murders and a disappearance occurred. As she faces increasingly inclement weather, another mystery arrives literally at her doorstep: a child, bloodied and half-frozen.
One of Gudenkauf’s most compelling tools is her use of setting. Although the town of Burden is fictional, there is an undeniable realism to its description and its populace. The sprawling farms, gas-station pit stops and omnipotence of nature all culminate to create a place you’d find 10 miles off of any four-lane. The seasonal shifts of this space are tangible; summer’s humidity and winter’s cutting wind fill the chapters without ever falling into cliché.
The expansive nature of the setting makes the central conflict of The Overnight Guest all the more claustrophobic as the characters face their individual challenges. While Wylie grows increasingly isolated in the physical world, she is forced to face the ways she is haunted — both by her past and by herself.
Her simultaneous guilt and refusal to acknowledge that guilt highlight a woman who desperately wants, but is not ready for, healing. She faces known horrors while captivated by the unknowns, making her search for closure futile. We cheer for Wylie as much as we want to shake some sense into her. Her exploration into the physical and mental boundaries that keep her enclosed is mirrored in the novel’s other timelines, complimenting Wylie’s own sense of imprisonment.
Even as Wylie seeks to break free, time restricts her movement. Her exploration of self — and inevitable realizations — are slowed both by the crawling hours trapped by the winter storm and the novel’s narrative shifts. Gudenkauf toys with time intentionally, knowing when to linger and when to accelerate so that the frustrations of narration (if they can be called frustrations) are both well-fought-for and pay off.
Suffice it to say that I’ve already picked up two of Gudenkauf’s other works and plan to preorder her upcoming thriller. My cat (named Duck) has given his seal of approval by thoroughly munching on the front cover. Surely there is no higher praise than that.
Q&A with Heather Gudenkauf
One of the things, especially for The Overnight Guest, that you do so spectacularly is capture the voice and the atmosphere of rural Iowa. Can you talk about your approach to building setting?
One of my favorite writers is Willa Cather, and one of my favorite books by her is My Ántonia. One thing I really admire about her writing is her ability to make the setting a character. That’s something that I attempt to do in my writing. I love Iowa, I’ve lived here most of my life. I think it’s beautiful, and we have such a varied landscape … [yet] we’re often considered a flyover state. People who come here quickly change their mind when they see all we have to offer. I really try to draw a beautiful picture of Iowa and how regular, everyday people are put in extraordinary — often scary — situations. I try to capture the heart of Iowa, which is our people and the power of neighbors. I hope that shines through in the books despite some of the frightening subject matter.
How has your experience with unilateral hearing loss shaped your relationship with language?
I was born with profound unilateral hearing loss, which means I can’t hear at all in my left ear. It wasn’t discovered until I was in first grade. By the time it was discovered, my language was pretty delayed — school was hard for me. I really became a watcher as a result. I didn’t want to make mistakes and speak up when I misheard something. I think that really lent itself to the writer’s eye for observation. I was able to sit back and watch a little bit more, and eventually, when the hearing loss was discovered, I got hearing aids. I grew up in a house where books were very important and escaped into reading, fiction, different worlds … that made a huge difference in my language development and writing. My biggest schooling in becoming a writer was being a reader.
Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.
Do you attribute that at all to your journey as an educator?
It’s the same kind of journey. School was very difficult for me in the beginning, but once accommodations were made, school was one of my favorite places in the world. My first dream was to be an elementary school teacher. I’m so lucky because I’ve been able to do two things that I love.
What’s the most rewarding part of writing?
It’s always a thrill to see my books on the shelves. The people I met along the way — the readers, because when it comes down to it, I’m a reader.
What can you tell me about your upcoming book, Everyone Is Watching?
I’m so excited about this one. It’s a little different for me. We do take a step out of Iowa and into Northern California, into wine country. Five strangers across the United States have been invited to participate in a reality competition show, but when they arrive, they realize they’ve been brought there for something quite different. There are secrets … you don’t know who’s pulling the pocket strings behind the scenes. It was really fun to write!
I like Survivor, I liked Squid Game, which was … wow!, a shocking limited series. But I hear people talking about The Bachelor, The Bachelorette … everyone’s obsession with other people’s lives fascinates me.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s September 2023 issue.