Interview with Heather Mateus Sappenfield


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, was featured on Colorado Public Radio, and was awarded a SOVAS award for excellence in audiobooks. 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” (Bio and headshot provided by the author’s publicist.)

Find Heather Mateus Sappenfield on the following websites:

Thank you to Heather Mateus Sappenfield for speaking with me about her upcoming middle grade novel The River Between Hearts, out February 1 from Fitzroy Books/Regal House! And thank you to Jackie Karneth for helping to organize this interview! Be sure to check out our review of The River Between Hearts here!

Sadie Cruz: First off, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your upcoming book, The River Between Hearts! I thought it was a beautiful book. What inspired you to write this story?

Heather Mateus Sappenfield: Thank you for reading this novel, Sadie! We all have obsessions that arise from our experiences, and we authors tend to write from them. This novel is rooted in my years teaching high school in the Vail Valley of Colorado. This, from the “Author’s Note” says it best: 

“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. I tried to imagine how that must have felt: 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.”

SC: In The River Between Hearts, Rill and Perla bond over having experienced different—but equally traumatic—losses. What drew you to write about this kind of connection?

HMS: What a great question! The girls’ bond lies at the very heart of the novel. There are common experiences we all share, no matter our nationality, ethnicity, social status, or gender. When we encounter someone who differs from us, our natural instinct is to brace against the other. Yet overcoming that and realizing our similarities—our shared humanity—leads to compassion toward that other person, toward realizing we are equal. For me, this is one of the most beautiful experiences available to us.

SC: I’d like to talk a little bit about Perla. Could you please tell me a bit about how you approached writing her character?

HMS: Ooo! Yes! This is very much a story of how Rill realizes she has been unaware of Perla’s struggle, of recognizing—in the way of an almost-eleven-year-old—that she had the luxury of indifference. When writing about this intersection, I knew I’d have to write Perla’s experience, but I was extremely cognizant that I’m not of that heritage. So…I asked some of my former immigrant students for help. They’re adults now, naturalized citizens with their own children, and vital parts of my community. They shaped and guided Perla’s character. In fact, her story so closely follows the experiences of one of those students, that I have pledged half the novel’s royalties to that person. They would like to remain anonymous. 

SC: Onto Rill. I really connected with her and her journey through grieving and accepting her father’s death. What was the experience of writing her character like for you? 

HMS: For me, a book arrives in the voice of its narrator. One day, bam! Rill was there trudging and grumbling her way along the banks of the creek, angry yet also a hoot. This is definitely my subconscious at work, and as I wrote the story, I realized that this young, naïve, good-hearted, mistake-making narrator was highlighting the repercussions of immigration policy upon children in a way that removed all politics. She and Perla were just kids, being kids, surviving as best they could. What happens in this story is a fact, happening now, in schools here where I live, and across our nation.

SC: What was your favorite part about writing this story? About writing Rill and Perla’s friendship?

HMS: Another great question! It’s hard to narrow it down to a favorite because there are so many facets to their relationship. Perhaps it’s how, as Rill comes to know Perla better and better, she becomes more than a Mexican girl on the run. In Rill’s eyes, Perla evolves from being a threat in her tree fort, to an adventure to distract her from boredom, to a person who loves and longs for her family, to a friend who is brilliant in math and a fabulous singer. At the story’s beginning, Rill feels pity for Perla’s suffering, yet still separate. She feels sympathy. Through realizing all Perla’s layers, Rill learns compassion, and thus begins to feel what Perla is suffering with her, as an equal. Rill shifts into feeling empathy, which leads to true friendship. And Perla follows a similar journey of discovery about Rill.

SC: In The River Between Hearts, Rill’s family runs a river rafting business. Is river rafting something you enjoy? What drew you to making it such a focal point in Rill’s life?

HMS: Ah, back to obsessions, and things that echo within. Many of the folks who live here in the Vail Valley are tremendous athletes and adventurers. Among my friends are the first American woman to summit Everest from both the north and the south sides, a national champion Xterra triathlete, the greatest American woman trail runner in history, a winner of the Iditabike, a team that was favored to win Eco-Challenge Fiji, and many Olympians. But inherent in adventures such as these is risk, and sometimes one of our number, or even a few, are killed. When I started this novel, we’d just lost a young man in the way Rill’s father dies. Thus, the obsession.

But it was also more than that. Here in the mountain west, meltwater trickles down the slopes to the bottom of each valley. These brooks and streams combine to become rivers, and where I live, they eventually merge to form the mighty Colorado River, which is the lifeblood for much of the region. And this vein pulses all the way down to Mexico. It seemed a vital connection and symbol for this novel.

As for rafting, it scares the heck out of me! Despite having friends who own personal rafts or even rafting companies, I’ve only been a couple of times and…yep, terrified! 

SC: Speaking of family, I’d like to talk a bit about Rill and her brother Eddy. What was it like for you to craft their sibling dynamic?

HMS: Their dynamic fascinated me because, while so much of the book was so hard to write, their relationship pretty much wrote itself. It arrived close to how it is in the book. They both, and the whole extended Kruse family, are still grieving, each in their own way. Rill and Eddy, once close, are now in friction, expressing their grief as bickering and fighting without understanding why. Rill’s journey to understanding Perla and thus her own struggle guides her entire family toward healing. In this family, all of them working as either raft or snowmobile guides, I loved that Rill, the youngest, just a kid, becomes their emotional guide.

SC: What parts of The River Between Hearts do you hope readers connect to? What do you hope they take away from this story?

HMS: This novel is my fourth book, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that each reader brings their own perspective to the story. Frequently, readers identify with things I haven’t even realized I’ve written. It’s as though I’ve composed a tune, and the reader scribes the lyrics. For me, it’s a type of magic, and it’s the main reason I write. That said, I hope the novel acts as a bridge, in these fraught, divided times, toward gentler hearts and understanding. I hope it’s a bridge to compassion.

SC: Finally, is there anything you can share with us about what’s next for you?

HMS: Next? I love laughter, so I have a humorous adult novel that…well…fingers crossed that I’ll soon have fabulous news to share. And I’m just about to begin another middle grade novel. That narrator—a boy of eleven—is murmuring in my ear.

PRR Writer, Sadie Cruz