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 julia heaberlin - who-i-am
julia heaberlin

A Q&A with the author

What's in your genes?
A: Kentucky and Texas roots, a murderer, Indian blood, a psychic granny and a crazily formed heart that's run in generations of our family since at least 1870. I'm proud to be X in an American Journal of Cardiology story (and to have an implanted pacemaker since age 27).

What inspired you to write this story?
A: About eight years ago, a woman wrote me a letter wondering whether I was her daughter kidnapped when she was a child. It was a shocking moment—to be going through the mail in my car, slit open a hand-written letter addressed to me and read something like that. I'll never forget what that felt like: to be filled with her sadness and my shock. For a split second, I wondered: Could my whole life be a lie? Because of my family's hereditary heart condition, I could write her back and tell her for sure that I was not the right Julie. Playing Dead, however, is only inspired by that moment. It has nothing to do with that situation or real life. My book swerves off on more than a few wild turns.

What are the important things you wanted to accomplish with this book?
A: First, to entertain! Second, to create a character the reader will miss later. Someone you'd like as a friend. I hate characters who are self-focused, dysfunctional, unlovable. Flawed is OK, but I don't want to spend time with generic, hopeless people. I also wanted to write a thriller where you couldn't see the end coming. My female friends who love mysteries complain all the time about the obvious ending. And last, I wanted to keep the pace going. Write well, but try not to clutter things up. Elmore Leonard was famous for saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." I tried to follow that advice in my own humble way!

What's your favorite book?
A: John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. To me, that book is a perfect circle. I loved its messages about God and fate. Owen's sense of destiny and his squeaky voice make him one of the most memorable characters in modern literature.

What about thrillers?
A: Rebecca. Silence of the Lambs. Presumed Innocent. Maybe obvious choices, but all of those broke new ground for me as a mystery reader. I don't read every single thing Stephen King writes, but I think he's a genius. I'm attracted to the writing of Tana French and Gillian Flynn and loved their debuts.

What advice would you give somebody trying to get published when it's so tough right now?
A: It's like having kids. People tell you it's hard but you don't have a clue how hard and scary until you do it yourself. It took me more than two years to get a contract. I'd written two books by then and constantly had existential thoughts like: If I write and nobody reads it, is it really there? My advice to any writer would be to seek good advice and to rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Concoct a special drink for the days when you get rejected. Surround yourself with positive people who believe in dreams. And find an agent who returns your emails no matter how many rejections you get. Kids help. They remind you that feeding them is more important.

What's the scariest thing that ever happened to you?
A: When I was in my twenties, a stranger saved my life. A cardiologist overdosed me on a drug, and my heart stopped while I was eating in a Detroit restaurant. I was there one second and on the floor the next, not breathing, my husband of two years begging for help. A neonatal nurse at the next table ran over. She didn't even live in Detroit; she was just in the city for a Saturday night of dinner and theater with her husband and some friends. She immediately gave me CPR. And then she and her friends got a free dinner. I write her a Thanksgiving card every year.

How did that affect your life?
A: Well, I'm here! I'm grateful! I gave birth to a beautiful son a couple of years later, and he exists in this world because of her. Life is all about these random connections. The restaurant manager was so affected by the scene that he ordered his waiters to take CPR training, so maybe one of them will save someone else (or already has).

Did you see a white light or anything that makes you believe in the hereafter?
A: No white light. Only black. But I believe in God. A stranger was there to save me.