From a Texas girl with a love of mystery:
By Julia Heaberlin
Playing Dead was loosely inspired by a stranger’s letter that arrived in my mailbox one day more than 10 years ago. The woman who wrote it wondered whether I could be her daughter, kidnapped years earlier. Her daughter shared my name, Julia, and the same birth date. In fact, the woman was desperately sending the same letter to four other Julias in the United States born on May 14, 1961.
I held that letter in my hand for a stunning few seconds while the intellectual part of my brain took time to react. What if my whole life was a lie? That was the emotional reaction. But I knew quickly that I wasn’t her daughter. I had scientific proof. I carried the gene for a wacky electrical issue with my heart that had traveled through the bloodline of our family since the 1870s.
So the letter was the germ of the idea for Playing Dead, but that’s where real life ends, and fiction begins. I wanted Playing Dead to be a mix of several genres that I like: psychological thriller, mystery and chick lit (i.e., a strong, smart and sometimes funny female heroine). I wanted to defy some of the stereotypes that people have of Texas. And I wanted it to be dark but not leave me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had been a stressed-out working mother most of my life who required sweet dreams.
Because July 4 falls smack in the heart of escapist summertime reading, I decided to share just a few of the books that inspired my writing along the way. These are in no particular order. Most of them are perfect for blowing up a few goose bumps on a hot summer day. Not all of them induce sweet dreams.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I first read Rebecca as a young girl, while sitting on the window seat my father built for me. It carried me far from my small Texas town to a world of creepy gothic romance and mystery. It’s one of the few books in my lifetime I’ve read more than once. I might as well admit to a brief and influential period with Harlequin romances as a sixth-grader with terrible perms. Harlequins taught me that a little passion is important in a book. And I learned a lot of Ivy League-caliber vocabulary from the frustrated women’s classics majors churning them out.
Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects. Don’t just dive straight into Gone Girl if you’ve never read Gillian Flynn. Buy all three of her books and start from the beginning with Sharp Objects, one of the best debuts ever. Dark, intimate, and compressed with an ingenious twist.
61 Hours by Lee Child. Don’t. Let. Too. Many. Words. Or. Long. Sentences. Get. In. The. Way. Of. Your. Storytelling. Jack. Reacher. Is. Hot.
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Tommie McCloud would like to shoot some tequila with Clarice Starling, who ranks as the smartest, nicest, kick-ass, vulnerable heroine of all time.
In the Woods by Tana French. I’m not sure how to describe this book’s effect on me. It begins intriguingly enough, like a lot of thrillers do: A 12-year-old girl is found murdered in the woods, the same woods where two other children disappeared 20 years ago. But I quickly realized this was something much more than the usual page-turner. Complex plotting, beautiful writing, a protagonist with so much to lose. One of my favorite mysteries ever.
Janet Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum book, One for the Money. OK, so this is more likely to induce a giggling spit-take of your summer umbrella drink than blow up goose bumps. This is one of the few books in my life besides A Confederacy of Dunces that made me laugh out loud. Tommie McCloud could only hope to do for Texans what Stephanie Plum does for New Jerseyans. You know, make us lovable.