AUTHOR INTERVIEW: ANNE HELTZEL
Feature by Jena Brown
If you’ve been on social media lately, you’ve likely come across a book with a severed doll head on the cover. That creepy delight is Just Like Mother, Anne Heltzel’s adult fiction debut coming May 17, 2022 by TOR Nightfire.
The story follows Maeve, a young woman who has spent twenty years searching for her cousin. She last saw her the night Maeve escaped from the cult they were raised in. But when they reconnect, the memories and traumas Maeve wants to forget might be the very things that save her. Heltzel weaves a multifaceted story that deftly explores the themes of fertility and womanhood through the lens of trauma. It’s impossible to ignore the underlying tension that builds on every page as Maeve is forced to question her beliefs about who she is and where she came from.
Heltzel takes us deep into the psychological nuance of what it’s like to be manipulated, both as a child raised in a cult as well as an adult navigating social norms. And the similarities between the two are chilling. I was delighted to sit down and talk with her about transitioning to adult horror, what she’s afraid of, and how to navigate the terrifying waters of publishing.
JENA BROWN: Hi, Anne! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Can you tell our readers a little about yourself? When did you start writing?
ANNE HELTZEL: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here. I always had ambitions to be a writer, but I didn’t start writing in earnest until college. My first creative writing class was an elective because my university didn’t offer a lot in the way of writing courses for undergrads. But once I took that elective course, that was it. I argued my way into a graduate level writing class where I wrote a story about an eccentric family. I sent that story out to publishers, which you’re not supposed to do. It was in the wrong format, and you can’t just submit directly to publishing houses. I was in no way following any of the rules, but I did get one non-form rejection that said if I developed it into a novel, they would consider it. That really propelled me down the writing path.
Once I knew what an MFA [Master of Fine Arts degree] was, I was all about it. Before that point, I was focused on law school, but I was a writing tutor and an avid reader, and that non-form rejection letter made it clear that I wanted to be doing something with books. So, I submitted that story for my own graduate program and it turned into a middle grade novel that actually got me my first agent. It never sold, but that germ of an idea all started with that creative writing class.
JB: I love that. It all starts with an idea. What about now? What does your typical writing day look like?
AH: No day resembles the next. I have a full-time job as an editor, and unfortunately, I am not blessed with the instinct, ability, or motivation to get up early. I’ve tried so hard to become that person, but it’s not in my nature. So, I typically don’t start writing until around 8 p.m.
Honestly, writing for me was much easier pre-pandemic because the way I would stay motivated and awake was to leave work and head to a hotel lobby. I’d order a glass of wine and observe people. I could use my surroundings as inspiration and the activity was very stimulating. I felt very involved in the world, and that’s been tricky since the pandemic because there’s nowhere to go.
Without that external stimulation it’s much harder to get in that zone and feel energized. Even in college, I would study in high traffic areas, that’s always been my thing. I find it creatively invigorating but writing also can feel so isolating sometimes. A manuscript can be a multi-year process where you’re stuck in this world alone and it can feel like you’re missing out on life. Being surrounded by people made me feel like I’m still involved in life.
Now, I start writing around 8 p.m. at night and try to get a few hours of work in before I crash. And then I try to get a lot of writing done on the weekends. I don’t write every day because some days are just not writing days. And sometimes creativity isn’t convenient. Often, ideas will come to me when I’m in the car and it’s one of the best times for thinking. The only problem is I can’t write it down because I’m driving. So, I voice text myself notes to trigger the memory and end up having all these bizarre text messages filled with half-formed thoughts. But hopefully one little detail triggers the idea and then I can use that when I’m writing.
JB: Describe Just Like Mother in five words.
AH: This is a lot of pressure. How about: off-the-wall social commentary.
JB: That’s perfect. And very accurate. Was that why you transitioned into adult horror?
AH: I started writing YA [young adult] thrillers, but I never felt like that was where I should be. It always felt like I was making a compromise between the story I wanted to tell and what would actually work for that audience. I was an editor in YA, so I knew what the market was, and I thought it made sense to be in an area that I knew more about. But creatively and as far as my personal interests went, it was really difficult to shove those in a box so that I could appeal to a certain market.
At one point, I realized that even though changing genres was a bigger risk for me, it was a better fit to write for adults. I wanted to really explore the questions that I was genuinely interested in, and I wanted to go deeper into the more complex psychological motivations that drive adults. When I accepted that my last book could have been written from an adult perspective and might have actually been better that way, I thought, why not just do that.
On top of being riskier, it was harder. I had to change agents, and I didn’t really know anyone in the adult space. So, in some ways it was essentially starting over. But it was worth trying if it meant I would be able to write and be true to my own emotional space. It freed me to tell the stories I really wanted to tell.
JB: I think it’s so inspiring that you were able to know yourself and take that step, even though it was hard and risky. Can you talk about what writing Just Like Mother felt like from that perspective?
AH: This was my first horror novel on top of being my first adult novel. I actually read more thrillers, but I watch more horror. So, Just Like Mother has elements of both genres because I wanted to dip my toe into the different elements of the two genres I really enjoy.
Stylistically, the first two-thirds of the novel are different from the final third, and I remember specifically when and why this happened. There was a point where I stopped restraining myself and gave myself permission to just let go and see what happens. I was looking at the horror movies I love and thinking about why I loved them. And even though movies are very different from books, I wanted to take that B-film horror movie approach for the final act. I know not everyone is going to love it, but I had so much fun writing it. It gave me permission to lean into that approach for the novel I’m working on now, just to let loose for the entire thing. I’m learning to be less self-conscious and have more fun.
JB: I was obsessed with the layered themes of motherhood, femininity, family, fertility, and what a woman is supposed to do or should be. The way they warred in and around Maeve was fascinating. These topics are intrinsically tied with horror, but I wonder if you could talk about why you chose these themes in particular.
AH: I wasn’t trying to make an argument when writing what I call fertility horror. It was more a reflection of how it feels to be in that situation. I started writing Just Like Mother when I was 33 or 34, and the bulk of it was written when I was 35, which was a strange time in my life. I had always been a sort of serial monogamist, where there was always someone in my life and I had this really intense heartbreak in my early 30s. This person that I genuinely loved and could see a future with was all of a sudden gone, and that was really devastating. It took me about a year to get over.
Slowly, I went from being incredibly sad to being okay to being really happy. And it was really surprising that I could be that happy as a single person. Maybe it took me longer to figure that out, but once I was there, I realized it made me a much more stable and discerning person in a relationship. I was better at choosing partners and I learned how to say no. It might sound strange, but I realized I didn’t have to be in a relationship to be happy. I was single and my life was awesome.
At the same time, all the people in my life were coupled and starting families, so I had this strange sense of not fitting in. Every weekend, I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot to do because weekends are when people have couple time. And if they do go out, they go out with their couple friends. So, I had my friends during the week, and on the weekend, I would stay home and write. But no matter what, I couldn’t get away from the question of babies.
I started getting these comments from friends and relatives. Things like, don’t worry, you still have time. Which was weird because I wasn’t worried. It was very frustrating because for the first time in my life I was happy—happier than I’d ever been in previous situations—and I didn’t understand why that wasn’t enough.
Before that point, all the women in my life had talked about being strong, empowered, feminist women. But it started to feel like actually no, at a certain point it’s not okay to be single, you have to be coupled with kids. It happened so often, I started to feel angry and wanted to understand why this is what everyone thought we should be doing.
We don’t often talk about the ambivalence we sometimes feel when it comes to having kids. Some people know for sure that they want kids, and some people know for sure that they don’t. But a lot of people aren’t sure either way. It was only when I started openly questioning these things and talking about my own ambivalence that I started to get real answers from a few people in my life, and I really wanted to explore the extremes of both sides. And also, how we don’t really talk about how to choose a partner based on things other than being smart and funny and cute. The more questions I asked, the more society’s rules starting to feel arbitrary. And I wanted to talk about that.
JB: You did a fantastic job really bringing those horror elements to life. Was there anything that surprised you while writing Just Like Mother?
AH: What actually surprised me the most was the fear that it would be read by other people. When I’m writing something new, I usually have to convince myself it won’t be read. Not that I don’t want to sell it, or have it published, but the idea that people in my personal life will read it is frightening. And it’s really hard to give myself over to the characters and the voice if I have any of that self-consciousness seeping in. So, I usually shove it aside and try to not think about it.
Once I got my agent on the adult side, and then the book sold, I had to confront the fact that people would read it. No one in my life other than my writing group and my agent have read the book. None of my friends or family. I was raised to be a nice girl, toe the line, and not be too shocking. And there are absolutely aspects of this book that make me very nervous. So, that surprised me.
JB: Speaking of things we’re afraid of, those dolls were a particularly brilliant touch. I’m going to have nightmares about them for weeks. So, let me ask—besides your parents reading the book—what else scares you?
AH: Those dolls actually exist, which I didn’t realize until after I wrote the initial drafts. They’re not as realistic as the ones in the book, but they’re getting there, which is interesting but also a little creepy.
I had to add spiders because I’m afraid of them. But beyond my fear of spiders, I spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that there are whole ecosystems in our walls. Just a few inches away, there might be some weird bacteria or tiny mice. My friend once had a raccoon or squirrel or something in the wall of her building, and every now and then she could just hear them scrambling around. But those noises could theoretically be fingernails or something else. You just never know.
JB: Okay, that’s disturbing, and now I’m definitely never sleeping again. Let’s shift gears. You’ve worn many hats in the publishing industry. How has that helped shape your career as a writer?
AH: I think my experience as an editor has made me better at accepting guidance and being able to put my work in the hands of other people. I rely a lot on other people’s feedback and actually welcome criticism. It almost became a joke with my agent because she’s very smart when it comes to pace, plot, and structure, and she pushed me pretty far with this manuscript before we took it on sub. She’d have me cut entire chapters and I think a lot of being able to not be precious about my work comes from being on the other side and seeing what the process is. It’s crucial to have people within the industry weigh in, so I’m hungry for that feedback and want someone to edit me heavily.
On the other side, I’ve put people through so much work as an editor that I relish going through that process myself. I like being assigned the work and being told what’s wrong with my story and how to fix it. But I’m so used to helping shape other people’s careers that I feel awkward promoting my own stuff. Which is something I need to get over because I know it’s a big part of the job. I need to set aside my discomfort and just do it.
JB: Do you have any advice for anyone either new to the industry or hoping to navigate it in the future?
AH: Polish your manuscript until it’s the very best you can make it. This way, you will hopefully have your choice of agent. You want the person who is the best fit for you, and someone who understands what you want to achieve. When you’re aligned, you won’t have doubts when they suggest changes or when they push you out of your comfort zone. Same with an editor. It’s a complicated and difficult industry, and you want to trust the people who are advocating for you.
JB: That is such fantastic advice. Before we go, can you tell me what’s next?
AH: I have another book on contract with TOR Nightfire. The general theme is aging, and it involves not a haunted house, but a creepy structure with creepy architecture. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it’s a building in the Bronx that was built by a very wealthy person back around 1890 or so. The book will also touch on the themes of inherited trauma, classism, wealth, and ageism. I think, especially in America, we treat people of a certain age in a way that infantilizes them and makes them feel irrelevant. The tentative title is Ripe Old Fruit.
JB: Oh, that sounds incredible! Adding it to my to-be-read list now. Thank you so much for spending time with me today.
Pictured above: Just Like Mother
Just Like Mother will be available in bookstores everywhere, May 17, 2022.