Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Q&A with Julia Heaberlin

Julia Heaberlin is the author of the new novel We Are All the Same in the Dark. Her other books include Paper Ghosts and Black-Eyed Susans. A journalist, she lives near Dallas/Fort Worth.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for We Are All the Same in the Dark?

A: In my case, with almost every book, I begin with a tiny visual. For months, my mind was haunted by a mysterious girl with one eye blowing dandelions by the side of the road. I wanted to know more. The only way to do that was to sit down at a computer and let her express herself.

It was similar with Tessa in Black-Eyed Susans—I could picture a bird's eye view of a young woman, barely alive, lying with scattered bones in a field covered with yellow and black flowers, hearing the voices of dead girls.

With Paper Ghosts, I saw a desperate young woman and a possible serial killer with dementia on a creepy road trip, the set rapidly changing from big blue sky to big blue moon.

My books are tight and focused on the characters, but they also roam the state of Texas, always a major protagonist in my novels. I love its beauty, ugliness, people, landscape, weirdness, lunacy, downright spookiness. Too many adjectives to name.

As a journalist, I like to weave an underlying layer beyond the plot. In Black-Eyed Susans, it is the Texas death penalty and the use of mitochondrial DNA in identifying old bones, in Paper Ghosts, the trickery of dementia, in We Are All The Same in the Dark, it is the inner and outer world of people with prosthetics.

Q: You note in your acknowledgments that you did a lot of research on prosthetics to write the novel. Why was that something you chose to include in the book, and what did you learn? 

A: Whenever I get stuck in the writing process, I turn to research. It isn't writer’s block; it's that I don't know enough about what I'm writing about. I got stuck almost immediately with my one-eyed girl.

I sought out Randy Trawnik, a world-renowned ocularist in Dallas (where I live) who paints prosthetic eyes with such detail and perfection that no one knows which eye is real and which isn't. He has painted eyes for college basketball players, beauty queens, a Middle Eastern princess.

I had a number of misconceptions about "glass eyes." Prosthetic eyes are made of acrylic. They are pretty shells, more like large contacts. They are not spit out of a computer but are delicately painted with the expertise of an artist.

Randy introduced me to a young fashion model who lost her eye in a fireworks accident at age 10 and to a teenager who has worn a prosthetic eye almost since birth. From an emotional side, they feel vastly different about their circumstances.

But what surprised me is that they both keep their eye a secret, telling only their closest friends, preferring not to be defined by what they're missing. I'd say more, but I don't want to give up any twists.

I can say that Odette and Angel, the two ferocious heroines in this book, would not have come to life without the stories of women like these. Hours of my research might only be reflected in a single paragraph or a piece of dialogue, but I always want that authenticity.

What did I learn? Women and men with prosthetics possess far more physical beauty and strength than the rest of us. I wanted this book to reflect this truth—and that having a prosthetic is simply one aspect of a normal person trying to meet the challenges of life. 

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I came up with 50 titles for this book—The Dandelion Grave, The Wishing Field, Seventy Times Seven, Lion's Eye—but the final title was dreamed up across the ocean by a creative team at Michael Joseph, an arm of Penguin Random House that publishes my books in the UK. They were inspired by a concept in the book.

I love the title even though I admit that my first thought was, wow, those are lot of words for a book cover. But they are great words that work on a number of levels and can be interpreted many different ways when it comes to this thriller (where the lights are out a lot).

For me, the words mean that, in the dark, all that's left are our souls. There are no physical distractions. That's when we can really see our missing pieces. 

Q: The book takes place in a small town in Texas. Can you say more about how important setting is to you in your writing?

A: I grew up in a small Texas town and love pushing the boundaries of the creepiness that can exist there. In general, I feel an obligation to defend Texas in every book. I might have a small chip on my shoulder about it.

There are so many misperceptions about this enormous, diverse place with 29 million humans —intellectuals and quiet cowboys, not to mention quiet, intellectual cowboys.

I draw on real-life characters from my past all the time—complex men who said more in one word than most say in 50, kind women who would be the ones quietly doing the dishes at a wake but also raised girls who could shoot out the lights.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short story for D magazine that was inspired by the Dixie Chicks song "Wide Open Spaces." I'm playing around with my next novel ideas. I'm picturing a young woman lying in a hospital who is visited every night by a strange child. I'm also picturing a conspiracy theorist locked in a dark closet with a bunch of files. We'll see how these ideas mesh. 

Q: Anything else we should know?  

A: Like all of you, I'm figuring out where to go from here in a strange new world. It’s a lifeline to be able to pick a book off my shelf and read a quote from a poet or author that brings me hope.

As a writer, it’s impossible right now to know what is going to be relevant to readers in one or two years, but I hope to figure it out. More than ever, I appreciate the support of readers and blogs like yours that keep all of us in touch.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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