Writing a Suspense Novel as Good as ‘Rebecca’
Texas author Julia Heaberlin prepares for the release of her new hardback thriller Black-Eyed Susans.
What’s being dubbed as Julia Heaberlin‘s breakout novel isn’t her first. Past thrillers for the Texas author include Playing Dead about a horrific kidnapping and Lie Still about a nameless stalker, but it’s her latest novel that’s expected to make Heaberlin a household name in the mystery genre — and close out the summer with a chilling tale of a serial killer. In Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin uses a roadside wildflower to terrorize character Tessa, the only victim to survive the vicious attack of a serial killer decades ago. Tessa thought she had put the killer behind bars, but now black-eyed susans are appearing outside her bedroom window. Did she help convict the wrong man?
As Tessa tries to protect herself and her teenaged daughter, while at the same time uncovering her fragmented memories of the night she was attacked, Heaberlin weaves a complex story of psychic trauma, forensic science and the Texas death penalty. She says she used her background in journalism to tirelessly research this novel, which believes is her best yet. We interviewed her by phone from her home in Texas about her early love of mysteries, her goal to write suspense novel as good as Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca and turning a harmless wildflower into a symbol for murder.
EZB: In your website bio, you talk about walking to the town library, located in an old jail, in the heat of summer to check out romance novels as a young girl. What else did you do in the summer?
JH: The first library was my parents’ bookshelves, which were just packed with a very eclectic array of things from Agatha Christie to the Rabbi Small series to John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, so I pretty much went through those shelves in the beginning. In the summer, my parents were not interested in entertaining me and so I had a choice of either picking weeds or walking to the library, so generally I would walk to the library and you could check out as many paperback romances as you wanted to. There was a librarian there who’s still alive named Martha. She’s like 94 I think, and she eventually directed me to more literary and intellectual things. I kind of like to think my books are a little bit of a mix of all of that, kind of eclectic stuff I read, trash and things that were more worthwhile.
EZB: What attracted you to those early mysteries?
JH: Probably the first time I knew that I wanted to write a novel, I was reading Rebecca on this windowseat that my dad had made for me and it was a very hot summer and it took me into this Gothic world that was really far removed from where I was. So that was my goal: to write a suspense novel as good as Rebecca. I always really liked psychological suspense, and of course I have not done that, but it is a lofty goal and I find everything about Daphne du Maurier kind of fascinating.
EZB: What was it like to transition from a journalist and editor to writing fiction? Are there any real-life stories you worked on that have fueled your imagination?
JH: I was an editor most of the time, so I was editing and I had to edit a lot of people with different voices. You sort of have to adapt, so I think that really kind of helped me discover my own voice as a fiction writer eventually. I quit work after 20 years as a journalist and decided I was going to write a novel or I was never going to do it … That was a big struggle the first year to write it and then another six months to get an agent and two or three years of rejection and rewriting.
As far as the journalism helping me, I think it particularly helped me in this book because I decided that I wanted to do a lot more research. I first did a piece on Rhonda Roby, the world-renowned forensic expert who at the time was at a lab in Fort Worth and was so fascinated by her that we eventually kind of became friends and then we went to have beer and she would tell me all these stories. I would ask would this work, would this not work, and the same is true of using David Dow, one of the leading death penalty attorneys in Texas, who I just emailed out of the blue and said will you help me and he did. He stuck himself in my plot and told me how he’d handle the case.
Joanna is rubbing the charm between her fingers, like it is a holy cross. I suddenly realize that, in her world, it is. She is wearing a double helix made of gold. The twisted ladder of life. A strand of DNA. – Tessa, present day
EZB: How long was your research period?
JH: My research period was ongoing, because when you’re writing a novel and you get stuck, you realize well that’s just because I don’t know enough about whatever it is I’m writing about. The whole book took around two years and I only planned on it taking one year and so I was going back and forth and I had a million pink post-it notes everywhere. In some ways, having those three themes — psychic trauma, the cutting edge forensic science, the Texas death penalty — at various times I wondered if I have maybe one theme too many, but by the time I figured that out, I was already toward the end.
EZB: Did you know about the North Texas Center for Human Identification before you started working on the book and did you visit there?
JH: I knew about it because I was writing about Rhonda Roby, except I had no clue what a fantastic lab it was, that it was also world renowned, that people from all over the world sent bones there that they couldn’t put names to with the hopes that this lab would figure it out. You go there and everyone you talk to, they’re not going to give up, they’re going to try one more time to get the DNA. One of the huge problems of course is that there are not enough families who put their DNA into the system, so you can get the DNA and then you have nowhere to go if the answer is not on the other side somewhere.
EZB: Let’s get a little more into the book, specifically your title. You take this ordinary wildflower that we’ve all seen and make it into a really scary thing.
JH: Good, I can’t look at them quite the same way anymore.
EZB: Where did you get the idea for incorporating the flower?
JH: When I sat down to write this book, I just knew I wanted to write a book about a girl who was found in a Texas field and a grave of bones and black-eyed susans, and she had no memory of how she got there. Some writers outline everything, but I’m not like that. I really just start with a concept and then I go and kind of let the characters drive the plot. The problem with that is that at the end, it can be a little messy.
I am not fooled by the fainting Susans under my windowsill. I know that each of the thirty-four eyes hoards enough seeds to carpet my whole yard, come spring. I slide on my gardening gloves and pick up the can of herbicide I’ve retrieved from the garage. I wonder whether he likes to watch this part of the process. I’ve learned that poison is the best method. Not since I was seventeen have I torn up the Susans by their roots. – Tessa, present day
EZB: You open the novel with this creepy storybook house that people in town think is cursed. Did you base that on anything real, and what type of atmosphere were you trying to create from the beginning?
JH: It’s sort of based on two things. One is my grandfather’s own very creepy basement. He lived in the Smoky Mountains, and he built a small house for himself there. He was all those things that this grandfather was — an artist and a photographer and he actually was a morgue photographer, so one of the creepy things in this basement was a book of photos from crime scenes that he had shot. I could never forget the picture of this woman who’d been shot by her husband lying on the tile of her kitchen floor. The house itself is sort of out of my imagination, but there is a house where I live in Colleyville that a man built for his daughter on a much smaller scale. It is designed like a fairytale house, because his daughter loved fairytales so much. I’ve always been interested in the creepy side of fairytales myself, so that’s another theme that runs through it.
EZB: The book goes back and forth between present day and 1995, the year of Tessie’s attack. Was it difficult to write it that way and jump back and forth between stories?
JH: Tessie is the first voice that I heard, but it’s difficult to go back and forth because you can get bored with one section or those books that have different characters, there’s one character you like better. I was very cognizant of that and wanted to make sure that I kept something going in both. With Tessie, I think it was her voice and her vulnerability and then I wanted to create in the present day a race, so that you would definitely want to know what was happening with the case, what was happening to her, was she safe, all those things. I would say I didn’t know exactly when I set out that I was going to go back and forth between past and present and, yes, in a lot of ways it wasn’t difficult until the very end.
I was camped out in the grave with the Susans, per usual. Rebecca peered down at us, pale and pretty, in one of my mother’ flowered church dresses. She fell to her knees and extended a hand. Her hair, wound in these goofy old-fashioned ringlets, tickled my cheek. Her fingers, when they reached me, were white-hot. I woke up, my arm in fire, choking for air. – Tessie, 1995
EZB: Let’s talk about the end then and the difficulty of keeping the killer a secret and also tying up all the loose ends.
JH: In some ways, the way I write is helpful because there are a lot of things going on so they kind of distract the reader I think. When I set out to write mystery novels, one of the things I wanted was to write a book where people can’t figure out the end, which is one of my pet peeves when it comes to mystery novels. I can generally figure out the end. To do that, I purposely kind of distract the reader but at the same time I feel very aware that I don’t want to cheat them, because I think that’s not fair, so I try to drop at least a few things that if people go back in novel, they can say OK I see where this actually works. That is a very key part of my writing process is to get to an end that’s surprising and part of that is because I don’t always know what the end is going to be halfway through so if I don’t know halfway through, how can the reader have figured it out by then?
EZB: Black-Eyed Susans is your hardcover debut. What do you think that’s going to do for your career and how will it affect your next book?
JH: That is a difficult question to ask an author. I do think this is the best, most sophisticated, most researched book I’ve written. And it is a hardback. I do sincerely hope more people come to my books after this, but there’s just really no way to know. I think just part of that is serendipity and word of mouth and they’re all things I can’t control. Really what I’m just trying to do is to write a better book than I did the last time so I want my book after this to be better than the one I’m writing now and to not be the same. That’s the reality of life as an author. You hope things will break out in some way, but you can’t control it and you just have to be happy writing.
EZB: Can you say anything about your next book?
JH: I can say that it is a creepy road trip in Texas. I do like to set all my books in Texas, because that’s one of my goals is to kind of defy the stereotypes about us. It’s about a young woman who says she is the daughter of a man with dementia who has been accused of being a serial killer, but he has never been convicted and so they’re off on this road trip to discover the truth about who he really is. In the end, they’re not exactly who you think they are.