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Santa Rosa author makes bone-chilling debut with new thriller novel

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HEATHER CHAVEZ’S ‘NO BAD DEED’

Book release: Tuesday, Feb. 18

Book signing and reading: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at Copperfield’s Bookstore, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa. copperfieldsbooks.com

On writing characters: “I need to put a little bit of my own darkness, whatever that looks like, into a character in order to relate to that character. It’s just like a little seed in a character that looks nothing like me. For Cassie, it had to do with parental guilt, not being there for her kids.”

On the challenge of being a Good Samaritan: “How would you act in a situation like this? I think part of being human and being a part of a community, it’s up to us to have a voice and to act when maybe it’s not in our best interest. Because if we are constantly saying ‘not our problem,’ then when it is our problem, who’s going to step forward for us?”

‘This is where I got the idea,” Heather Chavez says while driving along Chanate Road in Santa Rosa on a recent weekday morning.

The stretch was part of her work-to-home commute for more than two decades. To the right, abandoned Chanate Hospital buildings seem at risk of being overtaken by the woods surrounding them. The property once housed a juvenile hall, county morgue and coroner’s office. Just the sight of the lone security guard standing watch gives a sense of a place where bad things could happen.

And happen they do in Chavez’s new novel “No Bad Deed,” which will be released Tuesday. The debut marks a major accomplishment for Chavez, following years of writing novels that went unpublished and sometimes even struggling to pay bills. For the thriller, Chavez drew from her everyday life, her role as a mom and her home of Santa Rosa, including that spooky span of Chanate Road where the novel opens.

Good intentions

“If my kids had been with me, it wouldn’t have happened,” says Chavez’s protagonist, Cassie Larkin, as the story begins. It’s a rainy night and Cassie is driving home when she sees two dark figures dart across a stretch of Chanate Road. Cassie pulls over in time to see a man and woman arguing and struggling. After dialing 911, Cassie watches the man throw the woman down an embankment as they disappear into a creek bed.

Despite the 911 dispatcher’s warning, Cassie gets out of her minivan, compelled to help. It’s a riveting opening scene that grabs the reader by the collar and doesn’t let go for 309 pages.

“That setting came to me almost fully formed. I knew that was where that scene was going to take place,” says Chavez, 50, a wife and working mother with two children, just like Cassie.

The fast-paced, twisty thriller is an example of what happens when good intentions yield very bad results. When Cassie, an overworked veterinarian suffering from severe parental guilt, intervenes in what she thinks is a roadside domestic dispute, the man gives her an ultimatum: “Let her die and I’ll let you live.” Instead, she chooses to stay with the victim while the man steals her car, purse and personal information. When Cassie’s husband disappears the next day, on Halloween, her children are soon in danger and she must summon a strength she never knew she had to save her family.

“She’s autobiographical to an extent,” Chavez says of her main character. “As a working mom, I definitely felt the parental guilt.” A newspaper copy editor for 15 years, she often spent more nights, weekends and holidays with co-workers than with family.

“Some of that internal angst I definitely feel. If something like that happened to my family, it’s my ideal of what I could do. Would I really be willing and able to do it?”

The novel’s opening scene was inspired by a real-life incident Chavez witnessed while picking up her daughter one afternoon at Comstock Middle School.

“I saw a boy walking down this slope, and suddenly two other boys ran up to him and started punching him,” she remembers. “It was a split-second decision — what do I do? I’ve got my daughter in the car. Do I call 911? Do I get out of the car? All these thoughts ran through my mind. It ended in just a second, before I could even make a decision about it. Then of course for the rest of the day, being a writer, the rest of the day I’m thinking, ‘Why did that happen?’”

HEATHER CHAVEZ’S ‘NO BAD DEED’

Book release: Tuesday, Feb. 18

Book signing and reading: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at Copperfield’s Bookstore, 775 Village Court, Santa Rosa. copperfieldsbooks.com

On writing characters: “I need to put a little bit of my own darkness, whatever that looks like, into a character in order to relate to that character. It’s just like a little seed in a character that looks nothing like me. For Cassie, it had to do with parental guilt, not being there for her kids.”

On the challenge of being a Good Samaritan: “How would you act in a situation like this? I think part of being human and being a part of a community, it’s up to us to have a voice and to act when maybe it’s not in our best interest. Because if we are constantly saying ‘not our problem,’ then when it is our problem, who’s going to step forward for us?”

Persistence pays

Chavez’s modest two-story house a few blocks off Brush Creek Road in Rincon Valley today looks like the set of an HGTV remodeling show: plastic sheeting lines the staircase, all the windows in the house are being replaced, including a broken one that was patched with cardboard because Chavez and her huband Alex couldn’t afford to fix it. The living room has been remodeled with a new fireplace. Above it, a new 75-inch TV replaces the 45-inch model that died the same morning Chavez’s agent called to tell her he sold her book.

Chavez still remembers, a little more than a decade ago, when the family budget was so tight they pondered whether to pay the water or electric bill.

The improvements are made possible by Chavez’s book deal. After nearly three decades of writing unpublished novels, what she calls her three “practice books,” she struck gold when she signed a two-book deal with William Morrow in 2018 for just under $500,000.

Since then, Chavez’s life has grown more comfortable, yet more complicated. Four days a week, she works in public affairs at Kaiser Permanente. Fridays are her big writing days, as she tries to make headway on her second novel. Once again, she’s following a strong female protagonist — this time a single mom and convicted felon who jumps at a shot at redemption when an eccentric billionaire invites her to compete in a contest.

In her upstairs office, Chavez holds out her first hardcover copy of “No Bad Deed.” The front and back covers bear blurbs from Lee Child, Lisa Gardner and Linwood Barclay — all heroes of hers she’s been reading for years.

On her desk is a “My Next Big Idea” T-rex cookie jar where she deposits folded notes of inspiration for her third book. Taped to the wall is a piece of paper filled with inspirational notes like “Keep the reader guessing” and “Don’t give away too much.”

“My brain is a very busy place,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to look inside right now.”

That’s why the Christmas tree is still up in her living room in February. Also on her to-do list: filling out college federal aid forms for both kids and writing marketing copy to send to Crime Reads, International Thriller Writers, Women’s Writers and the Writer’s Digest Conference in San Francisco where she’ll be teaching a seminar in October.

While she worries about how the book will sell, she’s buoyed by reader reviews and a recent Booklist review that called “No Bad Deed” “an extraordinary thriller from a debut author that may well become the book everyone is talking about, come February.”

When her agent Peter Steinberg first read her submission, he was immediately drawn into the first few chapters by “a great mixture of adrenalized writing, but also good prose. That is the exact combination and type of fiction I’m looking for.”

Steinberg fields around 10 submissions a day in his Foundry Literary + Media office in New York, representing hundreds of writers over the years, including three No. 1 New York Times bestsellers. When he asked Chavez about her background, “She said, ‘I have three or four novels in a drawer that I never pursued’ — and that sentence is exactly what real writers say. She’s been working hard for a long time to be this good. There’s no such thing in writing as overnight successes.”

Lifetime love of books

Twenty days after her initial query, Chavez signed with Steinberg. Four months later, she had a book deal.

After a lifetime of learning to write, it was a split-second leap into the world of publishing, but a scenario she once imagined while growing up in Lake County in the ’80s. Her first job was shelving books as assistant librarian at Redbud Library in Clearlake.

“My dream has always been to work around books whatever form that took,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore or a library or teach English or ultimately to write.”

Chavez’s love of writing started early. At 7, she wrote a book called “Rabbit’s First Christmas” that she bound in yarn and gave to her grandfather. By middle school, she had graduated to writing about “a serial killer terrorizing a summer camp and an orphanage.”

She worked her way through college, graduating from UC Berkeley’s English literature program, before working as a reporter for the Lake County Record Bee, then a copy editor at The Press Democrat.

Her journalistic curiosity led her to consult retired Santa Rosa Police Department lieutenant Tom Swearingen, who became a valuable source for research during the writing of “No Bad Deed.”

“He’s read all the scenes that involve law enforcement in the book,” she says. “I would ask things like, ‘How long would it take law enforcement to respond? Would they know about the previous murder (he) committed?’”

But more than anyone else, her family has been her sounding board over the years.

“We’ve always had the kind of relationship where we tell each other the truth and I feel like if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be doing her any good anyway,” says her husband Alex, an occupational health technician at Kaiser and an avid reader of Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Jefferey Deaver.

After meeting at Cattlemens Steakhouse in Santa Rosa where Heather worked as a hostess, it wasn’t long before they moved in together. He was 17 and she was 18. Early in their relationship Alex quickly realized one of his primary roles.

“She was reading a book called ‘Deadly Doses,’” he remembers. “And she asked what I thought about the idea of poisoning someone with nicotine. I didn’t know you could do that. It turns out you can kill someone with five drops of pure nicotine. I thought, ‘Wow, this is an interesting person.’ She really was like nobody I’d ever met.”

Heather relies on him more than anyone as a test reader. It’s made their relationship stronger, she says, not that she doesn’t occasionally bristle from his commentary. “His first compliment about ‘No Bad Deed’ was, ‘Wow, this is good. It’s almost like you didn’t write it.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean by that?’”

As their kids grew up, they learned what it was like to have a mother who doubled as a crime fiction writer. “She once texted me when I was in math class and asked me how I would dispose of a body if I had to,” remembers daughter Maya, 18, a freshman at Long Beach State.

Son Jacob, 22, works as an emergency room technician while attending San Diego State. “She’ll often ask about certain procedures,” he says. “Or what people would do if, say, you came across a person who was in a car accident and how people would react in that situation.”

After decades without publishing anything, Chavez began to feel she might never find an audience outside the small circle of family and friends who read her work.

But now, possibly the biggest boost from the book deal — bigger than the family vacation to Greece last summer and all the home renovations — is that she’s part of a community of writers, all fellow 2020 debut novelists she met at an event in New York last year. They support each other on social media and give each other feedback on their writing.

Chavez works on drafts with her agent before sending the manuscript to her editor at William Morrow, who works closely with her in what she called “a very collaborative relationship.”

Her family still offers input, too.

“She has a bit of an imposter syndrome when it comes to being an author, I think,” Maya says. “So when she forgets to mention it to people, I’ll take it upon myself to tell them she’s an author. I mean, it’s a huge accomplishment.”

Chavez is still building up to it.

“There’s this mental thing when you’re in a creative field, whatever it is, even if you’re giving it 110%. It’s kind of this dismissal of it as a hobby,” she says.

“I still have a hard time doing it, but I’m trying: What do you do? I’m an author,” she says. “And I work in public affairs.”

Then she laughs. “I’m actually at the point where I’m starting to think maybe it will be just one (career) — one day.”

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