"One Messy Mess": Heather Newton's Recipe for a Full Life

by Janet Moore

Heather Newton’s latest work, McMullen Circle, is a short story collection selected as a finalist for the W.S. Porter prize. Her novel The Puppeteer’s Daughters is forthcoming from Turner Publishing, July 2022. Her first novel, Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011), won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, was chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as a Great Group Reads Selection and named an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

Special Features Editor Janet Moore spoke with Heather about the work of writing and the places and people that inspire her.


Janet Moore: I believe there is a true backstory for McMullen Circle?

Heather Newton: In the late 1960s my husband’s father was a teacher at Tallulah Falls School, an international co-ed boarding and day school located on the southern slopes of Cherokee Mountain in Northeast Georgia. My husband’s family lived on campus, and it was a place he cherished.

Janet: Place figures prominently in your writing. In McMullen Circle it’s Tallulah Falls. What about it interests you?

Heather: The obvious answer is my husband’s connection to it. The less obvious answer is Karl Wallenda and his 1970 high wire walk across Tallulah Gorge. The town fathers expected the event to draw huge crowds and ordered a large supply of hot dogs to feed the visitors. But the crowds didn’t come, and they were left with a surplus. The narrative potential in that situation inspired me to write “The Walk,” the first story I completed for the collection. When my husband’s family moved away from Tallulah Falls, he felt the loss deeply. So, ultimately, “The Walk” is about loss and how children process it. (https://www.atlantamagazine.com/news-culture-articles/flashback-karl-wallendas-high-wire-walk-across-tallulah-gorge-1970/).]

Janet: Was this story collection a recent effort, or was it a long time in the making?

Heather: I wrote the stories over ten years, but they didn’t start out as a collection. I turned to short stories because I needed the gratification of completing something while I was also working on novels. Eventually I identified themes that linked the stories together. It was only then that I realized I had a collection.

Janet: Is there a real McMullen Circle?

Heather: There is, the street I lived on until I was seven, off Oberlin Road in Raleigh. I went back recently to see if our old apartments were still standing. They’ve been bulldozed, replaced by a bigger, newer apartment complex.

Janet: The Puppeteer’s Daughters will be in bookstores starting July 26. Was the inspiration for this a personal one, as it was with McMullen Circle?

Heather: In some ways, the impetus was a working out of the relationship I had with my father and my feelings towards him. I knew I wanted to write a father-daughter story, but what sparked the puppetry idea was something he said when I was visiting him later in life. His dementia meant that conversations could go in many directions. Out of the blue he said, “Your hands are like my hands.” He was right; they are. And that got me thinking about the hand puppets he made for us when we were children. We performed “Amahl and the Night Visitors” with them every Christmas. Before I knew it, I was researching puppets, listening to puppeteer podcasts and attending a puppeteer convention.

Janet: Was it your father who nurtured your love of writing?

Heather: It was actually my mother. She was the author of nine young adult books. In my family, everyone wrote. And I had some great teachers: Linda Eakes in the third grade, Hillary Blake in the sixth, and in high school, it was Muriel Allison who encouraged me to submit my work to a local competition. The judges included Doris Betts and Guy Owen. Their comments encouraged me to keep writing, and when I was at Carnegie Mellon, I had a wonderful creative writing teacher named Lynne Barrett.

Janet: Your essay in this issue of the Review is a venture into creative nonfiction. Is this a genre that you’re interested in exploring?

Heather: It is. I am definitely drawn to it. It’s an intriguing, and challenging, means of storytelling. Now that you mention it, I realize that a significant number of our spring classes through the Flatiron Writers Workshop focus on creative nonfiction.

Janet: What’s on your reading list these days?

Heather: Doing a book tour gives me a chance to meet other authors and learn about their work, and an excuse to purchase books from the Indie bookstores that host me. I’m currently looking forward to reading Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris, and Cadwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters. Sam Shepard’s short story collection Cruising Paradise and Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide In Tucson are two books that inspire me to write even though they aren’t ostensibly about writing.

Janet: Book tours are stimulating, but also a huge addition to an already crammed schedule. How do you carve out time to write?

Heather: Before COVID, I would take Friday off and devote it to writing. But the pandemic derailed that routine. I felt compelled to offer free consults for folks with unemployment benefit claims, and my Fridays were given over to that. Now I block off five or six days every three months and go to our cabin in North Georgia to write. There is something about being able to focus on the writing for multiple days at a time. I realize I’m very privileged in this regard. Being self-employed gives me flexibility that’s not available to everyone. But I’ve also learned that if writing is important, you can find ways to do it, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes a day. That is one of the reasons why I co-founded The Flatiron Writers Room, to create a space for writers away from home and work. All our classes are currently on Zoom, and our Co-Working Program is up and running, again.

Janet: So let’s add businesswoman to your full plate. In addition to being program manager of Flatiron, you’re a practicing lawyer, wife, mother, and, of course, writer. How do you keep it all of those plates in the air?

Heather: Imperfectly. I’ve learned that it’s important to get over perfectionism and value all of life’s experiences, imperfect as they are. We tend to compartmentalize the different parts of our lives, but for me what works better is to let it be one messy mess.