Why Owen Meany Rules at Our House

Murder By The Book: Q&A with Debut Author Julia Heaberlin

Julia Heaberlin’s debut novel, Playing Dead, is highly recommended by Anne Kimbol at Murder By the Book in Houston. Here’s a short conversation with the author.

Anne: I know you have already answered this question, but for those new to you and Playing Dead, can you describe the premise of the book and where it came from?

Julia: On an ordinary summer day more than 10 years ago, a stranger’s letter arrived in my mailbox. It was from a woman in another state who thought I might be her daughter, kidnapped years ago as a child. I shared her child’s birth date and first name, Julia. I wasn’t her daughter, but it did get me thinking about what it would be like if my life was a lie. The Texas heroine in Playing Dead, a child psychologist named Tommie McCloud, receives a similar letter, but the rest of the wild plot turns are completely fictional. On a journey to discover the truth about herself, Tommie becomes dangerously wrapped in her mother’s past—the long-ago slaughter of a Chicago FBI family, the murder of an Oklahoma beauty queen, and a missing girl named Adriana.

Anne: Playing Dead is both a mystery and a look at the lies we tell to protect the ones we love. Did one aspect of the book lead the other, or did they both develop simultaneously?

Julia: The lies were the catalyst for the mystery, as Tommie goes hunting through her mother’s secrets. I believe that all of us are surprised at least a few times in our lives that people we love are not exactly who we think they are. Sometimes, we are rocked by that. I like good characters who do bad things and bad characters who do heroic things. Friends who become enemies, and enemies who become friends. Secrets and lies are inevitable in some of our relationships. It’s the capacity to forgive that gets us through.

Anne: What is your next project? Will we see more of Tommie/Hudson?

Julia: I originally planned Tommie as a series character. But when Playing Dead didn’t sell immediately, I wrote Lie Still, a second, standalone thriller. It’s about a New Yorker who finds herself in a small Texas town entwined in the secrets of a group of rich, bizarre Southern women. The New York protagonist is pregnant, with a few secrets of her own. It oozes more creepiness than Playing Dead, but also more humor—noir with Botox and big hair.

Lie Still will be published by Random House in 2013.As far as Tommie’s fate goes: Her voice hangs out in my head, and I hope to put her back on the page sometime.

Anne: What do you like most about writing? What do you like least about it?

Julia: I like the loneliness of it. When I say that, I mean that I like when everyone in my house has happily set off on their day and it is just me, the dog, the cat, the computer and the characters inside my head. The loneliness is also what I like least about it. It can make me a little too self-focused. The writing becomes larger than it really should be in the scheme of a happy life. It’s just a book!

Anne: What book is your favorite comfort read—the one you go back to time and time again?

Julia: The last books I read over and over for comfort were the Anne of Green Gables series when I was a kid. I don’t like to read books more than once. Mysteries are my comfort food, and the twist is the big piece of pie at the end. I always want my pie. So for comfort, I pick up any mystery I haven’t read with an intriguing plot and a first page that is well-written. It could be an old Michael Connelly paperback I buy for 25 cents at a garage sale, a deservedly hyped debut like S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, or a British author I’ve never tried (like Sophie Hannah—how did I miss her for so long?).

Anne: What author (dead or alive) do you most want to meet?

Julia: Hmmm. Tough. At the moment, I’d say it’s a tie between Ann Patchett and Stephen King.

Ann Patchett, because she is a strong, purposeful woman who is more than the magical sentences she strings together in novels like State of Wonder. I like that she has defied the odds by opening her own independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, called out the Pulitzer committee when it didn’t award a prize for fiction this year, and held her own with Stephen Colbert while promoting the brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Stephen King, because he is a genius. I know how sycophantic that sounds. But he is the master of driving the creepy plot. His book On Writing helped me immensely.

Anne: What fictional character would you most want to meet?

Julia: Owen Meany, the squeaky-voiced boy with a profound understanding of his purpose who TALKS LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME. A Prayer For Owen Meany has long been my favorite book, which is why I ventured over to Dallas recently with my family to hear John Irving speak. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but Irving said that he asked himself this question before inventing Owen Meany, “What would it take for me to believe in God? It would take this guy.”