Tumblar House Interview with Catholic Author Therese Heckenkamp:
What inspired you to write this book?
Over twelve years ago, I came across an old news story that mentioned the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III. His rich grandfather received a ransom note, but merely thought his grandson was trying to swindle money from him.
I was intrigued. Frozen Footprints is not a retelling of the Getty story in any way, but the news piece was definitely an inspirational springboard. It came at the right time, because I had recently completed my first novel and I was eager to begin another. All I needed was an idea to spark my interest for an exciting plot, and that news story was definitely it.
How much of the book is realistic?
That answer depends on the reader’s concept of “realistic.” I researched details and made the story as accurate and true to life as possible within the dramatic storyline. Is kidnapping by a vengeful fiend a realistic scenario? Unfortunately, yes. And when readers say a grandfather couldn’t act so heartless, well…we like to think this, but the reality is that we humans can and do act selfish and heartless quite often. Would my novel’s entire story ever happen exactly this way in real life? Of course not. Yet I think it’s believable enough in the context of the story. Frozen Footprints is contemporary suspense, not fantasy or sci-fi, but it is still fiction. (Let’s just say I’m confident that my yearly endurance of long Wisconsin winters ensured I at least got the cold, snowy scenes right.)
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Apart from the book being inspired by the story of a real kidnapping, the rest is drawn mostly from imagination. There is some interweaving, more than I probably realize, from my own experiences, observations, and emotions. It’s a challenge to separate the influences, especially so many years after the writing. I’ve always been very close to my brother, so I drew on that strong yet idiosyncratic brother/sister relationship. Like Max, my brother enjoyed performing magic tricks and was always testing them on me. Like Max, he was adventurous. The main character, Charlene, has some similarities to me when I was her age (18), in that she’s reserved, socially awkward, and, as a result, rather friendless. What she goes through in this story is a true test of her heart and soul.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological) in bringing your book to life?
Reaching the point of publication proved to be the biggest challenge. I felt I came close a couple of times, but I’m thankful now that I was forced to take the time to rework the story and make it deeper and more meaningful.
The first draft came together rather quickly and easily—probably too easily, since it consequently spent many years in a frustrating limbo. This version didn’t have Catholic influences and was a simpler, more naive story with a bit of romance. By the time I had a chance with a Catholic publisher, I was convinced I’d have to do major rewriting. In fact, a drastic rewrite of at least two thirds of the book was required. That was humbling. How could I have gotten so much wrong?
Rewriting was an immense task to consider, and I had to allow some time to feel defeated, thinking, Well, maybe I’ll never salvage this story after all. It’ll be waaay too much work, with no guarantee. But that’s a writer’s life.
I also don’t like being a quitter, and there was something worthwhile in the story that wouldn’t let me forget it. So I pondered and tossed around plot ideas with family and also received some valuable professional input from Catholic author and editor Regina Doman, whom I admire immensely.
After thorough planning and outlining before rewriting, most of the second version flowed easily into words when I got down to the actual writing and stopped fearing how I might get it all wrong again. I had to train myself to think positively and pray harder.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I didn’t set out to incorporate messages, but tried to let them develop naturally. I enjoyed being able to bring themes of faith and morals, good vs. evil, into the novel. I find it fascinating how different people find different messages in the same story. Some of the ones readers have noted:
Money doesn’t equal true happiness and it can be a sad hindrance.
Sometimes a rough road is what we need to lead us to prayer.
Have faith and courage and make the right choice, even when it feels impossible.
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can make it through any situation.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
One reader wrote a review of my first novel saying she wanted to slap some sense into all my characters. Ha-ha, sometimes I want to do that, too! Seriously, her reaction—negative as it was—is better than evoking no reaction at all, or saying the book was boring and predictable.
When it comes to criticism, I try to find a positive side and learn from it, but that doesn’t mean criticism doesn’t sting. It’s so easy to be sensitive and take criticism personally. It’s better to determine if the feedback has merit, and if so, I try to apply it to my newer writing. I want to grow and improve as an author—and grow a thicker skin. But no author can please everyone and you shouldn’t try (unless you enjoy going crazy). It’s funny how you can receive completely contradictory criticism. For example, both my novels have been criticized for being both too religious and not religious enough.
The more your work is being read, the more criticism you’re going to get—it’s the price you pay for a wider readership—and I would much rather have that than no readers at all.
The best compliment is hard to choose. I love them all! But I think the most meaningful are the ones that refer to the power of faith that came through in my writing. This gives glory to God, where it belongs.
What books/authors have influenced your writing?
As a child, my passion for stories began with Enid Blyton’s powerfully imaginative Far Away Tree books. I wrote zealously in my teen years and tried to emulate my favorite authors at that time: Lois Duncan, Victoria Holt, L.M. Montgomery, and Beverly Butler. I still try to study the craft of writing with every novel I read. I enjoy many different Christian fiction books and I always love a good suspense story. Discovering contemporary Catholic fiction was a delight, and I thought, Hey, I could use Catholic elements in my work, too, and there might actually be readers for it! That fit me perfectly and felt so right.
What do you think makes a good story?
Words that draw you in so you forget the words and live the story. And when you are long done with it, you never completely forget the story because it made such a powerful, positive, lasting impression.