Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Heather Mateus Sappenfield Interview - The River Between Hearts

Photo Content from Heather Mateus Sappenfield

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.


Greatest thing you learned in school?
In school it was so apparent that my home life wasn’t at all like that of my fellow students. All across the years, this was obvious, and because of it, I always felt distanced and unable to fully connect with people. In my senior year, I remember my classmates being so excited as they heard back from colleges, while I hadn’t even applied. Instead, I was packing my faded old Gremlin, finally moving out, preparing to survive on my own. For me, school’s greatest lesson was that life does not provide equal opportunities. Yet I also learned to be strong and survive.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
I’ve published two YA novels, one literary story collection, and now The River Between Hearts, a MG novel. The latter two books were published as award-winners. One of my YA novels was a Colorado Book Awards finalist. I think, however, that the most rewarding experience has been having Michael Crouch, the amazing narrator of my story collection, Lyrics for Rock Stars, win a SOVAS Award! This is the Academy Awards of voice acting, and it’s been fabulous to have him bring these stories to life, to have our beautiful collaboration garner such a prestigious recognition. It’s surreal! And all the more rewarding because we created it together.

What is your happiest childhood memory?
Gosh, I don’t have one. Like I said, I had a strange upbringing.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
In his latest book, Until the End of Time, science writer Brian Greene asks this very question from an evolutionary perspective. He explores several theories, among them that story allows us to practice experiences prior to encountering them, aiding survival. Another theory states that story allows us to gather information about others (the roots of gossip), also facilitating survival.

Studies have shown that reading fiction generates empathy, and the more literary and realistic the narrative, the more empathy it generates. And empathy leads to understanding, compassion, even kindness. As an author, my instinct (and hope) is that reading stories offers a blend of these elements, so I craft my narratives toward this end. Younger readers, with their agile minds, are primed for these experiences as they decipher and define their worlds and their roles within them. Stories that explore difficult topics provide a way for them to learn about, experience vicariously, and practice mentally, these hard subjects in nurturing ways, preparing them for positive encounters later in life.

Can you tell us when you started THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS, how that came about?
The seeds of this novel were planted waaay back in the late 1990’s, when I was teaching high school Language Arts. This is from the book’s Author’s Note:

“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.”

About six years ago, Rill arrived, with her good-hearted, naïve perspective, free from outside influences, yet with the luxury of indifference to what was going on around her in school. I knew then it was time to write this story.

  • 1) It’s set in beautiful mountains next to a river.
  • 2) The protagonist, Rill, is a mistake-making hoot, whom you root for from page 1.
  • 3) The story explores something happening in schools right now.
  • 4) The story explores immigration from an absolutely human perspective.
  • 5) The story explores how indifference can still be harmful to those suffering.
  • 6) The story explores how almost-eleven-year-olds encounter grief.
  • 7) It’s a terrific adventure.
  • 8) It will make you laugh out loud.
  • 9) It will make you cry.
  • 10) It’s a bridge to connection and compassion for others.
What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
Actually, I hope they’re not thinking at all. I hope that instead they’re completely caught up in the story, right there with Rill, feeling it with their hearts. And when they’ve finished, I hope they’ve gained an innate understanding and sense of compassion for others.

What part of Rill did you enjoy writing the most?
Rill was so difficult to portray! She’s a strong personality who is denying an important truth rather than facing it, yet she has no idea she’s doing this. I had to dance with her avoidance. But I love this about her because I think it’s one of the essences of being human—we all do this—and so it was also a joy to write.

What was your favorite subject when you were in school and why?
English and Creative Writing, of course. Though I have dyslexia, stories were always a marvelous escape.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I’d LOVE to introduce Rill to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I think they’d have a lot of fun together. And I think Rill would adore Atticus.

  • 1) Rill’s family owns Kruse Whitewater Adventures, a rafting and snowmobile tour company.
  • 2) Rill hates water, but the sound of the rushing creek they live beside follows her everywhere.
  • 3) Rill and her brother Eddy are both named after aspects of rivers.
  • 4) Rill has dyslexia and is bad at everything in school except P.E. and Art.
  • 5) Joyce, the company secretary, has biceps that look like turkey drumsticks because she’s a champion arm wrestler.
  • 6) Gus, their lead guide, was Rill’s dad’s “risk bro” and they went on adventures together. Now, while her dad is gone, her Mom calls Gus her “guardian angel.”
  • 7) Rill’s mom has become “practical.”
  • 8) Fort Kruse, the tree fort Rill built with her dad, mom, and brother Eddy, isn’t far from her home if you have wings. But if you’re stuck on the ground, stubby cliffs block the way, so the trail loops around.
  • 9) “People are not things!” says Rill’s fourth-grade teacher Mr. Rainey on school’s first day, on the last day, and on all the days in between.
  • 10) On the first day of summer vacation, Rill’s cat Clifford leads her to Fort Kruse, where she discovers a stowaway.
Who is the first person you call when you have a bad day?
It depends upon the type of bad day. Usually, I call my husband. I am blessed, though, because I have a circle of very close friends who’ve become my “family.” They’re always available if I need them.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I think everyone should embark on a BIG adventure, one that truly tests them and feels a bit dangerous. It can be an external physical adventure, like an epic hike or bike ride, maybe skydiving. Or it can be an internal adventure, like a silence retreat, running for public office, standing up for a cause you believe in. These moments when we put ourselves on the line are when we feel most alive and experience truths about ourselves.

You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
Notice how often you judge people. Notice how often you feel judged. What might all that be about? Notice how it keeps you from kindness and connection with others. Notice what this actually reveals about yourself.

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer?
Wow! If I had to choose just one, it would be strolling through The Guggenheim with Michael Crouch and his husband before the SOVAS Awards. Dressed in our finery, we moved through that stunning building, viewing paintings by Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Kadinsky, all with the anticipation of the awards ceremony surrounding us.

Name one thing you miss about being a kid.
Nothing, if I’m being honest. I LOVE, LOVE writing about kids, though. Maybe because it’s a way for me to experience the childhood I never had.

What is your greatest adventure?
Every time I begin a new book, I embark upon a long and intimidating adventure. It will last two to ten years, and I have an idea what will happen, but as the story develops, it always shifts. My job as an author is to trek with the protagonist on their journey of conflict and self-discovery. Often this means entering difficult places with them, places where they’ll suffer or be afraid, places that are also difficult for me. Sometimes I catch myself unconsciously steering the book away from that moment. But the adventure lies in bravely treading where the story needs to go.

Heartfelt middle grade novel navigates loss and healing via a compassionate, blossoming friendship
Prize-winning writer tackles important issues with realism and grace

Vail, CO – What does it take to recover after tragedy? What does it mean to be a friend? A chance encounter between two lives in upheaval leads to a touching story of friendship and healing in Heather Mateus Sappenfield’s “The River Between Hearts” (Fitzroy Books/Regal House, February 1, 2022).

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 on his way back home.

When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside, she discovers a stowaway, Perla, who appears to be on the run. As Rill considers the events that led Perla to this moment, she embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world and forms a friendship that defies boundaries. The lessons Rill learns nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Following in the footsteps of literary icons such as Kate DiCamillo with a spirited main character, a memorable adventure, and a heartfelt exploration of contemporary issues, “The River Between Hearts” is a middle grade novel bound to connect with readers of all ages.

You can purchase The River Between Hearts at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you HEATHER MATEUS SAPPENFIELD for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The River Between Hearts by Heather Mateus Sappenfield.