Rubin: A writer’s advice: Don’t talk about it, do it

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

You want to write a book, the first thing you need is a computer. Also helpful: an idea.

Beyond that, says the absurdly talented Julia Heaberlin, “You need to have people around you who believe in dreamers, and who love you no matter what.”

Author Julia Heaberlin

Get those things lined up and the rest is easy, except possibly the part where you put the words together.

I am frequently asked how to become a writer. My answer is fairly brief:


It’s not as smart-alecky as it sounds. If you are compelled to write, sit down and start doing it. Or stand up and start doing it: Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Winston Churchill and Lewis Carroll are among those known for writing upright.

As for writing a book, getting it published and having it lovingly reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I defer to Ms. Heaberlin, a former Grosse Pointer Parker and Harper Woodser now ensconced in suburban Dallas/Fort Worth.

Her third novel, “Black-Eyed Susans” (Ballantine, $26), arrived triumphantly in stores last week. It’s her first in hardcover, and her first to be described in a Washington Post headline as “a masterful thriller that shouldn’t be missed.”

To capsulize, the black-eyed Susans are the victims of a serial killer, found in a field of flowers. Tessa Cartwright, the only survivor, wakes up buried with the corpse of one victim and the bones of two more.

Eighteen years later, as execution nears for the man she helped convict, she begins to question his guilt and everything else in her life. Pivots, pirouettes, eloquence and sly wit ensue.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever declared myself a writer,” says Heaberlin, 54. A decade ago, she simply propped open a laptop and began telling a story with her fingertips.

“The most important thing is to get words on the page, even if they are bad words,” she says. The second-most important thing is to be willing to rewrite.

Maybe all you’ll wind up with is a reminder of what direction not to take next time. Or maybe someone named Patrick Anderson will tell readers of the Washington Post that your book is “outstanding,” “brilliantly conceived” and “beautifully executed,” and compare it to Gillian Flynn’s eight-weeks-at-No.-1 “Gone Girl.”

“I don’t know this man Patrick,” Heaberlin says, “but I would like to make him homemade treats for the rest of his life.”

Of course, there was also the commenter on the British version of who titled her review, “You might want to punch yourself in the face.”

So OK, she didn’t love it, but she still gave it three stars.

Julia Heaberlin’s new book “Black-Eyed Susans” has drawn raves.

‘You better get started’

Once upon a time, Heaberlin was a 15-year-old in Decatur, Texas, sitting in a window well reading Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and thinking she’d like to write a novel of her own.

Later upon a time, she was a newspaper editor, among other places at The Detroit News.

To finally become an author, she needed a nudge from her level-headed, business-editor husband, Steve Kaskovich, who said, “Time’s growing short. If you’re going to do this, you better get started.”

Emboldened, Heaberlin ventured forth ... into disaster. Not writing-related disaster, but minor life disaster: broken air conditioner, broken washer, broken dryer, broken refrigerator.

“It’s really like starting a small business,” she says. Not only did the family income take a punch to the throat, “you go into debt. You’re paying for photos, a website, research.”

Heaberlin turned out to be both good and lucky, which means that it took her a year to finish her first book, six months to find an agent, and another 31/2 years for the book to hit print.

No easy task

As a writer, Heaberlin essentially works the line at the paragraph factory, pushing herself to write 1,500 words a day.

As she promotes “Black-Eyed Susans” and muscles through book No. 4, she raves about her support team of editors, publicists, friends and family, worries about remaining productive, and cautions that this is no job for the faint-hearted even if you’re not writing about sadistic murderers.

“If someone had really been able to explain to me how difficult the process was going to be,” she says — the doubts, the rewrites, the rejections — “I don’t know if I would have done it.”

If that dissuades you, you are right to be dissuaded. If it doesn’t and you are still moved to write?

Then write. And if you question whether the world really needs one more book, consider her final words of advice.

“Yes, it does,” she says — if it’s good.