Rejection Spurs Success

Alumna follows lifelong passion publishing thriller novels

Allie Tribe, Staff Writer

Julia Heaberlin.  Photo Courtesy of Jill Johnson.
Julia Heaberlin's Senior Portrait
Julia Heaberlin’s DHS senior portrait. Heaberlin graduated with the class of 1979.


In any library, books line shelf after shelf. Author’s names pop off of the various covers, but each seems like nothing more than a faceless name. To most, the names hold little importance. After all, they only need the story that’s inside, not the life story of the person behind the pen. For authors, the blatant disregard of the time and effort put into writing a novel feels like a stab to the heart, but none understand the struggle quite like Julia Heaberlin.

Heaberlin, class of 1979 DHS graduate, now resides in Dallas working as a full-time author. Her debut novel, Playing Dead, was first published in 2012. Now, after nine years, Heaberlin published four additional novels, including Lie Still, Black-Eyed Susans, Paper Ghosts and We Are All the Same in the Dark. While her other classmates at DHS struggled with decisions over which major to choose, Heaberlin always knew what she wanted to pursue .

I think it was just sort of an unspoken thing in my head. I knew I wanted to write a novel from an early age, but I had no idea how I was going to get there,” Heaberlin said. “It’s worth noting that no one ever told me I was a great writer while I was growing up.”

Part of Heaberlin’s passion for writing can be traced right back to Decatur, TX, about a mile from her childhood home. The stone walls of the old Decatur library, situated at perfect walking distance from Heaberlin’s house, acted as her own private paradise from the suffocating Texas heat. Soon, the treks became a weekly occurrence for Heaberlin during summer break.

“I read everything from Hemingway and Graham Greene to Harlequin romances,” Heaberlin said. “My mother was a board member who also had a key, so sometimes we went in off hours. On those nights, it was like my private, free bookstore.”

Rather than lean into the romantic, happy endings that she read on her old trips to the library, Heaberlin found herself immersed in a world full of killers and plot twists. Her books, all of which are built on research, take readers through a world of unnerving realities.

“I was always a mystery gal,” Heaberlin said. “I like to bring more than plot to my thrillers and I always add a researched layer.”

The research needed for each of her novels makes sense when her background in journalism is taken into consideration. Before dedicating all her time to writing novels, Heaberlin worked as an editor at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Detroit News and The Dallas Morning News. For each and every journalist, accurately writing a story becomes their number one priority, and that priority never faded for Heaberlin.

“I’ve written about the death penalty, dementia, date rape, the ideal of beauty,” Heaberlin said. “The one thing that translated was a desire to be accurate in my novels. For instance, I have used one of the leading death penalty attorneys in our state as a source as well as a legendary forensic scientist who worked at 9/11.”

Heaberlin, despite her time out of state, can’t seem to shake the Texas landscape. In each of her thrillers, the setting, as well as way of life, weaves itself into her narrative. In her novel, Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin explores Texas’ stance on the death penalty and the various viewpoints on it, which proves to be unique to the state. 

I feel like I wear Texas like a second skin. Texas insists on being a major character in my novels every time,” Heaberlin said. “It never lets me down: the people, the diversity, the haunting landscape, and its sheer craziness. It’s a perfect setting for a thriller.”

Looking at the impressive stack of titles, it’s hard to imagine Heaberlin as anything but a published author. Despite her killer combination of research and storytelling, Heaberlin found herself on a path all writers come to know- a path of countless rejections. In the years between giving up her job at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and finally landing a publishing deal, persistence became her greatest asset.

“It took about four years to get published. Two years to write, two years of steady rejection,” Heaberlin said. “I was wondering if I should give up when an editor at Random House who had rejected me twice changed her mind. So don’t give up.”

Even with the obstacles encountered, Heaberlin pushed forward, landing herself a publishing deal and propelling herself to her current position. After the publication of her most recent book, We Are all the Same in the Dark, Heaberlin started to work on her next project, currently called ‘Untitled.’ Her newest project centers around psychics and conspiracy theorists, an idea she hasn’t yet explored in any of her previous novels. Through her countless years in both the newspaper and publishing industries, Heaberlin has learned a thing or two about what makes a successful writer.

“The most important things are whether you start with an interesting point of view, use your imagination, and are willing to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite,” Heaberlin said. “The best writers I know simply work hard at it, like a carpenter works a muscle, and never think they’ve quite hit the mark.”