Friday, November 16, 2012

What the Experts Say: Writer Van Heerling

Van Heerling (& son), Author

Van Heerling joins us today to fill us in on his second novel DREAMS OF ELI – a story about the dreams of a Civil War soldier who wakes in a cave as a prisoner. Van writes to "immerse the reader in the story." When he’s not writing, he has a habit of talking to strangers. Van is also a cat-lover, husband, and father of a one-year old.

Q: Your stories are very different from each other – from a man and his lion friend in MALAIKA to a captured soldier in the American Civil War in DREAMS OF ELI. What inspires your stories? Where do you get your story ideas?

Van Heerling: MALAIKA emerged out of a life-changing dream I had had a few years back. As for DREAMS OF ELI, I have always been interested in the American Civil War. This story came to me with such ease it is difficult to convey. Perhaps I have touched on a past experience, perhaps not.

Q: How significant is the setting for your novels?  For example, in DREAMS OF ELI, how relevant is the setting of the American Civil War to tell your story? Could you have placed two men in a cave at any time period?

Van Heerling: I suppose I could have done that, but I fear it would be a completely different story. If I had placed Ezra and Eli in the French Revolution or during the Plague in England, I don’t think their story would carry well. There is a certain “patina” about the 1800s that caters so well to the plight of Eli, I can’t see him anywhere else.

 Q: How important is delivering a message to your stories?  Or are they purely for entertainment?

Van Heerling: I always have something to say. However I don’t purposely shove my agenda down the reader’s throat. At least I hope that I don’t do this. Somehow the message pours into the story in a way that it weaves in and out of it. My hope is that the reader has that “ahh ha” moment on their own in their own time. I have been asked several times what the message of MALAIKA happens to be. I will never tell. One of my greatest joys is to read and listen to what readers have to say. If you take a look at the reviews for MALAIKA you will find many interpretations.

Q: What do you do to make your characters compelling so that your readers care? Is it more or less difficult to create interesting characters in an historical and/or fantasy setting?

Van Heerling: For me genre doesn’t matter. I do my best to write the character as honest as possible, or I should say as realistic as possible. And when I don’t do this, my editor lets me know.

The number one thing I hear most from my readers is: “I felt like I was there in the story watching everything unfold all around me,” or something to this affect. This is my goal as a writer, to immerse the reader within the story. I want whatever they have conjured up in their minds to hang with them for days after finishing the story. MALAIKA is an emotionally charged novella. It is the kind of story that weighs on you. I once had a reader tell me she was reading the story while waiting for a meeting. She had to run to the restroom to escape the public humiliation of bawling her eyes out. For me as an author, I connected with her. I believe this connection is my job as an author.

Q: Who are your targeted readers? Do they want to be entertained, educated, and/or thrilled?

Van Heerling: I am in my thirties and male. To my surprise I have found an overwhelming response from women 25-65. I embrace this audience with open arms. I have also noticed I have a smaller male audience from 35-60. As far as the entertainment, education, and thrill factors, I would say yes to all of them, but I would add that they seek to connect on a deep emotional level as well.

Q: When you’re not writing, what do you do? Hobbies? Sailing? Knitting? Standup comedy? Favorite music?  Favorite authors? Do you have a muse? Dog or cat person? Tea or coffee? Beer or wine? Comedy or drama? Philosophizing?

Van Heerling: I have a brand new boy, my first and only so far. He just turned one. It was a tough beginning. He was born premature at one pound ten ounces. I am very proud to say he is progressing nicely. He keeps me busy.

 When I am out running around, I have been known to talk to random strangers. I guess this is a hobby, mixed with a bit of philosophizing. Recently I had a twenty-minute conversation with a near homeless Vet. He told me he’d served overseas and didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t press him but by the end of our conversation he’d told me about a few horrible missions he was involved in. Our talk was a confession of sorts for him. Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us and to do it with an open ear and no judgments. I know I helped him that day. 

About Van Heerling

Van lives in Burbank, California with the lingering spirit of Redford—his adopted morbidly obese cat, which was more of a paperweight than a feisty feline, his wife and boy, and their very alive kitty—Abigail.

Van always enjoys hearing from his readers. If you wish to send your comments you may do so at 


Southern soldier Eli West wakes in a cave and discovers he is held captive by a soldier of the Union. Shot, drugged, and tortured, he descends into the darkness and the beauty of his unconscious, uncovering a time when he was still in love, a time before war, a time before everything fell away.


May 1863
Eli Age 26

          During a skirmish two days ago, while in retreat, I lost my company. Somewhere in the backwoods of Northern Mississippi I finish a piece of stale bread, stand up, and lay my rifle against my shoulder.
         It is not the crack of the enemy Enfield rifle round that startles me. It is the sifting whispers of the bullet as it splits the wild grass in my direction. The shooter, by the sound of it, is between four hundred and five hundred yards off. I know this because I have the same standard issue. The ball strikes me hard in the lower left shin. White searing pain shreds up my leg and body like a thunderbolt.
         I stumble. My rifle catches most of my weight as I plow it into the soft earth from where I had just risen. But the shock is too great. I lose  my grip--falling hard and fast to the cool soil where I crush my face against a large granite boulder. The flavors of shattered teeth and metallic blood sour my mouth. But all I can think about is the next eighteen seconds--enough time for my enemy to reload. The shot that I will never hear is upon me. I knew I would die in these woods. I just did not realize I would be alone. But at this end I do not want my brothers next to me. I want Cora. I wait for the final shot, but it never comes. Instead, blackness takes me.

A middle-aged man with the crushing weight of his american past seeks peace and a simpler life in rural Kenya. Armed with only his smokes and coffee he discovers a friendship with the most  unlikely of friends--a lioness he rightfully names Malaika (Angel in Swahili). But she is no ordinary lioness nor is he an ordinary man. Between them they share a gift. But not all embrace their bond and some seek to sever it. Discover this new world rich in human truth and sensibility.

Amazon Purchase Link: DREAMS OF ELI

Amazon Purchase Link: MALAIKA

Twitter: @vanheerling   




  1. Loved this interview.
    I thought the hobby of stranger chatting had a more limited following--maybe it is catching on. It seems everyone has a story, right Van? I live for that stuff.
    Glad your son is doing well.

  2. Thank you Penelope. :)

  3. I really loved this interview Joyce, and I appreciate learning more about you Van Heerling! and what inspires you, I also appreciate you letting us into your hobbies, and family, so glad your son overcame all that he has, and thanks for sharing that on the WLC Post! I also just got copies of your books, and I also think they are so creatively written!

    Syl Stein

  4. Wow thank you Sylvia! Much appreciated.

  5. Lovely interview. I've been thinking a lot this last week about stories that provoke thought and stories that instead try to direct it. It sounds like I'd put your in the thought-provoking list, and enjoy them too.

  6. Hi Shelia, Thank you for saying so. I have been told my writing style is visceral. For better or worse I suppose. Not much I can do about it.