This week Ballantine Books released Black-Eyed Susans, the latest thriller from Texan journalist-turned-suspense writer Julia Heaberlin. The book follows Tessa Cartwright, the only survivor of a series of brutal murders across the Lone Star State. After testifying, Tessa sees her accused killer was placed on death row. It’ll be years later, after a few startling reminders of her near-death experience resurface, that Tessa decides to re-examine her own case. What follows is a meditation on how the human mind handles trauma, which gets some mind-warping help from the split-timeline storytelling that we’ve seen recently in Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.
But much of Black-Eyed Susans is rooted in Heaberlin’s work as a journalist, where she cut her teeth at publications like the Fort-Worth Star Telegram and The Detroit News. Her research led her to subjects like Rhonda Roby, a mitochondrial DNA scientist; David Dow, a U.S. Death penalty attorney; and Anthony Graves, a Texas man who served 18 years in prison for a set of murders he didn’t commit. In the midst of Black-Eyed Susans’ release, Heaberlin took some time to discuss the novel, its thorough research process and her own views on the death penalty.
Paste: So much of Black-Eyed Susans’ development comes from your work as a journalist. What came first, the story or the research?
Heaberlin: I’d say this book came at me from a lot of different directions. I had just finished interviewing a woman named Rhonda Roby, who is one of the leading mitochondrial experts in identifying lost and old bones. I had done a feature on her for D Magazine, and she was a really fascinating person to me. She really comes to life in the book as one of the characters, and not just some of the amazing things she’s done in life. She worked at [Ground Zero in New York City] for years after 9/11 identifying people. [She identified] victims of plane crashes, the Vietnam War, victims of serial killers. She was even involved in the Anastasia case, and that was really interesting to me.
At the same time, I was reading textbooks on psychic trauma. I had this germ of an idea, which was that a girl was found in a field of black-eyed susans with a bunch of old bones. She had no memory of how she got there. I knew nothing else about it. But when I was reading the textbooks at night, her voice started speaking to me. Like, “I wouldn’t buy into that technique.” She was kind of sarcastic, and that’s how the book opened in my head.
As the book went on, I got interested in the death penalty. I wanted it to be authentic. I do really want my books to be authentic, coming from that journalist point of view, so I began to research that as well. It was a very messy process. Lots of post-it notes and random phone calls.
Paste: You say random phone calls, but I’m looking at just how many people were contacted for this—it’s pretty comprehensive. How did you guide yourself for who to contact through the research?
Heaberlin: I knew Rhonda, we’d become good friends since then. We’d go out for beer, and it became a more casual relationship. Which was good, because she had more interesting stories that way.
Paste: That’s how you get the good ones.
Heaberlin: [Laughs]. [Death penalty attorney] David Dow, I just emailed him out of the blue. I felt guilty about it, because I figured he had a lot more important things to do than talk to me, but he graciously got back to me. We’ve developed a relationship as well, and he directed me to Anthony Graves, who was one of his clients. I wanted my story to be more authentic, but once I talked to them, I just wanted to be a more authentic person.
Paste: I can imagine talking to Anthony was intense, considering his situation. What was that experience like?
Heaberlin: It was. When I was talking to him, I was aware of the irony that I was staring out of the window at the pool, which was glimmering in the sun. He, though, is a remarkable person. He’s even-keeled. He’s not bitter, and he’s definitely on a path. I saw him talk to Katie Couric just before I interviewed him, and you can just feel how genuine he is for all he’s gone through.
Paste: In exploring things like the death penalty for this novel, has your perspective changed?
Heaberlin: I never believed in the death penalty. I grew up in the red state of Texas, but my parents were very liberal. My mother carried spiders out of the house on a newspaper and gently to the grass. There was no death penalty in our house. [Laughs] I had that as a grounding, and later in life, I was against it because it was a racist and an unfair system. But then, as I met David Dow and stood outside of an execution this year, I really just thought that I’ve not done enough. I was amazed at how sparse the crowd was, and I feel like I’ve been giving less service to what I believe. But my character, she’s conflicted. I think she’s still conflicted at the end. I kept trying to convince her otherwise, but if my whole life was ripped apart, I don’t know if I’d seek revenge. You could say you wouldn’t, but how would you know?
Paste: You mentioned service, and there’s a line in the book about sparse crowds protesting at these executions because of Facebook-type activists, which I thought was funny and true. Are you getting involved in activism?
Heaberlin: No, I’m not. I’m blogging for the U.K., and I just did one for the Houston Chronicle. Both have death penalty themes, one is on Anthony Graves. The one thing he asked me to do—very politely, at the end of our conversation—was to please talk about his foundation. He was telling his story and seeking reform. One of them focuses on the experience itself, the other also includes what the status of the death penalty is in the United States. I feel like if I can do anything, it’s to use the skills I have, which is writing and reporting.
Paste: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen in a newsroom?
Heaberlin: In a newsroom? I’m not sure I can tell you that. I think that might make other people look bad. I’m going to skip that if that’s okay.
Paste: I should say, considering what’s actually being reported—what events surprised you most while you worked in newspapers?
Heaberlin: One of the things that I liked to do as an editor was stories where you’re not looking at the crime as it happens, but at the crime years later. Like, the man who walked into his house, tried to kill his whole family and then disappeared. He wasn’t found until years later, living a really peaceful life. But, the story showed what happened to those children who survived, what happened when he went to prison, what’s happening now. Do you remember Darlie Routier? She was the suburban mother in Texas who killed two of her children, slashed herself, then claimed it was a black man who came in her house. She’s blonde, bubbly, never admitted she was guilty. She was spraying silly string at the graves of her children. She was a really odd person. Stories like that mark what I found most interesting in the journalism I did, which led me to mystery and crime writing.
Paste: Is it freeing to not be tied to facts with fiction writing?
Heaberlin: Not exactly. I find that fiction writing, because I have real themes in them, my story has to go along with that. It’s nice to create a character, but the story itself is really complicated. I’m making a rambling answer, but there’s so much research, almost too many things. I had to reel them in and make the references to what I found interesting and very subtle. But trying to keep it interesting, keep the pace going and trying to keep the voice going—I guess I wouldn’t call it freeing.
Paste: And you’re doing that with a narrator who also has memory issues. What were the challenges in that kind of narrative?
Heaberlin: That made things a little easier, at least until maybe the end when I needed to wrap everything in a nice bow. I knew part of the story, so that wasn’t difficult. That helped me keep the pace. I wanted to leave a question at the end of each chapter, and leave them flipping back and forth. I wanted them to be moving quickly through the book. This book is meant to be swallowed pretty quickly.
Paste: You’ve mentioned seeking authenticity in your work. What are the last few works that you’ve read where that really comes across?
Gone Girl, in a way. I think it pointed out all the nature of dysfunctionalities in marriage that we can all relate to. We’re not all as evil as that character, but [Gillian Flynn] did a great job getting under our skin. I think Dan Brown’s Inferno, because he talks about overpopulation so much that he made me think of it harder. Then you go back to stuff like The Silence of the Lambs, which examined a true heart of darkness more than any crime fiction could. Clarice Starling is one of the great feminist protagonists.
Paste: What are you working on next?
Heaberlin: I have a fourth book under contract for Random House. I’m telling everyone that it’s about a creepy road trip in Texas. There’s a man with dementia who is suspected of being a serial killer and a girl pretending to be his daughter. The two of them are not quite who you think they are.