L-R Craig Sisterson, Julia Heaberlin and Ali Karim [Theakstons Crime-Writing Festival, Harrogate 2016]
One of the darkest gothic thrillers of recent memory is the remarkable Black Eyed Susans by journalist Julia Heaberlin from the Michael Joseph imprint at Penguin Random House.
With film rights sold, huge critical acclaim including being longlisted for the 2016 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award; Shots Magazine’s Assistant Editor Ali Karim was delighted to meet up with the author at Theakstons Crime-Writing Festival in Harrogate, and discuss this phenomenal crime mystery novel.
Joining us was Kiwi Crime’s Craig Sisterson, who had been equally startled at this very dark and thought provoking thriller, and interviewed Julia here in one his renowned 9mm Interviews.
So for those unfamiliar with the author and this stunning book –
Seventeen-year-old Tessa, dubbed a "Black-Eyed Susan" by the media, became famous for being the only victim to survive the vicious attack of a serial killer. Her testimony helped put a dangerous criminal behind bars - or so she thought.
Now, decades later, the case has been reopened and the Black-Eyed Susans planted outside Tessa's bedroom window seem to be a message from a killer who should be safely in prison.
Tessa agrees to help with the investigation, but she is haunted by fragmented memories of the night she was attacked and terrified for her own teenage daughter's safety. Can she unlock the truth about the killer before it's too late?
Julia Heaberlin is an award-winning journalist who, before launching her career as an author, worked at several national newspapers. She has edited numerous real-life thriller stories, including a series on the perplexing and tragic murders of girls buried in the Mexican desert and another on domestic violence. She lives with her husband and son in Texas.
I had to ask Julia about the significance of the title, as well as the powerful cover imagery. Julia indicated that the novel came to her as an image, a woman lying on a bed of the eponymous American wild-flower, though she indicated that it was her British Publishers [Penguin Random House] that came up with the stunning cover design first, and one that was adopted for American Release at Random House US, as well as many other territories.
Self-depreciating and very modest, she lays down huge thanks to those who helped her in her research, especially the forensic background; though the image of the Flower, the Black Eyed Susans is the image that haunted her, and was pivotal in the evolution of the story.
Though it would be a visit to the outside of a Texan Penitentiary where Death Row prisoners are housed that would lead to her narrative taking shape, which she details in this essay for our readers.
As part of her research for Black-Eyed Susans, Julia Heaberlin stood outside the Death House in Texas during an execution. Here, she relates her experience.
Everything quivers. The trees, the grass, the birds. The ribs in my chest, the balls of my feet. The air, brittle with chill and death even before the thundering noise began. I feel like I am about to explode from the inside out.
When people ask me what it is like to stand outside the Texas death chamber while a prisoner is being executed, this is what I remember first. The man executed that particular night was Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican national who shot a Houston cop three times in the back of the head. The terrible sound was the revving of motorcycles from the nearly two dozen retired police officers parked as close to Edgar Tamayo as they could get. They demanded that he hear the guttural protest of their motors through the walls as the needle was going in. Kill him, roared the motorcycles. Kill him.
And make no mistake, Edgar Tamayo, his family, and the witnesses he chose, could hear.
It is easy to stand only yards away from the tiny, nondescript room in Huntsville, Texas, that is the busiest execution factory in the United States. Since 1982, my state has killed more than 525 prisoners. The death chamber is housed on the corner of “The Walls,” a historic, friendly looking prison with a green area and a clock tower. In Texas, executions have been performed by rope, poison and electricity for almost 200 years. The Walls unit sits in the middle of town a few blocks off the quaint square. There is a barbecue grill on the front porch of the white frame house next door, and an old neighborhood stretches out beyond it. Within sight of the walls, while men die, people are munching on pie and chicken fried steak at the best restaurant in town. They don’t mean anything by it; it’s a matter of routine. Back when the electric chair was used, the lights of the whole town used to shiver when the executioner flipped the switch. If the town folks who live here don’t work for the prison system—seven sprawling units in all— their parents probably did or their grandparents.
Sometimes, I take my mind back to the night of Edgar Tamayo’s death. Survey the scene. On that night, and most execution nights, the screaming politicians and social media fanatics are far from the town of about 40,000 in the piney woods of East Texas. The crowd I’m with is small, mostly Hispanic. Two beautiful Mexican TV reporters are brilliant stars in the dark, illuminated by camera lights, one in a brand-new purple tie, another in bright red lipstick. Mexico, despite its ongoing battle with corruption and brutal cartels, is anti-death penalty. The government is vigorously protesting the execution of one of its own on our soil.
A group of mourners kneel by Edgar’s picture and sing, their mouths opening and closing like birds. Gloria, who runs a straggly group of regular, vocal protesters, chants through her bullhorn that an innocent man is about to die even though he is not innocent at all. Some of them hold signs that declare Rick Perry a serial killer (279 people were executed during his time as governor). Another group of five men and women, all white, all older, weigh down a street corner. Most of them make the drive from Houston to as many executions as they can. They come not to yell but to be present for the family of the executed. On the coldest nights, the most stalwart, a criminal justice professor in Huntsville, stands by the Stop sign alone with his battery-operated Christmas candle until the family of the executed walks out the door. He is tired and cynical and understandably does not want to talk much. He has been talking to tourists like me forever.
The whole thing is so banal. So efficient. Everyone here knows where to be. The pros are on one side of the building, the cons on the other. The Texas troopers wandering around don’t expect trouble. The execution process usually starts at six, is done by seven, although tonight is going long. Legendary Texas death penalty lawyer David Dow says he doesn’t mean to be flip when he speaks a truth: “Killing people is like most anything else; the more you do it, the better you get. If killing people were like playing the violin, Texas would have been selling out Carnegie Hall years ago.”
Ice starts to fall. I re-examine why I am here and why I have not been here before. I am writing a novel, a story meant to entertain. I showed up out of convenience, curiosity and a desire to be authentic in my book. I had casually Googled the Texas execution schedule two months before: Should I pick the woman who helped a group torture and murder a mentally ill man for his life insurance? The man who ate the doughnuts and breakfast tacos that he ordered after beating the delivery woman with a baseball bat? A boyfriend who repeatedly stabbed and killed the married woman he was sleeping with and her daughter and three-year-old grandson? A guy who kidnapped a young Houston couple, raped the woman and then killed them both?
In the end, I picked Edgar, and so we were united. The day of his death fit into my schedule. I asked a friend to come with me. We chattered and ate sour gummies and red licorice on the three-hour ride from Dallas to East Texas. We booked at a lovely bed and breakfast only a few blocks from the Death House.
I am horrified as I write that last paragraph.
I was raised by a woman who gave spiders a free ride out of the kitchen on a newspaper. There was no death penalty in our house. I was a sensitive kid who didn’t believe my God would send anyone to hell. I couldn’t stomach violent movies, much less the barbaric concept of it being legal to kill someone. As I grew older, I was further shaped by intellectual reasoning—that the death penalty is part of a racist and unfair system. I protested by voting for candidates who believed as I did.
Then came Edgar Tamayo. The roar of motorcycles. The victim, Guy Gaddis, a 24-year-old police officer, two-and-a-half years on the job. He left an expectant wife behind.
When I arrived back home, the experience began to shape my story, my characters, in ways I didn’t plan. I poured out a chapter I feared my editor would cut entirely. She never touched a word.
The lawyer, so important to this part of the story, sprang to life.
Tessa, my heroine, would not cooperate. She was conflicted about the death penalty no matter how much I tried to convince her otherwise.
How can you know how I feel, she asked me, if you’ve never experienced something this terrible? If evil hasn’t ripped out a staggering piece of who you are?
Don’t preach, she told me. Let me be who I am.
[This essay is an updated version of a feature that originally appeared as extra content in a Waterstones special edition of Black-Eyed Susans]
© 2016 Julia Heaberlin
Shots Ezine wish to thank Gaby Young [of Penguin Random House] and Ann Chadwick [of Cause UK / Harrogate International Festivals] for arranging and facilitating the meeting with Julia Heaberlin at the 2016 Theakstons Crime-Writing Festival in Harrogate, England.
Shots have discounted paperback copies of Black Eyed Susans for sale at £3.99 from the Shots Bookstore – click here
And read the Shots Review Here
A 9mm Interview with Kiwi Crime’s Craig Sisterson is here
More information about the work of Julia Hearberlin is available here