"I absolutely recommend small-town Texas childhoods for aspiring writers."
Many former newspaper people have found a place in the world of Texas letters. Some journalists write books derived from the stories they’ve come across on the beats they’ve covered—from crime to sports. Others turn to the literary world as a second act as they ease toward retirement. But, one—Julia Heaberlin, international best-selling author of psychological suspense—walked away from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the top of her game. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named as one of the Top 10 sections in the country during her tenure. And then she left to pursue being an author.
Black-Eyed Susans, her most recent thriller, has already been optioned for the movies. Heaberlin took a break from working on her fourth novel to be interviewed by email for Lone Star Literary Life.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Congratulations on your success with all of your books, Julia. I understand that you grew up in Decatur, Texas. What was that like, and how did it influence your writing?
JULIA HEABERLIN: Well, there was a creepy-looking mansion that leered on a hill over the town. Creepy to me, because I never got to go in it, so it’s always been a dark nest in my imagination. That house, the Waggoner Mansion, eventually became part of the inspiration for the grandfather’s fairy tale house in Black-Eyed Susans.
I absolutely recommend small-town Texas childhoods for aspiring writers. There is the same proportion of good and evil, secrets and scandal, as in a big, anonymous city. And small Texas towns are packed with wild characters who never read Walt Whitman but still speak like poets. Ask any Texan to describe the sky or a horse or the person they love. The other advantage is that, as a small-town girl, I saw and heard about things with very few degrees of separation. My connection to the random perils of life was intimate. There was also a lot of time to kill. Brutal Texas summers are like winters in other states; you want to stay indoors with a good book near an air-conditioning vent. So I took long, hot walks to a terrific public library and devoured bookshelves at home that were packed with everything from John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser to Agatha Christie and Mario Puzo.
In prepping for this interview, I have been inspired by your persistence. You graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas, one of the nation’s most highly regarded j-schools, and then, you started your career at a newspaper in South Dakota on the night shift, enduring blizzards, and living in a basement apartment managed by a nosy eighty-two-year-old landlord. But you stuck with it, and throughout the years, climbed the corporate newspaper ladder with a variety of upwardly mobile moves. At a very young age, you persevered. Was this nature or nurture? Were you brought up that way or is the inclination to put one foot in front of the other simply in your DNA?
I’ve never been the person who burst right out of any gate as a success. I was far from an Ivy League candidate. I went to a small East Texas school for my first two years of college before transferring to Kansas. I was a recognized nerd in middle school, with boys copying off my papers and laughing at my weird hair, and coaches who didn’t think I ran fast enough. I ended up as a homecoming queen with a very cute boyfriend named Bubba. It took me longer to learn the routines on the drill team, sometimes embarrassingly so, but I worked my way up to captain anyway. I never got a great college internship but ended up on the masthead of a major newspaper before a lot of my colleagues did.
I didn’t write my first novels until my forties, and both were rejected by every major house first before an editor at Random House changed her mind. There was just as much suffering as success in there. I really do believe in the corny truth of persistence, hard work, and hope. When I talk to kids about writing or how to succeed in general, I emphasize that no one else gets to decide what their talent is. The same thing is true for adults peering around the next bend in the road. It drives me absolutely crazy when I hear kids say, “I’m not a good writer.” These are kids who generally get Cs on writing papers. And yet some of those kids have much more potential than the A students who are less interesting, observant human beings. Writing is very self-absorbing but you can’t be self-absorbed. If you have something to say, decide to say it. Then it’s the hard, hard work of figuring out how to puzzle the words together. Above all, it’s about being interesting.
You were an award-winning journalist who had worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and other papers. You were an assistant managing editor over features sections at large metropolitan newspapers. You had worked your way up to those positions, and you had achieved great success. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named as one of the Top 10 sections in the country during your tenure, back in 2005. What made you decide then that the time was right for following your dream to be an author?
I tried to write novels while I was a working journalist, and it was impossible. Who are these people who can knock out a thousand words every morning at Starbucks before going to their day jobs? I put all my creative energy into my journalism and had very little left at the end of the day for anything except my husband and son. It was my husband who finally said, “If you’re going to try to do this, if it’s really a dream, you better quit and do it now.” In addition to that, he happily agreed to cutting our income in half and investing in my writing career, which is essentially like starting a small business. He’s the reason I didn’t give up when the rejections were flowing like hot lava. I kept going because my husband was and is my greatest champion.
I read your essay about ending up in the middle of the street with dog poop on your hands and in tears about the umpteenth rejection when you were first trying to break out as a novelist. You tell that story so well. Would you mind sharing it with our readers?
Here is a direct lift from that essay; it was a very short time after this that an offer was made by Random House for my first two books:
I’d already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after three and a half years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn't going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.
Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.
My ninety-pound dog, Ollie, was in a mood that morning, too. He had yanked me out the door and skittered us across the icy patches on the street until I landed hard on my tailbone. While he twirled around me like a mad Olympic skater, I sat there stinking of dog poop and thought about yesterday's rejection letter. And the one before. And the many before that.
This book is too small for us.
It’s hard to categorize—not quite a mystery and not quite a thriller.
While Julia is obviously (fill-in-the-blank with something positive here), I'm afraid I do not feel strongly enough about this manuscript to publish it.
My son would classify this self-involved moment in the middle of the street in a nice suburban neighborhood as a "First World pain," referring to that Twitter hashtag where people whine about things like how their walls are too close to their pool tables.
But for me, it was a tipping point. I was going to give up on this dream, or I wasn't.
Ollie dragged me home. We entered a house that hadn't been cleaned in two weeks. A pile of my son's dirty laundry covered a good portion of the kitchen floor. There were dishes in the sink. There was no plan for supper for the two people counting on me to make it.
I tossed my gloves in the trash and washed my hands. I gave Ollie a treat. And then I did what I'd done almost every day for the past three and a half years.
I sat down at my computer and began to write.
What was it like to finally have your first novel in your hands?
Pure, champagne joy. And relief. There will never be anything else quite like it. My mother said she’d never heard that particular tone of happiness in my voice before.
Now, working on your fourth novel, what are some new benchmarks that you’re striving for with your writing?
I intend to make each book better than the last. I’m learning from the mistakes I’ve made along the way. Original voice, interesting characters, snappy dialogue, artful plot twists, breathless pacing—they are hard-earned skills like anything else. It’s deciding to do more intricate lacework each time. Or making better hamburger. It’s both beautiful and bloody at the same time.
2015 was a big year for you. First Black-Eyed Susans, your latest novel, was published as your first hardcover, and then the book was optioned for a movie. For our readers who aren’t familiar with the book, will you describe it for them?
At sixteen, a girl is found in a field of Black-Eyed Susans, barely alive, with a scattering of old bones and no memory of how she got there. Years later, she is a mother with a daughter of her own, wondering if the man about to be executed is truly the Black-Eyed Susan killer. The book moves back and forth in time, between teen-age Tessie in therapy sessions right before the trial, and Tessa, the woman she becomes, in a race to find a killer and her lost memories. Because Tessa has a secret: She believes someone has been leaving Black-Eyed Susans for her to find for years. I researched three themes: forensics, the death penalty, and memory recovery.
Your suspense and psychological thrillers contain a good deal of forensics. Do you have go-to sources for all of the crime lab data?
Yes … I have a special friend in Rhonda Roby, one of the leading experts at using mitochondrial DNA to identify old and degraded bones. She was in charge of the 21,000 samples of DNA at 9/11 and spent years identifying victims. She’s worked on plane crashes, serial killer victims, Vietnam war veterans. She’s one of the most humane people I’ve ever met. I’m also grateful to other scientists and sources, but she is the one I based a character on in Black-Eyed Susans.
You’ve been compared to contemporary thriller writer Gillian Flynn. In fact, lots of reviewers have called Black-Eyed Susans the new Gone Girl. What suspense novelists do you like to read?
Well, Gillian Flynn is definitely on the list. I love dark mysteries with great twists I can’t figure out, original characters, and a strong and intimate voice. I’m a fan of an endless line of writers: the poetic Tana French; Michael Connelly, a former journalist who still works hard every time out to entertain his avid fans; creepy, brilliant Stephen King; John Grisham for his storytelling; Thomas Harris for creating Clarice, the most kick-ass heroine of all time. Alice Sebold, for The Lovely Bones. I am a huge fan of the gothic genius of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which I read at sixteen. I also find inspiration in literary novels. Two of my favorites are Beautiful Ruins and A Prayer for Owen Meany.
After a decade of being a novelist, what has changed since you started?
To be honest, I think I became more insecure. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing for a writer. My lifestyle is exactly the same. We live in the same house. I drive the same yellow Volkswagen bug with the Cowgirl Hall of Fame bumper sticker. I still write at my kitchen table. And my dog still does not think I’m the slightest bit famous.
One of the most common questions that authors get is “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” I’d like to ask a different variation of that question. What is the one thing you wished you hadn’t done when you’re were trying to break into publishing, and what sort of things should would-be novelists avoid? Thank you for helping to steer them through those waters.
I wish I’d had a little bit more of an insider’s perspective on the publishing industry. I dug in as a hopeful innocent, like most writers do. But the people rejecting books at big publishers are sometimes interns, or twenty-four-year-old assistants, or editors who are only buying into trends. The publishing industry makes a lot of hamburger, too. I took the rejections too much to heart, as you can see from my dog poop story. My direct advice to would-be novelists: Don’t give up, and don’t seek early writing feedback from a lot of people at the same time. I don’t encourage attending writers’ support groups. Go in your hole, and find your voice. When you come out, pick a critic or two very carefully, because you will need them. Listen hard. If they tell you something isn’t working, it probably isn’t. But YOU decide how to fix it. No one can hear your voice but you.
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Praise for Julia Heaberlin's novels
“A masterful thriller that shouldn’t be missed . . . brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed . . . . Both as a portrait of modern, urban Texas, and in terms of suspense, characterizations and storytelling, Black-Eyed Susans is outstanding. . . . The answers are as astonishing as they are finally believable. [Julia] Heaberlin’s work calls to mind that of Gillian Flynn. Both writers published impressive early novels that were largely overlooked, and then one that couldn’t be: Flynn’s Gone Girl and now Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans. Don’t miss it.” —Washington Post
“Heaberlin does a neat job, in Black-Eyed Susans, of making us care. . . . [She’s] a pro who strengthens her theme of judicial prejudice by referring to the O. J. Simpson trial and by drawing our attention to the morbid regularity of executions in Texas prisons.” —New York Times Book Review
“A terrific plot, matched by the quality of the writing and superbly paced tension.” —The Times (U.K.)
“A breakout book . . . a delicious mix of well-researched facts, creative plot twists and a likable main character . . . Heaberlin maintains her tight grip on narrative control, expertly maintaining the delightful, nail-biting suspense by weaving those facts and details seamlessly into plot-forwarding action, compelling characters and believable dialogue. . . .It’s her emerging talent as a masterful storyteller that sets this book apart.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Compelling . . . [one of] ten amazing books you need to read this summer.” —Cosmopolitan (U.K.)
“Perfect for readers looking for something to pick up after The Girl on the Train.” —LibraryReads (Top Ten Pick)
“Gripping . . . The suspense builds as Tessie uncovers devastating secrets from the past en route to the shocking ending.” —Publishers Weekly
“If readers looking for the next Gone Girl do pick it up, I guarantee they won’t put it down. Because the story . . . is a classic page-turner.” —D Magazine
“A truly compelling tale of the fragility of memory and elusive redemption.” —Kirkus Reviews
“An absorbing character study and a good choice for readers who want to really sink into a psychological thriller.” —Booklist
Julia Heaberlin is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Detroit News, and the Dallas Morning News. Before launching her career as an author, she was an assistant managing editor over features sections at large metropolitan newspapers, many of which won national and state journalism awards. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named one of the Top 10 sections in the country during her tenure.
Heaberlin has edited real-life thriller stories that inform her writing, including a series on the perplexing and tragic murders of random girls and women buried in the desert in Mexico and another on the frightened women of domestic violence. She lives with her husband and son in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where she is a freelance writer and is at work on her fourth book.