As a known face in the world of theatre as well as Hollywood, Alexandra made a living out of writing novel adaptations alongside suspence and horror scripts for many of the film studio's.
Now with her debut novel set to hit the UK (one that has so far picked up a Bram Stoker Award Nomination alongside an Anthony Award for Best First Novel) we thought it was high time (and tide) that we had a little chat with her about The Harrowing and where the inspiration came from for this Ghost Story alongside trying to discover how to deal with plumbers block, why writing is an obsession and how writing is a drug of choice...
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Alexandra Sokoloff: Most authors I know agree with that statement. Writers are driven to do it beyond all sense; it’s that obsession that carries you through all the hoops you have to get through to get a book onto the page and published. I myself am one of those writers who prefers having written to the actual writing, but once I have an idea and characters I feel an overwhelming compulsion even a duty - to make those people and that story world REAL. No one is going to do that but me, so I do it. It’s more than a little crazy.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
AS: I had been writing for a while as part of my theater background but the moment I realized it was going to be writing, period, was when I saw my first one act play produced. When the characters I had created walked out on stage, living and breathing people, I was hooked. It was like I imagine heroin must be.
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
AS: I’m so far from an expert! I’ve only written one short story and now a novella. I was terrified to write the short I had only ever dealt with long form. But I was asked to contribute a piece to Tors THE DARKER MASK anthology, and I loved the idea of noir superheroes, and one day I was driving and The Edge of Seventeen came on the radio and suddenly a whole story was in my head. I was able to write it very quickly, and loved it, and the story went on to win the ITW Thriller award for Best Short Fiction. But honestly, if I’m going to go to that dark place that writing is, I feel I might as well bring back a whole novel as a short.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
AS: I don’t try to sell people on my books unless they’re really interested in the genre and looking for dark suspense or a good scare. And if they are, I tell them The Harrowing is a ghost story or maybe not! set on an isolated college campus, that crosses mystery and the supernatural, and I give the pitch that you ask about in the next question. Depending on the sex of the reader I might mention that the book has given grown men nightmares.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
AS: Five students left alone on their isolated campus confront a malevolent presence that may or may not be real.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
AS: Good God, the whole house is a bookshelf. Impossible question. But besides the classics Poe, DuMaurier, the Brontes, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Madeleine L’Engle, Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare, I will line up the first day to buy anything of Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Mo Hayder, Nicci French, Dan Simmons, Stephen King of course, Sarah Langan, Elizabeth George, Tess Gerritsen. And more.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?
AS: I write extensive rough outlines 70 or 80 pages. I do index cards, I do visual collages, I do tons of prep work, and yes, I always have an ending in mind. But there are always multitudes of surprises along the way, and things change in the process of actually writing.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
AS: Writing is so UN physical that I like to balance it with very physical activity dance especially, hiking, yoga, road trips.
Recently I’ve read Michael Connelly’s Scarecrow, Anita Shreve’s Testimony, and A Twisted Ladder, a great debut novel by Rhodi Hawk.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
AS: At first I read that question as: What is your guiltiest pleasure that YOU know about?? Which got me thinking about guilty pleasures I might be totally unaware of. I guess my guiltiest pleasure I’m aware of is flirting at writing conferences, but I doubt many people who have met me are unaware of that!
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
AS: I have two cats, both female, and they of course dominate my life. One is a delicate princess diva with issues, and the other is a fearless little bruiser. I suppose you could say that Lisa’s flirtatiousness and need to be the center of attention and overall feline quality is partly based on one of my cats.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
AS: Lisa was the most fun exactly because of that need she has to be the center of attention. She would walk into a room on the page – and have to take it over, and then the other characters would compete to take the spotlight from her, and that made for a very lively dynamic between all of them. She’s an agitator.
FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?
AS: I feel like I split my own personality into two opposing characters, Robin and Lisa. I can be an obsessive, introspective Goth girl, but put me in a room full of people and I’m an extroverted party girl. So that was fun, to create two totally different entities from that polarity, and then watch them begin to trust each other and become real friends.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
AS: Dance is my principle hobby jazz, ballet, swing, salsa anything, really - and there is no question that the rhythm and discipline and emotion of dance influences my writing. And I guess the other huge hobby is travel, and of course that’s golden for a writer because your greatest pleasure is also providing research for current and future projects.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
AS: Everywhere! Very often from dreams, from songs, from people you see on the street, from interesting articles. Ideas are everywhere and they’re random, but the ones that turn into stories are like being hit by lightning impossible to ignore.
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
AS: I don’t believe in it. Do plumbers get plumber’s block?? Please. Writing is a job. You have to sit down to write every day, no matter how you feel, no matter how much you resist it. And from there you either have a good writing day or a bad writing day you never know. But if you write every day you will have more good writing days than bad writing days, and eventually you will finish, which is the only thing that matters.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
AS: I generally work a full business day: 8-4 or 9-5. Of course a lot of that is doing the business side of writing, too, the promotion. But I do sit up in bed in the middle of the night and grab a notebook to jot down ideas or dreams, while my bemused significant other mumbles, you’re writing in the DARK?
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
AS: I usually write in silence because music makes me want to dance, but there are some projects which just require a soundtrack, in which case I make CDs of key songs to play while I’m working.
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
AS: I didn’t realize how much authors are expected to be constantly in the public eye, and how much readers want to interact with authors. When you work as a screenwriter no one wants to talk to you! But authors need to be out meeting readers and booksellers and press it’s a very social, on-stage profession. Which is actually a good balance to the lonely neuroticism of writing itself.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
AS: I think Stephen King was right on when he said that writing is telepathy as an author your job is to put your exact thoughts into a reader’s head. It’s a very intimate thing, honestly.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
AS: The next novel to come out in the UK is The Price, a supernatural thriller set in an immense, labyrinthine Boston hospital where someone who may or may not be the devil is walking around after hours making deals with the patients and their families. Because if there is a devil, and what he wants is souls, there’s no easier pickings than a children’s hospital ward, right? Parents would do literally anything. And what exactly does anything mean, and is it a good thing?
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
AS: Muderati.com, the group mystery blog that I contribute to. My own website, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. Wikipedia, constantly. And a lot of Satanic sites, as research for my fourth thriller, Book of Shadows. If the government is monitoring my internet use, I’m doomed!
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
AS: When I first moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, I took all the courses from the screenwriting gurus in town: John Truby, Robert McKee, Frank Daniel, Linda Seger. All of it was incredibly useful. John Truby’s classes and book, The Anatomy of Story, is the best book I know on writing, and Frank Daniel’s USC film school courses, which I snuck into, were masterful. I think screen story structure and film writing techniques are invaluable for authors, as I blog about extensively on my website, http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
AS: Well, I’d been in theater for years before I ever wrote my first script or book. Auditioning is a constant process of rejection I developed that thick skin very early on. You just can’t take it personally. And I lost the inner critic early on as well, when I worked as a story analyst for several Hollywood production companies, and I would have to write incredibly quickly to earn any money at these coverage reports I was doing. Anything you can do to turn off that internal critic is vital. Coffee helps a lot!
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
AS: The best part is bringing those worlds and characters to life, so that other people can experience them. That’s the biggest rush to me, and the thing that drives me to do it that the people and worlds in my head will not really exist unless I put them on paper. I also really love the community of authors it’s a gypsy life, but we’re all family on the road. It’s a huge pleasure and gift. The worst aspect is the constant promotion. You feel like you never have enough time to write everything you want to write.