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Julia Heaberlin takes readers on a dark ride in ‘Paper Ghosts’

All of author's Julia Heaberlin's thrillers have been set in Texas: "I do think I’ll keep writing about Texas. There are so many amazing things here to write about."
All of author's Julia Heaberlin's thrillers have been set in Texas: "I do think I’ll keep writing about Texas. There are so many amazing things here to write about."

It’s unlikely that Julia Heaberlin’s books are a boon for Texas tourism.

The bestselling author’s thrillers, all set in the Lone Star State, are teeming with serial killers and stalkers. Women are never safe here.

Travel destinations in Heaberlin’s new novel, “Paper Ghosts,” are grim, haunted places scarred by tragedy. One of the first stops her characters make during a twisted road trip is the site where David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound burned to the ground in 1993, 86 lives lost.

Heaberlin’s previous book, “Black-Eyed Susans,” a 2015 USA Today bestseller, featured an unnerving visit to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on the eve of an execution.

It’s hard to imagine Heaberlin’s readers proclaiming, “I want to go there!”

Yet to her way of thinking, in her own warped way, she’s spreading the good word about Texas.

“In general, people like reading about Texas,” says Heaberlin, who was an editor overseeing the Star-Telegram’s features section before switching more than a decade ago to her current career.

“I’m big in England, of all places. My readers in England are interested in all things Texas. They were fascinated with the death-penalty issue that was part of ‘Black-Eyed Susans.’

“I don’t know if I will keep writing about serial killers. But I do think I’ll keep writing about Texas. There are so many amazing things here to write about.”

In “Paper Ghosts” (Ballantine Books, $26, out Tuesday), Heaberlin chronicles the travels of one very odd couple. A suspected serial killer with dementia (although he might be faking) hits the back roads to past murder sites with the narrator, the sister of one of his possible victims.

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The heroine knows she is at great risk traveling alone with this man, but she is determined to learn anything he can remember about her sister’s fate.

By book’s end, neither character is exactly who readers initially expected them to be.

“The idea for ‘Paper Ghosts’ started very small, as it does with all of my books,” Heaberlin says. “For example, with ‘Black-Eyed Susans,’ it was a visual: a bird’s-eye view of a girl buried in a field of black-eyed susans. That’s all I had at first.

“In this book, I knew only that I wanted to do a spooky, intense slow dance between two characters and to have readers wondering all the way along, ‘Which is the crazy one?’

“So I concocted a kind of off-center tour of Texas.”

Of the Branch Davidian site, Heaberlin says, “Standing in a barren field, it felt like there were ghosts there. I’ll never forget the brick memorial with the names of children who died there.”

Fort Worth, meanwhile, plays an important behind-the-scenes role in “Paper Ghosts.”

On the jacket cover and within the pages are eerie photos of two young girls, images that enhance the story’s dreamlike vibe. The models, twins Sarah Grace and Elizabeth Marie Claire, were photographed by former Star-Telegram photographer Jill Johnson at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

“Jill found these little girls on Facebook and they turned out to be perfect,” Heaberlin says. “Their mother put them in their holy communion dresses and we shot pictures for an hour at the Botanic Garden. They had just the perfect aura.”

Heaberlin, who lives in Grapevine, isn’t sure why she’s drawn to this genre of storytelling.

“My grandfather was a morgue photographer,” she says. “When I was little, I used to go into his creepy basement and find a leather-bound book that had his pictures of murder scenes.

“I was fascinated with those images. Is that where the darkness comes from?”

It’s as good an explanation as any. Maybe it’s simply in her DNA.

That said, Heaberlin differs from the majority of thriller writers.

For starters, in her books, the main crime has occurred before the opening sentence, an approach that allows the author to focus on the long-term impact of the crime. Also, her prose, while vivid and often unsettling, isn’t as graphically violent as that of many of her contemporaries.

“I’m trying to do something different with the serial killer genre,” Heaberlin says. “I never want one of my books to be just the same old story.”

Meet the author: Heaberlin will discuss and sign “Paper Ghosts” at Interabang Books (10720 Preston Rd. in Dallas) at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 15.

‘Paper Ghosts’

By Julia Heaberlin

Ballantine, $26

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