Author Antoinette van Heugten ~ Interviewed

A former international trial lawyer, Antoinette van Heugten’s first novel, Saving Max (Mira Books/Harlequin, October 2010, $14.95), follows a single mother whose teenage son has Asperger’s syndrome and becomes the primary suspect in a gruesome murder case. More than just a heart-pounding thriller, Saving Max is based on her real life experience as the mother of two autistic children.

Antoinette received both her undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. During her 15-year career as a trial lawyer, she practiced all over the world, in locations such as Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands to Houston, her hometown.

Antoinette resides in Fredericksburg, Texas, with her husband, a former prominent oil and gas lawyer.

What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?

I would have started sooner! I would have made sure that instead of just being thrilled to find an agent to represent me, I’d have made sure that he or she would really “get” the book and help me with my vision of what I wanted it to be.

What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?

Starting a new novel always seems fraught with insecurity. I seem to go through the same process every time: Is this idea good enough? Am I passionate about writing it? It all seems overwhelming until I finally get a good outline and just start writing.

What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?

The best advice I have ever read is from Stephen King’s book On Writing. Although I’m not a fan of his novels, he said one thing that always resonated with me: get into that chair and write every single day. It doesn’t matter what you write or how bad it is. Don’t stop until you get into the flow and something good happens.

What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn’t write?

I am passionate about relationships between family members: mothers/sons or daughters; troubled family relationships, autism and children’s emotional and psychological issues. I also love to kill people on paper, so there has to be a thriller aspect to the plot! I’ve already done what I would do if I didn’t write. I was an international attorney for many years. It was a great career, but if I’d known what fun it is to be an author, I may have chosen differently.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

I am writing a book about an American woman who comes home one day and finds her mother murdered by an assassin’s bullet. After the funeral, she discovers two sets of wartime identification papers: one shows that they were in the Dutch resistance during World War II; the other shows that they were Dutch Nazis during the war. There is also evidence that her father killed a Jewish man and was tried in absentia for his crime – the sentence was death. The woman goes to the Netherlands to find out the truth and then discovers that she is now also a target of an assassin.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wish I had been able to have the agent I have now when I submitted my manuscript. My first agent did not understand the novel and I spent two years rewriting it pursuant to her suggestions rather than following my gut instincts. The book didn’t get published until I found my current agent, Al Zuckerman, who then worked with me for another two years – which has been a wonderful experience. Having an agent or editor who is so immersed in the process has been invaluable to me.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I like to read newspapers and magazines for interesting ideas, but most of them spring from my rather twisted imagination.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

I would have to say that my son has changed me most as a writer and a person. He has Asperger’s – high functioning autism – and bearing the pain he experienced when he was a young child trying to cope with not only autism, but other disorders, broke my heart and yet made me his strongest advocate. Those experiences we shared became the basis for my first novel, SAVING MAX. Today he is a shining example of what dedication and commitment as a parent – and his unbelievable efforts – can do for a person. He is my knight in shining armor.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

The greatest buzz for me is to look at a completed manuscript, put a rubber band around it and send it off to my agent and publisher. It’s better than the publicity, good reviews and acclaim. It’s that perfect moment when I know I’m spending my life doing what I’ve always wanted to do.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

I sit at a huge, old Dutch desk that belonged to my parents. It’s in my bedroom, which is also quite large. There is nothing on the table except for candles, a vase of flowers and a stack of blank paper. I have three dogs: a great Dane named Phoebe and two Yorkies, one of whom is only two pounds. She sits on my lap while I write and the other ones sleep. It’s the perfect atmosphere for me.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I clear my desk and writing room of everything that had anything to do with the last book. I am compulsive about my writing box, so of course I have to organize all my pens, shop heavily at Office Depot for writing materials, clear my desktop to only reflect research and drafts of the new novel and – finally – I light about four candles (who knows why), sit in my chair, and start writing. I know every author has their own peculiar ways that they get themselves into writing. I guess I’m fortunate that I don’t find it necessary to sacrifice a rooster or eat jars of pickles while I put together the first chapter!

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

I always hated outlines when it came to novels. I thought it hampered my creativity and didn’t let characters develop naturally as the plot unfolded. My agent asked me to try it and it has been a good experience. It ensure that the plot is tight, makes you think about precisely who your characters are and how they fit (or don’t) into the core of the novel, and generally makes writing the book a cinch because you’ve already thought it through in your head.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

My novel doesn’t come out until October, 2010 and at this writing (September 2010) I’ve gotten at least fifty reviews, about 85% of which have been very favorable. It gives me an enormous thrill that people and book clubs have asked for, read and reviewed the book – as well as their comments. My favorite response is when a reader says that he or she couldn’t put the book down and stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it!

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Why do you keep writing?

Because I can’t stop.