Interview with Alexandra Sokoloff author of The Huntress Series:
The Bookend Family (BEF): It appears that you have been writing for a considerable amount of time, as I can first remember coming across your name a few years back on Goodreads.com. Can you tell me a bit about how you got started as a writer?
Alexandra Sokoloff (AS): I’ve actually been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I started out writing and performing plays as a kid (when I was ten we were putting on shows in a neighbor’s garage!). I did theater throughout school and university, and joined forces with a group of actor/writer/director friends to form an ensemble theater group right after graduating from Berkeley. That group eventually sort of – imploded, I guess is the word (although we’re all still best friends!) and that’s when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. Because I’d had all that theater training and experience, my first screenplay sold pretty much immediately (in a bidding war!) and then I worked as a screenwriter for ten years - I sold quite a few original scripts and was hired to do novel adaptations for various Hollywood studios before I snapped and wrote my first novel, The Harrowing. And luckily that book sold right away, too, so it was a smooth transition!
(BEF): I always love to know who writers are reading. Can you tell us what writers have influenced your work in the past and if there is anyone new that you've come to appreciate?
(AS): As a child, I was completely obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time, a brilliant and groundbreaking young adult thriller that’s also deeply spiritual. It taught me that you can be moral and political in the context of a wildly exciting adventure of a book, and how a genre story can have a tremendous emotional and galvanizing impact on readers. It’s still one of my favorite books! My dad was a huge mystery/horror/sci fi fan, so I grew up on the classics: Christie, James, Asimov, Bradbury, Lovecraft, King. Early on I honed in to how great women authors like Shirley Jackson, Daphne DuMaurier, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote horror and psychological suspense from a specifically feminine point of view, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Not surprisingly, these days I am a rabid fan of Tana French, Mo Hayder, Denise Mina, and Val McDermid. Again, I love the way these authors deal with crime from a feminine perspective, and how they cross police procedure with an almost supernatural sense of evil.
(BEF): You have written many screenplays. What's the biggest differences between writing novels and screenplays, and do you have a preference over original ideas or adaptations?
(AS): Everyone asks me this and honestly, there’s not much difference in the construction of characters and a story. Writing books is a LOT more work, though, because in film and TV you have hundreds, sometimes thousands of artists doing all the specific jobs of writing, directing, acting, designing, lighting, location scouting, scoring, costuming, props… while as an author you have to do every job yourself - plus you have to create a narrative voice that holds it all together. (That narrative voice would be the biggest difference between the two media).
But I feel my job as an author is to put a movie into the reader’s head. And of course all of that theater and film work has helped me to be able to do that.
I absolutely would rather write originals than adaptations, even though originals are ten million times harder. But doing adaptations has made me a far better writer than I would be if I’d only written originals.
(BEF): Going all the way back to The Unseen I see a strong foundation of research interwoven throughout your novels. How important is research to you and do you follow a specific process when doing research?
(AS): It’s my favorite part of writing by far! And it’s hugely important to my style of writing. When I write supernatural thrillers, I like to walk the line between reality and unreality – keeping the reader guessing about what’s really happening, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. The way I achieve that suspension – and terror – is to dig into the specifics of what supernatural experiences actually feel like to people who have experienced them in real life, so I can create that experience for the reader. I want people to feel like the story could really happen. The Unseen was an opportunity to explore the real-life parapsychology studies of the Rhine lab at Duke University, which have always fascinated me. Who isn’t fascinated by poltergeists?
And with my crime thrillers, I want to know enough about the specific police procedure of the state and department I’m writing about to make it all feel real.
The process… well, of course I spend weeks and months on Google, Google Maps, YouTube – all that random Internet surfing. But I also very early on go to the places I’m writing about. I think it’s my job as a thriller writer to give my readers a sensory experience, and I want to be very specific about what a location looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like.
There’s also ongoing genre research that I’ve been doing for years. I go to citizen’s police academies and Lee Lofland’s great Writers Police Academy, which is a weekend of hands-on classes in various aspects of law enforcement specifically tailored to writers. I go to forensics and firearms training workshops. There’s all the random reading on mental disorders. You have to be constantly studying your genre!
(BEF): If we can talk a bit about The Huntress series, which your publisher has so graciously offered to award some of our readers in a giveaway following this interview. It appears to have been a very ambitious project. Can you tell me how the concepts and characters first came to you?
(AS): Thank you, and you’re very right - it’s a series that was a long time coming. It grew out of the research I’ve done into the psychology of serial killers, starting with some screen projects I was hired to do, I’d been studying all that, including doing interviews with FBI profilers, for a good ten years before I came up with the idea for the series. I could never have written those books just by doing a month of two of internet reading! I’ve always wanted to explore the subject in a way that might illuminate something about the nature of crime and evil and the justice system - from a feminine point of view. In the context of a really gripping suspense read, of course!
Because what I learned about serial killers from those years of research is that they’re men. Women kill, and they sometimes kill in numbers, but the psychology of female killers is completely different from the men who commit what the FBI calls “sexual homicide.” But the media and fictional portrayals never delve into that fact. So that’s what I’m doing in the series.
The inspiration for the series actually goes back even further than that. When I was working on my first screenplay, I was also working in the Los Angeles County prison system, teaching juveniles, mostly teenage gang kids, and very young girls who had been arrested, mostly for prostitution. Yes, they arrested the girls instead of the men who were trafficking and abusing them. My absolute horror and anger at that injustice – and the police procedure I learned during that period of my life - has been cooking for a long, long time.
So those two things, my research into serial killers and my experience in the juvenile court system, finally coalesced when I hit on the premise of a male FBI agent on the hunt for what he thinks may be a female serial killer – which he knows arguably doesn’t exist in real life. What the Huntress really is becomes part of the mystery, and it forces my agent/detective and the reader to challenge their own ideas about evil and justice and the gender differences in crime.
(BEF): The Huntress is such an original powerful character. Was it tricky to create other characters that could hold their own with her?
(AS): That is a great question, and again, you’ve gone straight to the heart of the matter. The Huntress has been in my head for a long time now (her back story is based on elements of a real crime that occurred in California, and it’s haunted me ever since I heard it.). With Agent Roarke, I had to create a man who would be capable of understanding what she does and why - both as a top-notch investigator and as a deeply moral human being. And I had to create an erotic polarity between them that would drive the series. So when I was working on the plot, I developed the two of them concurrently, as almost the masculine and feminine sides of the same soul. They are in pursuit of the same thing, with vastly different methods.
The other characters on Roarke’s team are fun to write. I really wanted a wide range of races to reflect the real population of California. And I wanted to layer in different cultural backgrounds so that other characters, like Agents Singh and Lam, would have a different spiritual perspective on evil that adds to our understanding of the crimes being committed. Special Agent Epps was always a given – he was inspired by one of the gang kids I worked with when I taught in in the LA County prison system. And as I mentioned, I also worked with girls like Jade who had been trafficked at a horrendously young age (not that trafficking isn’t an abomination at any age). I have a strong motivation to do those characters justice.
(BEF): I loved the overlapping plots. At times there were three or four characters all hunting other characters. Was that difficult to maneuver as a writer or was it fun to have that complexity occurring?
(AS): It’s agonizing! I make things so hard on myself with all of those subplots. But that’s what I personally love to read, so I don’t really have any choice but to write that way. Luckily I teach story structure, and I’ve written a couple of workbooks on the subject, so as long as I can remember to take my own advice, I manage to pull it off. It’s worth all the pain when I hear someone like you say that you’re enjoying it.
(BEF): One of the unique things about this series is the way you handle the concept of evil. In the first two novels it seems to be centralized in the character of The Reaper, an inside evil. In Cold Moon the evil is an even greater almost abstract force from the outside. That is not really a question but could you comment on that?
(AS): You’re just covering all the bases with these core questions, aren’t you!
I always wanted the books to explore many facets of evil. Evil as it presents in an individual like a serial killer or a child molester (and I include johns or “mongers” in that group). Evil as it presents in organizations, like gangs who traffic children because it’s less risky and more profitable than selling guns or drugs. The evil of a society which turns a blind eye to atrocities like sex trafficking or locks up the children who are being abused rather than prosecuting the abusers.
I agree that the evil in Book 2, Blood Moon, is more centralized on the Reaper, and that the idea of an abstract evil is stronger in Cold Moon. But in Huntress Moon, I would say that the evil exists in a series of men and women that Roarke and the Huntress come in contact with over the course of the story. And because of the trauma she’s experienced, the Huntress sees that all that as one evil that she calls It.
(BEF): When the evil changes The Huntress does, too, becoming an almost archetypal mythological force. Was it always your intention in this series to transition the focus of evil from the one individual in the first two books to a societal evil that is present in the third book?
(AS): From the beginning, I’ve layered in the idea of Roarke feeling at moments that evil is an almost abstract force. And in a key scene in the first book, even supremely balanced Epps admits he sometimes feels that way, too. Over the course of the books, that feeling becomes more and more overwhelming to Roarke, until it reaches a crisis point in Cold Moon.
I've always seen the Huntress partly as a (very dark) avenging angel. Readers certainly see her that way! But in Cold Moon that idea becomes bigger, too, as she seems to draw down an archetypal force that is much larger than she is – and in a more real-life way, actually goes viral. And that surprises and frightens her. By the end of Book 3, she and Roarke are both way out of their depth, and they both know it.
The viral part of it was a surprise to me, too! But by the time I got to writing Cold Moon, I realized that in our internet society that is exactly what would have to happen, logically, given the circumstances.
Which goes to show that even for an extensive plotter like me, once a story gets going, something else always takes hold. We don’t do this thing called writing all on our own.