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Julia Heaberlin Is a Writer Hiding in Plain Sight

Will the Fort Worth author's fourth novel bring her the attention she deserves?
By Christopher Kelly |
Jill Johnson
In March 1950, Patricia Highsmith, an ambitious, devious-minded writer from Fort Worth, then just 29 years old, published her first novel, Strangers on a Train, the story of two men who agree to commit murders for each other and thereby create a pair of perfect alibis. The film rights sold to no less a legend than Alfred Hitchcock, who a year later watered down some of Highsmith’s more outré touches but nonetheless created one of his most enduring films, starring Robert Walker and Farley Granger. A major new American writer’s career would appear to have been launched.

Flash forward 40-plus years and two dozen or so novels and short story collections. By 1995, the year of her death, Highsmith no longer had an American publisher and barely had a reputation outside of Europe. Were it not for the renaissance commenced by Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith—who these days rightly gets mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and other noir titans whose fictions root around inside the fissures and cracks in the American psyche—likely would be forgotten by all but a few cultists.

I kept thinking of Highsmith while I was reading Paper Ghosts, the fourth and most accomplished novel by Julia Heaberlin, a former journalist who lives in Grapevine, about 25 miles northeast of Highsmith’s childhood home. Heaberlin isn’t as grimly fatalistic as Highsmith; her books pop with bursts of off-kilter humor and an affirming belief that there is light at the end of her narratives’ dark tunnels. Unlike Highsmith, who with rare exceptions focused on deviant men, Heaberlin anchors her books with troubled but endearingly badass women. Think Amy Schumer’s character in Trainwreck, except with guns and the greater possibility of redemption. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Heaberlin since 2000, when she hired me as film critic at the Star-Telegram, and she has written for D Magazine.) Yet like Highsmith, Heaberlin displays a keen grasp of the casual cruelty that defines human interaction, not to mention a flair for stories in which no one—least of all the protagonist—can be trusted. Another point of comparison: Heaberlin continues to fly beneath the larger cultural radar, shunted to the “Mysteries & Thrillers” ghetto of bookstores and the New York Times Book Review, shrugged off as a disposable beach book writer even while her male counterparts rack up critical laurels and movie deals.

Which is to say: Texas has yet again bred a major American noir writer, but unless you’re a cultist, you’d likely have no idea.

Heaberlin anchors her books with troubled but endearingly badass women. Think Amy Schumer’s character in Trainwreck, except with guns and the greater possibility of redemption.

For those unacquainted, Heaberlin was born in Decatur and worked at newspapers in Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan, before returning to Texas for stints at both the Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News. Those big city-small town tensions—and her journalism background—inform Playing Dead, her 2012 debut, a hall-of-mirrors story about a Fort Worth child psychologist who learns she may have been kidnapped 32 years earlier. Heaberlin moved to Grapevine with her husband and son in the late ’90s, and a knowledge of suburban excesses animates Lie Still (2013), in which a group of desperate housewives begin to play mind games on a new arrival to town. The novel showed us a writer whose sense of humor and sense of place just kept deepening.

Next came Black-Eyed Susans (2015), about a woman who survived a murder attempt, but then may have helped send the wrong man to prison for the crime. The story is a tad overstuffed with red herrings, but the prose consistently arrests you. Heaberlin describes the death row Walls Unit at Huntsville as “a quaint, stately old building too tired to sigh,” whereas an exhumed skull has eyes that are “holes going to the bottom of the ocean” and “a few rotten teeth hanging like stalactites in an abandoned cave.” Yet despite a smattering of warm notices, including one from the Washington Post, the sort of literary-world buzz that translates into major sales has eluded her. (Also like Highsmith, Heaberlin has a much larger audience overseas. Black-Eyed Susans was a bestseller in England.)

The history of books, of course, is in some respects a history of terrific writers being ignored. But Heaberlin’s case rankles, in large part because this decade or so has seen any number of male noir writers find crossover success. After quietly turning out dozens of quirky thrillers and horror novels, the Nacogdoches-based author Joe Lansdale saw his Cold in July turned into an extraordinary movie starring Michael C. Hall and his Hap and Leonard series adapted for a popular Sundance TV show. (He also enjoyed that ultimate stamp of cultural approval: an episode-length interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.) Donald Ray Pollock, who shares with Heaberlin a fondness for wickedly warped casts of characters, has had his three novels, The Devil All the Time, The Heavenly Table, and Knockemstiff, reviewed (often glowingly) by every major publication in the country. Another fellow Texan, Nic Pizzolatto, parlayed the success of his tortured tough-guy thriller Galveston into a deal to write and produce HBO’s True Detective.

It is perhaps too simplistic, especially in our #MeToo moment, to chalk up Heaberlin’s lack of acclaim to mere sexism, especially given that unlike writers such as Pollock or Pizzolatto, Heaberlin doesn’t wear her artistry on her sleeve. But she’s also not the only gifted female genre writer from Texas starving for attention. Just consider the similarly undervalued profiles of Dallas resident Taylor Stevens (The Informationist) and Houston-born Attica Locke (Bluebird, Bluebird). Indeed, the cultural establishment has made room for a number of female crime writers in recent years, though they usually hail from farther afield; on the eggheady books website The Millions, for instance, Irish writer Tana French (Faithful Place), Canadian Louise Penny (the Chief Inspector Gamache series) and Brit Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) are regularly discussed alongside the latest highbrow offerings by Don DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the sexism faced by female authors in general has been compounded for Heaberlin by a deep-seated, possibly unconscious geographical bias. With Flannery O’Connor as perhaps the singular exception, we insist on looking to men—William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Jim Thompson, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke—to illuminate the most twisted corners of the American South.

Paper Ghosts, Ballantine Hardcover, On Sale May 15

With any justice, Paper Ghosts will be the book that helps to balance this injustice. The darkest and strangest of the author’s novels, it centers on an unnamed woman who forces a photographer who claims to be suffering from dementia on a road trip across Texas because, the narrator believes, this aging man is a serial killer responsible for her sister’s murder. Heaberlin’s geographical canvas here is more expansive than before, taking in not just Dallas and Fort Worth, but also Waco (where “a culvert gapes like a giant empty eye socket, a place for snakes, daring boys, graffiti, things to die”), Austin (where “hate is a devil you can smoke away with enough weed”), San Luis Pass in Galveston (“an end piece on the long baguette of shore”), and Marfa (“little desert city of the surreal”). More than a peculiarly creepy Texas travelogue, though, Paper Ghosts shows Heaberlin’s skill at narrative and character development in full flower. The novel is populated almost exclusively by people who are lying—to themselves, to each other, especially to the reader. At the center is a hollowed-out, sexually forthright woman intent as much on punishing herself as the men she believes have done her wrong. In some respects, she is the ultimate heroine for a post-Weinstein age.

Whether the (largely male) literary tastemakers will know what to do with this character or, as with previous Heaberlin novels, ignore her altogether remains to be determined. It took until 2002, seven years after her death, for Patricia Highsmith to place a short story in the New Yorker and another seven years after that for the New York Times Book Review to publish a serious consideration of her work. Here’s hoping it takes a little less time for Heaberlin to get her due.

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