Article published on September 3, 2015.
Julia Heaberlin drops by to talk about the death penalty, character development and being compared with Gillian Flynn
Mike Stafford: Black Eyed Susans is a tense, haunting book to read. Emotionally, how did you find the experience of writing it?
Julia Heaberlin: I have a happy, lucky life here in sunny Texas: a great husband and a smart, kind son; goofy, encouraging friends; sweet relatives; supportive 85-year-old parents; and a good dog. When necessary, a movie in a cold, inky theater or a long baseball game on a hot day can pull me out of any funk. This support system allows me to jump into dark places knowing that I won’t ever be sucked in permanently. I also refuse to spend much time with characters I don’t like or who aren’t interesting or redeemable in some way. And when Black Eyed Susans inevitably did bring me down at times, I added something that amused me. So if you (hopefully) find a funny place in the book, it was there to cheer me up (along with the reader). I think a few light threads are very important in a dark thriller.
MS: You include a lot of fascinating real world information. Was there anything else you’d like to have included but couldn’t squeeze in?
JH: So much, so much, so much. This book more than any of the others combines my journalism experience with fiction writing. I consulted a number of experts and was constantly editing out information to keep the voice and pace of the book on track. I could have written at least four pages on how DNA solved the case of Princess Anastasia (escaped or dead?); another 30 on the mind-blowing science of using isotope analysis in identifying old bones (basically, the memory of where we lived is stored inside us); and chapters on the culture and future of the death penalty in Texas (are we at a tipping point?). My editor, Kate Miciak at Ballantine, used her deft, brilliant finger in streamlining toward the end. There were a lot of themes going.
MS: The character of Lydia is absolutely fascinating, with a striking arc over the course of the book. Did you always plan to take her character in the direction it goes in, or did she take the lead herself?
JH: Let me say this about Lydia: I would have wanted her as a childhood friend. Eccentric, smart, overprotective, obsessive, highly entertaining. I bonded with her morbid side as I, too, wrote an English paper on Jack the Ripper replete with gory photographs. Lydia definitely evolved by herself, like all of my characters do, although there were a few tug-of-wars along the way.
MS: The book has seen you compared to Gillian Flynn, among others. How do you feel about such comparisons?
JH: I think poor Gillian Flynn because everybody is now the next Gillian Flynn, right? It is very, very gratifying, of course! Like Flynn, I do like to weave in deeper themes beyond the mystery itself and to write a dark, character-driven thriller you hopefully won’t figure out. But there will only be one Gone Girl like there is only one Strangers on a Train (Highsmith, a genius) and only one Rebecca. Gone Girl is a classic, a phenomenon, brilliantly executed. All that said, Gillian Flynn and I have, at one time in our lives, likely chanted the words, “Rock, chalk, Jayhawk” (a requisite of both being alums of University of Kansas).
MS: You’re against the death penalty, and the book makes a persuasive argument against it. Did you set out to change readers’ opinions on the subject?
JH: I did not have that as a goal. I did not want to preach about anything. I only knew I did not want a standard overdramatic Hollywood ending and I wanted what I wrote to be authentic. I have not believed in the death penalty since I was a kid (the product of a mother who still carries spiders out of the house on a newspaper and lays them gently in the grass). I live in the red state of Texas, with the busiest execution factory in the United States, and I can tell you that arguing a hot button point is not an effective way to get anyone to change his or her mind. My goal was to tell the story as honestly and factually as I could and hope people would think about it. I believe thrillers are a terrific way to get people paying attention to bigger issues (look at Gillian Flynn on the insidious nature of marriage; Dan Brown on overpopulation).
To that end, I interviewed David Dow, a legendary death penalty attorney, and Anthony Graves, an innocent man (now free) who sat in prison for 18 years, 12 on Death Row, wrongly convicted of helping slaughter a family of six. I hand-counted the list of the men on Texas Death Row and was horrified by their crimes because even death penalty attorneys will say most of them are guilty. I stood outside the Texas Death House during an execution, in the middle of a quaint town, and observed the banality of the whole thing for myself. At the same time, I had to unexpectedly wrestle with my beliefs and my character Tessa’s emotions, i.e., how would I really feel about the death penalty if my own life had been ripped apart by random evil? Would I seek revenge? The answer to that is, who knows? But I can say for sure, with everything I know now, my revenge would not be by putting someone on Death Row.
MS: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
JH: I’m describing it as a creepy Texas road trip. The spotlight is focused on two characters: a man long suspected of being a serial killer who claims to now have dementia, and a young woman who says she is his long-lost daughter. They set off across Texas to examine cold cases to discover the truth. And guess what? Neither is exactly who you think.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Heaberlin is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Detroit News and The Dallas Morning News. Before launching her career as an author, she was an assistant managing editor over features sections at large metropolitan newspapers. Many of those sections won national and state journalism awards. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named as one of the Top 10 sections in the country during her tenure. She has edited real-life thriller stories that inform her writing, including a series on the perplexing and tragic murders of random girls and women buried in the desert in Mexico and another on the frightened women of domestic violence. She lives with her husband and son in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where she is a free-lance writer and is at work on her fourth book.