Renovation Horror: Bestseller Julia Heaberlin of Grapevine noodles on her next book after finishing latest thriller
By Scott Nishimura
Photography by Jill Johnson
Julia Heaberlin — internationally bestselling author of psychological thrillers such as We Are All the Same in the Dark, Paper Ghosts, and Black-Eyed Susans — is back on a book tour again, this time with Night Will Find You. We’ll get back to that in a moment. Right now, Heaberlin and I are chatting casually over cocktails at Thompson’s Bookstore bar in downtown Fort Worth, and Heaberlin is recounting the basis for one idea she has already crossed off the list for her next book: renovation horror. Unfortunately for Heaberlin, who lives in Grapevine, we’re meeting at Thompson’s because her home, and its creative setting we wanted to see her in, is deep in renovation hell.
“I think it could be an interesting exploration of anxiety,” Heaberlin says of this idea. “And I think a lot of people go through horrible renovations. I think it could be funny. I mean, I try to add humor to my books even though they’re very dark. But I decided not to do that one, because my husband didn’t want me to kill him off.”
Heaberlin — a former journalist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News, and The Detroit News who left that world years ago and landed in books — released her latest thriller June 20. In Night Will Find You, a woman with psychic powers is drawn into a missing-persons case by the police and mocked along the way by a shock jock and his legion of fool followers. Of course, there’s much more to the story than that, but we won’t blow the suspense.
360West: When you left the Star-Telegram, were you harboring ideas at that point about writing books?
Heaberlin: This is just something I thought of since I was 15 and said I would always do. And I really thought I had to outline a whole book before I could write it. And then I read Stephen King’s On Writing and realized he just threw up into the computer and let the characters take it away.
I wrote two books in, I want to say, two to three years. I was rejected by every major publisher. And then an editor, I think at St. Martin’s, said, ‘If you rewrite this one a little this way, I’ll consider it.’ So I did that. She rejected it. Then my agent sent it out to an editor at Random House. And (that editor) said she’d already rejected me twice, so I couldn’t believe (the agent) was sending it to her again. And (the editor) said, ’You know what? I think I’ll take both books.’ That’s how it happened.
I feel very lucky to be published. And I feel sorry for writers who are extremely talented, more talented than I am, who are still out there struggling to get their books published because the industry wants a trend or something else.
360West: How did you develop your interest in true crime?
Heaberlin: I think that came from my StarTelegram days, because we did some stories looking at the victims of the crimes kind of years after the fact. And I just was always fascinated with that idea.
360West: How did you get the idea for Night Will Find You?
Heaberlin: (A friend) insisted that my next book should have a crazy conspiracy theory podcast. So she just kept deluging me with articles on Alex Jones. And so that started me reading about conspiracy theories and then thinking about this space between truth and lies and science and the unknown. I knew I didn’t want to spend a year, a year and a half, with this repulsive human being I was creating. So I created Vivvy, the astrophysicist/psychic who I hope kind of represents conflict in the world today and the underlying anxiety we have about truth and lies. I wanted her to be complex, sort of a brilliant astrophysicist who’s passionate about that, but who is a reluctant psychic who understands that world as well. And I wanted to make the psychic aspect as matter of fact as I could. I didn’t want it to sound crazy.
360West: What kind of research did you do for this book?
Heaberlin: I was lucky in that the main consultant for my book was a rocket scientist who also happens to be my cousin. So I would just send him emails, and he would send back long replies about science, about what Vivvy might think in a certain situation, philosophy of life, whether he believed in God. One of the best things about this book is that I got to know my cousin very well, because we’re both pretty introverted. But I remember I asked him, I guess I just expected that he didn’t believe in God because he was a scientist, so just a stereotype in my head. And he said that he did believe in God, that ‘I ask God every day, how did you make this incredible thing?’
I really just kind of played into the idea that we all believe in something we can’t prove. And we all believe sometimes a coincidence is really not just a coincidence. There’s something else that’s responsible for that.
360West: How do you write? Do you outline? Do you use a whiteboard or put yellow sticky notes up on a wall or something?
Heaberlin: I open up a document and start writing. For the book Paper Ghosts, I did put a huge Texas map on the wall. That’s about a woman who takes a serial killer with dementia, elderly guy, on a road trip across Texas to find out if he was the one who killed her sister. And I marked all the cities as I went and had Post-it notes everywhere, so I could just kind of get their path in my mind. A plumber came in and basically asked what it was, and when I told him it was a path of a serial killer, but not a real serial killer, he kind of left.
360West: When you’re developing a character, say, over a number of years in a book, do you develop that character in its entirety first and then start moving pieces around?
Heaberlin: No. The character creates herself as I move on, as I move along on the page. And she propels the story. For me, if I outline, my books would be very, very dull. Some people do it and it’s great. It’s very successful. But I feel if I’m going to be surprised by what a character does, then my reader is going to be surprised, because I didn’t plan it out.
360West: You’ve talked about how you’re working harder today than you did in newspapers. What’s your routine?
Heaberlin: My daily routine when I’m writing is that I tell myself that I have to write a certain number of words a day. It used to be 2,000; now I’m slower. Now it’s, I would say, 1,500. And that could take me six hours to write, that could take me 10 hours to write. But I never get up until I finish that amount.
360West: So, the book has been optioned by Fox, right?
Heaberlin: It was optioned by Fox Entertainment and then just a few months later, the writer strike happened. So everything’s kind of at a standstill at the moment. I ended up going with Fox because of their enthusiasm and desire to make it more than one season. They thought that Vivvy had enough complexity, and the relationships in the book could carry it into other seasons. We’ll see. Most of my books have been optioned in one way or the other. And as yet, nothing has happened.
360West: If not renovation horror, what else are you looking at for your next book?
Heaberlin: I don’t generally start with action, but this one starts with action. And the protagonist is an emergency room doctor. The consultant for that is my son (Heaberlin’s son is a physician in residency in Denver), which is useful, because he has to respond to me. But (the ER doc) and a number of other people, three or four other people, get a letter that says that they will receive a lot of money if they work together as a team and try to solve the case of a missing girl. They are entwined, and how they are entwined with the girl is kind of revealed along the way. At least, that’s how I’m explaining it right now. Because it is a work in progress.