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 julia heaberlin - who-i-am
julia heaberlin

A Q&A with Crimesquad.com


Fresh Blood Questionnaire

What originally made you want to write a crime novel?

A: I've wanted to write a mystery ever since I got lost in the gothic, creepy world of Rebecca as a little girl. I just got distracted for a few years (OK, more than a few). I grew up in a small town in Texas, walked to the library in 100+ degree summers and gobbled up thrillers on the bedroom window seat my father built for me. My Dad was a mystery buff. My Mom was more 'classic'. So there was also plenty of stuff to choose from on our shelves, from Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler to Steinbeck's The Pearl and Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Not to mention an old copy of The Fly Girls, this was VERY informative for a young girl, kind of the 1969 version of 50 Shades of Grey. It deserved a careful rereading. I consider most books to be mysteries because you don't know how they're going to end. So I'd say my writing was born of eclecticism: dead authors, contemporary literary authors, legendary crime authors, heavy breathing authors. For that reason I think Playing Dead is more than one thing: crime novel and psychological thriller with a lot of Texas chick thrown in.


Playing Dead is about identity. Do you believe that in this day and age with being able to trace our ancestry, etc. so easily that identity has become a major factor in many people's lives? And how did you transpose that on to Tommie?

A: I think everybody likes the idea of a mystery in their past, something secret that makes them less, well, normal. It's romantic. The germ of the idea for Playing Dead was inspired by a letter that arrived in my mailbox from a stranger more than 10 years ago, who wondered if I could be her daughter kidnapped years earlier. She was also writing to four other women named Julia with the same birth date as mine. That was a stunning few seconds: to wonder whether my whole life could be a lie. It wasn't, but it was not a good feeling, even for a moment.

So I think there is a big difference between happy travelling through ancestry.com and being a person on a desperate hunt for truth. When your search is born out of a lie, it's not so romantic. I have an adopted friend who searched for his mother and found her, and another adopted friend who has no desire to ever, ever know. How do you forgive people for lying? Hiding? Or not wanting you? Can you ever really do it?

What I tried to transpose onto Tommie, who receives a similar letter herself, is the idea that forgiveness is ephemeral and complicated. And that, except for a very special few, you can never know what people you love will do when faced with a hard, life-changing choice. We are constantly surprised at who has the true heart. Sometimes friends become heartless. And enemies become heroes.


Do you have any experience or working knowledge of the witness protection programme? If so, was it due to your prior knowledge that you wrote Playing Dead around this subject?

A: Absolutely none. Google. But I'm a journalist. So I have to think that helped.


Your novel is written in the first person. Do you feel more comfortable writing this way or did the book 'decide' the way it should be written?

A: I've always considered myself kind of a shy person in a crowd and not particularly articulate when it comes to intellectual discourse or party conversation. If there is someone who wants to take up all the air in the room, I let them. I sit back, observe and ask the questions. That's made me a successful journalist and a better architect of characters. But ironically, it is the most natural thing in the world for me to chatter in the first person when I sit down at a computer. Perhaps it is a release.


Was the process to being published a difficult one or easy journey for you as a first time novelist?

A: I chose to re-invent myself in my 40s, just as the economy and the publishing industry were tumbling. Playing Dead made the rounds in New York and was rejected by every major house. It didn't get picked up by Random House until I wrote another book, Lie Still (coming in 2013), that piqued my editor's interest. She then decided to buy Playing Dead as well. So it took about six years to get from first word to published book. I recently wrote an essay for an American newspaper describing my publishing journey. The essay began this way:

"When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magic place where ideas come from. So I generally don't tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves. 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."

You look back on something like this, where your dream finally happens, and examine all the twists of fate and luck involved. But the truth is, if you keep going and going and going, and if you have any talent, I believe luck will happen eventually. It's in the wind. Brace yourself in the wind long enough and you will breathe in luck along with the pollen.


Where do you sit on the great e-book/printed word debate?

A: No author or book lover I know wants the printed book to disappear. I was recently at one of my first signings at 'Murder By The Book', an amazing old mystery bookstore in Houston, Texas, where books are arranged so lovingly and cleverly that at every turn you want to stop and pick one up. It's a joyful sensory overload. Handwritten notes litter the walls recommending books from old writers, new writers, and obscure writers. I asked one of the booksellers, Anne Kimbol, "OK, what are your two favourite books in the store right now?" I'd shamefully never heard of either book, both now on my nightstand: Think of a Number by John Verdon and The Terror of Living by Urban Waite. I don't want experiences like this to ever go away: Anne's living, breathing, in-person enthusiasm in a bookstore that is like a cosy, dark womb.

P.S. If I'm packing for vacation? E-reader all the way.


How much research was needed to give Playing Dead authenticity?

A: It was kind of a constant thing. Write a sentence, check it out. I honestly don't know how people wrote books without access to Google. There were several themes in the book that I knew little about: fortune-telling, guns, WITSEC, bull riding. But one of my goals was to portray the real Texas, and I knew all about that. I want my readers to know that we are not all one redneck person. We are lovers of art and literature and classical music. The old-moneyed rich Texans I know don't have big hair or Botox. A lot of them have dirt under their fingernails. They are prone to giving their money away.


I hear your second book is already scheduled for 2013. Where will you be going with your next book? Will there be any returning characters or will it be a standalone novel?

A: It is strictly a standalone. I originally wrote Tommie as a series character, but when she didn't sell right away, I decided to hedge my bets. My next book, Lie Still, stars a New Yorker who finds herself in a small Texas town ensnared in the secrets of a bunch of rich, bizarre women. Emily, my New Yorker heroine, has a tormenting secret of her own. Lie Still is a little darker and a little funnier than Playing Dead but still chock full of Texas. I hope to bring Tommie back someday. She hangs out in my head and complains about my hair.


If you had a gun to your head (only figuratively speaking) who would you have as your main characters from Playing Dead on the silver screen?

A: You don't have to hold a gun to my head, believe me. I don't see Tommie as traditional Hollywood pretty. Maybe Melanie Laurent, with less makeup, a Southern accent and a few freckles painted on? From haunted Jewish woman seeking revenge in Inglorious Basterds to spitfire Texan Tommie McCloud in Playing Dead—why not? Or Jessica Chastain. I think she already has freckles. For Hudson, the soldier and lover: Sam Worthington or Mark Wahlberg. Yum.


What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?

A: I'm not sure all of these are crime novels per se, but as I said, my influences were eclectic:

Rebecca—Daphne du Maurier, of course. People thought of her as a commercial bestseller who appealed only to common, lesser minds, specifically the lesser minds of females. Du Maurier never got any literary glory. But on the day I'm writing this, she's very dead and still ranked 7,539 on Amazon. Little girls are still reading her on their window seats. Or maybe on their iPads.

Silence of the Lambs—Thomas Harris. Clarice was the most kick-ass, vulnerable, interesting female heroine I've met on the page. And she was created by a man. I miss her. She has so much humanity. This is something that I think gets lost sometimes in the hip coldness of the modern mystery. The female protagonist is often interesting but so dysfunctional that in real life we would kick her out of our house after one glass of wine.

Presumed Innocent—Scott Turow. What to say? I stole Scott Turow's masterpiece out of my father's present pile one Christmas Day and read it by the fireplace until I had to go to bed so I could start again the next day. It set a literary standard for every thriller that came after it.

And a bonus:

Sharp Objects—Gillian Flynn. The compressed, intimate writing, the ingenious twist at the end ... it assured me that everything hasn't been done before.