Octoberguest! Alexandra Sokoloff

After Alexandra Sokoloff’s great mention in the New York Times Book Review this coming Sunday, everyone will want to know more about her. But, technically, the Handbasket has her here first!

Alexandra is a delightful, grown-up wild child of a writer with the kind of dark imagination and skill that makes other writers envious. She’s had screenplays produced and published two terrifying novels, The Harrowing and The Price, with St. Martin’s Press. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that The Harrowing was a finalist for both the Bram Stoker Award and the Anthony Award in their Best First Novel categories. Her third novel, The Unseen, comes out in June. On top of all that, regular visitors to her blog, The Dark Salon, and her frequent Murderati posts receive a graduate education in professional writing and maybe social interaction. Because if there’s one thing Alexandra Sokoloff is above all other things, it’s fun. Oh, and gorgeous, too. (I guess that’s two things. Really, she deserves to have many more lovely things said about her!)

Welcome, Alexandra!

What’s a nice girl like you….

October. My favorite month of the year. Always has been – the wind, the lengthening shadows, that subtle chill in the air. I guess that speaks to an early taste for the dark. Is that nature or nurture, I wonder?

Writing what we do, I suspect that not only the divine Ms. Laura but pretty much every single darker writer of us has at some point gotten the question: “What’s a nice girl/boy like you doing writing stuff like THAT?”

(Well, first of all, “nice”? Um… responsible, sure. Compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful. Kind, even. But “nice” isn’t the first word that comes to my mind.)
Still, much as I may disagree with the word choice, I know what these nice people are trying to ask.

I spent a couple hours just yesterday on a panel talking about how to write horror and that got me specifically wondering about the life incidents that led us to choose this dark genre of ours (some of us darker than others….).

For instance, I realized after seeing the movie ZODIAC recently that the Zodiac killer was a huge early – influence? Inspiration? Impression? What I mean is, I grew up in California and even years after this guy had dropped off the map, we kids were scaring ourselves senseless by telling ourselves Zodiac stories around the fire at Girl Scout camp. He was our Boogey Man.

A lot of the blame I can put squarely on my father. Dad loves horror and suspense — books, movies, plays, anything – the house was full of mystery and horror and sci-fi classics, so early on I developed a taste for being scared senseless – possibly in self-defense. Also, Dad grew up in Mexico and that country lives with spirits in a much different way than we do (don’t you just love this month for all of the Dia de Los Muertos art?) Dad had a passel of terrifyingly realistic ghost stories that he’d pull out around the campfire to scare us with. Come to think of it, I had a lot of campfires in my childhood…

Also, since Dad is a scientist and Russian, and attended a lot of scientific conferences that got turned into family road trips, I have early memories of us in the family station wagon being followed by the CIA because, you know, Russians were out to destroy the world at the time. All that ever happened was that they followed us around but naturally I’d spice the whole thing up in my imagination – my first attempts at thrillers.

It’s also only recently occurred to me that perhaps I write ghosts because I went to a haunted high school – specifically, the grand and decrepit old auditorium where I spent most of my high school, rehearsing choir programs and plays, was supposedly haunted by a girl named Vicki who died the night of her prom back in the 20’s. Yes, yes, I know that’s a classic urban legend, but we all believed in Vicki, and there were parts of that auditorium where you just didn’t want to go, alone or with others. Cold spots. Strange noises. Disappearing props.

(But somehow it never once crossed my mind while I was writing THE HARROWING that I was writing about a haunted school because I went to a haunted school).

Also when I was a teenager I experimented with the paranormal, as teenagers do – ESP, dream interpretation, Tarot, spending the night in graveyards, all that fun stuff. And you know, there’s a lot more in heaven and earth, Horatio! It never ceases to fascinate me.

I have to admit, though – to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do. From the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there’s a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people. My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff – great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs – I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness.

I had some pretty scary experiences early on in life that made me convinced that there is actual evil out there – in the form of people who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy. A child molester who’d been trolling the streets around my elementary school tried to grab me one afternoon when I was walking home from school. He was a small and creepy man, and even though I didn’t have any sense of what child molesting was at the time, I knew there was something wrong and dangerous about him and I ran. That was my first full-on experience of what evil looks and feels like, though certainly not my last – and it’s not something you forget or let go.

And I had friends, as we all do, who were not so lucky about escaping predators, and I’ve taught abused kids in the Los Angeles juvenile court system, and my anger about what I’ve seen has fueled a lot of my writing.

There’s more, of course, and once you start thinking of influences, it’s pretty fascinating how much you uncover about your motivations.

But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense – is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears and – sometimes – triumph.

So, all, I wondered – what kinds of experiences from real life have made the writers of you the dark, twisted souls you are? And for the readers of you – why do you think you seek out this dark, twisted genre?

Thank you so much for being here, Alexandra!

I don’t much like to see my own dark experiences on the page as non-fiction. I like to cocoon them in prose, stretch them out so that they’re almost unrecognizable. But sometimes I go a little mad and put things in exactly as they happened. (I’ll never tell!) Most of all, I think the darkness has to come out somehow–and writing it at least seems vaguely constructive. Much, much less dangerous than, say, full-body-contact sports for a woman of–uh–a certain age and experience! L.

[Remember–Everyone who comments is entered to win $100 Godiva Chocolatier and Harry & David giftbaskets, plus books from several Octoberguest! authors! Drawing held November 2nd.]

Tomorrow: Mystery writer Dorothy Francis

9 thoughts on “Octoberguest! Alexandra Sokoloff”

  1. “I have to admit, though – to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do.”

    Aye that was a realization very early on and the singular thought that led me to write waaaaay back when.

    “So, all, I wondered – what kinds of experiences from real life have made the writers of you the dark, twisted souls you are? And for the readers of you – why do you think you seek out this dark, twisted genre?”

    While I can write “dark and twisted” I usually don’t specifically target it, ‘cept as an exercise in writing in a different genre from the norm.

    My “ghost novel” is not written to spook, but from the point of the human in the ethereal realm, being the one controlling the situation.

    What life experiences? I suppose it was being the fat kid and then turning 180 and being the 240 lb 6′ tall man that brooked no insult, were the influences that led me through the writing and reading realms.

    Now *shrug* none of it much matters, I am not the either or the same.

    With the exception of Brooks, (gotta go home team)Laura this interview was the best!

  2. Wow, I’m so glad I did this guest blog – because now I know about your great blog, Walking Man. Fabulous… love the combination of politics and poetry. can’t wait to browse the archives.

  3. AnswerGirl says:

    It’s funny, I went to a local “haunted house” last night and was asking myself very similar questions.

    When terrible things happen to us in real life, they happen too fast; we go into fight-or-flight mode and can’t take the time to analyze or plan or think about what how we’re responding.

    So I wonder if the dark stuff is an evolutionary coping mechanism — a way to slow it down and look at these bad things in order to prepare us if and when the worst happens. A way to imagine ourselves as brave and competent.

    Way cool about the NY Times, Alex — congratulations!

    Clair

  4. A great post here too, Alex. Don’t worry, this won’t be a LOOOONG comment like over at the ‘Rati. I just popped over to see what else you had to say. If you don’t me saying by the way, I think another writer I would liken you too (as far as writing blog posts would be former ‘Rati regular Ken Bruen. You both have a way of stringing words together that seem to flow?sing? — not sure I can find the right word here.

  5. ” I wonder if the dark stuff is an evolutionary coping mechanism — a way to slow it down and look at these bad things in order to prepare us if and when the worst happens. A way to imagine ourselves as brave and competent.”

    Clair, I think you’re right on the money. We don’t WANT to think that the bad things that happen out there could happen to us. But movies and books are a safe way of rehearsing for the worst – so that the shock won’t paralyze us if God forbid we ever need to fight, and fight hard.

    Excellent, excellent point. And great to see you!

  6. Yike, this is a day of overwhelming compliments! I only WISH I could write the musical heart-prose that Ken Bruen does. but thanks, RJ.

    My secret is coffee. Far, far, far too much coffee.

  7. Tom says:

    Good to see you here, X. I think Laura will become known for her ability to shape unusual mood, tone and characterizations in a story. Your blog will help get the word around.

    As to what and why . . . I knew early on the world wasn’t fair. The answers had to be in a book, somewhere . . .

  8. JT Ellison says:

    I’m still uncovering my hidden motivations, and it is fun, and a bit scary. It’s amazing the small things that make it in and the huge things we skip over.

    Self-preservation, perhaps?

  9. ” Laura will become known for her ability to shape unusual mood, tone and characterizations in a story.”

    Totally agree, Tom! Wait till you read Mr. Lonelyhearts!

    JT, I think you’re right – we tend to work in the small stuff and skirt over the big things. But maybe the whole story or genre represents the big things.

    I also think a lot of us do what Laura described – sometimes we write out EXACTLY what’s happened, because we know no one – or almost no one – will ever guess what parts are made up and what parts are real.

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