These days, most writers are loathe to take a stand or say anything that might alienate any part of their audience. Not so for Alexandra Sokoloff, the author behind the brilliant Huntress /FBI series, which deals in explicit detail with the horrors of sexual abuse and human trafficking…and the bloody comeuppance for the monsters who commit such heinous acts. Alex is also unafraid to voice her opposition to the current presidential administration and the role she feels it has in perpetuating a culture that tolerates and even celebrates sexual abuse. I sat down again with her recently to talk about the the new book (Hunger Moon), battling with Trump trolls and the realities of writing screenplays for Hollywood.
Open Mic: We are living in strange times. We have now become so polarized as a nation that many writers are now uncomfortable touching on controversial topics either in their writing or on social media because they’re afraid they will instantly alienate half their audience. But you are front and center with very strong themes dealing with the kind of sexual predation that has become endemic in our society. Tell me about your thinking in your Huntress series and in your writing in general when it comes to covering these topics.
Sokoloff: Well, first of all it’s been an issue since the beginning of time. There’s no commandment against rape in the Ten Commandments. There’s no commandment against torture or child abuse or genocide. None of that made it into the Ten Commandments. We had at least come a long way from that kind of thinking, but now here we are tumbling back into some horrible dark age. So it doesn’t take any particular courage for me as a writer to talk about political issues because from my point of view, we’ve got an insane person with the nuclear codes and we could die at any second. Long-term career planning doesn’t really come into it right now because we’re in a constant state of crisis. Pretending that we’re not in that situation is not going to get us through it. So I just don’t know how I could not write about it.
OpenMic: You seem to be very unafraid to interact with people who are critical of the political elements of your writing. What’s your thinking in terms of dealing with that part of your readership?
Sokoloff: It is particularly on Amazon U.S. that I’m getting deluged with these one-star reviews and criticisms on the books from Trump supporters. At least a third of those come from accounts that were set up specifically to leave a negative review of this book. They hadn’t existed before. And I know there are websites where people have been told to leave a review on this book because I am criticizing Trump. You can see specific language that these reviews are using that I’ve traced back to a couple of people that I have had these interactions and dialogue with. So once I realized that was going on I stopped interacting with people. But I was for a while, particularly with people who wrote into my website. Whatever they had to say, I wanted to have that dialogue. Some people were very willing and others just never responded to me at all. It was like they freaked out that I wrote back, and not in an angry way. I was just asking people that said they read for entertainment and don’t want politics if they had read all four of the previous books, which confront sexual abuse, sex trafficking, the torture of young women and children. The idea that anyone could have been entertained by that and expected anything but commentary on our current situation is beyond me. The really sad thing is that I quote real statistics and reports in the book, and I’m often talking to well-meaning people who offer me back websites that are clearly set up by just some Reddit guy with a bone to pick with women. Nothing official whatsoever. A lot of older readers take anything they read on the Internet as true, without any kind of verification. Fox “News” and Breitbart have succeeded in turning entertainment into really dangerous propaganda that people believe every day. How do we begin to fix that? Years of that kind of indoctrination into the most bizarre conspiracy theories and no sense of what it really takes to build a real journalistic story about anything. Zero sense of that.
OpenMic: I was at a panel recently on the topic of fake news. I was distressed because nowhere in this panel did anybody actually take the time to spell out what “fake news” actually is: completely made up stories with no basis in fact that are predominantly just clickbait. But now we’ve allowed these forces that you are talking of to change that definition to any news they don’t like, which drives me insane. It’s like calling these folks the “alt right” instead of what they really are, which is white supremacists and Nazis. And that kind of thing scares me for all the reasons it probably scares you too.
Sokoloff: Well it does come down to that terrifying question of what do you do about it when this has taken such an insidious hold on so many people. I don’t think it’s half the population, no more than it’s half my readers, but it looks like a lot of people because they’re so very loud.
OpenMic: Social media has been the site of some really awful treatment of women. I’m thinking now of what we call “Gamergate,” where female gamers were being really harassed by male gamers with threats of violence or comments like “I hope you get raped” or “we’re going to come and get you.” When you sit down to write, does it enter your mind that what you’re writing could incite that kind of reaction from people? Does it concern you?
Sokoloff: It absolutely occurs to me because I have already been trolled during the election for my Facebook postings. I had been threatened and I was constantly having to block people. A lot of them were fake accounts, but it was continuous. So I knew when I was writing about that very phenomenon of harassment in this book that it would happen to me. But I’m very careful about disseminating personal information about myself. It would be hard to put together where I was at a certain time. I live in two countries and one of them has very strict gun control so I’m not worried about anyone coming over there. And outside of the States I don’t have this reaction from people. They all think Trump is crazy and dangerous. The rest of the world has a very good understanding of the peril we’re all in. But you can’t live your life in fear, and it’s an abstract threat compared to what women and children deal with every day in a lot of countries, including this one. So I just don’t feel like being afraid to do something is an acceptable excuse for not speaking the truth. Otherwise we’re done and democracy is over.
OpenMic: On the positive side of all this, we’re actually paying attention to the issue of harassment across all fields now. Is that encouraging to you?
Sokoloff: Yeah, it is encouraging and I think it’s a direct response to women having very little to lose now that we have a sexual predator in the White House. This is definitely a backlash against the fact that none of those charges stuck to someone who has full out admitted to sexually assaulting women and has been a misogynist throughout his entire life. It is so obvious and blatant and people are just done.
OpenMic: I’m a huge fan of The Huntress series. How is the latest book doing? Has all of this helped or hurt sales of the new book?
Sokoloff: Well, it’s hard to tell about the sales of that particular book just yet because it’s still a little early. But I can tell you that I had one of the biggest paychecks I’ve ever had last month, which I think is because people are thankfully getting the message that they need to go back to the beginning of this series. The Huntress books are more of a serial than a series. The action is pretty continuous from book one to book five and then on to book six, which I’m writing now. So clearly, something has happened that is making more people go back to the beginning and buy Huntress Moon and Blood Moon and Cold Moon and then Bitter Moon. So it’s an interesting question and I don’t know really how to answer it yet, except that in a very practical way I saw a huge payoff from it last month. [NOTE: If you are new to the series, all five Huntress books are currently on sale on Kindle for just $2 each!]
OpenMic: The subject matter for these books is so stark and there’s so many bad things happening to these girls and women. Does that affect you emotionally or psychologically when you have to get in the mindset to write these stories?
Sokoloff: People always ask me this question. I get in that mindset when I read the news. I mean, I have always been aware of this kind of sexual abuse. And it’s not just women and girls, it’s boys and men and in the military too. So this is not anything new that I channel to write this series. I’ve always internalized it every time I read one of these accounts, or when I hear about another friend to whom something has happened. But writing the books allows me to do it in a craft sense. It is living in it but it’s also distancing the experience because I have to put it in a totality and visual and suspense terms and how it fits in the storyline and how it reveals character and all of those things. So it’s actually very cathartic to write about it and to know I am doing something about it, because people do write me all the time and say “I had no idea that all these things were going on.” On my website I list organizations that help sex trafficking victims, abuse survivors and families on my website so that people have some place to put all of those feelings and do something about it. So it really is my way of taking action, and I think it keeps me sane in a world that is just as dark in places as what I write about. But you shine a light on it. That’s the only way it’s going to get better.
OpenMic: It sounds cathartic.
Sokoloff: Yes, it’s totally cathartic
OpenMic: When I was reading Huntress Moon I kept thinking of how my daughter went to UCSB.
Sokoloff: Right, and I hope I made that clear in this book that it’s not just a problem at Santa Barbara. UCSB happens to have a very strong bro culture so it’s not like I picked that out of thin air, but at the same time I wasn’t intending to excoriate Santa Barbara. This is a problem that is nationwide and always has been and it’s ridiculous that people haven’t called it out before in a way that made anything about it stop.
OpenMic: Aside from the trolls, what has generally been the reaction to this series from the men around you? Does anyone accuse you of exaggerating this issue?
Sokoloff: I get a lot more men saying, “I really support you for doing this.” I have a circle of very woke men in my life, and crime writers I think are more likely to be aware of these issues. Not all of them, for sure – we have to work on that – but no I don’t have any pushback from the men in my life at all. It would be more of the opposite. And this is one of the reasons the series has been bought and developed for television, because it does go to that edge and beyond. That’s what good television is now. It’s finding an environment where you can do that.
OpenMic: Can you tell me when we might see it coming to our screens?
Sokoloff: No, I can’t. I absolutely can’t talk about it, but I can say I had a great Christmas present!
OpenMic: You are also an accomplished screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who might be trying to decide if their story would be better as a book or a screenplay?
Sokoloff: I would always say write the book. I worked in Hollywood for way long enough to know that far more books are bought by studio production companies and cable networks. Those people would always rather buy books because there’s more material there and you bring a built-in audience to the project. So unless you are a professional screenwriter it is practically impossible to get anyone to read a script. And they don’t just want a one-off script. Screenwriting is a job. They want to hire you to write their project, and so your script really doesn’t mean anything to them except as a writing sample for whatever job they’re trying to hire you for. And people don’t understand that about the movie business. It’s completely different from the book business. And unless you’re living in LA and want to be a professional screenwriter and work on other people’s stuff, nothing is almost never going to happen to a script that you write. You’ve got a much better chance of selling to TV or the movies even if you write a short story that gets published, or a journal article or a newspaper article that’s well researched. That gets people more excited than a script does.
OpenMic: That’s excellent advice.
Sokoloff: And also remember that there are so many opportunities for authors now. You don’t have to be with a traditional publisher. You don’t even have to have an agent. Self-publishing is a completely legitimate and reputable thing to do now. There are just so many more opportunities to do exactly what you want to do.
OpenMic: That is true, but if you decide to self-publish you are taking on all those marketing and other responsibilities that come with that. Do you have words of advice for people who are considering going that route? And specifically with fiction, because new fiction writers often don’t have the built-in platform that a journalist or well-known expert would have in a non-fiction project. What do you tell people who are considering self-publishing fiction?
Sokoloff: Well, you really do have to be an entrepreneur. It is not for the faint of heart, but if you are one of those very driven people then it can be more rewarding to do it yourself than to wait and be at the mercy of everybody else. In terms of platform, the equivalent of that for fiction is that you write a series, and you write at least three books in that series before you release it at all. That seems monumental but that’s really the kind of thinking that you have to be doing if you want to make a success in self-publishing, that readers will buy into a series. You want to have one that you give away, the first one to get them hooked, and then they buy the second and the third one and those have to come right after that. You have to keep that reader on the hook, so it’s better to write three books and then publish them all at the same time, or one month at a time, so you are building a mailing list and building your audience and your platform. It’s really very difficult to make a success of it if you don’t use that method.
OpenMic: Well, heck, I’m really glad I remembered to ask you that question.
Sokoloff: Yeah it’s hugely important, and it’s not rocket science. That is just the method. Every successful self-published author I know has done some variation on that.
OpenMic: I usually ask a closing question that goes like this: If I had the power to connect you for a good conversation with any one of the three following people, who would you choose and why? Your options are Joan of Arc, Martha Graham or Dalton Trumbo.
Sokoloff: You are a torturer – what incredible choices there. I’m a huge fan of Trumbo artistically and politically; and as a dancer, speaking or even better, taking a class with Martha Graham would be a dream fulfilled. BUT – Joan of Arc is a true obsession of mine, and there’s almost no one but Shakespeare I’d rather spend some intensive time getting to know. What did her voices say? How did they manifest? What was this young girl like in person, to hold sway over an entire army of men? She is an enormous influence on Cara, the Huntress, and my clear choice for your excruciating offer.
Fans of Alex can see my previous interview with her here.