Interview with L. Alison Heller

Photo Credit: Anne Joyce

Alison L. Heller is a Colorado-based novelist and former attorney. Her most recent novel, The Neighbor’s Secret, has been described as “truly impossible to put down,” in a starred review by BookPage, and “one of those novels that demands to be gobbled up in a single sitting by Booklist, also in a starred review. The New York Times wrote, “Heller places a ticking time bomb inside each character’s house, and locating them is half the fun of this book. The other half comes from Heller’s sense of humor, which is wicked without being unkind.”

I thoroughly enjoyed The Neighbor’s Secret, as well as Alison’s two previous books, The Never Never Sisters and The Love Wars. All combine sharp writing, nuanced characters, and heart and humor.

Alison was kind enough to share her insight on writing, the ideal book club, and to offer encouragement for writers who aren’t as far along. She also discusses the rewards of writing novels. (One: her professional development now includes binge-reading thrillers!)

How has your background as an attorney helped with writing novels? (Assuming it has, that is!)

I think it has! As a lawyer, I got used to meeting deadlines, paying attention to detail and juggling a substantial volume of written work—all skills I use a novelist.

When developing new stories, do you generally start with characters or with plot? Or perhaps, some of both?

I generally start with a germ of an idea—a “what if,” so plot, although it doesn’t really click until the characters do. The honest answer is probably a little of both.

Going off the book club theme in The Neighbor’s Secret, if you could create a book club with anyone in the world—famous or a personal friend, living or not—any idea of a few people you might choose

This is an excellent question! There are many people with whom I could happily discuss books, and at this point in my life, my dream book club would be less about ideal members than logistics.

It would work as follows: immediately after I’d read a book and wanted to discuss it, the other members would make themselves available, having just read it themselves, without any geographic or schedule limitations or night-driving for any of us.

Any hints for writing dialogue and banter? I really enjoyed this in both books.

Thank you! That’s great to hear. I’m always striving to have dialogue be as life-like as possible, but sometimes how people sound—the “you knows,” and “errs” and pauses and repetitions— doesn’t translate well to the page.

In the first draft, I’m just writing the dialogue without thinking about it, but while editing, I take note when something sounds wooden and then revise and “play” the dialogue in my head until it works better.

As far as banter—as a person, I do tend to go for the joke and my characters do as well. In The Neighbor’s Secret, I was very aware that a joke that Lena make would be different from one Annie would make and so on, though.

Any thoughts on who you’d like to play Annie, Jen, Lena and the other major characters when The Neighbor’s Secret is brought to the screen?

Haha, I love that you say “when.” You know, I have an image of the characters in my head, and wasn’t picturing actors as I wrote them, BUT there are people on Instagram who do amazing jobs “casting” books after reading them and I’ve seen (and loved) some amazing line-ups for The Neighbor’s Secret.

Can you talk a bit about your path to publication, and any words of advice for those who aren’t as far along?

I love this question, because, no matter where you are in your career, there are phases of novel-writing when time feels frozen and the goal seems so out-of-reach.

My path was that I got incredibly lucky with finding a publisher for my first book, which I wrote sort in a whirl. Looking back, I now realize that it all happened quickly, and relatively seamlessly. I was contracted to write a second novel, which I did. I loved my editor and the process, but at that point, I realized that staying on the “book-a-year” schedule would not allow me to grow as a writer—which I wanted to challenge myself to do.

I deliberately took some time between books 2 and 3. I thought it would be a couple of years, but it became much longer than that, due to reasons within my control (I wrote a stinker of a novel, currently in a drawer, a big family relocation) and outside of my control (changes at my publishing imprint, global pandemic).

But I think this is part of the writing life—you have to actively control what you can, and then roll with the stuff you can’t.

As far as advice, here are some lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Finishing a novel and then trying to get it published is an endurance sport. Stick with it and know it will happen.
  2. Learn to separate constructive criticism (i.e. ideas that will help) from difference in taste. Be as greedy as you can about accepting the former!
  3. Surround yourself with people who you trust and/or who can help you grow.

What do you find most rewarding about writing novels?

So much!

I love the vastness of the challenge—how you switch between the macro (theme, plot) and micro (dialogue, word choice, the small details that make a character spring to life). I love that my dogs are my office mates. Because of the years when I sat through boring continuing legal education seminars, I love that I can consider binge-reading thrillers to be professional development.

Mostly, I love those moments when I’m so deep in a manuscript that I’m dreaming about it and look at everything and everyone around me through the lens of the story. (Of course, these are probably the moments that I am most annoying to those I live with.)

When you’re not at your computer, any activities you like to do? 

Visiting the Colorado mountains, hanging out or adventuring with my family and hiking with friends and/or my dogs.