In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Julia Heaberlin, author of Black Eyed Susans, would write thrillers. For starters, Heaberlin, who grew up in the tiny Texas town of Decatur, spent much of her childhood in the old jailhouse. Granted, it was a jailhouse that had been converted into a library, but still, jails are like bridesmaids’ dresses: you can try to perk them up, but it’s hard to forget what they once were.
“It was so hot in the summer,” remembers Heaberlin. “If I was bored I had two choices—walk to the library or pick weeds. I always chose the library.” At the library, apart from breathing in the dregs of criminality lurking in the ether, Heaberlin acquired a voracious and varied literary appetite, ranging from Agatha Christie to Harlequin romance, from Steinbeck to du Maurier’s Rebecca. It was a repertoire that would inform her writing decades later.
As an adult, Heaberlin forged a successful career as a journalist. Her work at The Detroit News, The Dallas Morning News, and finally at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where she was assistant managing editor of features, won awards. Heaberlin was drawn to stories of crime and their lingering impact. “I was always fascinated by the stories of what happened to the families years after the crime had been committed,” says Heaberlin.
Working at the newspaper, Heaberlin dreamed of becoming a full-time writer but couldn’t make the leap. The transition from award-winning journalist to lonely novelist was daunting, existentially and economically. “I knew that if I didn’t quit my job, I’d never write a book,” says Heaberlin, who eventually decided, with her husband, to cut their family income in half, quit her job, and try writing full-time.
Even after that drastic decision, Heaberlin’s goal was anything but lofty. She once told a writing coach that she wanted to write “a trashy book, not the great American novel,” she recalls. With a look of disappointment, he replied, “Well maybe it will start out that way and you’ll write something better.”
John Grisham famously said, “William Faulkner was a great literary genius. I am not.” In the same sense, Heaberlin’s mysteries (she has written two others: Playing Dead and Lie Still) may not be pondered and parsed in English Lit courses, but they do give readers a wildly entertaining ride. (And how many people do you see in airports reading As I Lay Dying, anyway?)
Like the suspense novelists she admires—Gillian Flynn, Stephen King, Thomas Harris—Heaberlin writes thrillers with meat on the bones, stories propelled by plot but anchored by larger societal issues. “That interests me,” says Heaberlin who wrote Black Eyed Susans about a woman found barely alive in a grave full of bones and no idea how she got there. The book opens with a chilling quote from Tess, the victim and protagonist: “Thirty-two hours of my life are missing.” As readers try to piece together that block of time, the book jumps back and forth between teenage Tess in therapy sessions and present-day Tess trying to find her real attacker while an innocent man sits on death row.
“In Black Eyed Susans I wanted to discuss the slow march of the death penalty, the cutting edge of forensic science and the psychology of trauma,” says Heaberlin, who is already at work on a fourth book.
“It’s another psychological thriller,” she says. “I’m calling it a creepy road trip book. It involves a young woman and a man who was always thought to be a serial killer but was never convicted. He says he has dementia and they go on a road trip. In the end, neither are who you think they are.”
You might think that an author would need her own horrific closet of secrets to conjure stories like that. For Heaberlin, it’s the opposite. “I have a very happy life,” says the wife and mother. “I think it makes me able to go into these dark places in my mind when I write.”
Still, Heaberlin argues, her books could be even more bleak. “My editor is darker than I am! She’s always telling me that I’m trying to rescue my characters too early.” For a girl who took refuge in a jailhouse and spent a career delving into the nooks and crannies of people’s lives, there’s always the temptation to turn the screw.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama.