BookView Interview with Author Madeleine Van Hecke

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we talked to Madeleine Van Hecke, a psychologist, educator, and word game inventor, who has recently released her novel Once You Know (read review here), a dark and unsettling tale of childhood sexual abuse and trauma.

Madeleine Van Hecke, PhD is a psychologist, educator, and word game inventor. An award-winning full professor at North Central College, Van Hecke taught classes in psychology, creativity, and critical thinking for twenty years. She is the author of two nonfiction books (Blind Spots, Prometheus Press, 2007 and The Brain Advantage, Prometheus Press, 2011), and the inventor of the game Wicked Words. Now retired, Van Hecke has returned to her first love of fiction writing and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Once You Know is her debut novel.

What life experiences have shaped your writing most?

A close friend, noticing that I was reading a book about serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, commented that being intrigued by such topics was “the sickest thing” about me. It took me a long time to connect my fascination with such subjects to the murder and dismemberment of a girl in my neighborhood that occurred when I was very young. I think that event spurred my desire to study and understand the minds of people who commit horrendous actions, perhaps in the hope that such knowledge would help me protect myself in a dangerous world. As a fiction author, I now write dark stories to help women navigate this shadow side of life, a choice that is surely related to that early life experience.

Tell us some more about your book.

The story in Once You Story is a story about surviving and healing from betrayal. As such, it raises questions about forgiveness: what it means to forgive, when to forgive, and whether it’s always possible to forgive. It’s also a story about being caught in the middle when people you love want or need different, incompatible things from you—a situation that I believe women experience all too often. To people looking at these dilemmas from outside the relationships, the solution often seems obvious. But it’s much more problematic to the person entangled in the relationship. What I hoped readers would take away from this story was empathy for the struggles of these flawed characters and a deepened appreciation for how difficult this sort of dilemma can be. I also hoped that any readers who found themselves in a similar quandary might be helped to make wise decisions about what to do.

How often do you base your characters on real people?

I don’t base individual characters on individual, real people. But I do find it easier to develop complex characters in depth if I can relate some aspects of that character to people I’ve known. For example, I know several people (this seems to run in my family; we think it’s genetic) who over-worry and as a result, over-plan things. Once my sister reacted to learning that her daughter and son-in-law were planning a trip by urging them to arrange beforehand who should raise their children should their plane crash.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Often, I draw on knowledge that I’ve acquired as part of my studies and teaching as a psychologist. For Once You Know, I also read a great deal about forgiveness from various religious traditions and psychological perspectives. The novel I’m currently working on features a neuroscientist who is a sociopath. I’m familiar with quite a bit of neuroscience research as a result of writing an earlier nonfiction book (The Brain Advantage, Prometheus Book). Research on sociopathy that I presented in Abnormal Psychology classes is also very helpful as I write this novel. So, it’s not so much that I’m spending weeks or months researching before beginning a book, but I’m choosing stories that build on areas where I have prior knowledge, and then updating my research as needed during the writing process.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Hands-down, it was hiring a wonderful developmental editor/writing coach, Alida Winternheimer. I really didn’t understand what such editors and coaches did. I’d been told all my life that I was a good writer, and I had two nonfiction books under my belt that seemed to confirm that. I’d also been a closet novelist for years and attended week-long writing conferences. But I didn’t fully grasp just how complex the craft of fiction writing is, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. As a mentor, Alida raised many simple but fundamental questions, such as ‘how do you want your reader to feel about this character at the end of this scene?” that led me to reconceptualize what I was doing and how I was doing it.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

Two of my favorite authors are Anne Tyler and Ruth Rendell. Anne Tyler’s stories of family relationships, often involving quirky characters who are incredibly real and engaging, are a delight. Ruth Rendell wrote psychological suspense novels in which everyday people are drawn into webs of danger, and have had a major influence on my own writing. It’s impossible for me to pick a “favorite” book of Anne Tyler’s—there are so many! But among Ruth Rendell’s, The Bridesmaid is at the top of my list. I’m also a huge fan of Scott Turow’s legal thrillers and Ken Follett’s historical novels.

What does literary success look like to you?

I picture a woman curled up in a chair and reading my novel. I picture her pausing, thinking, reevaluating something in her own life. I picture her figuring out how to change something, or coming to peace with leaving things unchanged. That’s what literary success looks like to me.

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