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Talking Femininity and Fear with Anne Heltzel, Author of Just Like Mother

Exploring themes of choice, bodily autonomy, and feminine fertility, Heltzel's debut horror novel is chillingly timely.

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The Lineup: Anne, thank you so much for talking with us. When did you start writing?

Anne Heltzel: I always wanted to be a writer and was a big reader throughout my childhood. I remember one Easter my grandmother gave me a blank notebook so I could write my first book, so I definitely had ambitions of being a writer when I was a kid. That didn’t lead to much, I think I only wrote a few pages. I didn’t start writing in earnest until college.

In college, I ended up in a creative writing elective. I think a lot of people who are interested in books were English or English-adjacent majors, thinking they’re going to go to law school and write on the side. It’s so common to feel like writing as a career is so unattainable. So, I wasn’t especially dedicated academically to writing in college. I enjoyed it, but I was on a path through law school. And then I wound up in this elective.

My university didn’t really offer many writing courses, so once I took that class, that was pretty much all they had, but I wanted more and ended up arguing my way into a graduate-level creative writing class with only seven other students. The professor was adamant that it was only for graduate students, but I wrote a really persuasive email—probably more than one—and ended up talking my way into the class.

In that class, I wrote a story about this eccentric family that I ended up submitting that story for my own Master’s Program. I turned that story into a novel, which I queried and got my first agent. It didn’t sell, but that one creative writing class created a germ of an idea that sent me on this path.

What drew you to wanting to write horror?

When I read, I tend to read thrillers, but I watch a lot of horror. So, I wanted to dip my toe into the genre elements of the two. When I started writing, I wrote YA thrillers because I was an editor in that space, and I knew what the market was, so I thought it made sense. But I realized after two novels that even though it was a bigger risk, it was a better fit to write for adults. I wanted to be able to let loose and explore the questions that were genuinely interesting to me at this point in my life, and to go deeper into some of the psychological motivations that adults might recognize in themselves more than a teenager would.

In Just Like Mother, I was interested in depicting a realistic portrayal of trauma and how people are when they don’t have boundaries and they don’t know how to trust people. It was something I personally struggled with and it’s really difficult to trust your own instincts when you’re in a situation where you don’t have a healthy understanding of what love is. You have to figure it out as you go, and from a structural standpoint, it was really difficult to conceal certain narratives. If I wanted to portray them realistically, they were going to be suspicious no matter what, and I talked to my agent about this early on. Rather than making things a twist or a surprise, I really wanted to make the journey into that discovery interesting.

I also discovered that at a certain point in writing this book, I completely stopped restraining myself. I just let go and let myself have fun, and I’m leaning into that with my next book.

I’m glad you found your groove, and I think it works really well. Particularly because there is so much intrinsic horror that you explore in the themes of femininity and simply being a woman in modern society. How did you decide on those themes for this book?

In terms of content, I wasn’t trying to make an argument when I started writing about fertility horror. It just reflected how it felt to be in that situation.

I started writing Just Like Mother in my early thirties, but I was about 35 when I started really focusing on it. I had bounced back from intense heartbreak and found myself really happy as a single person. At the same time, everyone else in my life was coupled up and having families, so I had this sense of not fitting in. Friends and relatives started making these weird “you still have time” comments. And it was driving me crazy because I was actually really happy, and it felt like it wasn’t enough.

Instead of embracing being a strong, powerful, feminist woman, it started to feel like actually no, after a certain age you do have to be coupled and have kids. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. We don’t talk about why we feel like we have to do this, or the ambivalence we might feel about things like getting married and having kids, or how we don’t choose partners based on things outside of whether they’re funny and smart and cute. What about being a good partner or a good father?

I’ve always been the type to ask a lot of questions and I wanted to understand why we’re doing these things. It was only when I started asking these questions that I started get honest answers. And it was really chilling because no one knew. It felt like every aspect of society is some arbitrary rule that we have to follow because that’s what we do. It was frightening to realize there are things we are taught not to question and are expected to simply comply. I think those are the things we should be questioning the most.

And it wasn’t just that it had started happening when I was in my thirties. I remember in college my mom telling me she couldn’t wait until I had a daughter, and even then, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted kids. But also, why is it a gift to someone else? I have seven nieces and nephews, and it was still a thing up until a few years ago when I noticed my mother’s anxiety eased up a bit when it became clear that I met my life partner. I think there is tremendous anxiety around a woman just being left alone to her own devices. I hit more on the baby aspect in Just Like Mother, but there is this whole coupling aspect that is just as weird.

Related: Tainted Love in Horror Cinema: Sex, Romance, and the Monstrous Feminine

As you age, especially if you are a single woman, people absolutely look at you with judgment. There’s a feeling that something is wrong with you. Women freeze their eggs, which is expensive and a really screwed-up thing about society. I could talk for hours about things like class division in having kids and how it’s monetized, and all of these other horrors that I tried to highlight in various subplots throughout the book.

Just Like Mother

Just Like Mother

By Anne Heltzel, narrated by Elizabeth Evans

I think you touched on so many of those issues in interesting and terrifying ways. So now we want to know, what scares you?

I have a couple of very specific fears. One is very deep water, but specifically when it’s confined to a space like a dolphin tank, for example. There’s a tank in Dubai that’s the deepest pool for scuba diving and it has an underground city, and it scares me just watching those videos.

Another fear is being trapped in my body or being buried alive. Just a scenario where I’m trapped and aware, but I can’t do anything. That’s terrifying. And then also, the notion of betrayal is terrifying to me. This sense that someone can convince you that they’re one way and abruptly change is really scary to me. I think I’ve had that fear my whole life.

I explored that a bit in Just Like Mother. It’s so hard to believe we’re getting tricked because it’s so unbelievable that people would actually do those things. Especially when you desperately want to believe in someone. It’s hard to step away and have objectivity. And it’s even harder when we don’t understand their motivations.

Aging is another one. That’s something I’m writing about in my next book. Everything in horror for me comes from very banal fears. These everyday things that we all relate to and accept as part of our reality. But we don’t often realize how terrifying these things are until we choose to dwell on the fear itself. I’m really interested in analyzing what the fear means and what it looks like.

In that way, I don’t think I really have to make anything up. It’s all right there. All of these everyday situations are actually frightening. I just have to look around me, and then distort it slightly or amplify it a little. Horror is a reflection of real life.

That is so true. And also kind of terrifying. Do you have any literary influences?

This is hard because my day job is so focused on reading high volumes of literature that I want to consume as broad a range as possible.

I’m really interested in Shirley Jackson, not even necessarily from a craft standpoint, but her personal history is fascinating to me. Gillian Flynn mastered the psychological thriller genre, so I’ve read a lot of her books—and Tana French. But I also read a lot of contemporary literature. Maybe that’s another fear, that I won’t get to read every one, so I rarely linger in one person’s work for too long.

For writing horror, I’m more inspired by film. Jordan Peele opened the door for films that portray topical, sociopolitical moments that took horror movies to a more serious place while still being extremely fun. A24 Films does a lot of interesting and creative things. I think in the last decade horror films have become a lot bolder and more creative in portraying what we’re going through as a society and from a more realistic perspective.

I’m really interested in anything that focuses on everyday fears, especially if they combine elements of horror and thriller elements. Maybe it’s not an influence, but anything that is a commentary on aspects of our daily lives, like dating or relationships and how scary that can be, is interesting to me. Anything fun and weird.

Are there any books you’d recommend to readers? And do you have one specifically for writers?

A must-read for everyone is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I’ve been recommending this book for a solid decade. For writers, one book that is better than any MFA program as far as technical advice on the craft of writing is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders.

That’s amazing! Do you have any advice you’d give new writers?

I mentioned the story I wrote in my creative writing class in college. I actually submitted it to publishers, which you’re not supposed to do. It ended up getting mostly rejections, but I did get one non-form rejection that said if I developed it into a novel, they would consider it.

I eventually did turn it into a novel and used that to get my first agent, but I think one thing we don’t talk about a lot is the unsold novel. It’s so common. That first novel didn’t sell, but my very first book deal was a two-book deal, and I couldn’t fulfill the second book. I tried three times, but it just didn’t work. That’s one thing I wish people talked about more because I think so many people feel terrible when they get rejected, but everyone gets rejected. It’s not for everyone, but it’s part of the learning experience.

I also think a lot of it is timing. I’m an editor in my day job and so much depends on timing. Sometimes an agent or an editor might take a break from acquiring for strategic reasons, or what they’re looking for on their list changes from one year to the next. You never know, and in a way, it sort of sucks. But I think the more you try, the more likely you’re going to hit. You want to give yourself as many chances as you can. I like to call it planned luck.

You can add to your planned luck though, by knowing what’s out there. Publisher’s Marketplace is a great resource that tells you recent book deals, so you can see what’s selling. Polish your manuscript as much as you can, and hopefully, that gives you a choice when it comes to agents. Not everyone gets a choice. I didn’t with my first two agents, but then I did with this book, and it was terrific. You want to choose the person who is the best fit for you and understands what you want to achieve.

At the end of the day, it’s a complicated and difficult industry, and it’s not for everyone. But if you want to take the traditional route, be patient and just keep putting yourself out there.

Okay, let’s have some fun before we go. You’re trapped in a haunted house with five authors—living or dead. Who are they and why are they there?

My partner, Andy Marino. He’d add a hearty dose of emotionality to the situation. Gillian Flynn because she embraces darkness and would notice subtle signs of danger from tiny clues. Fran Lebowitz because she’s been haunted by writer’s block her whole life, and that’s arguably more frightening than any haunted house. Daniel Kahneman because I trust his judgment. And Kevin Kwan because he’d add some necessary levity and fabulousness to the entire ordeal.

What’s next?

I have another book on contract with Tor Nightfire, and I mentioned the general theme is aging. It also has a creepy structure with creepy architecture that is inspired by a building in the Bronx. It’s an old rambling structure that overlooks the Palisades and was built around 1890 or so. I’ve been obsessed with it for a long time. I’m really looking forward to exploring the idea of inherited trauma, classism, and wealth within that Gothic sensibility.

It's tentatively titled, Ripe Old Fruit, but that might change.