When it comes to paranormal, supernatural or dark suspense thrillers, few out there are as good as Northern California native Alexandra Sokoloff. She’s been nominated for both the Bram Stoker and Anthony awards, and won an International Thriller Writers award for Huntress Moon, the first book in her series about a troubled FBI agent’s hunt for a female serial killer and one of the most fascinating of its kind I’ve ever read. But books are only part of her repertoire: she’s a successful screenwriter, blogger and even a writing teacher, and in her spare time part of an all-author group of dancers known as The Slush Pile Players. These days she splits her time between Scotland and L.A, where she recently wrapped up both the fourth book and a TV pilot for the Huntress Moon series. Even with that insanely hectic schedule, she made time recently to share some insights into her work with the Open Mic.
OpenMic: Your books focus on such dark psychological suspense. What draws you to this genre?
Sokoloff: That’s one of those questions that you (I) answer differently every time. I always liked dark, spooky, riveting stories with a strong psychological component. For some reason, from a very early age I was always aware of dark undercurrents in so many situations. Friends who were being abused. Mental illness in families that no one was acknowledging. Teachers, administrators, business leaders who were using power in a corrupt or overtly abusive way. Maybe I choose to read and write about it because it’s stuff that is deeply damaging and there’s no way to really heal it except to shine a light on it.
OpenMic: What is more interesting to you: true paranormal activity or psychological suspense?
Sokoloff: I lean toward the idea that paranormal activity IS psychological, so I guess that’s your answer, there! And suspense, well, I’m all about the adrenaline rush. Suspense is my addiction.
OpenMic: Quick esoteric question: how big of a role does the subconscious play in a writer’s ultimate success or failure?
Sokoloff: Whoa, that’s deep! So to speak…I think creative success is absolutely dependent on an artist having the most unfettered access to the subconscious as possible. But of course you have to practice craft and hone your chops so that there is a foundation and mechanism for the subconscious to produce actual product. Because if you just want to wander around in your subconscious, there are drugs for that…And if you’re asking if subconscious blocks or the lack of subconscious blocks plays a role in material success, well, yeah – that’s the uncomfortable truth. Is that esoteric enough for you?
OpenMic: Your interests and skills are so varied, but let’s focus on screenwriting and novels. Do you prefer one over the other? Why?
Sokoloff: I find much, much, much more creative satisfaction in writing novels. When I moved to writing novels from screenwriting, I felt like I’d been let out of prison. When you write novels, you don’t have to answer to anyone. You’re not responsible for anyone’s fuckups but your own.
But now that I’m working on the TV series of the Huntress books, I am thrilled to be doing cinematic writing again. Television has become the most extraordinary medium. The best storytelling and filmmaking on the planet is happening in television now.
OpenMic: The industry has changed so much over the years, and continues to rapidly evolve all the time. I ask all my subjects this question: Are things better now for writers or worse than they were 20 years ago?
Sokoloff: I think things are a thousand percent better for writers now. If you’re unhappy with your traditional publisher, there’s the potentially very lucrative option of self-publishing. We have the ability to combine traditional publishing and indie publishing into multiple income streams. There are so many fantastic markets to sell books, scripts, show ideas, games, webisodes to. As long as a writer is willing to work for it, the possibilities are literally unlimited.
OpenMic: I loved Book of Shadows. Loved it. I hoped we might see those characters again. Is that a possibility?
Sokoloff: I’m so happy to hear it, thank you! I’m so focused on the Huntress series right now, writing the books and developing the show, that I haven’t had a second to think about Book of Shadows. But I love the characters and the arena of witchcraft and paganism. I’m sure I’ll get back to it… I have a growing file of ideas for that series!
OpenMic: You’ve said you have spent a lot of time in your life around practicing witches. How has that impacted your writing?
Sokoloff: Well, obviously it impacted Book of Shadows – I used a lot of my experience with ceremonies in that book. Witchcraft is a very particularly feminine power, a feminine way of looking at the world, and I think that concept of a feminine power that is not necessarily direct, that is actually oblique and mysterious, unconscious and even irrational, comes through in all of my books.
OpenMic: Did you always intend for Huntress Moon to be a series? How does your approach differ on something you intend to be (or even think could be) a series rather than a standalone novel?
Sokoloff: Huntress Moon had been percolating in me for years, possibly decades. So one of the things that makes it a series is that it was a whole lot of storylines that I’d never quite managed to execute finally weaving together into a whole. The actual storyline came to me in a flash, when I was sitting in a Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention) in San Francisco, listening to Val McDermid in conversation Denise Mina, and then Robert Crais in conversation with Lee Child (and if all that isn’t grounds for divine inspiration, I don’t know what is…) In the exact middle of one of Lee’s sentences, I suddenly had the whole idea for the Huntress series.
It was definitely a series, always. I don’t know that I had any specific plan for the series when I started the first book, but I knew the Huntress had been killing for a long, long time, and I knew that she would never be done because the problem of evil is so vast. So I just concentrated on writing the first book and exploring her through the eyes of Special Agent Roarke, the FBI agent who is tracking her, and as he started uncovering her history the other books revealed themselves as well.
OpenMic: You’re very outspoken about ending violence against women and children, which is such a recurring – and really, really tired – theme across all media. For the record I am with you 100 percent. What inspired your passion in this area? How do we change this?
Sokoloff: Going back to your very first question, I was just always aware of these horrific abuses against women and children. Not just in this country, but everywhere, throughout history. Even as a child I could not believe the eradication of these crimes were not being made a top priority. Why was no one speaking out about these things? How could rape and child abuse still exist in an even halfway civilized society?
How do we change it? I think one way is to look toward the young women who are fighting the ongoing scourge of rape on college campuses, who are taking rapists and the institutions that protect them to court through Title IX lawsuits. Those are heroines who are changing the conversation and the landscape. And we have to help them, and take that fight to high schools as well. We need to prevent rape by preventing boys from becoming rapists.
And another way is to be aware of the incredible damage done by shows like Rape of Thrones and The Fall, which use rape as titillation and entertainment. We can make a choice to refuse to support that insidious message.
Just say no….
OpenMic: I love that when we met at the SDSU Writers Conference and I told you I was a journalist, you’re first words were “I hate you f*ckers!” The laugh was of course that in theory words often come quickly to us, which I’m sad to say isn’t necessarily the truth. That said, how would you describe your writing process? Is there anything that has to be in place for you to be able to write? Certain music? Vat of coffee? Good Cognac?
Sokoloff: When I first started writing, coffee was a great way to turn off that insidious censor. But for me the secret of writing is to start right away, in the morning, before I’m entirely awake. And I do an eight-hour day at least, six days a week, sometimes seven. If you put in enough time, you’ll end up with enough good pages.
I have to say though, I write really well on planes, for some reason. It’s a good thing, too, since I travel so much!
Open Mic Bonus Question: When my daughter was little I told her not to be afraid of monsters in books or on TV or in movies. My explanation was that the only real monsters were humans. She has since both disparaged me for scaring her senseless as a small child and lauded me for ensuring she grew up with the common sense to avoid being an easy victim, which so many women sadly are. So, did I blow it, or do good?
Sokoloff: I think you were right on the money. I stopped writing overtly supernatural stories because I want to write about how to overcome evil, and the real evil is what humans do. I don’t think it does children the slightest good to sugarcoat the danger that’s out there. Of course we need to be teaching kids to recognize it and how to fight back, on a physical level and anywhere they encounter it – to the courts when necessary. Silence is the enemy.