Written by JJ Barnes
I was delighted to interview tennis star Julie Heldman about her life, her career, and her new book Driven, A Daughter’s Odyssey. She shares what motivated her, her writing process, and the advice she has to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m an ex-tennis champ who, at 75, has recently gained a new lease on life.
I grew up in a family of tennis royalty. My father, Julius Heldman, was the U.S. junior champ who quit playing competitively in his teens to concentrate on becoming an accomplished scientist. My mother, Gladys Heldman, was also academically accomplished, but she became passionate about playing tennis when I was only 3 months old. When I was seven, she started World Tennis magazine, which she edited and published, and she made into a tennis powerhouse. As a promoter, she was best known for starting the women’s pro tour in 1970 and running it during its earliest years, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. She was an extraordinary promoter, a powerful woman in a man’s world, and she was indomitable.
My mother lived and breathed tennis, at the expense of normal motherhood. To cover her tracks, she developed a screwy theory, that children were really just small adults, who did not need care and attention. And then there was our family’s dirty secret, that she frequently showered me with rage and humiliation.
Our dinner table conversation focused solely on tennis, so it’s no surprise that when I was 8 and my sister was 9, we were shipped out to the Hoxie tennis camp in Hamtramck, Michigan, all summer long. There we played tennis 8 hours a day and learned that tennis wasn’t about having fun, it was about winning. There, I honed my ferocious drive to win tennis matches.
That drive took me far, but it was polluted by my mother’s frequent abuse and the Hoxie’s sole focus on winning. Eventually, I became a formidable tennis player, twice ranked number five in the world, with wins over every top player of my era, including Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova, but tennis was rarely fun.
So even as I was rising in the rankings, I struggled with emotional problems, and starting when I was 18, I also suffered from bipolar disorder, which went undiagnosed until I was 50. In an era where mental problems were rarely diagnosed, and psychotropic medicines were not even on the horizon, I tried to manage my mental issues, but my ability to cope was always extremely limited. In my 20s, I took several long sabbaticals from tennis competition, and I quit entirely soon before I turned 30. Unsurprisingly, my desperate need to succeed followed me throughout my life, and although I became a loving wife and a mother, I remained absorbed by my need to succeed. So I became a successful tennis journalist, TV broadcaster, lawyer, and business woman. But in 2000, my superwoman exterior crumbled, and I suffered a breakdown that lasted 15 years.
Finally, at age 75, I’ve found greater stability through therapy and powerful medicines, but also through writing about my long and eventful life.
My story has come full circle, because after 55-plus years of struggling with severe emotional and mental conditions, and after years of psychoanalysis and psychotropic medicines, I have finally found a modicum of peace and stability. I also attribute a large portion of my new-found stability to the process of writing my memoir, Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Once my calamitous breakdown struck in 2000, I stopped being able to throw myself into a career in order to cope. But I had done different kinds of writing over the years, and a desire to write about my own life came bubbling up. So I took a short story writing class at a local community college. I wasn’t interested in writing fiction, but I needed to explain—to myself and to others—how the mirror I looked into throughout my life had shattered into so many little pieces.
When did you take a step to start writing?
In my writing class, I wrote short pieces about my early tennis career, about my mother’s emotional abuse, about competing at the top level, and about the history of professional women’s tennis. The more I wrote, the more stories came pouring out.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
From 2001-2009, I remained highly debilitated, and although I wrote occasional chapters, I lacked the emotional or physical energy to write a book. In 2009, I began to recover by getting a trainer and then addressing the physical pain I lived with as a result of ancient injuries that had never healed properly. In 2014, after a new doctor changed some of my psychiatric medicines, and my energy increased, I decided to write my book. I asked my writing teacher to be my editor, and I was under way. After my decision to write a book, it took me five months to write a complete chapter. From then on, I spent three solid years writing for at least four hours a day, and at least another year of writing and re-writing, and sending chapters for review to a group of about 10 people. I self-published the book in 2018.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Driven?
My first challenge with writing the book was dealing with my own arrogance at having a great memory. That changed when I sent a chapter centered around a tennis match to a tennis historian, who gently told me that I’d gotten the score wrong, which changed the tenor of large portions of the chapter. That was a wake-up call that no one’s memory is perfect, and that I’d need to do significant research to ensure accuracy.
What was your research process for Driven?
I was lucky to have significant resources. My sister did an oral history of our father when he was in his late 70s, which was a treasure trove of information about our family. My mother edited and published World Tennis magazine from 1953 through 1972, which was filled with information about the tennis world. I live just a few miles away from UCLA, which has bound volumes of all those years of the magazine, which I could only borrow two volumes at a time. I did a number of phone interviews with tennis folks, and the chapters I sent to my readers provoked interesting responses that I needed to address.
How did you plan the structure of Driven?
I originally decided to write my book chronologically, in the first person, present tense, to heighten the vibrancy of my emotional life. However, I immediately ran into a problem, because the first person, present tense didn’t work when I was writing about my parents’ lives. So I decided to intersperse chapters about myself (in the present tense) with chapters about my parents or about the world of tennis (in the past tense).
I worked with my editor on the flow of the book, to make sure it was centered in time and place, and to work on connections from one part of the book to another. After I finished the book, a good friend told me that I had repeated myself too often, so I took out my red pen, and mercilessly deleted nearly all repetitions, keeping only those that were necessary for the book’s flow.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Driven need?
On four or five occasions, I presented groups of chapters to my editor, and I made changes based upon her feedback. Although Driven didn’t require much editing, my editor’s help was invaluable.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
I don’t know about giving advice, but I can tell other writers what I went through. Writing the book became an important part of my life, and it was central to my recovery from the worst stages of my breakdown. Every day, I went upstairs to my office and worked for a solid four hours. I didn’t need to impose any discipline, because the book was inside of me, begging to be written. I wrote and rewrote every chapter, often as many as 10 times, but as the hard work continued, I found my voice, and from then on, the writing process became smoother, and I could trust my own words and thoughts.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I don’t have any plans for another book.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m very proud of Driven. One reviewer called it “One of the best tennis books ever written.” Chris Evert called it a “must read.” Others have said it’s a page turner that is hard to put down, and breathtakingly honest. Occasionally I open Driven to a random page and read for a while, and I see that I’ve given my story its own voice. It was absolutely worth the effort.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
You can learn more about me at julieheldman.com.
My book is available on Amazon in paperback, kindle and audiobook here.