Wednesday, July 22, 2015

9mm interview: Julia Heaberlin

Back in 2012 I read an intriguing debut from Texan journalist turned novelist Julia Heaberlin, PLAYING DEAD. The book included some fascinating characters, a swirl of family secrets, and enough raw promise to make me look forward to her later offerings. Next month, Heaberlin's third novel, the outstanding psychological thriller BLACK-EYED SUSANS, is published.

Advance reviews have been full of praise for BLACK-EYED SUSANS, which centres on the sole survivor of a serial killer who starts to doubt that the man about to be executed for the murders, who has spent almost twenty years on death row in Texas, is the true culprit. It's an absorbing page-turner that adroitly dissects the phenomena that is state-sponsored killing in the Lone Star State - including some surprising revelations of the truth behind the headlines - while delivering a a twist-filled plotline and interesting characters. I read it earlier this month, and was impressed - it's a definite step up from PLAYING DEAD.

Today, I'm pleased to welcome Julia Heaberlin to Crime Watch. The proud Texan becomes the 124th author to stare down the barrel of 9mm. I think you'll enjoy her interview.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective, and what is it you love about them? 
My all-time favorite is Kinsey Millhone of the Sue Grafton alphabet series. I generally pick books by their own worth and don’t always follow specific authors, but I have never, ever missed a Kinsey Millhone mystery after I sunk myself into A is for Alibi a very long time ago.

Kinsey could just sit in her kitchen and eat one of her peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwiches for an entire book and I’d read it. She is clever without a fancy degree, cares about people at a cost to herself, has cut her hair with nail scissors and relies on a wrinkle-free black dress for upscale occasions. There’s all that to love, but at the heart of her is darkness and loss. As Kinsey lovers know, she was trapped with her parents’ dead bodies when she was a child for hours before being rescued. Kinsey was one of the first strong female protagonists in a male-dominated genre and set the course for the rest of us. She gets to my feminist side.

In more recent history, I’d vote for Lisbeth Salander, who’s about as badass and fascinating a “detective” as you’ll ever get. The worlds that these two live in are so different, but I think she and Kinsey would get along just fine.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?  
I generally name Rebecca as the very first book I read that made me want to write a novel. I was 15 or so, and it swept me from hot, small-town Texas to a gothic, moody place I could only imagine.

But if you’re talking about the VERY first book, I’d say Harriet the Spy. A little black-and-white sketch of her has been my Facebook profile picture for years. She’s scratching out something spy-like in her secret journal, glasses plugged on her nose. I think, like her, I’ve always preferred to be in the background observing people and wondering at their little quirks.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles? 
I was a features and arts editor at metro newspapers before quitting to try a novel and most of my career was spent assigning and editing stories other people produced. It was very helpful in that by editing myriad voices, I was able to more easily find my own. I liked best working on narrative stories that involved a mystery of some kind, or examined what happened to victims or killers years after a crime took place: the man who walked into his house, tried to slaughter his whole family, disappeared for years, and was finally caught living another domestic life; the blond, bubbly suburban mom who ended up on Death Row after slashing her children (and herself), setting up a crime scene and claiming a strange man broke into her home and committed the crime. More recently, I wrote an interesting piece for D Magazine about Rhonda Roby, the world-renowned forensic scientist who consulted on my book (and appears there as a fictional version of herself).

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise? 
Read outside on a beautiful day or in a cozy bed at night. That’s No. 1. Watch movies in a cold, dark theater, binge on Netflix, cook, grow herbs and flowers, walk the dog, road trip, beach, hang out with my husband and son in any capacity, swing on the front porch of the old house where I grew up with my 85-year-old parents. I would also LIKE to be a poet and a photographer. And a painter. And a country western singer. Hopefully there is time for all but the last one.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider? 
I live smack between Dallas and Fort Worth. People often drift toward Dallas, but Fort Worth is a fantastic combination of cowboy and culture (you can sit among Remingtons and bask in Tadao Ando architecture or watch a cattle drive and then eat chicken fried steak). As for off the beaten path, I’d suggest wandering Grapevine Main Street for weird Texas trinkets or heading to the small town of Roanoke for Babe’s fried chicken or a Kevin Bacon burger at Twisted Root.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you? 
Maybe a combination of actors? I’ll name women who’ve portrayed characters I have related to on a personal level: vulnerable, self-deprecating, weird, make me laugh, smart but don’t think they are the smartest person in the room. I’d say a combination of Kyra Sedgwick, Renee Zelwegger and Tina Fey. They can all do Southern accents.

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why? 
My first character, Tommie McLeod, in Playing Dead will always be special because she led the way for everything else. But I’d say this book, Black Eyed Susans, is my best work. For a few years now, I’ve been getting a master’s class in thriller writing from my editor (Kate Miciak at Random House), who picked me out of her enormous slush pile and decided to give me a go. This book combines my fictional voice with my journalism skills. I wanted the themes in this book …Texas death penalty, forensic science, psychic trauma, memory loss … to be as authentic as possible and yet not get in the way of a flip-the-page pace.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form?
I was alone in my house when my editor called to tell me she was saying yes to two books. When I got off the phone, I screamed and scared the dog. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such instant and pure joy (by comparison, birthing a child was more joyful but long and painful). When my husband came home, we toasted with a beer, I think, probably Rolling Rock. And then we went on to taking care of a kid and our life as we still know it. I’m a practical person and knew how very lucky I was; I’d had more than two years of rejection by publishing houses despite my agent’s dogged efforts and faith in me. I have so many talented friends sitting on books that can’t get published. I tell every beginning writer I meet: At least half of it is never giving up no matter how crummy the rejections make you feel. The other half is rewriting and rewriting.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival? 
I am constantly touched by the kindness of strangers who come listen to me speak about writing (because, as you know by now, I’d rather be on the last row writing in my secret spy journal). That said, my talented indie singer/songwriter niece Laura Heaberlin and I have compared bad “gigs,” where we are reminded how insignificant we are (which probably isn’t such a bad thing except at the time it is happening).

My most awkward speech/signing was at a “marketing” event at an assisted living center. The audience was made up of eight or nine people, many in wheelchairs, some who couldn’t hear anymore. I’m pretty sure they got trapped in there with me because they didn’t finish their dinner on time. But my niece was able to top that gig. Her band, Cricket Blue, played a combination burrito/bagel “cafĂ©” called Bagitos. One woman walked in and left holding her hands to her ears. Laura’s only tip was $2 from a homeless man (although she did leave with a free Bagito). So if you get nothing else from my rambling here: Support the struggling artists! And the homeless!

Thank you Julia. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch


You can read more about Julia Heaberlin and her writing here: 


Have you read any of Julia Heaberlin's crime thrillers? Comments welcome. 

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