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Two new books are the fruit after many years of labor for Asheville author Heather Newton

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Heather Newton's mother has written nine novels for young adults. She’s also the first to read and critique whatever Newton thinks is ready to go out into the world. 


“More importantly than that, she demonstrated for me how writing can just be a part of your life and not something mysterious,” she said. “She had four kids but she would go into her office every day and write until about one o’clock, and she got nine novels written that way.” 


Newton said her mother also imbued her with the focus and fortitude to survive the dips and turns of a life in writing. On the surface, 2022 is setting up as a banner year for Newton. A new collection of short stories has just come out and a new novel will publish in July. But those are the culminations of a dozen years of ditched drafts and resurrected ideas. Newton juggles those with a law practice and her responsibilities as founding program director of the Flatiron Writers Room. 


Newton is signing copies of “McMullen Circle” Jan. 18 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville. 


“Realistically, I can’t be a full-time writer or a full-time lawyer. I have to balance the two. There are only so many hours in a day,” she said. “The way I handle the multiple things that I’ve got my fingers in is to not try to compartmentalize them and just let all the different parts of my life bleed together.” 


Newton grew up in Raleigh with three siblings who became musicians. She worked for a large law firm in Boston and had already begun work on what became her first published novel before moving to Asheville 30 years ago. In both cities, she took writing classes and formed critiquing groups with classmates she admired. One such group first met in 1993 in an office in Asheville’s Flatiron building. 


“All of us were aiming for publication and to take it to a professional level,” Newton said. 


The first of the group who found a publisher and reached commercial success was Sally Bissell, who now has eight novels in her Appalachian suspense series. As other writers in the Flatiron group found publishers, Newton took a patient, resolute view of her own path to publication. 


“I’ve been thrilled for every member who has ever had success because I really think it raises us all up,” she said. “Jealousy has never been an issue with me.” 


The Flatiron Writers Group became the Flatiron Writers Room in 2017 when it moved into its own home in West Asheville. This opened up space for classes, events and a co-working space. Newton moved her law practice there to become the first paying tenant. 


“If we had classes in the evening, we would essentially close my office door and turn my receptionist desk into a desk for the writers,” she said. “Then my receptionist would have to come in the next day and put everything back, which was a bit frustrating for her, but it worked out for us.” 


Newton wrote two novels that didn’t find publishers before writing her first that did, in 2011—18 years into the life of the Flatiron Writers Group. That book, “Under the Mercy Trees,” grew from Newton’s drive to write a story of unrequited love, coupled with elements of a true missing person’s story drawn from her husband’s family. The book won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. 


“Always at my core, I had faith in what I was writing, even if it wasn’t going to have broad appeal. There was this little ember inside me that I always had faith my work had value,” she said. “That’s kept me going through all the rejection slips I’ve gotten over the years.” 


Newton’s new collection of connected short stories is titled “McMullen Circle.” One character of a previous chapter becomes the focal point of the next. The fire-bombing of a theater that refused entry to Black people is a central event throughout. Her new novel, “The Puppeteer's Daughters,” started with her desire to write a father-daughter story. It has already been optioned for a screen adaptation. 


“I needed a world to set that in and, at the time, my father was in a nursing home with dementia. And I went to visit him and during a visit, he suddenly blurted out ‘Your hands are exactly like my hands,’” she recalled. “And that got me thinking about professions that use hands and some puppetry my dad did for us when we were small.” 


Through it all, Newton’s style is one of smooth, clear concision over virtuosic flair. 


“I think it’s so important that the reader not be aware of the writing,” she said. “You don’t want the reader to have to stop and get caught by something clever that you’ve done with your writing. You just want them to live the story.” 


She said she owes some of that, along with her pushing past disappointment, to her law practice.  


“When I write a legal brief, there’s no room for flowery language,” she said. “Both those professions have just trained me to let the lack of successes go. I don’t call them failures. And then I focus on the next thing.” 


Ever the student, Newton said that next thing is taking a screenwriting class. 

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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