It was news to us that Julia Heaberlin has a not-insignificant congenital health condition. It isn’t a big part of her story—we didn’t come across any references to it when we prepped for our interview with her about We Are All the Same in the Dark, one of the novels featured in our current article about amputees in popular fiction. The subject only came up at all because our conversations never follow a straight path; they always take unexpected twists, like the plots of Heaberlin’s thrillers.
Anyway, she wears a little hardware that allows her body to function more or less as she needs it to, and that’s about as far as the health thing goes. Although it’s unquestionably part of who she is, Heaberlin says: “I’ve never wanted to be defined by it. It’s just not a big topic of conversation.”
We won’t spoil the suspense by giving away the particular dysfunction she has to deal with. She’ll explain that herself a few paragraphs down. But it’s a salient point because it reflects the way Heaberlin portrayed Odette Tucker, We Are All the Same‘s amputee protagonist. Limb loss is unquestionably part of Odette’s story, but compared to everything else going on in her life—her disintegrating marriage, the traumatized teen she’s trying to save, the unsolved murder she can’t ever get out of head—it’s a pretty incidental piece of baggage. Not a big topic of conversation, to echo the author.
If you haven’t read We Are All the Same in the Dark yet, order a copy here. You might also see it on your favorite streaming service before long; the novel has been optioned as a possible TV series. There are no spoilers in the Q+A below, which has been edited for clarity. Learn more about Heaberlin at her website; she’s on Instagram @juliaheaberlin.
I’m curious about how your creative process evolved. How did you get to the point that an amputee character became the best vehicle for the story you wanted to tell?
My answer might be slightly unexpected, because I definitely did not set out to do that. When I begin a book, I start with just the tiniest bit of an idea. And in this case, there was this girl haunting me. She was standing in a field of dandelions making wishes, and I knew not much about her except that I knew she only had one eye. And so I started to write. Usually the characters drive my plot—well, they always drive my plot—except nothing was happening. And I thought, I have no idea what I’m talking about. So I Googled ocularists, and I found that one of the best ones in the world was 30 minutes from me. He had lost an eye in a ROTC accident. He’d planned to be a career military officer, and instead he ended up creating these incredible prosthetic eyes that he hand-paints. They are that are so beautiful that that you can’t tell the difference. They look like twins.
He opened his doors to me, and he asked, “Do you want to talk to some of the women I’ve worked with?” So I began with a woman who’s an Instagram model who lost her eye in a firework accident when she was nine. She has never told many of the people closest to her that she has a prosthetic eye. She keeps it a secret. And this to me was an unusual thing: I found out that people who have prosthetic eyes that are as beautiful as the ones Randy makes, some of them choose to keep it a secret.
So I started with her, and then I interviewed a sixteen-year-old girl who said, “You know what? It’s just not that hard [to be missing an eye]”—again, kind of turning what I thought on on its ear. I ended up talking to Lauren Scruggs Kennedy, who walked into a propeller plane in Dallas after getting off small plane. It took her arm and one of her eyes. She had brain surgery, and she was on the Today show, and she became famous for reasons she did not really want to be famous for. She talked to me about word choices—disabled, differently abled—and in her opinion, those are words that no one should use. Because if you’re going to apply the label to one person, you should apply it to everyone, because we are all disabled in some way. From there I went on to interview an ex-cop who was an amputee and had become a SWAT trainer. He was kind enough to let me ask every little question that I wanted—including things like, “How do you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?” and things like that, those tiny little details that if you screw them up, the people who know will realize that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Is this guy a below-knee amputee like Odette?
Yes. So I also toured the prosthetics lab at the University of Texas. One guy working there said he’d almost gotten into a fight the night before, and he just casually mentioned, “I’m not worried about my prosthesis. I’m worried about my good leg. So I always protect that.” That’s another of those little things that I would not have thought about.
All of these interviews began to inform what turned out to be two characters. And I wanted them to be bonded by the fact that they had a physical piece missing, but I did not want them to be defined by it. And so I worked extremely hard to make it—how can I say this?—part of them, but not part of the story. They were just characters like all my other characters, and this happened to be the way they are. I like my characters to be empowered, and I think both of these young women turned turned out to be that way. And in the process, it kind of redefined my idea of physical beauty and strength. I don’t know how it couldn’t have. It made me feel so ignorant through the process of discovering who these young women were.
Elaborate on that a little bit for me. What did you feel ignorant about?
For instance, if I used to see a person roll into a restaurant in a wheelchair, I might feel sorry for them, and I might think that was the way I was supposed to feel. Which is an odd thing, because I have had a pacemaker since I was 27, so you’d think I would be more perceptive. Because I never want people to think about that, right? It is no longer something I look at as a loss, so much as the ability to be empowered by things that happen to you.
I watched Aimee Mullins’ Ted Talk on “My 12 Pairs of Legs,” and I was really haunted throughout writing the book by her question: “What is the physical ideal of beauty? What is a sexy body?” I thought those were such sharp questions that we should all ask ourselves. Hopefully we will evolve someday to the point where our scars and what we’re missing just become part of the architecture of our story, and they don’t stand out as something we feel personally bad about. I mean, I have a hereditary heart condition, an electrical dysfunction, so I got a pacemaker at 27. I’ve had six of them since then. But throughout my life, I’ve never wanted to be defined by that. It’s just not a big topic of conversation. When I worked in journalism, I’d tell my boss, “I might have problems every now and then.” I’m sure that somehow informed how I wanted these characters to be.
I’ve had many amputees tell me that some of the people they meet just shrug off the limb difference and treat them like anybody else. But other people—most people—can’t get over the fact that you’re missing a limb. They define you by it. They compartmentalize you, or put you into a separate category that you can’t ever seem to get out of. Did any of the amputees you talked to describe that type of experience?
It was a characteristic of almost everyone I talked to—that this really sucks, but this is not going to define the rest of my life. Another one of the people I talked to was the daughter of a high school friend of mine who was in college, she was driving home, and there was a car sitting in the middle of the road—all these stories are so terrible, they shouldn’t have happened—and she ran into it and lost her hand. Her complete acceptance of it was so surprising to me at such a young age. I know she has her dark moments, like we all do. But I ended up talking to people who to me seemed far more capable than people who had all their limbs or both eyes or whatever.
Have you heard from any readers who are not defined as disabled, but who nonetheless could relate to this story because they feel imperfect? Like maybe they don’t like their skin, or they don’t like their body shape, or they think their nose is too big? I think a lot of people who are defined as able-bodied can relate to the idea of going through life with a visible physical characteristic that they are not at peace with.
That’s a thread that runs through some of the conversations I’ve had with readers and some of the reader reviews online. But what has struck me as interesting is that a lot of them have told me they didn’t think about the characters’ disabilities that much. And that was sort of my goal. I wanted to create characters that didn’t make you stop and think: “This author is trying to tell me all about what it’s like to live without an eye and live without a leg.” I was really working hard to make it subtle and to make these characters just like all my other characters.
All the way through this, I hoped I was telling my story the right way, making these characters who they should be and not writing cliches. That’s always a struggle for me when I’m really trying to be authentic. More than anything else, I want my books to be authentic and not preachy. And I do that by conducting all these interviews. I did so much research on this book, but you can do three gigabytes of research and you can end up using one paragraph. It just gives you the ability to talk about something with more authority. In my books, the research has been the best part. I now have good friends because of the research I did on this book. I create these relationships with people, and they teach me something I don’t know.
That type of narrative seems to be coming to the fore and replacing narratives that reflected a lot more ignorance about not only the emotional journey of losing a limb, but also about the practical function you can still have. You can lose a limb now and be a cop who functions about the same as pretty much every other cop.
It can be empowerment. The prosthesis can be empowerment. Aimee Mullins said, “I can be any height I want,” depending on what pair of legs she’s wearing. There are these little advantages. I did not intend to write a book that delved into what it was like to live with prosthetics, but it turned into that because of these incredible young women I interviewed. They became the heart and soul of the book. As a journalist, that’s kind of how my books go. I didn’t realize this was going to be a book about empowered women who happened to have prosthetic devices. I loved that it became that. But I didn’t set out to do that.
We’re at a cultural moment where people from marginalized groups are speaking loudly enough to be heard by the more mainstream part of the community. Was that a conscious idea you wanted to weave into this book?
I think in all my books. I have an opportunity to explain something in a way that makes it relatable as a piece of entertainment. People might not go read a New Yorker article on this issue, but they might read a thriller that has the same underlying theme. So I’m very conscious of that in all my books. I want there to be the extra layer in there that makes it a little deeper. I hope that as a society we are evolving, but I think it is happening pretty slowly. One person at a time.