For New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf, writing her latest novel, One Breath Away (Harlequin Mira), required a journey to her past. During her senior year at the University of Iowa, a former student who had been passed over for an award entered a classroom and killed five people before turning the gun on himself. “That shooting was an event that has always stayed with me,” says Gudenkauf, who would graduate with a degree in education and spend the next 20 years as a teacher.

In One Breath Away, an unknown man armed with a gun walks into an elementary school during a sudden spring snowstorm. A teacher watches for a chance to rescue the children in her care as the hidden fears and grudges of a small town are revealed and the people of Broken Branch race to uncover the identity of the stranger holding their children hostage. “I’ve loved each of Heather’s novels,” says her editor, Miranda Indrigo, “but One Breath Away may be my favorite. You can sense Heather’s personal experiences in this book—her intimate knowledge of the world inside the classroom, her role as a mother, her brush with a shooting when she was in college—and she builds a vivid, compelling story from these roots.”

Being an educator is in Gudenkauf’s blood: “My great-aunt taught at a one-room school in South Dakota, and my father was a school counselor on the Rosebud Indian Reservation when I was a child.” Gudenkauf taught elementary school in Mason City and Dubuque, Iowa, and now serves as her district’s Title 1 reading coordinator, working with schools to develop reading programs for at-risk students.

Did Gudenkauf ever consider leaving teaching behind to rest on her bestseller laurels and become a full-time writer? Never. “I believe education, like writing, is a calling,” she says. “When I was a classroom teacher, students readily shared with me their experiences, worries, and dreams, and I had the honor of being their teacher. Now that I work primarily with teachers of reading, I keep this thought before me—to teach a child to read opens a world of opportunities and unending possibilities.”