Julia Heaberlin had always wanted to write a novel, but her job as an editor at the Star-Telegram kept getting in the way. Finally, when she was 45, her husband helped convince her to leave behind “the golden handcuffs,” as she puts it, and write that book. Heaberlin would end up writing two before she found a publisher, but taking a chance on herself ultimately paid off. Her third book, “a novel of suspense” called Black-Eyed Susans, caught on big in England: at its height, in April, it was No. 2 on the paperback bestsellers list and No. 4 overall (including hardcovers and digital editions). The time-hopping page turner about the only survivor of a serial killer is now being adapted into a feature film. Meanwhile, Heaberlin is typing away to meet the fall deadline for her fourth thriller, “a creepy road trip,” she says, tentatively titled Lady in the Rain.
I guess it is sort of every writer’s fantasy to quit their job and go write a novel. You actually did it. What happened next? I really did treat it like a job, and wrote for a year. And then found an agent, which took about six months. That book, Playing Dead, was rejected by every major publishing house. So my agent told me to write another one—and that book, Lie Still, was rejected by every major publishing house. It wasn’t like I was writing the great literary novel, but the rejections, of course, were terribly personal.
Did you consider giving up? There was a point about two months before I got picked up that I had really thought maybe I just needed to go get a real job and quit. But I didn’t, and two months later it was picked up by Random House. An editor there who had rejected me before, Kate Miciak, she wrote the nicest of the mean rejection letters. There were a lot of those. She decided to pick up both books after I had rewritten the second one a little bit. Then she proceeded to give me a master’s class in thriller writing. She edits Lee Child (the Jack Reacher series), and she’s worked with Lisa Gardner (The Killing Hour) and Elizabeth George (the Inspector Thomas Lynley series). She’s a tough, tough editor.
Going into Black-Eyed Susans, after your thriller boot camp, did you feel stronger? I have not actually told anyone this before, I don’t think, in an interview, but the option was not picked up for Black-Eyed Susans. I’m going to tell this story because I think writers need to know not to give up, not to give up, not to give up. I had written about 50 pages of it, and I felt like it was the best book yet and that I was really going to be able to use my journalism background with my fiction in this book. I was feeling good about it. There was a publisher [at Random House] at the time who decided not to pick it up, so for three to four months, I thought I was going to have to start all over again. But that publisher ended up leaving and another one came in, and she decided she wanted the book. At the same time, someone was bidding for it at Penguin. It turned out to be a happy story in the end. “There was a point about two months before I got picked up that I had really thought maybe I just needed to go get a real job and quit.”
“There was a point about two months before I got picked up that I had really thought maybe I just needed to go get a real job and quit.”
It seems like it keeps getting happier. Black-Eyed Susans is a big success, especially in England, and it’s being made into a movie. How did that come about? Rod Lurie—he made The Contender with Joan Allen—his wife read it. I don’t know if she read it on their honeymoon or talked him into reading it on their honeymoon. She wanted to write a screenplay with him, and they chose this as their first project to write together. They’re very collaborative. They ask my opinion all the time. Not at all what I expected Hollywood to be like.
You got the inspiration for Playing Dead when you received a letter from a stranger who wondered if you might be her abducted daughter. Where did the rest of the story come from? Give me your crash course in thriller writing. I always thought I had to outline, which is why I never got far with my books before I quit my job. And then I read On Writing by Stephen King. What he said, and it maybe sounds a little precious when I say it, is just let your characters drive the plot. So that is what I do. I start with this tiny little idea—a woman gets a letter—and go from there. In the case of Black-Eyed Susans, a young girl is found in a field of flowers with a bunch of bones and no memory of how she got there. That is how I started those books, with nothing more than that. I really like to be surprised as I go along. How this happens, I don’t really know. I think if I surprise myself, I’m more likely to surprise the reader.
Where did the image of the girl in the field of flowers come from? People ask me that all the time, and it really was just there. And the name of the book was just there; the kind of flower was just there. I wish I knew where this magic place where ideas come from is. I know when they’re not coming.
A version of this Q&A appears in the July issue of D Magazine.