Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today author and journalist Jean Heller. Jean is well-known throughout Florida as a former investigative reporter for the former St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times); she now lives in Chicago. Her recent novel, The Someday File is Jean’s third novel – following Maximum Impact and Handyman, both originally published by St. Martin's Press.
Norm: Good day Jean and thanks for participating in our interview. When did you first consider yourself a writer and what keeps you going?
Jean: Thank you for having me, Norm.
I started writing at the ripe old age of eight. In the third grade I developed an interest in science and science fiction, and I decided to write a novel about people who fled to the center of the earth to get away from invaders from another universe. My science education wasn’t very far along at the time, so when I got my characters to their new homes, I didn’t know what to do with them. Even more catastrophic, I learned what it’s really like at the center of the earth, and my story crashed in flames, so to speak.
What keeps me writing is the love of thrillers, my genre of choice. I have had both critical and financial success with the first two, and now I have started the Deuce Mora series. I’m more excited and optimistic about it than about anything I’ve written before. I share Deuce’s background, and I think she and I have many adventures to complete together. The fact that the book is getting rave reviews only spurs me to keep going. Readers seem to really like Deuce and THE SOMEDAY FILE story, and they’re asking for more. So, more is coming.
Norm: What was it like being an investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg Times? (Incidentally my wife and I winter in Gulfport, just outside of St. Petersburg).
Jean: Before the St. Petersburg Times (now called the Tampa Bay Times), I was an investigative reporter for The Associated Press and Newsday, and it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Even at the Chicago Journal, where Deuce Mora works. It’s not glamorous. It’s a matter of slogging your way through dull, dusty documents, interviewing anyone who will sit still long enough (and I’ve been thrown out of a few places), separating truth from fiction, and having the fortitude to plunge forward through a lot of gobbledygook to find the key kernel of truth. Then you sit at your desk with all these files in front of you and try to figure out how to write their content coherently. You take all those words and put them together and hope you’ve chosen the right words in the right order. It’s fairly lonely work, but when and if it pays off, the satisfaction makes you forget all the hours and days of frustration. It’s a challenge of information management, sort of like writing a novel, except for the making-stuff-up part.
Norm: As an investigative reporter, what was the most memorable story you have ever written about?
Jean: That’s easy. When I was just starting out as a journalist, I broke the story of The Tuskegee Study. It was a ghastly experiment, run by the U.S. Public Health Service, in which hundreds of poor, black farmers in Tuskegee, Alabama were used as human guinea pigs, denied treatment for syphilis and allowed to die so government doctors could determine through autopsies if untreated syphilis affected black bodies the same way it affected whites. The study, which had no valid medical purpose, continued for 40 years until my stories stopped it. By all accounts, more than 100 people died as a direct result of untreated syphilis, and they probably passed on the disease to countless sexual partners and children with no knowledge of what they were doing. I still get requests for interviews to this day about the stories, many from high school and college students who weren’t even born when the story broke.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer and what helps you focus when you write?
Jean: I started out as a plot writer, but that came to a screeching halt when the first agent who read my first book, MAXIMUM IMPACT, told me, “My dear, the best books are about people.” She was absolutely right. And when MAXIMUM IMPACT came out, many of the most favorable reviews remarked on how well even minor characters were drawn. Now, putting character first comes easily for me because I’m writing the Deuce Mora stories in the first person. And I love it. It’s very liberating.
The way I focus is to have a very good idea in my head what part of a story I want to write before I sit down at the computer. I’m over the sloppy tendency to sit down and just see what happens. If I know on any given day where I’m starting, where I’m going, and where I want to get, the actual writing is much easier. Of course if my right brain kicks in and takes over the creative effort, so much the better.
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Jean: I think it’s the satisfaction of writing something that perfect strangers want to read and knowing after they’re finished that the enjoyed it, learned from it, were entertained by it, and want to read more. It feels great.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing? Do you have a specific writing style?
Jean: I think the best way to describe my style is “descriptive.” I like to use words to paint people and places and action in readers’ heads. I like the way Stephen King does it. He puts himself in a character’s head, looks through the character’s eyes, and writes what the character sees. If my character is approached by a threatening man, I look out and ask, is he wearing a cap? What color is it? What’s written on it? What color are his eyes, his complexion? Is he standing straight or slouching? Is he striding or shuffling? Well, you get the idea.
My environment and upbringing weren’t central to creating my desire to write, but they were important in nurturing it. My mother was a teacher, my father a lawyer. They encouraged me to read and write, bought me countless books, always read my work with appreciation. You remember that book I mentioned that I started in the third grade? My mother still had it when she died.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend reading THE SOMEDAY FILE, and could you tell our readers something about the book?
Jean: The only reason to read any novel is for its entertainment value. THE SOMEDAY FILE won’t turn anyone into a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, but it will elicit some laughs and a few tears. And when it’s over, I think people will feel they got their money’s worth.
The story explores what happens when the profession you’ve known all your adult life threatens to kill you, yet suffocating guilt and insatiable curiosity won’t let you walk away. Meet Deuce Mora, a columnist for the Chicago Journal, a big-city newspaper struggling to stay solvent in a world that seems to have outgrown newspapers and left them in ruin. What Deuce digs out of her “ideas” file is something that should be, at best, a human-interest story: the tale of an aging, low-level Chicago mobster living on beer, bourbon, and regret for the one mistake in his life that cost him everything. Deuce finds him in a Cicero bar late one afternoon, already drunk and resolute in his determination not to talk to her. Afraid for his safety in the boozy world he inhabits, Deuce gives him a ride home and thus seals his brutal fate. She is left with more guilt than she can shoulder, more curiosity than she can ignore, and in more danger than she can imagine. The mobster’s final words to her shove her into a world of political and criminal intrigue and confront her with a horrific crime more than 50 years old that she will either solve or die in the trying.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for your latest book?
Jean: I apologize, but I honestly have no memory at all of how this story originated. I know it took form in my mind over a long period of time, but I have no recollection of the trigger point that began the process. I wish I did.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Jean: The best place to start is on my WEBSITE: If there is anything more specific anyone wants to know, they can email me at: Jean@JeanHellerBooks.com
Norm: What is next for Jean Heller?
Jean: Another Deuce Mora book, for sure, this one with the working title, THE GENESIS FILE. But don’t hold me to that title. I’m thinking it sounds a bit too biblical to be a good title for a thriller.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Jean: Since my first two books, MAXIMUM IMPACT and HANDYMAN, were stand-alone books, why did I decide to start writing a series? A: The first two books simply felt sufficient as standalone stories. THE SOMEDAY FILE didn’t. I wanted to do more with Deuce, largely because the same profession forged us both. I have a lot of material from which to draw. And because so much of me is reflected in Deuce, I feel as though I know her better than my other protagonists, and I don’t want to let that sense of familiarity, empathy, and friendship slip away. We have a lot more work to do together.
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Jean: Thank you, Norm. Enjoy Gulfport. I just spent six weeks there, the first vacation I’ve had since 2001.
Follow Here To Purchase The Someday File (Deuce Mora Thriller Book 1)