The girl inside
I GREW UP IN A SMALL TEXAS TOWN called Decatur not that far from Ponder, where my first book, Playing Dead, is set. Before I could drive and kiss boys, my chief entertainment in July and August was walking in 100-degree heat to the small, historic stone building that had been converted into a library by the sheer enthusiasm of its literary citizens. The librarian was the mother of one of my good friends, a very cultured woman who kindly looked the other way as I loaded up with the ten Harlequin romances that my cat and I planned to spend the weekend with. Fantasy was important at that time in my life. In real life, I changed the color of my barrette and knee socks every day to match whatever outfit I wore to middle school. I was described as “pleasingly plump.”
I filled my diary with fond thoughts about a sweet, handsome boy I passed in the hallways (who was gay, it turns out, and just as wonderful a person as I imagined). Eventually I grew taller, thinner, cut my hair, picked up some mascara, and attracted a boyfriend named Bubba. Santa Claus put Anna Karenina under the Christmas tree. I started pulling the old paperbacks off my parents’ shelves: Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Imperial Women, The Godfather, Agatha Christie. My librarian nudged me toward worthy heroines: Anne Frank, Josephine March, and the nameless narrator of Rebecca.
Shortly after visiting Manderley, at 15, I dreamed of writing my first thriller. Seven years later, I became a journalist, with no regrets. I learned more about writing, evil, and wicked surprise than I ever would have otherwise. In mid-life, with my husband’s cheerleading, I quit my job, cut my family’s income in half, wrote two novels and encountered the rejection of every major New York publishing house. I almost gave up. I’d lost the ego that had been my steady companion as a journalist. Once again, I was that insecure girl in middle school trying to match her knee socks to her hair clip.
My publishing career has been a big messy soup of joy, frustration, and learning. Along the way, I figured out who I am. No matter how gritty my theme, I can’t write a book without hope and humor. I want deeper ideas roaming my plots—cutting-edge forensic science, the death penalty, date rape, and dementia, to name a few. I like to play mind games. There are dark things inside me I didn’t know about. And I will never forget where I came from. The citizens of Decatur, Texas, who put together that little stone library book by book? They expanded their literary soul, building a new home that was nominated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as one of the best small libraries in America. And those Harlequin romance writers, some of whom were clearly frustrated literary novelists? They taught me a hell of a vocabulary—and that heart is critical to every good book.
Julia Heaberlin is the author of the international bestseller Black-Eyed Susans and Paper Ghosts, which is now available in the UK and will be released in the U.S. on May 15th. Heaberlin’s psychological thrillers, all set in Texas, have sold to more than eighteen countries. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed Playing Dead and Lie Still. As a journalist, she worked as a features editor at The Detroit News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The Dallas Morning News and has always been especially interested in true crime and how events play out years later. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named one of the Top 10 sections in the country during her tenure as its editor. Heaberlin, who grew up in Texas, lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where she is at work on her next novel.
BBC RADIO: RADIO 2 BOOK CLUB
The legendary BBC broadcaster Simon Mayo and his panel of reviewers chat up Julia about Black-Eyed Susans during England’s drivetime. (Fast forward 1 hour and 8 minutes for the interview.)
Listen to the interview
KERA PUBLIC RADIO’S “THINK” PROGRAM
Krys Boyd of KERA public radio’s “Think” talks with Julia about how to build a mystery and the forensic and death penalty experts who inspired Black-Eyed Susans.
Listen to the interview