As a book lover I’m always amazed by the stories and world authors are able to create. That’s why I also love learning more about the authors behind the books I read. Heather Mateus Sappenfield has a book releasing on February 1st: The River Between Hearts. I have the honor of interviewing this author. So keep on reading more to find out about this upcoming book and more about this author.
On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s trudging home. Her mom has become a practical woman. Her older brother, Eddy, now calls her baby and dork. Gus, second-in-command at Kruse Whitewater Adventures, Rill’s family’s rafting company, has gone from being her dad’s “risk bro” to her mom’s guardian angel. Joyce, company secretary, arm-wrestler, and mechanic, still calls Rill a fingerling, but, after learning what a cheater water is, Rill wishes she’d stop. When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside behind home, she discovers a stowaway, Perla. To help Perla, Rill embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world, of loss, and of what it means to be a friend. In the end, what Rill discovers will nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.
What inspired you to start writing (not only The River Between Hearts, but in general)?
I was born a writer with what people call “a writer’s childhood.” Even when I was young, I knew one day I’d live in the mountains and be an author. It’s a little spooky, actually, how I always knew. Through my teen years and into adulthood, that dream became submerged, though, until I resigned from my high school teaching position to stay home with my one-year-old daughter. She’d begun talking with the Australian accent of her day-care woman. I love an Australian accent, but that was a wake-up call! That’s when the dream resurfaced, and I actively tried to become an author. An innate storyteller, I needed to improve my craft, though. I enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Pacific University, and that’s when my career took off.
As for The River Between Hearts, that story had its genesis when I was teaching. Each year students who were new to America turned up in my classes. Some of them were undocumented, yet I’d become a teacher to help anyone with a desire to learn. These students were a marvel to me because, despite knowing little, if any, English, and despite knowing few of the basics of daily life within the school, they managed to get by. Often admirably. Often while also working one or even two jobs after school.
Some mornings I’d walk through the school’s front doors to discover a group of them gathered in the lobby, crying and comforting each other because a family member, or maybe a few, had been rounded up for deportation the day or night before. Politics aside, imagine how that must feel: being left behind in a foreign country with no documentation and no family. Later, these students would be in my class, trying to concentrate, learn, and continue on. Their courage amazed me. When I started writing novels, I knew this was a story I would someday explore.
How do you tackle the difficult subjects in middle grade?
Crafting MG novels through difficult subjects is no easy task! I recently wrote an article about this for School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox, and there’s so much to it, an entire class worth of technique. I love fantasy stories, or kids with superpower stories, but studies have shown that setting and characters that are real establish the most compassion with readers. For me, this means the kids need to talk like kids, act like kids, make mistakes like kids. And the setting needs to reflect how a kid would see it. Though I never like to be hard on my readers, I firmly believe that young minds are agile and hungry to learn about their world, so I’m careful not to dumb-down a subject, rather present it—to the best of my adult ability—as kids would view it. Then I have the characters navigate that subject as kids would navigate it. I strove to make the narration honest in voice and action, yet it also needed to be subtly guided by a nurturing, reassuring meta-narrator, creating an implicit underlying sense that all this difficult stuff was occurring on a safe stage. Oh, and humor. That really helps.
When you wrote The River Between Hearts did you have the whole story mapped out or did Rill take you along for the ride?
Rill tromped into my mind fully-formed, her voice clear and strong. So strong, in fact, that she definitely took me along for the ride. But she also made writing the book harder. She’s a character who—like so many of us—doesn’t understand her emotions or the motivations for her actions. I went to the Vail Public Library each day and, looking through the big windows there onto Gore Creek, groped my way along with her. Once I had a draft, I went back through the story, finding the patterns and what needed to be heightened and expanded upon.
If you were a character in The River Between Hearts what kind of character would you be?
I’d be Rill. Absolutely.
Describe The River Between Hearts in five words or less.
Bridge to our shared humanity.
What is your favorite quote from The River Between Hearts?
“People are not things!”
What do you hope readers take away from this story?
This novel is a map of Rill’s journey to understanding compassion—how it feels, how to express it, how giving it to someone else can be a gateway to one’s own healing. Her teacher, Mr. Rainey, defines compassion as “a feeling of worry or pity for the suffering or misfortune of someone else.” The word pity, in its pure form, means sympathetic sorrow for one who is suffering, distressed, or unhappy. It can, however, carry the extra meaning of looking down on the thing you feel sorry for, and part of Rill’s journey is growing from seeing Perla as a thing to someone who is her equal and, ultimately, her friend. For me, that’s true compassion. I believe moments when we meet people who differ from us—in nationality, in ethnicity, in spiritual belief, in social strata—define us, and they have the potential to be among the most beautiful experiences available to us as human beings. I hope this book paves the way for MG readers (and readers of all ages) to have such experiences.
Are there any new bookish projects in the near future you can tell us about?
Fingers crossed that I’ll soon have some exciting news to share!
About the Author
HEATHER MATEUS SAPPENFIELD loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships; ski instructed for Vail Resorts, and loves backcountry ski touring. Her toughest adventures, though, arise in the writing of stories. She is the author of two contemporary YA novels, “The View from Who I Was” and “Life at the Speed of Us,” a Colorado Book Awards Finalist. Her story collection, “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” released as winner of the V Press LC Compilation Book Prize, was nominated for the MPIBA’s Reading the West Awards, was a silver medalist for the IBPA’s Ben Franklin Awards, and was featured on Colorado Public Radio. Her most recent book, “The River Between Hearts,” runner-up for the Kraken Prize, is a middle grade novel about friendship and healing. For more information, visit https://heathermateussappenfield.com/
Follow Heather Mateus Sappenfield on social media:
Facebook: @heathermateussappenfield | Twitter: @alpineheather
I definitely want to give a big thanks to Heather for taking time and answering my questions. It’s always interesting to find out more about the people behind the books we pick up. The River Between Hearts truly sounds amazing even if it’s going to be an emotional read. Keep an eye out on the blog for a review really soon!